This exercise calls for an annotation of either one of Whistler’s Nocturne series of paintings or an Impressionist landscape painting, together with the instruction “try and work from an original if at all possible”.
I have chosen to analyse Antoine Vollon’s Dieppe (1873). The original is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), so available for me to see. The extent to which the work meets the main criteria will be discussed as part of the analysis.
This quite small work shows a view across a harbour to the town beyond. Strong horizontal lines are formed by the receding lines of silhouetted buildings and the brushstrokes of calm water. A dark area of docks is dimly indicated to the left. A few small but firm verticals are created by architecture and dimly seen masts. Other masts suggest diagonals and create movement. Virtually half the canvas is sky.
The colours are subdued, almost monochromatic – white, blue-greys in a wide range of values – enlivened and enriched by some sparks of yellow mainly towards the left. In my photograph above and the one on the AGNSW website there appears to be a distinct violet in a band across the centre of the picture. This is not visible in person, where these sections generally appear a soft white blended over layers of paint.
Paint has been applied in a varied, and I suggest inventive, way using brush and palette knife. Broad horizontal strokes have been used to form docks, the rows of buildings and water. Detail has been scratched into the paint using the handle of the brush. My camera had trouble catching it, but the effect in the water is very energetic, evocative without being highly detailed.
This central detail of the work shows some of the variety of technique in use. The pinnacles of the church are lightly and precisely brushed in, while the shape of the dome is indicated by rough scraping through the paint layers. More broad brushwork indicates the mass of the architecture, while the dock area is a smear of smooth darkness. The sky is an almost undifferentiated luminous glow of chalky white and desaturated blue. Reflected off the water the light becomes a harder glare. A steam boat puffs clouds of white smoke into the air, while the lower town is obscured behind a soft haze of smoke.
Seeing this work in the gallery it seemed to me appropriate for this exercise. It is the right period and the right location for an Impressionist work. It has a sense of immediacy, sketchy, vigorous. There isn’t the spectacular optical colour experimentation of impressionist works, but there appears to be a correspondence with some of the almost monochromatic works among Whistler’s Nocturne series, especially given those lifts of almost complementary yellow.
Honour and Fleming (2009) include some characteristics of Impressionist paintings:
- “Rough handling and broken colour patches … as if … casual sketches” (p. 702). The AGNSW picture includes rough handling, not the polished finish of an Academy painting. Colour, or tones, are in blocks or patches rather than detailed blending.
- “Strictly objective, dispassionate spirit of on-the-spot observation” and “contemporaneity of subject and optical truth” (p. 702). Vollon’s work appears to present a particular moment – perhaps late afternoon with light cloud cover. A bustling port with sail and steam boats is contemporary. There is a sense of a momentary glimpse, the truth of what would be seen at a glance rather than a careful inventory of items. However Carol Forman Tabler, a leading authority on Vollon, has suggested “site-specific objectivity has been made obsolescent by the dynamic, painterly means of expression” (1995, p. 58).
- “Capture their immediate, momentary impressions with the greatest possible fidelity” (p. 703). There seems to be an additional level of accustomed knowledge in Vollon’s work. Those incised curls of water at the bow of the boat are more a symbol than an observation of the waves. On the other hand Tabler writes “Vollon perhaps most closely approximates Impressionism in the way he captures … the fleeting optical sensation as opposed to the permanent absolute reality” (Tabler, 1995, p. 86).
- “Positivist, scientific attitude” (p. 703). I can’t detect these qualities in the subject work.
- High toned palette, clear bright colours, varied, broken brushstrokes (all p. 703). The palette is quite different – as mentioned above more aligned to the Nocturnes. Paint has been applied in a range of techniques, but while the experimentation is pushing beyond Realism it is not following the Impressionist focus on optical effects.
- “Eliminate the foreground”, “nothing is clear and solid”, “light and atmosphere the subject”, no sense of deep space (p. 704). Vollon’s work does not have a foreground, but there is a sense of space even if it ends in the middle distance. Although not modeled to create volume and no clear outlines, objects have been drawn – albeit with a scratching handle.
- Whistler’s work is described as having an empty expanse of water, high skyline, undefined space, a translation of Japanese art (p. 713). None of these are reflected in Vollon’s work.
Honour and Fleming describe Impressionism as “the final stage of Realism” (2009, p. 703), and I suggest that Vollon’s work also builds from and beyond Realism – but by a different path.
Vollon was an established painter of realist still-life when a more adventurous landscape was among the works rejected by the Salon jurors in 1863. His work was shown in the Salon des Refusés, but he did not turn his back on academic painting. Vollon continued to be successful with his Realist still-lifes, and in 1870 he took a seat on the Jury. He also continued his explorations with landscapes – but did not exhibit them. In fact Tabler has suggested “the privacy with which he safeguarded his landscapes can also be viewed as a conscious aesthetic determination on his part in order to protect his freedom to experiment” (Tabler, 1995, p. 4).
Vollon had multiple links to the Impressionists. The subject work was dedicated to his friend Antoine Guillemet, who was himself closely associated with members of the Impressionist circle (he is included in Manet’s The Balcony). Inscribing the picture in this way suggests that Vollon both regarded it as a finished work, and knew the audience who would appreciate it. Vollon’s seat on the jury came about partly due to the resignation of Daubigny, protesting Monet’s rejection. Daubigny acted as a mentor to both Monet and Vollon.
Tabler argues “the case of Vollon … unsettles the mythology of an ‘old’ art history, which pits the heroic avant-garde against an intransigent old guard” (Tabler, 1995, p. 82). Part of this current exercise was to consider the criteria that can be used in evaluating a less representational landscape. Through my research on Vollon’s painting I have considered those criteria – and although in the event the work is not Impressionist, I have found the process very instructive. It’s also a good reminder that any neat sense of progress and inevitability in art history is illusory, and many of the labels we use are approximations and hindsight.
Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.
Tabler, C. (1995) The landscape paintings of Antoine Vollon (1833-1900) [manuscript] : a catalogue and an analysis
UA1-WA:P5-p2-Exercise: Analyse an Impressionist landscape
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 5: Inside, outside
Project two: Landscape
Exercise: Analyse an Impressionist landscape