From September 5, 2020 Impressionism The Hasso Plattner Collection

In the 1860s, the painters Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley joined forces in Paris. They revolutionized art with landscapes suffused in light and in 1874 became known as the “Impressionists”: artists who painted in the open air, capturing fleeting sensory impressions directly on the canvas. In the work of Neo-Impressionist painters such as Paul Signac and Henri-Edmond Cross, the interest in landscape continued to be bound up with the liberation of color—an aspect that also informed the high-keyed colored compositions of the early 20th-century Fauves. Impressionist, Neo-Impressionist, and Fauve painters all pursued the ideal of evoking the sensory experience of nature through light and color.

With over 100 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, the Museum Barberini houses the collection of its founder Hasso Plattner. It includes 34 paintings by Monet, the largest group of works by this artist in Europe outside of France. The presentation includes paintings from the 1860s through to the early 20th century and offers a remarkable opportunity to trace the development of French landscape painting through Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, and Fauvism. In this prologue, you will discover three generations of artists who often worked together, traveled to the same places, and inspired each another, giving rise to one of the most fascinating epochs in modern painting.

Reflections in the River

The Impressionists around Claude Monet developed their repertoire of motifs amid the landscapes along the Seine River. Working in the open air and focusing on the here and now, they rejected the anecdotal elements of earlier landscape painting and instead turned their attention to the constant variation of light and clouds with their reflections on the surface of the water.

As early as 1865, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley left Paris and embarked upon their first painting excursion along the Seine, going as far as the estuary at Le Havre. To this day, towns along the Seine such as Argenteuil, Giverny, and Moret-sur-Loing are associated with Impressionist painters, amongst them Eugène Boudin and Claude Monet, but also Gustave Caillebotte, Alfred Sisley, and Paul Signac. For all of these artists, the Seine was an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

During the second half of the 19th century, industrialization left its mark on the Seine River in the region around Paris. Spanned by ultramodern bridges, the river was an important supply route for the rapidly growing metropolis and also served as a hub for modern water sports. The villages along the Seine thus became popular destinations for city-dwellers who traveled by train to the suburbs for recreation. The interaction of industrial progress and leisure pursuits in a natural setting was a central aspect of modern life, captured by the artists in their ephemeral landscape views.

The exploration of Impressionist motifs along the Seine also gave rise to paintings in the Neo-Impressionist style. Paul Signac and Georges Seurat initiated this new approach in 1885, depicting their motifs in a shimmering mosaic of unmixed hues. Accordingly, their technique soon became known as Divisionism (from the division of color) or Pointillism (painting in points, or dots).

The painter who ‘divides’ color does not subject himself to the tedious task of daubing his canvas with multicolored dots. He proceeds from the contrast of two tones—he opposes his individual elements on either side of the dividing line and balances them—until another contrast becomes for him the motif of a new combination.

Paul Signac

The painter Maurice de Vlaminck also created most of his paintings along the Seine River, but rejected the Neo-Impressionists’ systematic approach to color. He belonged to the group of the so-called Fauves, whose brilliant color and impulsive brushwork once again brought about a fundamental change in painting beginning in 1905.

Paris and the Periphery

The city of Paris had been transformed by massive construction since the 1850s. In the service of Napoleon III, Baron Haussmann had turned Paris into the world’s most advanced metropolis with wide boulevards, new parks, enormous market halls, train stations, and theaters. The urban life of the streets, cafés, and parks offered progressive artists a welcome supply of new, quintessentially modern motifs.

Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Camille Pissarro were among the organizers of the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1874, the show which finally helped them achieve their breakthrough. Shortly thereafter, Berthe Morisot, Paul Cézanne, and Gustave Caillebotte joined them as well. From all around the world, artists came to Paris to become a part of this new modern movement.

With the modernization of Paris, the city’s population doubled to two million inhabitants between 1850 and 1870 alone, and the urban area expanded to encompass the periphery as well. Beginning in the 1860s, Parisians in search of recreation traveled only a few hours by train to reach the coast of Normandy. Étretat and Trouville grew into fashionable seaside resorts and attracted countless tourists—including the Impressionists and their collectors. 

