150 years of Impressionism at the Musée d’Orsay: ‘We hope to get across how radical these artists were’

Anne Robbins, the co-curator of Paris 1874: Inventing Impressionism — which is on show in Paris before travelling to Washington, D.C., in September — explains why we may know less about the Impressionists than we think

Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), 1872 (detail). Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), 1872 (detail). Oil on canvas. 19⅝ x 25⅝ in (50 x 65 cm). Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. Photo: © Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris / Studio Baraja SLB

On 15 April 1874, an exhibition opened in Paris that would launch one of the world’s most famous art movements: Impressionism. It’s a movement associated with bright, briskly brushed paintings that conveyed a fleeting impression of contemporary scenes. Its artists duly distanced themselves from the Salon, the official exhibition which had dominated French artistic life for two centuries — and which favoured careful finish, fully developed forms and scenes with a biblical, mythological or historical narrative.

In a groundbreaking move, the first Impressionist show featured 165 works created, selected, hung and marketed entirely by the artists themselves. It took place in the erstwhile studio of the photographer Nadar, at 35 Boulevard des Capucines, in the 2nd arrondissement: a location at the heart of Paris, a stone’s throw from the city’s soon-to-open opera house, the Palais Garnier.

This year marks that landmark show’s 150th anniversary. What happened over the course of its one-month run — and the part played by its principal actors, such as Monet, Renoir and Degas — is the subject of a major new exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris 1874: Inventing Impressionism. (The exhibition will then move to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., from 8 September 2024 to 19 January 2025.)

We talked to the show’s co-curator, Anne Robbins, who suggests we may know less about the movement than we think.

Camille Cabaillot-Lassalle, Le Salon de 1874 (The Salon of 1874), 1874. Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Camille Cabaillot-Lassalle (1839-1889), Le Salon de 1874 (The Salon of 1874), 1874. Oil on canvas. 39⅜ x 32⅛ in (100 x 81.5 cm). Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo: © Musée d’Orsay, dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Sophie Crépy

Where did the inspiration for your exhibition come from?

Anne Robbins: The idea was to use the anniversary to reassess exactly what happened 150 years ago. This is something that hasn’t been done for a long time. People today know and love the Impressionists, but I think many will be surprised to learn that the first show associated with the movement wasn’t really ‘Impressionist’ at all.

For a start, the contributing artists exhibited under the name of the Société Anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc. The exhibition was an eclectic affair, too, featuring works in a variety of media by artists of differing ages, styles and profiles.

Of the 31 participants, only seven [Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Sisley, Morisot and Cezanne] produced work that we would nowadays call Impressionist. As such, we include in our show well-known paintings such as Renoir’s La Loge or Degas’s The Dancing Class alongside some more unexpected pieces from the 1874 exhibition — such as engravings after Hans Holbein portraiture by Félix Bracquemond and the marble sculpture Young Woman Holding a Vase, by the academic sculptor Auguste Ottin.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Loge (The Theatre Box), 1874, The Courtauld, London

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), La Loge (The Theatre Box), 1874. Oil on canvas. 31½ x 24⅘ (80 x 63 cm). The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust). Photo: © The Courtauld / Bridgeman Images

Over the years, there have, of course, been many fine exhibitions dedicated to Impressionism. However, these have tended to be homages to the movement overall, where our focus is on the debut show.

If not a shared style, what did the 31 artists have in common?

AR: The fact that they were tired of the decisions of the jury who admitted works to the Salon. Though some of the artists had had pieces accepted in the 1860s, for the most part they were shunned — and so now took the decision to exhibit independently.

It’s important to add that they didn’t want to be associated with the Salon des Refusés either [an exhibition launched in 1863 to show works which had been rejected by the Salon jury]. That exhibition had created a stir initially, but by 1874 was featuring some pretty mediocre pictures.

The Société Anonyme artists were astute and chose to open their show two weeks before the official Salon opened [on 1 May]. This made clear to everyone that the exhibits weren’t rejects from the Salon, as the Salon had not opened yet. These works were to be considered on their own terms.

