Progression of Art

James Abbott McNeill Whistler: Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (c. 1875)
c. 1875

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket

Artist: James Abbott McNeill Whistler

In this sparkling and sultry scene, Whistler depicts revelers in the Cremorne Gardens, a park by the banks of the River Thames in south London. Through a haze of black, gold, and green pigment, Whistler evokes the misty spectacle of a fireworks display. In the foreground, figures are picked out almost as specters or shadows, their thin silhouettes allowing the background wash - created with highly liquid paint - to show through. A fireworks display is recorded through expressionistic dashes of gold, set against a darker area to the left representing the engulfing murk of the night sky.

Many of Whistler's concerns in this painting reflect fundamental aspects of Impressionism, even as he sought to preserve his individuality as an artist, most obviously the decision to depict a single moment in time, emphasized by freezing the exploding rocket in mid-air. His painterly brushwork, leaving traces and flourishes on the canvas, not attempting to hide the artist's role in creating the artwork, also aligns with key feature of Impressionism. At the same time, the blurry, smoky effect of the painting was a realistic one, a response to the highly polluted state of London skies during the 1870s. In his famous "Ten O Clock Lecture" on art, delivered in February 1885, Whistler rhapsodized on that time of evening "when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil - and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky - and the tall chimneys become campanile - and the warehouses are palaces in the night - and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and faireyland [sic.] is before us ."

It is worth emphasizing not only the significance of Whistler's artwork to the development of Impressionism as a whole - his biographer Daniel Sutherland states that "nothing in the first Impressionist exhibition [held in Paris in 1874] could touch it " - but in particular its impact on Whistler's British contemporaries and followers. Artists such as Walter Sickert would combine the bleak tonal brilliance and hazy ambience of the Nocturne series with individual features and emphases of their own, in Sickert's case a focus on social spectacle learned from Edgar Degas, to produce uniquely British or London-centric Impressionist genre pieces.

Oil on canvas - Detroit Institute of Arts

James Abbott McNeill Whistler: Mother of Pearl and Silver: The Andalusian (c.1888-1900)
c.1888-1900

Mother of Pearl and Silver: The Andalusian

Artist: James Abbott McNeill Whistler

In this glamorous portrait of a belle époque beauty, Whistler shows how his Impressionist style translated into portraiture. The model's informal posture - as if she were responding to a voice off-frame - reflects that concern with capturing the evanescent moment that was typical of Impressionism. The artist's emphasis on the long, curvaceous sweep of back and dress, meanwhile, and the sense that we are invited to gaze almost secretively or furtively on the model because of her orientation away from us, brings to the painting something of the subtle sexual charge of Édouard Manet's likenesses of Berthe Morisot.

The subject for the painting was Whistler's sister-in-law Ethel Whibley, his secretary and confidante, of whom he produced many portraits, often with same stylish and seductive qualities as The Andalusian. However, the painter was also an afficionado of women's fashion, and critic Richard Dorment has argued that this work "is not a portrait of a person, but of a dress ." That dress, according to Dorman, has more to do with Parisian high fashion of the late nineteenth century - a period of relative peace and prosperity when culture flourished in France, known as the belle époque - than with the costume of Andalusia (the southern region of Spain.) That said, Whistler revered the 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, and it is likely that the muted color palette and understated brushwork reflect the old master's influence, as well as a wider interest at this time in Hispanic folk culture and style.

In its unabashed focus on fashion and style, this work indicates the connection Whistler established between Impressionism and the Art for Art's Sake philosophy and beauty worship of the late nineteenth century, including in Britain, where the Decadent and Aesthetic movements were in full swing by the time this piece was completed. Artists and writers such as Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley would have appreciated the aims and ambience of Whistler's portrait, which eschews all moral, social, and didactic content in its pursuit of female elegance.

Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Walter Sickert: Katie Lawrence at Gatti's (c. 1903)
c. 1903

Katie Lawrence at Gatti's

Artist: Walter Sickert

In the early 1880s Walter Sickert, still in his early twenties, became a devoted follower of Whistler, entranced by the older artist's sultry color palettes. The young painter became Whistler's etching assistant, and worked on a series of tonal studies heavily indebted to him. Then, in 1883, he was introduced to the French Impressionist Edgar Degas, whose snapshot-like scenes of city life, such as Place de la Concorde (1875), would profoundly affect Sickert's career. He was also enthused by Degas's depiction of the hedonistic, seamy social life of the French capital, and for the remainder of his life would bring a similarly roving eye to the dancehalls and brothels of London.

It is possible to see works such as Katie Lawrence at Gatti's as combining a Whistlerian tonal range with the documentarist's eye and infatuation with night life personified by Degas. Critic Kenneth McConkey notes that when Sickert returned to London from a trip to Paris in 1885, "it was to give glowing accounts of the 'ballet girls' of an artist referred to by [his friend] Mortimer Menpes as 'Digars'"." Sickert acquired a Degas painting, and became "attracted to the café-concert, the low-life theatre which was arousing the interest of literati ." In this mood, he began to visit the performances of singer Katie Lawrence at Gatti's Hungerford Palace of Varieties, a music hall opened by the Swiss impresario Carlo Gatti in 1857. According to Sickert critic Wendy Baron, the painter produced 166 studies of Lawrence onstage between 1885 and 1888, which became the basis for a large number of paintings. The above work is the only one which survives; though completed several years later, it reflects the spirit of the earlier period in which the series was devised.

Baron notes that Katie Lawrence at Gatti's, based on "hundreds of tiny studies of the stage architecture the performers and the audience", was a matter of "extracting an effective composition from the mass of information gathered ." In this sense, the apparent informality of the piece is an illusion. Sickert followed Degas's atypically Impressionist advice that the artist should work in the studio to create a likeness of a scene at a particular moment more real than that moment itself. The result is an exemplary work of British Impressionism, capturing the spirit of the age in the artist's home city just as the French Impressionists had for Paris at the end of the nineteenth century.

Oil on canvas mounted on hardboard - Art Gallery of New South Wales

Philip Wilson Steer: Knucklebones (1888)
1888

Knucklebones

Artist: Philip Wilson Steer

This is one of a number of paintings that Philip Wilson Steer created during the 1880s depicting scenes on the beaches of Walberswick, a Suffolk sea-side resort in south-east England. In the foreground a mother or maid reclines while a group of children behind her play a throwing game called knucklebones. According to Kenneth McConkey, "the different treatments given to figures, shingle, and sea could each be related to different mentors whom Steer did not feel compelled to reconcile ." In particular, McConkey notes the use of "modified divisionism for the shingle, Monet's 'comma' brushstrokes for the sea and a Degas-esque grouping of figures ." The most striking of these features is the first, with Steer dotting complementary colors across the canvas suggest the visual texture of the shingle at a particular time of day, perhaps late afternoon, when warm sunlight is just beginning to modulate into shadow, bringing out deeper, bluish hues in the stones and sand.

The technique of divisionism was associated with a movement known variously as Pointillism and Neo-Impressionism. The method involved dabbing harmoniously contrasting colors adjacent to each other on the canvas, which, when "blended" in the eye of the viewer, would produce the desired tonal combination, but in a more intense and vivid way than if the color had been mixed on the canvas. The extraordinary effects of this technique can be seen in works such as Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86), which, when displayed at the final Impressionist exhibition of 1886, seemed to herald a decisive shift. It is likely that Steer encountered Seurat's work through his friend Lucien Pissarro and brought it to be bear in a melding of styles typical of his adventurous and magpie-like borrowings of the 1880s-90s.

Paintings such as Knucklebones are significant in depicting English rural landscapes using the same cutting-edge methods as Steer's French contemporaries. Indeed, if Sickert was an artist of the city, Steer became known as a painter of the country and especially the coastline. For McConkey, the picture, which was included in the first London Impressionists exhibition of 1889, "set a kind of standard for all the various beach scenes by Steer and others produced in the 1890s ." Steer's delicate marine scenes were iconic enough by the 1920s that the character of Paunceforte in Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse (1927), a painter who can be found on the beach "imbuing the tip of his brush in some soft mound of green or pink," was recognized as a loose caricature of the artist.