Along with the “Haussmannization” of Paris, the modern recreational idyll of Normandy was especially fascinating to the Impressionists. Painting excursions, whether close to home or further afield, were made possible not only by the rapid expansion of the railway network, but also by technical innovations. Pre-mixed paints in portable tin tubes and the portable easel box made it practical to paint in the open air for the first time.

A New Kind of Realism

In the fields around their homes, the Impressionists painted seemingly unspectacular motifs from the French countryside for their audiences in Paris: fields of wheat, rows of poplars, forest paths, meadows, and grainstacks. With their directness, freshness, and authenticity, these glimpses of nature were innovative for their time and even today invite viewers to experience the light, air, times of day, and seasons with all their senses. Despite the looseness of their brushwork, the artists aimed to render the topography of the landscape with considerable precision.

Following in the footsteps of the artists of the Barbizon School, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir embarked upon their first extended painting excursions in the forest of Fontainebleau near Paris beginning in 1862. Under the open sky, they explored the dissolution of form and expansive airiness that would come to characterize Impressionist painting.

While the paintings of Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley took as their subject matter the rural population itself, Monet concentrated on the visible traces of agricultural labor in nature. In his very first series, he painted 25 images of grainstacks, systematically depicting them under differing conditions of light and weather. He focused on the exact rendering of atmospheric phenomena, which was also the subject of scientific investigation in the 19th century.

For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life—the air and the light, which vary continuously. . . . For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.

Claude Monet

Modernity by the Sea

The coasts of Brittany and Normandy grew in economic importance over the course of the 19th century, with ports undergoing significant modernization in order to keep pace with expanding international trade. In their harbor scenes, the Impressionists dispassionately recorded the transition from traditional to modern industrial shipping. With lively brushstrokes, the painters evoked the restless activity of the ports along with the constantly changing conditions of light and weather.

Eugène Boudin is considered a pioneer of plein air painting, which he introduced to the young Claude Monet already in the late 1850s. The two artists first began painting together in Le Havre, which at that time was the second largest port in France. The coast, with its rapid alternation of sun and clouds, provided a setting where plein air painters could hone their craft and demonstrate their ability to capture a fleeting moment.

Everything that is painted directly and on the spot has always a strength, a power, a vivacity of touch which one cannot recover in the studio.

Eugène Boudin

Claude Monet had seen the largest harbor in the world in London. Shortly after his return to France, he painted Impression, Sunrise (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris) in Le Havre in 1872—perhaps his most famous painting to this day, and one which attracted attention at the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1874. As a pendant to this morning view, he painted a night scene of the industrial port with its modern, artificial gas lighting, depicting it with the radical ephemerality of a sketch.

Berthe Morisot, the only woman who belonged to the Impressionist circle from the beginning, was likewise fascinated by the motif of the port as a center of global trade. Like Claude Monet before her, in London she experienced not only the British docks, but also J. M. W. Turner’s atmospheric views of the Thames.

The Thames is truly beautiful. I often think of how much you would enjoy the glimpse of the dome of St. Paul’s through the forest of yellow masts, the whole thing bathed in a golden haze.

Berthe Morisot to her sister Edma

Artist Gardens

In the 19th century, garden culture developed into a hobby of the educated classes, and the interest in exotic plants increased as well. In their own gardens, the artists around Claude Monet cultivated their love for mutability and sought to visualize the changing times of day and seasons through this new motif. As an open-air studio, the domestic garden had the advantage of close proximity to the subject matter, and also provided an opportunity to combine images of nature with interior scenes.

As a passionate gardener, Monet had planted a luxuriant garden in Giverny already in the 1890s. Inspired by Japanese models, his garden also included a richly planted pond. In his late work he devoted himself almost exclusively to the theme of his water lilies. Monet’s interest in the reflective surface of the water to the exclusion of any visible horizon made him a forerunner of 20th-century abstraction.

It took me some time to understand my water lilies. I planted them purely for pleasure; I grew them with no thought of painting them. A landscape takes more than a day to get under your skin. And then, all at once I had the revelation—how wonderful my pond was—and reached for my palette. I’ve hardly had any other subject since that moment.

