A Break with Tradition – Impressionism & Art Nouveau


Impressionism is a rebellion, of sorts, against the established hierarchy of arts in France, where the Académie des Beaux-Arts would select works to be displayed for exhibition. This gave Académie des Beaux-Arts—the Royal Academy, much like that of England—a monopoly on influence and access to critics who’s articles could draw public attention to artists (Samu).

In 1874 the group that would eventually be known as the founders of the Impressionist movement—including Edgar Degas and Claude Monet—held their own exhibition (Samu). Though there wasn’t a ridged style the group was unified by its dismissal of the established style, their depiction of modern life, and a technique of using “short, broken brushstrokes that barely convey forms, pure unblended colors, and an emphasis on the effects of light” (Samu).

In America, Impressionism started to take hold as Impressionism in France lost its “edge” around the mid-1880s (Weinberg). American Impressionist shared the conviction that modern life should be depicted in art, and done in a modern way; their works were therefore similarly vibrant with color and light (Weinberg). They were considered more cosmopolitan, and many focused on depicting urban life; others painted rural landscapes, particularly of the New England area (Weinberg).

E11686.jpg Woman Seated under the Willows — 1880 — Claude Monet

Monet was a French painter, born in 1840. His painting Impression, Sunrise (1873)—or rather a disparaging quip about it, and the work of his fellow artists at their 1874 exhibition—is where Impressionist get their name (National Gallery).

Monet was known for his brush work and his interest in light. He painted several series of works of the same subject, such as the Rouen Cathedral, painted at different times of day and under different weather conditions (NG).

Woman Seated under the Willows was painted while Monet was living in Vétheuil.

A17040.jpg Dancers Backstage — 1876-1883 — Edgar Degas

Degas, born in 1834, was also a French painter. Though he was one of the founding members of the Impressionist movement—showing in six of their exhibitions—Degas preferred the term Realist when it came to his work (NG). He lived and worked primarily in Paris.

Degas was known for his composition style, creating works from unconventional angles and views. His models were most often from the working class, and he was also fond of using pastels and innovative combinations of media in his works. Unlike other Impressionist, he painted in a studio, rather than outdoors.

display_image.phpMoonlight on the Waters — 1891 — Frank Weston Benson

Frank Weston Benson, born 1862, was an American Impressionist painter. He was a founding member of The Ten—a group of artist that split from the Society of American Artists in 1897 (NG). He taught art at a few places, starting in 1881, including the Boston Museum School where he taught from 1889-1912 (NG).

Benson is known for his paintings of birds, landscapes, and “serene paintings of women and children” (NG). Benson used a variety of mediums including oil paint, etching, watercolor, and wash painting (NG).

Impressionism: Aesthetic

I’ve chosen these three pieces by Monet, Benson, and Degas because they are done in a style that is, to me, quintessential Impressionism. All have visible brush strokes and unblended layering of paint. Most importantly they are done in a sketch, or “unfinished” style. By this I mean that the edges of the figures and objects are not clean and defined.

Personally I’m in the middle when it comes to Impressionist art.

On one hand the style was innovative and created a lot of stunning works, such as Benson’s Moonlight. I love this painting because of the way the golden yellow of the moonlight plays off the gray tones of the water and sky. It is vibrant, but not so high contrast that it creates an oscillating effect—as when you place compliments in the same tone next to each other. Benson creates a very realistic reflection effect. In this case the broken or unblended brush strokes add a depth to the painting.

On the other hand I sometimes find the obvious brush strokes a bit of a distraction, as in Degas’s Dancers. While the colors are pleasing and the composition is nice, the busy, unfinished quality of the background (the upper right quarter) becomes heavy. It draws attention away from the main figures, and isn’t even particularly pleasing to look at.