Oil on canvas - Ipswich Museum

Paul Maitland: Kensington Gardens (c. 1890)
c. 1890

Kensington Gardens

Artist: Paul Maitland

Paul Maitland's idyllic park scenes captured the sunnier aspects of the London Impressionists' vision around the start of the 1890s. As a disabled artist, Maitland was unable to travel extensively, and thus remained wedded to the parkland environments immediately around his home in Chelsea, including Kensington Gardens, the Chelsea Embankment, and the riverside at Battersea. He worked at different times of day and year in the style of Monet to capture different effects of light, shade, and color. In this exemplary work from 1890, a game or sport perhaps proceeds lazily in the background, lit by sunlight which does not penetrate to the viewing position, the foreground shielded by an arrangement of trees whose trunks approach the form of silhouettes, as if they were partially barring the glow beyond.

Maitland was part of the London Impressionist group that came together in 1889, and like the other members of that group was a devotee of Whistler, though he also took much from the work of the French-born painter Theodore Roussel, his tutor for a time. Other members of that group included Francis Bate, Francis James, Bernard Sickert, Frederick Brown, and George Thomson, all of whom created significant work. Maitland's paintings were particularly effective in rendering the "magic and the poetry" of London life, as Sickert had called the artist to do in his introduction to the London Impressionists exhibition . Kenneth McConkey notes that Maitland's "scenes in Kensington Gardens with their tall trees and frail distant figures provide the basis of a vision of the capital which slowly emerged in the twenty years after the London Impressionists' exhibition and gave belated approval to Sickert's speculations ."

Maitland's disability and reclusive nature meant that he never acquired the fame or acclaim of contemporaries such as Steer and Sickert. He died in 1909 in his forties. Nonetheless, through the dreamlike calm of his city scenes, and by his association with societies such as the New English Art Club and the London Impressionists, Maitland made a notable but undervalued contribution to the development of British Impressionism - as did many of his peers.

Oil on canvas - Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

John Singer Sargent: Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-86)
1885-86

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

Artist: John Singer Sargent

As a North American-born painter like Whistler, John Singer Sargent lived his life as an expatriate, spending much of his career in Paris and London. By the time he created his most famous Impressionist-influenced work, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, he was already famed as a portraitist in a glossy variant of Realism, influenced by the grandeur of Neoclassical and Academic painting. However, he had had an affinity with Impressionism since his training in Paris in the early-1870s, and during the mid-to-late 1880s Sargent entered a phase of notably Impressionist-influenced composition, perhaps prompted by the deepening of his friendship with Claude Monet, with whom he spent a period in 1885 painting at Giverny, near Paris.

In this work, named after the refrain of a popular song, two small children - the daughters of Sargent's illustrator friend Frederick Barnard - light paper lanterns in a garden strewn with flowers as the last light of evening fades in the sky. Following Impressionist methods, Sargent created the picture en plein air, and to capture the exact tonal effect he found in the early night sky he would paint for just a few minutes each evening. The strands of brushwork depicting the grass at the base suggest the impact of Sargent's summer painting sessions with Monet, but in its stark light/dark color contrasts and flattened perspective - with the lily patterns at the top of the frame almost suggesting an abstract pattern - the work implies the influence of Manet.

As a supremely talented artist in a relatively orthodox style, and because of his cosmopolitan affinities and travels, Sargent is difficult to place at the center of the story of British Impressionism. Roger Fry, writing after Sargent's death, dismissed this work, which he had admitted had "seemed a revelation of what colour could be and what painting might attempt, as "the first feeble echo which came across the channel of what Manet and his friends had been doing with a far different intensity for ten or more years ." However, with Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose Sargent synthesized the developments of Impressionism from the position of a virtuosic outsider, presenting them to the British public for the first time. In this sense it was enormously influential. McConkey describes the painting, which was shown at the Royal Academy in 1887, as "essentially the first piece of public impressionism to be produced in Britain...for several years after its exhibition in 1887 it remained the salient example of the new manner ."

