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

Note: this is the fourth and final part of a blog post I published on June 15th, you can find the third part here ...

Before Impressionism, there was William Turner

Impressionism did not come out of nowhere. Eleven years before Claude Monet painted his Impression soleil levant another great painter by the name of Turner had died. Joseph Malord William Turner (23 April 1775 - 19 December 1851) known by his acronym J.M.W. Turner, was an English Painter who started out as a Romantic and became a Pre-Impressionist in his later work, although his work never was officially named like that. He traveled a extensively around Europe in search of new subjects for his landscape paintings. He became especially famous for his marine paintings. J.M.W. Turner was considered to be extraordinary productive as he left behind over 2'000 paintings and 19'000 drawings.

From left to right: J.M.W. Turner's earlier works show how he was influenced by the Flemish school of classical landscape painting on one hand and Romanticism in this picture of Roman scenery on the other. Throughout his life he was able to work in different styles but his impressions of the effects of natural phenomena like light, fog, water, sky and seasons start to push through in his later work.

From left to right: with his painting Slave Ship from 1840 Turner took a very clear abolitionist's anti-slavery stand-point. Based on real events from 1781 it shows a slave ship that has thrown its human cargo overboard because of an on-setting storm. The style of painting in this later work already clearly points into the direction of Impressionism with the way the sun light and sky is portrayed. It goes beyond the mere representation of the dawning sky of storm-laden clouds but it is used to express dramatic emotions. In his work Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway the rain and clouds mingle with the landscape to become one plane of muted colors and textures. It is very reminiscent of Monet's work that soleil levant who reportedly studied the works of Turner.

Even though J.M.W. Turner was championed by the English art critic John Ruskin who recognized  Turner's great ingenuity in his later life, his new method of working evoked criticism from contemporaries. Sir George Beaumont, a rival landscape painter, called Turner's works 'blots' because of his way of applying paint to the canvas not trying to hide the brush strokes as was customary and demanded by then.


You may have already noticed the tendency by now: the development of the art of painting evolves farther away from the requirement of photo-realistic mimicking of reality during the course of the second half of the 19th century. Remember that photography by then was still far away from the vividness, sharpness or any use of color that a painting could provide (please take a look at the exemplary photos in the first part again).

Several artist's succeeded Impressionism's legacy. Many of them were a lot younger when the Impressionist exhibitions were shown. They were rather unfavorably termed Post-Impressionists which put them in direct lineage to their predecessors, even though they often developed quite unique and different interpretations of style and stepped out of the shadow of their Impressionistic forefathers.

Vincent van Gogh (30 March 1853 – 29 July 1890) exhibits a raw force with colors in his paintings, almost as if he wishes to capture and banish the essence of what he sees onto the canvas with his color tubes and brush strokes. 


Georges-Pierre Seurat (2 December 1859 – 29 March 1891) further expanded his work on Pointilism, a technique of painting that was pioneered by Camille Pissaro, in which paint is applied in dots onto the canvas. It requires a great understanding of color theory as the points need to be put together according to certain rules in order to obtain the overall impression that a plane or an object has a specific color. 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (24 November 1864 – 9 September 1901), his style of painting became very graphical in that he emphasizes contours and shapes. Despite the great dynamism in many of his paintings he often favored muted colors over bright ones, especially when depicting the Parisian nightlife.

Paul Cézanne (19 January 1839 – 22 October 1906) used a very characteristic set of brush strokes and color planes to build up multi-faceted portrayals of his subjects. His depiction of apples became very famous and are often shown as an example of what art can achieve and invoke inside a spectator. 

Notice the predominance of Realist subjects in the paintings of the Impressionists. 

A League Of His Own: Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso (25 October 1881 – 8 April 1973) came later than most of the Post-Impressionists but drew a lot from the legacy they left behind. Picasso was not exclusively a painter, even though he started out as one, but took on many roles later in his life modeling the blueprint for the multi-potentiate modern artist of the 20th century.  He took the premises of Impressionism and developed them further into new styles of art. Especially in his early paintings the link to the post-impressionists can be discovered:

Picasso produced these three paintings between the age of  fourteen to sixteen. They show that he was an excellent craftsman early on and that he understood the techniques and concepts of classical painting very well. Note the self-portrait in the middle.

These three paintings were done in his twenties and they show a very distinct influence of Impressionism with his use of broad brushstrokes and bright colors on the left, color planes and contours in the middle and the mono-tonal blue to convey mood and emotion in The Old Guitarist from 1903. 

In his thirties Picasso pushed farther in what he could do with color, contour and plane to go into abstraction and found the art movement of Cubism, ultimately a very radical take on the ideas of Impressionism. His Les Demoiselles d'Avignon from 1907 in the middle is considered to be the first step on that journey while Girl with a Mandolin from 1910 show how he progressed along his way exploring new possibilities of expression through the art of painting.


By now we have arrived in the early 20th century ending our journey with this last painting by Picasso from 1910. From here on out art was free to whatever it wanted. Whether it teetered off into total abstraction with Wassily Kandinsky or exploded into pure emotion with Jackson Pollock, at the foundation of it all lay the will of artists to go beyond the mere realistic and accurate representation of our world. Photography has slowly begun to catch up in terms of technique and skillfulness and it arrived at truthfully representing reality at a point when the art of painting just concluded its evolution of abandoning it.

From left to right: finally photography caught up with the skills that painters had possessed for centuries. Colors appear vivid in this 1911 portrait of Alim Khan by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky. The landscape conveys a sense of depth and various layers of sharpness in the picture by the same photographer from 1912. The 1914 photograph of the Taj Mahal by an unknown artist exhibits architectural design, vast space and muted colors from an exotic place like so many landscape painters have done in the first half of the 19th century. 

 From left to right: now that the camera was doing all the work of mimicking reality the art of painting moved boldly beyond its mere representation. Pablo Picasso reduces people to planes and lines in his painting Nous autres musiciens from 1921 while Wassily Kandinsky wanders on his own path with Komposition VIII from 1923. Finally Jackson Pollock reduces everything to the raw and unbound energy of brush strokes with his Convergence from 1953.

I hope you enjoyed and followed along my little journey into the times when the art of painting freed itself from the demand of having to mimic the appearance of reality but dared to develop beyond and found its expression from within the personal experience of the world itself. It was a bold step in that it emboldened the individual to strife outside the boundaries of institutions and normatives of society and painters were the first to make it.

We came across a lot of terms for various art movements that seemed similar on first glance but had important distinction in their style, technique or subjects of painting. Sometimes I could only brush on certain topics and I hope I can expand on them in-depth in the future. Thank you for bearing with me and staying tuned all the way. Please feel free to leave a comment, I would love to hear from you!

No comments:

Post a Comment