Tag Archives: Impressionist Painters

Finding Your Way In: Tips for approaching an artwork you’ve never seen before

One of the things people assume about you when they learn that you’re an art historian (and one of the things that we jokingly say about ourselves!) is that we make brilliant dinner party conversation.  People will throw out their favourite artists (or simply the last one they heard of), and assume that we’re not only familiar with their entire output, but have an insightful and fully-formed opinion on them.  But one of the exciting things about art history, whether you choose to officially study it, or simply indulge a passion for it, is discovering new works of art, artists, and even entire movements you’ve never before encountered.  But this can be a slightly intimidating experience.  It can be difficult to figure your way into a work that feels unfamiliar.  There are however a few things that you can look out for to help you find your way into a new work of art which I’ll be exploring in this new series.  These suggestions are in no way proscriptive, it’s important that you embrace your own response to the work, but if you’re ever stuck when looking at a new work, these tips might be worth bearing in mind.


The artist’s choice of medium can make a huge difference to the overall effect of the artwork.  Often museum labels will help you with this, but it satisfying to be able to identify the materials yourself.  Some are really easy to identify, with oil or watercolours perhaps, but this can sometimes be difficult; often the material of sculpture can be hard to pinpoint.  But with a little practice you start to gain a familiarity with the materials, and build up a knowledge of what they look like and how they’re used.

Once you have an idea of what the material is, it’s worth thinking about the qualities and constraints of that material.  The development of oil painting allowed artists in the Northern Renaissance to create amazingly realistic images, using are fully layered pigments and glazes to bring a vitality to their works unmatched by the frescoes of their Southern cousins.  It is thought that these new paints were created in part in response to the damp climate of the North, which made the plaster-based techniques of Italian artists implausible. Centuries later, the vivid colours of the Impressionists were made possible by the development of new, chemical pigments. The bright yellows and blues seen in so many of their works was made possible by these new pigments.  Their en plain air techniques were also made possible by the invention of tubes of paint, making the materials far more portable.


Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pont Neuf, 1872

Sculpture is perhaps even more dependent on its materials.  The physical qualities are of key importance, having a fundamental effect on what one would be able to sculpt.  The poor tensile strength of marble is the reason why so many sculptures are supported by ugly props, with bars of the material holding up their arms or legs.  This is why so many Greek gods are leaning against a conveniently positioned tree trunk.  The opposite quality enables the fantastical creations of the sixteenth century, such as Giambologna’s Mercury ( which positively flaunts the tensile strength of bronze with its outstretched limbs.

Giambologna Mercury

Giambologna, Mercury, 1580

The sculpture’s material isn’t just of interest form the point of view of its physical qualities.  Many materials also take on a symbolic quality, or accrue connotations that can impact on the meaning of the finished work.  In his seminal work The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, Michael Baxandall explored the way in which cultural associations about limewood came to be attached to the sculptures that were carved from it.  The special, pseudo-magical qualities that folklore attached to the tree itself impacted on how the sculptures were understood by contemporary viewers.  This book also contains Baxandall’s examination of the different woods on a cellular level, and the implications of this for the forms it was sculpted into.  Far later, modern sculptors such as Henry Moore would lead the ‘truth to materials’ movement, which sought to exploit the inherent qualities of the material to create sculpted forms that somehow reflected the nature of the material itself.

Henry Moore REcumbent Figure.jpg

Henry Moore, Recumbent Figure, 1938, image credit

In painting too, materials could gain their own symbolic meanings.  The most famous example of this is the use of lapis lazuli in depictions of the Virgin Mary.  The high cost of the pigment, due to it being imported all the way from Afghanistan, where it still only occurred in relatively small quantities, meant that it came to be seen as appropriate for depicting this holy figure.

