Why the Impressionists are Bad Artists

I imagine by typing the headline above, axes will be grinding over the aforementioned statement, which is so out of tune with what the public and critics glorify in art. But the gauntlet has been thrown. I cannot escape my remark, and it has been one forever haunting me since I first viewed Claude Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise,” which has since scarred me for life. I just could not wrap my head around why people adore these artists. Why is that young women, haystacks, and water lilies always have to be the subject matter? And how is it possible to paint with an arsenal of such light colors? Woe is chiaroscuro! Woe is Caravaggio! Did Impressionism just not have a dark soul among its followers? And to think that this flare of fog that Impressionists created in their landscapes could compare to this is… well, we’ll get to that. But the unfortunate part of Impressionism is its lack of philosophical contemplation. There is no cohesive display of the human condition, whether good or bad. By placing theory before humanity, the Impressionists mitigated their ability to evoke emotion. In essence, they failed to depict the power of art.

Monet had become so engrossed in the use of light that when his wife died, he reacted by analyzing the nacreous hue of her skin in the early morning light. This search for light is what the Impressionists were all about. They tried to seek the reproduction of light and attempted to place that element ahead of the form of the actual object. In this sense, the Impressionists were the precursors of Abstract Expressionism in that both shared a desire for abstraction, thence to not merely show the representational part of life.

Impressionist painting

Abstract Expressionism

Claude Monet, for better or worse, is the classic exemplar of the Impressionist movement. To make it short, I find this a calamity. He is a most illogical painter. In his thirty-three canvases he did of Rouen Cathedral, he manages to degrade what was once a fine example of Gothic art, to a a ruinous mountain of shapes that are complicated geometrically and are furthermore, a mishap of color. Monet was haunted by the cathedral, always imagining the building in a various array of colors, and in this series, one can see his madness fully on display. Cathedrals should really be captured with the use of lines, but one can only think that Monet was trying to find the mood of the subject. But in this distorted facade, one cannot readily find the mood. It would be too superficial to say that it is supposed to convey some sentimental notion to the viewer, which the lighting would supposedly suggest.

I have had a sort of privilege to have seen one of these works in person. The one below is the one I saw at the Clark Art Institute. I was dismayed from what I saw, due to the lack of clarity in the work. It was as if the painting were a grainy veneer, and the viewer desperately hoping for a burst of aesthetics,  an injection of sanity that might make one say, “Ah, Monet was a true craftsman!” But all Monet seems to convey is madness.

Certainly there are a few misconceptions about the Impressionists. One of the fallacies is that Degas was a pure-blooded Impressionist. Although he was Impressionist in the sense that he believed in a sense of immediacy on contemporary life that should be portrayed, there is a more palpable feeling of humanity. This would make Degas more of a realist. Even at first glance, Degas’ style is more classical than Impressionism. One can tell from his canvases that he puts a great deal of thought into his compositions. His sense of line – a quality sadly lacking in many Impressionist paintings – is reminiscent of Manet and Ingres. As a student, Degas was advised by Ingres to draw “lines, many lines.” It is a skill that Degas continually relied upon throughout his career, and one can assuredly say that he relied on Ingres’ classicism more than the Impressionist’s desire to capture light (something that one would never associate with Degas). In the end, even Degas considered himself a Realist.

What I have always been taken aback by is how monotonous the subject matter of Impressionist painting can be. Paintings of flowers, haystacks and chic young people do not add an emotional punch. In some ways, the Impressionist movement reminds me of the Rococo period. Both have this sense of glamor and a cavalier disdain for the ugliness in art. Yet, the Rococo period did it better. They did not hide behind theory. They pushed the limits by how much aristocratic taste could be inserted into art. The Rococo period may look irrelevant now, but they have a calming tranquility to them. There is not that ephemeral taste one gets after viewing an Impressionist painting.

Impressionist landscapes do not posses the allure of the Hudson River School. I feel that the Impressionist’s vain attempt to not show the representational part of nature – due to the advent of photography – harmed their artistic possibilities. It pains me to see the titanic power of nature transformed into American technicolor on steroids. Somewhere along their odyssey, the Impressionists lost a certain awe for nature, as if they were rejecting nature so that they could deconstruct it. The fact is, nature is too demanding to be breached. The Hudson River School realized this and made their work substantial. Their is a sense of pride that is being transmitted to the viewer. No where can I say the same for the Impressionists. They paint like pagans with their rose-tinted pathways, with superficial flowers that collide in ruin, only showing the light that will soon be pressed into the face of the viewer. The dummy has been fixed and the ephemeral splendor of nature will transport the viewer into a mirthful paradise where the pain shall numb and the anthem of something greater will have been forgotten.

The Impressionist’s quest for light degraded at least one member of their audience. I feel that they succumbed to laziness and triviality and did not have the aesthetics to pull off their grand strategy. Sure, they were at a difficult period in history with the advent of photography. Yes, artists should try different techniques. But I cannot fathom their lack of soul searching. Because art belongs to humanity. And if it does not represent humanity then it is not art. The Impressionists failed to show meaning and emotion in their works. The canvases are sterile and indulgent. Someday the public shall wake up from their dream and realize that that numbness they feel is from images that are not pragmatic.

A Hudson River School artwork


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