Impressionism, in Western art
Impressionism, in Western art, is marked by the stylistic break that artists of the late 19th century utilized in their depictions of popular Western icons. For centuries, European artists were prided upon faithful representation and logical, linear perspective. However, as European imperialism spread, so did communication between the West and the East. This granted artists the ability to either travel to distant lands, or see the arts and artifacts of far away regions brought to their own homeland.
Furthermore, with the advent of the mechanical camera, artists began to set their sites on more emotive representational themes to distinguish themselves from the clinical, analytical look of photographs. Coupled, the influences of new forms of representation as well as a desire to depict more modern, humanistic means of representation are some of the catalysts that spurned European Impressionist movement. Through the works of two essential Impressionist artists, one can see how elements of Western panting tradition have merged with the stylistic forms of other, non-western sources.
In Paul Gauguin’s 1891 painting Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary) and in Edgar Degas’ 1886 pastel, Le tub (The Tub), the artists reestablish the female form, as well as the sense of artistic narrative. While these two works were painted in drastically different points of the globe, and are rendered in seemingly opposite style, the two share a common bond. Both Gauguin and Degas, through these works of art, confrontationally depict women to the view in a manner that is provoking and alluring.
This attribute, coupled with the elements of Asian staging and form that are found in both works, unites the two paintings together as works of similarly minded and themed Impressionist masterpieces. Paul Gauguin is notorious for his travels from France to the seemingly ends of the earth, Tahiti, in order to live the life of recluse, simplicity, and primitiveness. Gauguin joined his friend, Vincent Van Gogh, in Arles to establish the Studio of the South briefly in 1888. However, even life removed from the bustle of Paris was not enough for Gauguin, and he soon fled to the truly remote regions he had traveled before, namely French Polynesia.
As a student of “medieval art (sculpture, tapestries, and stained glass), Primitive woodcuts, and certain types of exotic art which he had seen at the World’s Fair of 1889,” Gauguin was quick to integrate these elements into his paintings even while residing in Europe (Reed 25). However, after his self imposed exile, and living exclusively amongst the natives of Tahiti, he was truly surrounded by the arts and culture that he was so found of studying. In primitive art, Gauguin found the salve for his contempt for the direction and priorities chiefly held in European art circles.
The works Gauguin completed in Tahiti demonstrate a strong integration of styles found in woodcuts, Japanese prints, as well as lavish, exotic colors and iconography. Gauguin painted bluntly with few shaded areas, instead neglecting depth and perspective for rounded features and intense color. His works are not concretely representational, but rather emotive of folklore-ish Tahitian culture mixed with popular Western theology held by his audience and the missionaries that were common in European colonies.
Hail Mary is a perfect depiction of how Gauguin married his Western heritage and training with his interest in primitive and non-Western arts. Completed in 1891, Hail Mary is one of Gauguin’s works in Tahiti that demonstrates explicit Christian themes, including an angel, Mary and Jesus. The characters, however, are not rendered as traditional or immediately identifiable Europeans. Instead, the figures are dark-skinned and mythical looking, standing in a pastoral scene that is both serene and unlike anything found in Europe.
Mary and the other figures are all dressed in traditional Tahitian garb, elaborately decorative wraps that provide Gauguin opportunity to manipulate floral print surfaces and mirror them in the background that the painting’s edge. Gauguin described Hail Mary in an 1892 letter as a scene where “An angel with yellow wings reveals Mary and Jesus, both Tahitians, to two Tahitian women, nudes dressed in [traditional Polynesian garments]” (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Consequently, Gauguin directly confronts his audience, not only with Mary gazing directly at the viewer, but also with the conflated race of his character. Stylistically, Gauguin also borrows from his Tahitian surroundings and other attributes of Asian art. In Hail Mary, he uses sumptuous examples of bright, vibrant colors in his depictions of the spiritual, clothing, and the fervent island landscape. Exotic fruits are boldly and flatly rendered in the foreground, with unusually striking plants and dreamlike skyline rounding out the paintings mystifying and folklore like nature.
As a comment on religiosity in art, Gauguin’s Hail Mary symbolizes a movement towards integrating the Western icons with non-West forms, symbols, and flat, rounded, and simplified, painting. Gauguin’s depiction of Western Art’s most recognizable icons in a setting that is succinctly out of place, at least in the mindset of contemporaneous audiences. Completed and first shown at the eighth Impressionist exhibition in 1886, Degas’ The Tub bears many striking similarities to Gauguin’s Hail Mary, mostly in terms of form and style (Musee D’Orsay).
While Hail Mary clearly depicts the staples of Western theology, Mary and Jesus, in a distant, removed clearly non-west setting, The Tub features a singular woman crouching in a basin tub, presumably in the process of bathing. In the case of Degas’ pastel work, the subject is unaware of the spectator or that it is being watched. The figure anonymous in her nudity, with only subtle hints to identify her as a woman of moderate luxury. At the time The Tub was completed, Degas was already an accomplished Parisian painter, drawer, and sculpture.
He was infamous for his depictions of Parisian nightlife, namely the ballet. Dancers and ballerinas had become staples of Degas’ paintings, but he would continue to explore intimate female moments in his later works. Instead of catching fleeting glimpses of performers back stage, The Tub depicts a woman who is not performing at all. Rather, she is in the midst of completing a standard, mundane task. However, this moment is naturally controversial by the woman’s nudity on display.
