Impressionism is possibly the world’s most well loved artistic movement. It was a 19th century movement centered on thin, light brushstrokes and the depiction of light at all angles. Any ordinary subject could theoretically be translated into an impressionistic style. Not every subject, though.
Something has always really bothered me about Impressionism. It’s not because I’m some misanthrope who really can’t stand all those smiling faces, boats, and glories of nature. I think it’s because that’s all I see when I look an Impressionist paintings. In the entire canon of the movement, there aren’t any paintings of anything remotely unpleasant!
When you compare Impressionism to the other major schools of the time, Symbolism and the Pre-Raphaelites, for example, there is a stark difference in subject matter. The Symbolists were painting dark mythological scenes and the Pre-Raphaelites did not shy away from death or sadness. So why do the impressionists never capture anything less than idyllic?
It’s not like an explosion, a battle, or a barren and foreboding landscape doesn’t offer it’s own interesting lessons in light. I have a theory. Impressionists were all about the retinal connection made with the viewer, merely the work of the eye. A viewer would look at an Impressionist painting and their eyes would register the scene, the light, and the details long before the emotions would, if at all. In fact, I’m not sure the strictly light focused paintings of Monet are supposed to invoke that much of an emotional response other than a pleasant appreciation.
Look for a moment at Gustave Moreau’s Orpheus. Like masterful painting, there is skill in the way light and shadows fall, but that’s not what you notice first. The first connection made by a viewer is an emotional connection to the figures. I believe that any emotion deeper than “oohs” and “aahs” cannot be registered with only a retinal connection. There has to be something more pulling a viewer into a piece of art. That’s why I think that if one of the Impressionists had painted something dark or unpleasant, the fact that it was dark or unpleasant would have fallen flat to an audience.
Impressionism is still one of the most important and revolutionary artistic styles to date, so I will never discourage anyone from “oohing” and “aahing” at its offerings. It’s just important to have the balance of more emotional and powerful works.