Similarly, the broken strokes of Monet’s Woman Seated are also distracting, though for a different reason. In the Monet painting the strokes give a fuzzy quality to the painting, as if the viewer needs to squint to bring it into focus. The colors are well done, the willows draw the eye down nicely and it is a soothing sort of pastoral scene—but one that demands it be viewed at a distance.

largeArt Nouveau

Another style of art that came into popularity during this time was Art Nouveau (New Art), which lasted from the 1880s until roughly WWI (Gontar). This style drew from the natural world—“ sinuous lines and “whiplash” curves” were derived from botanical and marine wildlife studies (Gontar). Art Nouveau was also a reactionary style against the traditional and critical norms of the era, much like Impressionism was (Gontar). It combined the functionality of Arts and Crafts, with the art-for-art’s-sake Aesthetic movement, and (again, like the Impresionist) Japanese art elements.

Art Nouveau was not only an art style but was prominent in architecture, interior designs, furnishings, jewelry, and poster/graphic designs as well. The style was centered in France but became an international movement—it had different names across Europe, such as Jugendstil or “young style” in Germany (Gontar). Art Nouveau influenced Art Deco heavily, and was a prominent influence in graphic design in the 1960s.

Poster for ‘Moët & Chandon: Champagne White Star
— 1899 — Alphonse Mucha

Mucha was born in Moravia (now a part of the Czech Republic), in 1860. He was sponsored by Count Egon to attend art schools in Munich and Paris (Mucha Foundation). While in Paris, and after his sponsorship had ended, Mucha got his break by creating the poster for Sarah Bernhardt’s 1894 production of Gismonda (Mucha Foundation).

Mucha’s style, one of the most prominent and recognizable of the Art Nouveau era, included narrow long designs, pastel colors, and a circular, or halo-like, element behind his figures (MF).

lady graceModern Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau continues to influence artist today–in particular Mucha continues to influence. For instance A’Shop’s Our Lady Of Grace Mural, painted on a five story building in Montreal in 2014, was heavily influenced by Mucha’s art. The Girl Genius is an ongoing “gaslamp fantasy” graphic novel series by Phil and Kaja Foglio, in which they incorporate Art Nouveau elements into their work. This can be seen prominently in their splash-page illustration for Spark Roast.

Art Nouveau: Aesthetic

I love Art Nouveau. I have been interested in the style since I saw Mucha’s ad for Job cigarettes in a history textbook 15 years ago. What I like about the style is the curves and the natural elements that are so prominent. In the White Star poster above you can see the winding of the grape vines and that circular element that Mucha was known for, as well as the pastel colors.

ggmain20071015bThe curve of the grape vine is paralleled by the curve of her sash nicely, drawing the eye around. I also like that the design itself has some structural elements. The sections around the main figure echo folding screens—and thus the decorative arts element of the Art Nouveau style. This sectioning can be seen in A’Shop’s mural as well. I also like that they used pumpkins as a botanical element, not only because the curving vines are interesting, but they tie to the area the mural was done in. In the Spark Roast ad, the fingure’s long curving hair is another Art Nouveau element that was widely seen, and adds a counter balance to the curve of the figure’s body.

One of my favorite elements to Art Nouveau, and why I personally favor it over Impressionism, is the way that the figures are outlined. This can bee seen particularly around the neck and head of Mucha’s piece, the dress and lettering of the Spark Roast ad, and the figure of Grace. This sometimes subtle outlining really defines the figures of Art Nouveau works, unlike the blurred unfinished style of Impressionism.

Works Cited

“Benson, Frank Weston – Biography.” National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art. N.d. Web. 18 March 2015. <http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/artist-info.949.html?artobj_artistId=949&pageNumber=1 >

“Degas, Edgar – Biography.” National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art. N.d. Web. 18 March 2015. < http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/artist-info.1219.html?artobj_artistId=1219&pageNumber=1 >

“Mucha at a Glance” Mucha Foundation. Mucha Foundation. n.d. Web. 18 March 2015. < http://www.muchafoundation.org/gallery/mucha-at-a-glance-46 >

“Monet, Claude – Biography.” National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art. N.d. Web. 18 March 2015. < http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/artist-info.1726.html?artobj_artistId=1726&pageNumber=1 >

