The Rise and Fall of Impressionism

Wolff's essay on the subject and the docu that brings this movement to life is a beautifully packaged, albeit brief, tour through a very specific time in art history.

Producer and writer Peter Wolff talks of Impressionism as an art movement that captured a place in time, a portrait of life as seen through the eyes of some of the world’s most renowned artists. Claude Monet described it in much simpler terms. “One day, Renoir and I ran out of black paint and that’s how Impressionism was born.”

Wolff’s essay on the subject and the docu that brings this movement to life is a beautifully packaged, albeit brief, tour through a very specific time in art history. Not a strict tutorial in any kind of linear sense, “The Rise and Fall of Impressionism” focuses tightly on the impetus of the movement while briefly touching on the lives of its inventors, most notably Monet, Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Mary Cassatt.

What are now regarded as masterpieces that sell for upwards of $78 million were initially scoffed at when introduced in Paris in 1869. Up until the early 1800s, the idea of art was to hide any evidence of brush strokes with glazes and oils. Impressionism shattered that notion through the use of bold techniques and colors. At the time, one critic mused “the people look as if they have been painted by the licking tongue of a cat.” So much for a critic’s opinion.

But the idea of Impressionism, according to Wolff, went beyond technique and color. Wolff calls these paintings a psychological keyhole, a way for an artist to buck social convention through the secret language of paintings. At a time when revealing intimate emotions and passion was considered offensive, these artists used flowers and colors to symbolize complex themes.

If Impressionism were music, says Wolf, it would invariably be a waltz. And the main dancers, referred to by history as the “siblings,” all stayed in close orbit with one another. Manet, Monet and friends all exercised the language of Impressionism, but it was to express very different ideas.

Manet led the battle against the established notions of art, which favored realism and sexual repression, while Renoir thought paintings should be joyous and pretty and avoided any realistic details of his human subject.

Degas loved to shock the middle class and provided an unbridled look at Paris, while Morisot and Cassatt broke social and artistic gender barriers by painting domestic scenes.

Each of these artists deserve their own hour or more, especially Morisot and Cassatt, who had more to fight than just social convention. But Wolff should be credited for sticking to the task at hand and covering the technological advancements that influenced Impressionism, from the development of still photographs and, later, moving pictures to the invention of portable easels, synthetic dyes and paint tubes.

The images presented by photo animator Neil Murphy make for a virtual VIP tour of the best of the Louvre and the National Gallery. Editor Andrew Morreale makes sure these images flow seamlessly to the waltz music.

Ironically, Wolff begins the docu with an imposing picture and quote from Pablo Picasso, who mused “In art you must kill your father.” But as Wolff points out in his summation, it was Vincent Van Gogh, not Picasso, who killed Impressionism. Van Gogh added black back into the spectrum along with all of the uncomfortable emotions and passions that earlier works of the genre avoided. His paintings marked the end of the waltz.

The Rise and Fall of Impressionism

PBS; Wed. Jan. 12, 10 p.m.

Production: Filmed in various locations by Chesire Archives. Producer/writer, Perry Wolff; co-producer, Severine Bourlet de la Valee; associate producer, Kelly A. Feeney.

Cast: Photo animator, Neil Murphy; editor Andrew Morreale; sound, Alexander Markowski, Steve Syarto; narrators; Perry Wolff, Michael Daly, Louis Meredith, Connor Smith, Thomas West. Running time: 60 MINUTES

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