Stylistically, the woman is rendered softly, and in a crouching, natural shape. Her nudity is not on display for the viewer, rather it is stumbled across. This leaves open interpretation as to the viewers’ relationship for the woman and why exactly she is depicted as such. Subversively, one could argue that the spectator is spying on the woman, while others may say that the scene reveals a private, ordinarily sensual moment, which is innocent and purely beautiful, rather then sexual.
The pose the woman is depicted shows elements of the Crouching Aphrodite of antiquity, firmly grounding it in Western art traditions, while also showing a “distorted Japanese-style perspective [and] plunging view” (Musee d’Orsay). The style Degas uses in painting his tableaux centers on a heavy use of Japanese like imagery. The arrangement of the figure, crouched in the center of the painting, softly molded in chiaroscuro, but harshly outlined with sharp black, is reminiscent of Japanese prints, which require delicate staging and sharp, distinguishing outlines (Berger 63).
Other elements common to Japanese prints, which were commonly found in Paris at the time Degas’ completed the work, include the restroom or dressing room setting and the steep angles of the countertop and the rounded, circular form of the tub, in contrast with bather. Both she and the organically draped white cloth behind her, serves as counterbalance to the hard lines of the work and the severe perspective. The figure within the tub appears in a very natural, un-staged position, as opposed to the portrait-like representation of Hail Mary.
However, this appears to be a candid moment for the woman, which the viewer has stumbled upon. Because of her anonymity and her nudity, rather than nakedness, she becomes the emblem for female beauty, which, in the case of Western painting, has primarily been reserved for obvious depictures of Mary. Even Gauguin’s Hail Mary has the noticeable signs associated with Mary, namely the infant son and a golden halo ringing above her head. Rather, Degas’ depiction of the woman is serene, non-confrontational, and softly rendered within the bold outlined.
The figure’s body is on display, but is molded with supple chiaroscuro, portraying the woman as if accidentally and serendipitously caught in this moment. The feeling of voyeurism is heightened by the odd point of view that Degas approaches the scene. Unlike Gauguin’s painting, which was odd in its mysterious local and conflated race/character depictions, Degas’ ordinary looking milieu is viewed from a severe downward angle towards the figure and the blunt table, which awkwardly crosses the scene.
This disjointed perspective gives a sense of urgency or anxiety to the piece, suggesting that the scene, or the audiences’ enjoyment of it, is not as innocent as it may appear. While these two works by Gauguin and Degas may appear alien in subject matter, provenance, and form, they do share similarities that are iconic for the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. As a result, one can see how two French artists like Degas and Gauguin could travel their varying routes towards two works of art that reveal both the artists vast differences, as well as their unique similarities of place and original setting.
In the examples, Hail Mary and The Tub, one can see how these artists both approached the concerns of Western Impressionists in a contradictory manner. Gauguin wished to expose himself fully to the “primitive” world of French Polynesia, as it was the extreme opposite of what was found in Europe at the time. He held notions of a utopic world where paint and form were liberated by the simplicity and humanity found in the quaint islands unmarred by extensive European interaction.
To Gauguin, Europe is the problem that he tries to solve through his works, either in transcribing traditional and historically important European texts (the Bible) into an arena that is exceedingly alien to Europe, in color, landscape, and morality. Degas’ Tub, on the other hand, is a much more grounded in European, urban, culture that it depicts. Instead of ostentatiously elevating his subject to the status of theological saint, Degas’ woman is an ordinary, every-woman, caught in a moment in which she is unaware of her objectification.
While Gauguin’s Mary confronts the viewer, Degas’ anonymous woman remains a spectacle in her conciliation. She is not an affront to viewer, but rather welcomes them to peer into the setting through both her soft rendering and her figure, turned away from the audience. While Manet and others a generation before them had liberated perspective from actual linear representation and the camera had eliminated the need for faithful renderings of scenes or people, the next generation of avant-garde painters were confronted with the same set of issues.
They had to deal with a radically changing West, a Paris that was thoroughly restructured from the ground up in the mid 1860s, and growing tension abroad as European countries scrambled to imperialize whatever it could stake. The influence of foreign culture into Europe (and vice versa) opened artists to new methods of representation and stylistic rendering that may have previously been unattainable. Works Cited: Berger, Klaus. Translated by Britt, David. Japonisme in Western Painting from Whistler to Matisse. Cambridge University Press. 1992
“Musee d’Orsay: Edgar Degas The Tub. ” Musee d’Orsay. 10 May 2009. <http://www. Musee-orsay. fr/en/collections/works-in-focus/graphic-arts/commentaire_id/the-tub-7141. html? tx_commentaire_pi1[pidLi]=848&tx_commentaire_pi1[from]=845&cHash=50a8d97311> “Paul Gauguin: Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary) (51. 112. 2). ” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 10 May 2009. <http://www. metmuseum. org/toah/hd/poim/ho_51. 112. 2. htm> Read, Herbert. A Concise History of Modern Painting. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. , 1957.Sample Essay of EduBirdie.com