The Important Artists and Works of Avant-Garde Art
This painting, depicting the artist seated with brush and palette in hand as he contemplates the landscape he has been painting, is intended as a metaphor for the life of the artist. Courbet subtitled the work: "a real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life." The artist is framed by a nude model, representing a muse and a small boy symbolizing innocence, while the room is filled with various recognizable figures. Charles Baudelaire, the noted poet and critic, is seated on a desk reading in the far right, among the cultural elite, while on the left are various figures from all aspects of society. The artist said he intended to represent "society at its best, its worst, and its average." As he further explained, "it's the whole world coming to me to be painted. On the right, all the shareholders, by that I mean friends, fellow workers, art lovers. On the left is the other world of everyday life, the masses, wretchedness, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, people who make a living from death."
A pioneer of Realism, Courbet was to define the movement by saying, "Realism is democracy in art." As the art critic Linda Nochlin puts it, "he saw his destiny as a continual vanguard action against the forces of academicism in art and conservatism in society." After the 1855 Paris World Fair's jury refused to exhibit this work, Courbet opened The Pavilion of Realism, his own exhibition, where he also presented The Burial at Ornans, which had also been rejected. Aided by his patron, Alfred Bruyas - also portrayed in The Painter's Studio - Courbet's exhibition represented an act of defiance to the official venues. It also prefigured the later development of the Salon des Refusés and all of subsequent 20th century exhibitions created by avant-garde movements in defiance of traditional venues.
Nochlin notes the importance of this work to the avant-garde: "it is not until seven years after the 1848 Revolution that the advanced social ideals of the mid-nineteenth century are given expression in appropriately advanced pictorial and iconographic form, in Courbet's The Painter's Studio. ...Courbet's painting is 'avant-garde' if we understand the expression, in terms of its etymological derivation, as implying a union of the socially and the artistically progressive." In summary, Nochlin describes The Painter's Studio as "a crucial statement of the most progressive political views in the most advanced formal and iconographic terms available in the middle of the nineteenth century."
Édouard Manet's shocking landscape work, showing two fully clothed men taking lunch on the grass with a nude woman, famously caused a scandal when it was displayed in the 1863 Salon des Refusés, an exhibition for works rejected by the official Paris Salon. Although Manet never fully aligned himself with the avant-garde imperatives of the Impressionist painters, a younger group of artists who saw him as something of a mentor, with works such as Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, he certainly broke down many of the doors that later avant-garde artists would stream through in their quest for the new.
This painting was avant-garde in two senses, rejecting both the stylistic tenets of the era and its bourgeois social and moral norms. In the first case, the large size of the canvas was at odds with its apparently mundane, modern subject-matter, the image presented on a scale normally reserved for historical and mythological scenes. The tonal qualities of the piece were also peculiar: brash and artificial-seeming, the harsh light and shadow jarring with the apparent outdoor setting (Manet famously never shared the Impressionists' enthusiasm for painting en plein air) and drawing the eye to the massed white flesh of its central subject. And much of the background brushwork seemed informal, almost half-finished, as if the composition were drawing attention to itself as such: a mere conceit or fiction, discarded on a whim before completion.
But it was the subject-matter of the work that was truly shocking. Nude women were an acceptable component of academic art provided they were presented in the context of a historical scene, such that the nudity was somehow at a moral and intellectual distance. Manet's scene presented a nude body without any of the veneer of historical narrative, which made it more real and shocking to its audiences. With this gesture, he paved the way for the increasingly unabashed focus on (female) nudity and moral transgression that defined the avant-garde endeavors of coming decades.
Claude Monet and the Impressionists formed the first avant-garde movement to achieve international success and fame. In this work, from which the term "Impressionism" was indirectly derived, Monet captures a sunrise in the port city of Le Havre, the family home to which he had returned for a holiday. The elemental blue and orange color palette, combined with the quick, spontaneous brushwork, is designed to convey the visual impression made by the scene at a particular moment in time, rather than picking it out in all its detail. This revolutionary approach was not, in Monet's case, accompanied by radical social views, but it forced him into a position of oppositionality to mainstream culture and the art-world that was quintessentially "avant-garde."
Monet had met a number of other young painters in the studio of the painter Charles Gleyre in 1862, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, and Alfred Sisley. These artists, joined by others such as Berthe Morisot and Camille Pissarro, formed the backbone of the Impressionist movement, which practiced its ideas for many years - under the informal tutelage of the older painter Édouard Manet - before finding commercial success. After their continual rejection by the Paris Salon, Monet and his fellow Impressionists formed their own society to fund and exhibit their work. Impression, Sunrise was amongst those displayed in its first exhibition in 1874, where it attracted the ire of many critics, including Louis Leroy, whose ironic play on the term "Impression" in its title formed the origin of the movement's name.
Though the method of depicting the natural world that Monet and his compatriots developed is now very familiar to us, at the time it was revolutionary to relay the details of a scene in such a quick and intuitive way, as it was to paint on-site, or en plein air, as Monet did in order to create Impression Sunrise. The formal advances of Impressionism, and its necessary opposition to received social and cultural norms, set the terms for the development of avant-garde art over the coming century and a half.