The Virgin and Child

Massacio, The Virgin and Child, 1426

The price of the material is thus also worth considering.  While it is obviously often the case that materials are chosen for their expense, they can also be deliberately inexpensive.  For instance, Russian Constructivist artists such as Alexander Rodchenko chose cheap, readily available materials such as plywood, in a deliberate attempt to make their art more accessible, and to strip it of the bourgeois connotations of more conventional materials.  In other cases, the material may be chosen specifically for such connotations.  Mark Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant, created for the Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square, made use of Carrara marble (Michelangelo’s David was able made from Carrara marble), placing it in a tradition of nude sculptures dating back through the Renaissance to Roman art, which in turn imitated Greek art. By using this material Quinn makes a bold and positive claim for the beauty and importance of his subject, and forces his viewers to reconsider the negative effects of the bland uniformity of sculpture in the Classical tradition.  Quinn himself commented on his choice of material, ‘Marble is the material used to commemorate heroes, and these people seem to me to be a new kind of hero – people who instead of conquering the outside world have conquered their own inner world and gone on to live fulfilled lives. To me, they celebrate the diversity of humanity. Most monuments are commemorating past events; because Alison is pregnant it’s a sculpture about the future possibilities of humanity’.

Alison Lapper Pregnant

Mark Quinn, Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005, image credit

So there are lots of aspects to the choice of material in artworks.  These certainly shouldn’t be treated as a tick-list of things to go through, but thinking about material in this way can offer a new perspective on a work of art, and can be an interesting approach to take when you find yourself in front of a brand new (to you, or the world) work of art.



Mark Quin quote excerpted from: http://marcquinn.com/artworks/alison-lapper.

Images unless otherwise stated are sourced from wikicommons.

A Feminist Re-Interpretation of Renoir’s ‘La Loge’

Renoir La Loge

I have recently begun tutoring a student in A-level art history, which has had the happy side-effect of bringing me back in touch with many paintings I have not examined for a long time.  The syllabus is almost identical to that which I studied all those years ago, and it has been fun to look back at some of them.  (Perhaps the subject of a later post on the subject of the formation and reformation of canons!)  Renoir’s La Loge is one such painting that has been brought back into my life. Part of the collection of the Courtauld Gallery, the painting was the subject of a blog post I wrote five years ago, before I had even begun my undergraduate degree (find it here).  I am surprised to say that I still largely agree with what I wrote about it.  I still feel this is a painting all about the interplay of gazes, about looking and being looked at.  However, there is one aspect of the painting that is largely missing from my discussion: the female gaze.  I am not alone in this, much writing on the painting focuses exclusively on the male gaze, on the role of the man in the painting, and the male viewer.  While it is undoubtedly important to consider the role of gender in the creation and appreciation of this work, throughout much art historical analysis (not just that of this painting), this has led to a sort of game of ‘spot the male gaze’.  While the historical and continued oppression of women has overwhelmingly led to the prioritising of the male gaze in the creation of artworks, and the effects of this in the work’s interpretation, it is important that we do not erase instances of the appeal to the female gaze where they do occur.

The ‘female gaze’ is often taken to be a simple inversion of the male gaze, thus a painting appealing to it might involve the objectification of male figures.  The heteronormativity of such ideas aside, it is also important to recognize other, perhaps more subtle ways that an artist might engage with the idea of the female gaze (whether they would have used that terminology or not).  So we come back to La Loge itself.  The male figure’s roving gaze is often noted – pointing straight up, and, judging by the curve of the box itself, back into the theatre – he is clearly not watching the stage.  The opera glasses he holds become symbolic of his supposed appetite for women, passing an admiring gaze over the female members of the audience.  This is sometimes interpreted as a snub to the woman in the painting: not satisfied by her, he literally looks elsewhere.  Interpretation of the woman often focuses on her meek interaction with or submissive acceptance of this cultural phenomenon.  She is described as ‘meek’, or ‘passive’.  Alternatively she might, according to another brand of misogyny, be accused of ‘asking for it’, or looking for male attention: she leans forward, looking up towards us, also not engaging with the opera itself, a flower placed in her bodice drawing the eye.  She happily submits to the inquisitive male gaze, it might be said, and, by association, that of the viewer.

