Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Art of Impressionism and associated painting techniques

I highly recommend Professor Anthea Callen's book The Art of Impressionism - painting techniques and the making of modernity (2000, Yale University Press) for anybody who, like me, likes the work of Impressionist painters and is also fascinated by the preparation and process behind the making of art.

If you want to know more about what the Impressionist artists used for paint, what sort of canvases and grounds they painted on, how they applied their paint, where and in what sort of conditions they painted and finally whether and how they varnished and framed their works then this is the book for you!
This magnificent book is the first full-scale exploration of Impressionist technique. Focusing on the easel-painted work of Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Cezanne, Cassatt, Morisot, Caillebotte, Sisley, and Degas in the period before 1900, it places their methods and materials in a historical perspective and evaluates their origins, novelty, and meanings within the visual formation of urban modernity. Yale University Press
Interestingly Professor Callen also corrects some impressions that many people have about Impressionist painters. For example, plein air painting started long before the start of Impressionism, not all Impressionists painted 'plein air' and none of them used mass produced tube paints! (see note 2 at end)
Drawing on scientific studies of pigments and materials, artists' treatises, colormens' archives, and contemporary and modern accounts, Anthea Callen demonstrates how raw materials and paintings are profoundly interdependent. She analyzes the material constituents of oil painting and the complex processes of "making" entailed in all aspects of artistic production, discussing in particular oil painting methods for landscapists and the impact of "plein air "light" "on figure painting, studio practice, and display. Insisting that the meanings of paintings are constituted by and within the cultural matrices that produced them, Callen argues that the real "modernity" of the Impressionist enterprise lies in the painters' material practices. Bold brushwork, unpolished, sketchy surfaces, and bright, "primitive" colors were combined with their subject matter--the effects of light, the individual sensation made visible--to establish the modern as visual.
Yale University Press
You can browse the contents page here and here. It is packed with an incredible amount of well researched detail about context and practice in the past and as things changed during the course of the nineteenth century in France. It also has a fantastic glossary and very detailed bibliography and endnotes.

Bear in mind that I knew within about 30 seconds of picking it up that I was buying this book. This morning I sat down to have a skim read of it. I'd waited until I had enough time. As it was it took well over two hours just to dip into it. I'm not even going to attempt to tell you all the new things I learned as a result. It's the sort of book you read in stages and/or slowly - savouring every page. You then make sure you never ever loan it out, reread it again periodically and dip into it on a regular basis.

It also has the very best photography of Impressionist paintings and small sections of them that I have ever seen in a serious art book. For that alone both author and publishers are to be congratulated. You can compare the weave of one sort of canvas to another and look at many other details of paintings. What I particularly appreciated was the way in which you could really examine the nature and quality of the mark making - giving you the quality of information which I normally get by getting 'up close and personal' with a painting. I'm the sort who spends ages staring at a painting or drawing trying to work out what an artist painted it on, what colour the ground was and what colours they used - so you'll appreciate that this book represents everything I ever wanted to know. I also love the way she labels each painting with the standard format and size of the canvas used!

Plus it has many reproductions of paintings that I've never ever seen before in any other book (but that's probably me to some extent!). Examples of such included:
  • numerous examples of ├ębauches
ebauches - block-in or underpainting, the initial layers of an OIL PAINTING, executed in fluid, dilute paint (see SAUCE) which establishes the composition in masses of light and shade, or or colour (cf ETUDE AND ESQUISSE)
The Art of Impressionism - Glossary
  • Cezanne's the Garden at Les Lauves. If you click the link below you can see more Cezanne paintings of Provence and if you then click the link to this painting on that page you can read what Cezanne has to say about painting in 1905 when he was nearly 70 - a year earlier than the date of this painting!
The Garden at Les Lauves, c. 1906
Paul Cezanne
oil on canvas
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
  • Claud Monet's Oatfields is one of only two paintings by Monet which remains unvarnished, has changed hands only once since its original purchase and is in a private collection.
The difference perceptible to the naked eye between the unvarnished Oatfields and the varnished variants shown beside it, was staggering. It is not a difference which is apparent in reproduction....
Prof. Anthea Callen Chapter 12 Framing the Debate
I confess I found the academic turn of phrase a bit wearing at times. I'm not quite sure why academic language continues to avoid the use of plain English (unlike many other parts of the Establishment which have shifted towards a framework which emphasises accessibility) - but it does - and this book definitely qualifies as a university level text. Here's an excerpt.

