Sunday, May 10, 2009

French Academic Painting in the 19th century

Comerre, The Annunciation to the Shepherds,
Winner of the Prix de Rome, 1875

Because the work of the French Impressionists is so familiar to us today, it is hard to imagine their artwork being considered shocking or revolutionary without looking at the kind of painting most of their contemporaries were familiar with. 

Now we are used to the landscapes painted en plein aire by Claude Monet. But to the painters of the French Academy, landscape painting was less well regarded, by far, than paintings depicting classical history or mythology or Biblical subjects. The paintings themselves had smooth surfaces, painted with layers of thin paints and glazes, to minimize the brushwork. Figures in the paintings were idealized, and were often meant to be allegorical.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The First Kiss

If you compare Comerre's painting above, the 1875 winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome, and the painting by Bouguereau, with Monet's 1873 painting Impression:Sunrise, it is a little easier to see why the newer style shocked people. Its loose, sketchy brushwork was completely foreign to eyes used to the academic style.

Claude Monet, Impression: Sunrise, 1873

A critic, in his disparaging review, referred to all of the paintings in the exhibit as "Impressionist," derived from the title of this painting. While he intended the name as an insult, it seems a compliment today....

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