However, there is one component of the painting that suggest that something more is going on in the painting.  She too holds opera glasses.  While these were of course a necessity amongst the fashionable elite, and she holds a smaller, more decorative pair than her male companion, in the context of the painting, the opera glass seems to have taken on a greater meaning than its mere practical function.  Highlighted in bright gold colours, her glasses suggest a more active engagement in the interplay of gazes that the painting depicts.  It is not only the male audience members who make visual enquiries across the room, the women too look for pleasure through viewing.  Women too might be in possession of a scopophilic gaze.  Renoir’s audience would predominantly have been male, and it is understandable that the painting has been interpreted both as a critique of the bourgeois male’s entitled attitude towards women, and as Renoir’s own possible participation in such attitudes.  However let us not forget that women too visited exhibitions, including the First Impressionist Exhibition, where this painting was exhibited in 1874.  Even if most of the critics were men, women did still see, appreciate, and engage with art (which seems a rather obvious thing to say).  In the period when characters such as Nana were being written by Zola, and Madeleine Forestier by Guy de Maupassant, it seems not unlikely that creators in the visual arts might also have wanted to represent a broadening range of female characterisations, and the wider possibilities that were opening up to women brave enough to pursue them in the face of a society ever-ready to shun.  Nana and Madeleine Forestier are both women who embrace their own sexual appetites and desires, and even the respectable Forestier is at ease with her appreciation of male beauty.  Renoir’s woman, scanning the crowd, might be a similar character.  Thus it seems quite plausible that this woman is not passively objectified, but actively engages in an exchange of gazes, thinking of her own pleasures and desires, not simply submitting to those of her viewers.

It would be just as bad however to assume that this painting is just about men and women.  The aforementioned heteronormativity of such an assumption is obvious, but this painting could as much be about female friendship, or kinship.  The gaze could be one of recognition, of one woman acknowledging another.  The women who visited the exhibition would likely have been familiar with the world depicted, and have experienced something similar themselves.  Past me only managed to acknowledge that the female interaction with this painting might be with a sense of jealously, an ‘eyeing up’ of potential competition (a notion I’m glad to say I can now see far beyond, and acknowledge the inherent misogyny of such an assumption), but I think this painting may as much be one of friendship, or at least acknowledgement of shared experience.  To the Parisian woman, this may have acted as an image of herself, and her friends.

There is so much more to this painting than men’s sexual interest in women, and I’m grateful that I’ve had the chance to look back at it, with fresh eyes, greater experience, and a fuller sense of its representation of human experience.

Gustave Caillebotte: ‘Paris Street; Rainy Day’, 1877

Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877

Perhaps one of the most recognisable paintings of 19th century France, Gustave Caillebote’s ‘Paris Street; Rainy Day’ is an intriguing view of a less optimistic side of Paris often expressed in the paintings of the Impressionists.  It does not take long to realise that Caillebotte’s work is not typical of the overall Impressionist style.  The looseness of brushwork is replaced with smaller, more delicate work that seems to have more in common with Seurat’s Neo-Impressionism, and the emphasis on the speed and energy of the city is in turn substituted for an almost unsettling stillness.  This word, ‘unsettling’ is appropriate to the piece:  Caillebotte expresses the increasing social unease caused by the fast ‘Haussmannisation’ of Paris, which took place over his lifetime, and which resulted in a sense of social isolation and class divide.

Caillebotte was independently wealthy – he did not rely on painting for his income.  He played an important part in the Impressionist movement, partly because he was able to buy the works of his friends, particularly Monet and Renoir, thus sustaining them at times when they were financially unstable.  Although his style seems so different to these painters, he does in fact abide by many of the common characteristics of the Impressionist painters.  His interest in the representation and nature of light can be seen most clearly in the shadows, and the stones of the street itself.  Shadows are not black, as the Impressionists felt this created a dullness and flatness of space.  The stones are made up of several different colours, which unify to create the grey we see, again with the aim of representing the scene as it would have been seen by an observer, an attempt to gain greater realism.  It is oft forgotten that the Impressionist movement was strictly a move towards greater realism, as painters tried to paint what they saw, rather than simple what was there.  Caillebotte’s use of colour is also typical, he makes heavy use of different shades of yellow and blue.  This was common among the Impressionists as it was in this period that chemical pigments were being produced, with bright blues and yellows proving particularly effective (and far cheaper than their organic equivalents).  Alongside this was the development of lead tubes and lighter, more portable easels, all of which enabled the ‘en plein air’ technique for which the Impressionists became so famous (although, on a side note, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, over 20 years earlier, had done much of their work outdoors, and even earlier Constable had become famous for his six-foot sketch canvases, which he completed in the open air, and then worked up in his studio).  But it is in the tone of the painting that we see Caillebotte most clearly as an Impressionist.

