Background On French Art

The Spectacle of Reality

As 19th century French society increasingly became enthralled with observing “real spectacle,” Impressionism spawned as a recreation of reality. In France’s Second Empire under Napoleon III, Parisian streets were recreated to facilitate movement and order. Baron Haussmann ingeniously changed the appearance of Paris by reconstructing streets into grand boulevards. These were extremely large streets, strategically placed to run through the city’s center. Everything concentrated on the boulevards became grand as well, as large department stores and luxury boutiques lined the streets. It was uniformed decadence at its best, and Parisians were enthralled with the spectacle it created. The boulevards and shops “offered a certain theatricality through their visuality” (Schwartz 21). The aesthetic appeal of Parisian streets spawned a culture of spectatorship. This culture invited individuals to become flâneurs, to take up the casual occupation of looking. This idea of visualization manifested into the artistic sphere, as a few select artists began painting what they saw, for “impressionism was the apogee of realism” (Stephens 279). Artists took the fascination of real life, and reapplied this to canvases. They would set equipment up in a field, on a street, or in front of a lake, and painted what they observed.  It was the beginning of what would be considered modern art.

Before Impressionism, the primary function of art in France was to glorify French history and the state. Paintings dealt mainly with historical, mythical, or biblical themes. The dominating the scene were “classical and Christian subjects” that took the top of “prestige hierarchy; everyday themes were eschewed” (Adut 235). However, instead of past artistic forms that expressed “perceived exaggerations of the human condition”, Impressionism looked at true human experience (Stephens 279). During the Renaissance, but not strictly limited to this period, themes like suffering and death was typically shown through allusions, possibly with the use of demons or gods/goddesses. In addition, the subjects were very exaggerated and emotional, surrounded by dark and bleak motifs. Impressionism rarely utilized these themes, but it looked towards reality, creating pictures full of light and life instead. This concept was achieved by transplanting the flâneur off the urban streets and into the painting itself. Impressionism was distinct in the sense that “paintings were staged from the physical and psychological standpoint of a particular social type…” which created an “experience of modernity vivid by inviting the spectator to enter the painting imaginatively by adopting the standpoint of this type” (Smith n.pag.). Impressionistic paintings pulled the viewer in as a third party subject. Instead of just being the audience, who saw a recreation of an event, the viewers became the witnesses, who saw an event as if it was occurring in the present.  Even though the social phenomenon of the flâneur was widely accepted, its transition into art was a more strenuous effort. Society’s mechanisms of class and perceived social notions resisted this change and provided “a most propitious setting for public provocation” (Adut 225). Social class was structured rigidly, each with own specific morals and values. The Bourgeoisies prided themselves in adhering to traditional ideals like domesticity, fidelity, and righteousness while they believed that the lower classes were ill-natured vagrants. . Society remained subscribed to these strict standards, even though the world was continuously changing. This resistance inadvertently empowered the forces that turned Manet’s Olympia into a scandal.

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