How the Art of Painting liberated itself from Photorealism - Part Three

Note: this is the third part of a blog post I published 15 days ago, you can find the second part here ...

A League Of Their Own: The Academics

One of the reasons why the Realists, the Romanticists or the Symbolists were called an 'art movement' was that there has always been an unmovable factor in the background. The Academic School Of Painting has been established in the 16th century and still kept going strong when the art movements appeared on the playground.
Academic Art came out of the Renaissance and therefore was firmly rooted in the interpretation of the ideals of Antiquity. It made its way from Italy over France to the rest of Europe. The Academic style of painting itself was influenced by two schools of thought: one was Neoclassicism and the other Historicism. Neoclassicism drew its inspiration from the art of the classical antiquity, mostly in the form of the many statues that survived from that era. This is one of the reasons why life drawing became so important in the academies. Historicism seeks to recreate or imitate the look and feel of the works of historic artisans from different eras of history.

From top to bottom: Thomas Couture's Romans During The Decadence from 1847 imagines the classical times as one big banquet of half-naked feasting both for the stomach and for the eye. Thomas Cole's The Architect's Dream from 1840 mashes up Egyptian, Roman and Northern-European Gothic architecture into one big bowl. In this photograph from the late 19th century students from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris are shown in their life-drawing class.

For the untrained eye and the in-adept Academic Art seems to have a lot of similarities to the other art movements of Realism, Romanticism and Symbolism. And yes, you are right, this holds especially true now two centuries later. But we have to imagine that there were clear ideological differences between all of those art movements and stiff Academic Art. That is not to say that each did not take inspiration from the other or that an Academic painter may have not switched stances in his lifespan, but when the audience and artists discussed works and their differences in the Salons and Galleries, there were fierce battles between the various camps. 

Thomas Couture's The Realist from 1865 ridicules the realist painter: he can be seen sitting on the head of a classical statue while painting a boar's head. Other attributes like the pipe and the hat mark him as a Bohemian, while the bottle in the foreground shows that he also is a drinker. Academics regarded the realist painter as someone who neglects the beauty of an idealized antiquity and has turned towards the ugly.

A League Of His Own: William Adolphe Bougeureau

William Bougeureau is one of the most prolific of the academic painters. His style of painting perfectly embodies everything academic art stands for: allegoric subjects, perfect technique and execution, a high level of illusionistic realism. 
His technique of painting has led many to believe that he used photos as a reference. If this is true or not has not yet been conclusively proven, though his photo-realism is striking and he serves as good example in this blog post series for painters who were promoting the look and feel of photography.

From left to right: Dante et Virgile en enfer from 1850, Au bord du Ruisseau from (1875) and The Wave from 1896. Bougeureau's three paintings almost span a career of 50 years and consecutively show a high mastery of craftsmanship in creating photo-realism without the observer being able to spot as much as a brush stroke. Many people claim that one could see the edges of a table in the latter picture, indicating the evidence of the use of photo reference. It his clear however, that Bougeureau's paintings far exceed the capacities of photography of its time in terms of sharpness, colorfulness, expression and the level of detail.

Along Come The Impressionists 

It is hard to single out one factor that lead to the development of Impressionism. Whether it was the relentless stubbornness of the Academics and the other art movements in their disputes, the over-saturation of the audience with nude allegoric women in classical poses, the kitchyness of the ever-repeated imagery of antique fantasies or the finicky scrupulous technique of painting in photo-realism. There came a time when young painters had enough of it and were seeking a more direct, less obstructed approach to painting. Along came the Impressionists.

The term itself was coined by a critic who was trying to demean the painting Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet from 1872 which was shown in the exhibition of a young troupe of painters who grouped themselves around Camille Pissaro in and about Paris. The audience started to use the word Impressionist as a derogation for painters who refused to hide their brushstrokes and clearly formulate a painting until its tiniest detail. This new art movement quickly adopted term of abuse and turned it around in their favor.

The works of the Impressionists are marked by their realist subjects and their attention towards the use of light, colors and brushstrokes in a fluid way so to capture movement and moods. Instead if spending their time in the studio, thinking up new fantasies about the past, Impressionists started to go outdoors and do Plein Air Painting and let themselves be inspired by nature and society itself. Their works display a naturalness and are capable of capturing the humanity of the models, without abiding to the strict rules of photo-realism.

From left to right: Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Bal du moulin de la Galette from 1876, Berte Morisot's The Cradle from 1872, Edgar Degas' At the Races from around 1877–1880. All of these images lack the perfectionist finish often seen in the works of the Academics, who were eagerly trying to hide every trace of a brushstroke, but they preserve a vividness and fluidity and leave a lasting 'Impression' on the viewer. Speaking in philosophical terms, the Impressionists come close to reality not by mimicking it, but by distilling its essentials and by careful approximation with the tools of the painter.

In the fourth part of this installment, we will take a look at how Impressionism banged open the doors for more artistic experiments and widened the art term during its time. Please stay tuned and leave a comment, I would like to know what you think about this! 

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