‘Haussmannisation’ was the remodelling of Paris undertaken by the so-called Baron Haussmann (he was not a real Baron, simple named himself as one), under the leadership of Napoleon III.  It aimed to clear the city, modernise it, making it’s spaces more useful for the increased use of carriages, and for the capitalism which was beginning to develop, with the rise of large department stores and ready-made clothing (evoked brilliantly in Emile Zola’s ‘The Ladies’ Delight).  From a more pragmatic point of view, the new cities wide boulevards were also intended to prevent further revolution: the streets of the medieval city were narrow, and easily blockaded, whereas the very wide new streets would require far greater resources, organisation, and man-power to block, whilst also allowing easier movement of government troops.  So Haussmannisation rid the city of the cramped medieval houses which inhabit the pages of Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ and transforming it to the city of open boulevards and tall houses we see today.  This design created a new lightness in the city, which can be seen particularly Renoir’s cityscapes (Renoir was a Parisian, and thus perhaps most aware of the stark changes).  But it also lead to a new social segregation, as the working classes moved out into the growing suburbs, while the new bourgeoisies lived in the city houses, with only their servants.  Previously houses would have been split between families of different status and wealth, with poorer families often inhabiting the garret or basements of houses owned by wealthier citizens.  Altogether these factors, although creating the iconic city we know and love today, had almost strong social effects at the time, resulting in a new sense of isolation.  The city was bigger, the people emotionally further apart, and the mood captured by many of the Impressionists particularly – Monet’s ‘Plum Brandy’, Degas’ ‘L’Absinthe’ – is the loneliness of the crowd.  It is this which Caillebotte taps into in ‘Paris Street; Rainy Day’.

Throughout the composition Caillebotte has arranged elements in order to emphasise social unease.  The area depicted is an intersection near the Gare St Lazare, in a wealthy district near Caillebotte’s own home.  Contrary to the depiction, it is not a particularly large space.  Caillebotte has exaggerated its size almost as a metaphor for the increasing social and emotional distance between the people.  This helps to strengthen the idea in the viewer’s mind that it is the new city which has created this effect.  This is also suggested by the scaffolding at the end of the street, which leads into the depth of the painting.  The scaffolding suggests that the city is continuing to change, and implies that these problems will not easily go away.  It is also important to bear in mind when viewing this painting that any awkwardness we feel would have been far worse for its original audience.  It was exhibited in the Third Impressionist Exhibition (which Caillebotte made a large contribution to the funding of), and the people attending would have been people living in Paris, who had witnessed these conditions all around them.  Having it spelt out so clearly must have made them somewhat self-conscious, particularly as they were largely the bourgeois middle classes.  The eye-lines of the figures do not meet, even the couple look away from each other: there is no sense of human connection.  Each of the figures seems lost, or trapped, in their own world.  Caillebotte seems to have captured a particular moment of impending social embarrassment:  as they walk along the pavement, the figures are oblivious to one another, but they are about to be brought sharply back to awareness, as if they proceed, their umbrellas will surely clash.  There is thus a sense of urgency and mild horror as we realise what is about to happen, where having captured the moment before allows the viewer all the quick thoughts and embarrassed realisation that precludes these minor, but off-putting events.  The painting as a whole is also imbued with a sense of awkwardness by Caillebotte’s positioning of perspective.  He shows his awareness of tradition through his deliberate breaking of the Golden Section.  This is achieved by placing the lamp-post directly in the centre of the painting.  This splits the painting evenly, leaving the viewer with an uncertainty as to how to view it, rather than the easy path through the paintings provided by the thirds of the Golden Section.  Awareness of Renaissance tradition is seen also in the way he models objects with light.  We can see some similarities, through this and the stillness of his figures, between Caillebotte and Piero della Francesca.  This can be seen particularly through comparison of the modelling of Caillebotte’s umbrella, and the octagonal fountainheads of the Ideal City, by the school of Piero della Francesca.

Now hung in the Art Institute of Chicago (Impressionist works proved highly popular with American patrons, within the lifetime of the artists), it is thus easy to see why ‘Paris Street; rainy Day’ has been called one of the most effective paintings of the modern urban landscape of 19th century Paris.  Caillebotte has used all his delicacy and subtly, combined with the social elegance of one accustomed to really seeing, and taking real thought for the people around him, to create a stunning depiction of human non-interaction, and which brilliantly captures the mood of its time.  It’s popularity is ensured by the fact that it is hard not to like some aspect, and though its message may be uncomfortable, it is one that has perhaps become even more relevant in the centuries since it was painted.