Gontar, Cybele. “Art Nouveau”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/artn/hd_artn.htm (October 2006)

Samu, Margaret. “Impressionism: Art and Modernity”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/imml/hd_imml.htm (October 2004)

Weinberg, H. Barbara. “American Impressionism”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/aimp/hd_aimp.htm (October 2004)

4 Comments on “A Break with Tradition – Impressionism & Art Nouveau

  1. Wow! What a lovely detailed blog! It was absolutely intriguing to read,and set up in a very pleasing, eye-catching and organized manner. I really love the way you gave us so much background on the painter and the style, it made it so much easier to actually look at the painting and connect to it because we were gien such a great understanding of its background.
    I love the story of the background of Monet’s painting the “Impression:Sunrise” and I sometimes wonder if Impressionism would have even been developed without his contributions!? What do you think? I think he had a huge impact on the development of Impressionism, but I also think there were many other Impressionist artist that also contributed so much to the movement! I love all of the Impressionist paintings you chose, especially “Moonlight On the Waters” and “Dancers Backstage” I think these painting just capture the essence of Impressionism, and make even a non-art lover stop and stare. They are so beautiful!
    I’m also so glad you chose to compare Impressionism to Art Nouveau! I think this style is so compelling to look at! There is just so much going on, yet this weird simplicity to it that makes it just captivating! I love the majestic curve of lines, and the sensual, mysterious, and ultimately powerful way women are depicted in these paintings. Almost like some sort of Greek Goddess! I think the poster for “Moët & Chandon: Champagne White Star” is beautiful. I love the contrasts of colors with her pink dress and the browns/greens of the vegetation in the background. It just lures you in!!!
    Overall lovely lovely blog!

    Check out this Contemporary Impressionist artist, Trisha Adams, blog!! I put the link below!

  2. Art Nouveau is beautiful in its own way but overall I still prefer Impressionism. I adore the blur Impressionism has, as if the moment the painting has captured is going to run away. I especially liked your inclusion of “Moonlight on the Waters” by Frank Weston Benson- I love the way light is emanating from the moon and the depth of the few colors used within the painting makes it soft but intense to me.
    I do enjoy the soft lines in Art Nouveau. I especially enjoy the unique way Mucha portrayed hair in the Job cigarette ad and the champagne ad- how the hair seems to float and how he doesn’t try to draw every single line within the hair.

  3. I love that you gave some background on Impressionism for those that may not be so familiar with it. That was really thoughtful and you did it in such a concise, but complete way. Good job. My favorite piece that you looked at was Dancers Backstage by Edgar Degas. I am not familiar with his work, but thanks to you, now I am! I like that the background detail is soft, and you can tell that there is still a floral element, but it is not distracting. The same can be said for the man in the suit. There’s enough elements to create a story, but the dancers are still the focal point, obviously. The pink of the dancers stands out and if you wanted, you could take it as nothing more than a painting of dancers. If you wanted to go deeper, you could say that the dancers are the main focus, even backstage because the dancers themselves are so focused. Everything else just fades to a dull roar.
    Side note: I LOVE ALPHONSE MUCHA. One of my best friends has what we refer to as the Much Moon Girl (The Moon) tattooed on her stomach and it’s huge. It goes from hip to right under her bra line and from her side to almost her belly button. It’s epic.

  4. I completely agree with you about Impressionism. It wasn’t my favorite do to the loose brush strokes. I also thought it was a distraction in the image I did by Claude Monet titled Impression, Sunrise, and made it look messy. The Moët & Chandon or Champagne White Star by Mucha is phenomenal. You did a amazing job describing the art work and going into further detail for the reader. I really like the painting by Mucha. I love how it is showing the girl in a botanical background and the mood is really light and pleasant to look at. I also like the soft colors that were used and the way her dress twirls around her. I had no idea that there was Our Lady of Grace Mural on a five story building. I really liked how you compared Mucha’s 1899 Art Nouveau to modern day Art Nouvea, it really tied in well. You have a really nice blog and really offered a lot of insight to your viewers, awesome job!

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