Oil on canvas - Tate Britain

James Guthrie: A Hind's Daughter (1883)
1883

A Hind's Daughter

Artist: James Guthrie

In this extraordinarily vivid work, one of the most important Scottish paintings of the nineteenth century, a young female farm worker holds the viewer's gaze with earnest, fragile assurance as she glances up from her work cutting cabbages. The blocklike brushwork of the background employs the characteristic ochre, autumnal tones that Guthrie and his compatriots favored while working at their artist's colony in Cockburnspath, where they had moved in the year of this painting's creation.

James Guthrie was one of a group of progressive-minded young artists who revolutionized Scottish painting during the 1880s-90s through their engagement with developments abroad and insistence on plein air representation of working Scottish life. The Glasgow Boys, as the group became known, were influenced by the Impressionism of Whistler but in many cases, and very notably in Guthrie's, more profoundly by the Naturalism of Jules Bastien-Lepage. The French artist had noted the Impressionists' development of a method for capturing the optical appearance of a scene at a particular moment. However, he sought to combine that anecdotal approach by relaying social realities more clearly through his work. His paintings often consist of thickly worked impressionistic backgrounds with hyperreal foreground figures, often laborers or peasants. Guthrie travelled to Paris in 1882 and was deeply affected by Bastien-Lepage's aesthetics, bringing many aspects of it, including the square brush-marks and earthy color palette, to this piece.

The Glasgow Boys represent a significant counterpoint to the London Impressionist school and in some ways reflect a more advanced British reaction to continental painting during the 1880s-90s. Because of its Naturalist themes, the Glasgow school's work often bears a deeper cultural and conceptual content than that of their London contemporaries, while combining elements of Impressionist technique with an intimate realism yielding great emotional weight. Other artists of this group, including John Lavery, James Guthrie, Edward Walton, and Joseph Crawhall, made significant contributions to the development of Impressionism and Naturalism in Britain at the close of the nineteenth century.

Oil on canvas - Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

1912

Frederick and Jessie Etchells Painting

Artist: Vanessa Bell

This striking work by the English artist and designer Vanessa Bell sits somewhat outside the stylistic and chronological parameters of British Impressionism. But it is worth exploring as an indication of the influence of Post-Impressionist styles on British art during the 1910s, by which time there was slightly more scope for women artists such as Bell, Laura Knight, and Sylvia Gosse, to develop Impressionist-informed styles. The painting depicts the brother and sister artists Frederick and Jessie Etchells, who would later join the Bells' Omega Workshop design studio, using thick brushwork and darkly outlined color planes that reflect new continental influences such as the work of Paul Gauguin.

According to Hanna Leaper writing for the Tate, the work was made "during a family summer holiday at Asheham House in Sussex in 1912," depicting "a room in the south extension of the house that served as a light, spacious studio, with French windows opening out onto a terrace and lawn." Bell rented Asheham House jointly with her sister Virginia Woolf and it provided a liberating creative environment for the artist, in which she created several works "foreground[ing] the pleasures of friendship, domesticity and concentrated work."

The broader context for the creation of Frederick and Jessie Etchells Painting was the arrival of Post-Impressionist influences in the British art scene through the 1910 exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists, curated by Bell's friend and sometime lover, the critic Roger Fry. The exhibition caused a scandal but was later viewed as a great liberating force within British culture. The influence of Post-Impressionist aesthetics over members of the Bloomsbury group - of which Vanessa and Virginia were members - was profound and extended across several disciplines. Indeed, the most significant long-term impact of Post-Impressionism, and therefore Impressionism, on British art was arguably in the novels of Virginia Woolf, which use language to relay the inner life of the subject in a manner that drew much from the emotive, expressionistic qualities of the last few generations of French painting.

Oil paint on wood - Tate, London


Share
Do more

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"British Impressionism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Available from:
First published on 05 Sep 2021. Updated and modified regularly
[Accessed ]