Still Life History 6: Impressionists

Claude Monet (1840–1926), Bouquet of Sunflowers (1881), oil on canvas, 101 x 81 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

In my brief history of still life painting, I have now reached the core group of French Impressionists, and the height of their movement in France. As there was never an Impressionist manifesto, and none of them were particularly forthcoming about the theory or principles which underpinned Impressionism, we’re left to form our own interpretations.

Central to Impressionist art were landscape paintings made quickly in front of the motif, in every respect the antithesis of the classical still life from the Dutch Golden Age to the contemporary floral paintings of Henri Fantin-Latour. In this article, I show some paintings which demonstrate that core members of the French Impressionists did paint still lifes, and ask why they did.

Claude Monet (1840–1926), since the twentieth century viewed as the central artist in the movement, and by any account one of the most prolific landscape painters of his time, made several still lifes throughout his career.

Claude Monet (1840–1926), Pheasant (1869), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

His Pheasant from 1869 is a classical hunting subject, sketchily executed, which follows the still life tradition.

Claude Monet (1840–1926), Still Life with Melon (1872), oil on canvas, 53 x 72 cm, Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal. Wikimedia Commons.

He painted this Still Life with Melon rather more slowly in 1872, with attention to surface textures and their optical properties, a familiar feature of a great many still lifes.

Claude Monet (1840–1926), Still Life with Apples and Grapes (1880), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

Monet painted this Still Life with Apples and Grapes in 1880, during the height of Impressionism, in a style more typical of his landscape paintings. It’s rich in marks or taches, with coloured shadows. This is perhaps the model for the truly Impressionist still life.

Claude Monet (1840–1926), Bouquet of Sunflowers (1881), oil on canvas, 101 x 81 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Seven years before Vincent van Gogh painted his famous series of Sunflowers, Monet painted this Bouquet of Sunflowers (1881), another thoroughly Impressionist work.

Claude Monet (1840–1926), Still Life with Eggs (1907), media and dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The last still life by Monet that I’ve been able to find is this Still Life with Eggs from 1907, which parallels his late style well with its dissolution of form, although the motif had been popular in the past, and he includes a jug of water.

Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) was another dedicated and prolific landscape painter who seemed happy, at least until he developed his eye disorder late in his career, to paint outdoors throughout the year.

Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), Still Life (1867), oil on canvas, 81 x 99.7 cm, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH. Wikimedia Commons.

This Still Life from 1867 is one of his few paintings which survived destruction during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. It’s even more sketchy than Monet’s Pheasant, and a classical combination of surface optical properties which are very effective despite his coarse facture.

Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), Chrysanthemums in a Chinese Vase (1870/73), oil on canvas, 60 x 50.5 cm, National Gallery of Ireland Gailearaí Náisiúnta na hÉireann, Dublin, Ireland. Wikimedia Commons.

Pissarro’s Chrysanthemums in a Chinese Vase from 1870/73 could easily be mistaken for one of Fantin’s floral paintings from a few years later, were it not for the books beside the vase.

Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), Still Life: Apples and Pears in a Round Basket (1872), oil on canvas, 45.7 x 55.2 cm, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ. Wikimedia Commons.

Still Life: Apples and Pears in a Round Basket (1872) ingeniously adds floating flowers from the wallpaper in its background.

Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), Still Life with Apples and Pitcher (1872), oil on canvas, 46.4 x 56.5 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Still Life with Apples and Pitcher, from the same year, returns to contrasting optical properties. Pissarro seems to have painted far fewer still lifes after that, and I’ve been unable to find usable images of any from his Divisionist years or later.

Of all the French Impressionists, it was Alfred Sisley (1839–1899) who was perhaps the purest landscape painter, but even he painted the occasional still life.

Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), Heron with its Wings Spread (1867), oil on canvas, 80 x 100 cm, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France. Wikimedia Commons.

This Heron with its Wings Spread comes from 1867, early in his career, a time when his style was still realist and his brushwork tight.

Alfred Sisley (1839–1899), Grapes and Walnuts on a Table (1876), oil on canvas, 38 x 55.5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Painted nearly a decade later, his Grapes and Walnuts on a Table (1876) parallels the still lifes of Pissarro.

Primarily a figurative painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) painted the occasional still life through most of his career, largely adhering to a loose Impressionist style.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Chrysanthemums (1881-82), oil on canvas, 54.7 × 65.9 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Image by Rlbberlin, via Wikimedia Commons.

Chrysanthemums, painted in 1881-82, is of particular interest for his use of pigments. Although the new cadmium yellow was affordable at this time, Renoir still preferred real Naples yellow. His greens include both viridian and malachite, making this one of the last paintings by a major artist to use malachite green, which had largely been replaced by more modern synthetic pigments.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Strawberries (c 1905), oil on canvas, 28 x 46 cm, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Renoir’s Strawberries (c 1905) certainly look the part, and are presented as carefully as were the dishes of Clara Peeters three centuries earlier.

My last artist for today was, like Gustave Caillebotte, viewed as an amateur artist and primarily a patron of the French Impressionists, Henry Lerolle (1848–1929).

Henry Lerolle (1848–1929), Still Life (c 1890), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to painting large murals, Lerolle made some easel paintings, most of which appear to be Impressionist still lifes, such as this from about 1890.

All these Impressionists were based in northern France, and painted the country between Fontainebleau and the Channel coast in the north. Unlike the Roman Campagna, where plein air painting developed, the north of France presents a tough climate for outdoor painting for much of the year, with snow, sustained rainfall, and sometimes quite bitter cold. For a relatively impoverished professional painter, there’s no option to overwinter on the Mediterranean coast, and warm clothing may also have been in short supply.

Still life painting was also valuable in another role, in allowing the innovative artist to experiment. It’s notable that Monet seems to have used it as a platform for exploring the colour of shadows, something first seen in Chardin’s copper objects. Impressionism may have rejected some traditional values, such as the importance of the Salon and academic art, but it retained approaches which proved useful, including the painting of still lifes. Indeed, it raises the question of why still life painting didn’t flourish during the Northern Renaissance – which I may tackle in another series, perhaps.

In the next article, I’ll continue looking at Impressionist still lifes, with those painted by Paul Cézanne, and Vincent van Gogh’s.