The book is listed by the National Portrait Gallery as having been consulted in the preparation of the Directory of Artists Suppliers. I loved looking at all the facsimiles of original illustrations of various aspects of art supplies!

I'll comment again when I've actually finished reading this book properly - but I suspect I'll be referencing this book very many times on this blog before that happens!

(1) Anthea Callen is Professor of Visual Culture in the Department of Art History at the University of Nottingham's School of Humanities. Her publications also include "
The Spectacular Body Science, Method and Meaning in the Work of Degas ".
(2) On original publication of this piece, I misrepresented the artists' uptake of tube colour. I misread (with skim reading) what was stated about the manufacture of paint and confused the fact, as reported in the book, that the Impressionists avoided the uncertainties then associated with mass-produced paints with their uptake of tube paints. The text has now been corrected to make this clearer.



  1. Thanks for this post, Katherine. I am headed to Amazon to buy it now! I love Bernard Dunstan's Painting Methods of the Impressionists even with its lack of color reproductions, so I am sure I'll enjoy this.

  2. I've just discovered your fine blog and have subscribed. Do you have an interest in exchanging links?

  3. Deborah I think you may be the first in the queue!

    Lynda - please see my comments policy (right hand column)

  4. I was immediately snagged by the photo of the book cover: I am lucky to live in the Kansas City (USA) metropolitan area and that painting is owned by our Nelson-Atkins museum. It never fails to lift my spirits and amaze me....the only problem I've had since it was acquired (maybe 20-30 years ago) is that it's so popular that it's often out on loan! :-)

  5. Lucky you Jeanette!

    The painting is "Boulevard des Capucines" by Claude Monet painted in 1873. It measures 80.4inches x 60.3 inches and according to Prof. Callen was painted on a 'horiziontal landscape no 25' canvas). That's quite some painting to be trucking around!!!

    The front cover is an extract from the full picture which you can see here as part of the Nelson-Atkins Museum collection

    Interesting the book includes a complete full page colour plate of just a few of the people - and it's absolutely amazing how the marks - which look like dry brush smudges and daubs - resolve to being people from a distance.

    I wonder if the museum is selling the book in its shop?

  6. Hi Katherine,
    may we start a discussion about paint in tubes? I visited a Monet exhibit a couple of years ago and bought the catalog with scientific chapter on conservative problems/questions. Among other interesting informations there was a clearly documented statement by a contemporary that Monet had used paint in tubes which was available after 1850. Excluding the use of paint in tubes for all impressionist seems very questionable to me.

  7. I think you're right Martin and I'm wrong - I'll alter the text.

    I've confused the machine grinding with tubes. What the book states is that the Impressionist painters avoided the uncertainties associated with mass produced paints.

    Chapter Seven deals with the physical and technical factors involved in the colours used by the Impressionist painters.

    There's a section on Impressionist colours and colourmen (such as Pere Tanguy - who was painted by Van Gogh).

    Page 104-105 states that Monet bought his colours from Mulard and then from Moisse from the late 1870s. During the 1880s he also bought colours from Vielle-Troisgros where he also acquired most of his canvases and frames.

    There's also a discussion of paint containers. The replacement of pigs bladders by collapsible tin tubes was slow in France - maybe because they were more expensive. Lefranc was still listing colours in pigs bladders in 1855.

    It's unclear at what point individual colourmen supplying the Impressionists switched from pigs bladders to tubes.

    What the author does stress is her view that use of tube colours outside did not create Impressionism. In other words she feels the much cited quotation by Jean Renoir is overstating the case.

  8. Hi Katherine,
    thanks for the further informations. The Jean Renoir quote (father of Auguste Renoir), in the Stuttgart catalog taken from a London exhibition catalog 1990, seems to be the most repeated "witness". Sennelier also claim on their website that they sold to impressionists in tubes :).

  9. That's the one.

    Jean Renoir (the film-maker) is actually the son of Pierre-Auguste Renoir and is quoting his father - sorry if I misled (again!).

    Apparently he wrote a biography of his father - maybe that's where it comes from?

    I'm perfectly sure that the artists tried out the mass produced paints. Buying isn't the same as using. :)

    I can't believe that Prof Callen didn't check out the Sennelier records as the book has the most phenomenal amount of detail - including facsimiles of handwritten orders by Pierre-Auguste Renoir from the Durand-Ruel archives (did you know Durand started out as a stationer selling artists materials?).

    Renoir also bought his colours from Mulard and Moisse. Apparently Jean Renoir recalls his father referring to "my old friend Mullard(sic) the marchand des couleurs at the bottom of the Rue Pigalle."


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