Claude Monet

Like Monet in Giverny and Caillebotte in Le Petit-Gennevilliers, Henri Le Sidaner found a paradisiacal retreat in the medieval village of Gerberoy. Around his estate he planted a flower garden in the English style, which was to become his most important backdrop for painting. By this time, the motif of the garden had become well established in Impressionist art as a symbol of perfect harmony between man and nature.

The Color White

Although the winters from the 1860s to the 1890s were particularly cold and snowy, artists endured the icy conditions in order to depict the optical phenomena of light refracting on crystals of snow. As before in their images of bodies of water, the painters explored the visual connection between sky and earth, capturing reflections on snow in compositions that often seem almost abstract.

Renoir is said to have remarked that painted snow should reflect all the colors of the environment and should therefore never be rendered purely in white. Other artists such as Sisley, Pissarro, and Guillaumin were likewise fascinated by colored reflections on surfaces covered in snow, ice, frost, or hoarfrost. Of all the Impressionists, however, it was Monet who created the largest number of winter paintings, around 140 in all—a predilection inspired by similar images from the colored Japanese woodcuts he loved to collect.

In contrast to artist friends such as Monet or Renoir, Sisley worked exclusively as a landscape painter. In his plein air painting, he devoted himself above all to the depiction of sky and water amid the changing of the seasons.

Objects should be painted … bathed in light just as they are in nature. … The sky must be the means of doing so (the sky cannot be a mere background)…. It reminds us of the movement of waves on the ocean, inspires us, and carries us away … I always start a painting with the sky.

Alfred Sisley

The Coasts of Europe

In Monet’s generation, classical landscape painting had given way to observation of the local natural environment. The artists traveled by train along the coasts of northern and southern Europe, painting motifs on location in the French Riviera, Venice, and Saint-Tropez as well as the coastal cliffs of Brittany or the Italian Riviera. 

The impression of the contemplative observation of nature, far removed from civilization, is deceptive. In the 19th century, coastal landscapes were increasingly overtaken by modern tourism and marketed in postcards. Painters responded to this competition by adopting the cropping techniques of photography.

Many painters followed in Monet’s footsteps and traveled to the Mediterranean. Paul Signac and Henri-Edmond Cross settled there in the 1890s and continued to develop Pointillism on the French Riviera. Amid the southern light, they created paradisiacal landscapes imbued with the ideal of peaceful coexistence in remote nature. Some years later, their free use of primary colors in Mediterranean compositions would also influence the young generation of Fauve painters.

By the elimination of all muddy colors, by the exclusive use of the optical mixture of pure colors, by a methodical divisionism and a strict observation of the scientific theory of colors, Neo-Impressionism insures a maximum of luminosity, of color intensity, and of harmony—a result that has never yet been obtained.

Paul Signac

Landscapes of the Fauves

In the early 20th century, a radically new art movement emerged in France, characterized by starkly contoured forms and the expressive use of color. At their first exhibition in the Paris Salon d’Automne in 1905, an art critic referred to the painters around André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Auguste Herbin as “les Fauves” (the Wild Beasts). His remark, intended to be dismissive, gave the new style of Fauvism its name.

The Fauves distanced themselves from the Impressionist and Pointillist styles and developed a technique characterized by flat forms and bright colors. No longer were they interested in the depiction of natural phenomena; rather, like the Expressionist painters of the German movement “Die Brücke,” they embraced the autonomous, expressive power of color—a radical step in the direction of pure abstraction.

Their expressive style of painting, however, did not prevent them from emulating the Impressionists and Pointillists in their choice of motifs. While André Derain followed in the footsteps of Cross and Signac in the south of France, Maurice de Vlaminck painted in Bougival, where Monet and Renoir had found their subject matter already in the 1860s.

Vlaminck was the only artist among the Fauves who identified with the trait of wildness. He took the social-utopian anarchism of Signac and Cross and artistically transformed it into angry vehemence. Like many of the Fauves, he soon embraced Cubism, whose dissection of the picture plane into strict geometric forms would once again revolutionize painting. The three generations of Impressionists, Pointillists, and Fauves shared the same ideal: to emulate the sensory experience of nature through color and light.