Edgar Degas, Classe de danse (The Dancing Class), circa 1870. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Classe de danse (The Dancing Class), circa 1870. Oil on wood. 7¾ x 10⅝ in (19.7 x 27 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs H. O. Havemeyer, 1929. Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

What was reaction like to the show?

AR: Contrary to what is sometimes believed, the critical reaction was nuanced. It simply wasn’t the case that critics were all outraged by what they saw. Some reviews were positive, some were negative, and they pretty much all lauded the initiative of these artists for taking the reins of their career and having the courage to show independently.

In terms of public engagement, a total of 3,500 people visited, which wasn’t bad.

To what extent is your show an attempt to recreate the 1874 exhibition?

AR: We include a small VR (virtual-reality) experience, in which visitors will enjoy something approximating the hang of the exhibition. No visual trace of the show remains, so our information about it comes from written sources, chiefly the journalists who came to review.

Edouard Manet, Le Chemin de fer (The Railway), 1873. National Gallery of Art, Washington

Edouard Manet (1832-1883), Le Chemin de fer (The Railway), 1873. Oil on canvas. 36¾ x 43⅞ in (93.3 x 111.5 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington. Photo: Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington

Our overall aim with Paris 1874: Inventing Impressionism, though, isn’t to reconstruct the original exhibition. Far from it. In fact, we have a large number of works from the Salon of 1874, so as to allow people to draw comparisons between that exhibition and the one in Nadar’s studio. In a few cases, the boundaries between the official and the independent were blurrier than you might think. A good example is Manet’s The Railway [Le Chemin de fer], which has many of the traits we associate with Impressionism but which the artist chose to exhibit at the Salon.

Can you tell us where the term ‘Impressionist’ came from?

AR: It was an invention of the media rather than the artists, who were actually quite cautious about naming themselves. Certain critics picked up on the fact that a subgroup existed within the Société Anonyme [Monet, Renoir, Degas et al.] who had conceived a new way of painting. From early on, two new designations for these artists emerged: Impressionists and Intransigents.

Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), 1872. Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), 1872. Oil on canvas. 19⅝ x 25⅝ in (50 x 65 cm). Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. Photo: © Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris / Studio Baraja SLB

The former was coined by the playwright Louis Leroy, in a frivolous review of the 1874 show in the satirical magazine Le Charivari — and used again shortly afterwards by the serious-minded critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary. [Both writers took their lead from the title of Monet’s painting of the port of Le Havre, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), as well as an appreciation that key pictures in the show looked like they captured an impression of a fleeting moment.]

The name ‘Intransigents’, by contrast, emphasised the revolutionary character of the painting and the artists’ rejection of official distribution channels. Crucially, such a term evoked radical politics, and the artists wanted to steer clear of anything like that. One might say they ended up accepting the label ‘Impressionist’ because it was, in their eyes, the less bad of two options.

How important were the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the Paris Commune insurrection that followed it?

AR: Very important. It’s true that many of the artists we call Impressionists started working together en plein air in the 1860s [famously, the quartet of Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Frédéric Bazille, who had met as students in the studio of the painter Charles Gleyre]. By the end of that decade, plans were advanced to put on an independent exhibition — and I suppose, had war not broken out, that exhibition would have happened earlier than 1874.

Edouard Detaille, Charge of the 9th Regiment of Cuirassiers at Morsbronn, 1874. Musee Saint-Remi, Reims

Edouard Detaille (1848-1912), Charge du 9e régiment de cuirassiers dans le village de Morsbronn (Charge of the 9th Regiment of Cuirassiers at Morsbronn), 1874. Oil on canvas. 55½ x 79 in (141 x 200.6 cm). Musée Saint-Remi, Reims. Photo: © Christian Devleeschau. This work was exhibited in the 1874 Salon

Tragically, Bazille was killed in combat. The physical impact of the war and the Commune on the city of Paris was also considerable. Reconstruction began swiftly afterwards, and by 1874 revival was well under way. The first Impressionist exhibition took place in an area of the capital that was starting to pulsate with new businesses, luxury shops and entertainment venues.

Interestingly, where the Salon of 1874 included scenes of the war [such as Edouard Detaille’s huge painting of an appallingly bloody moment in France’s defeat at the Battle of Wörth], the conflict is absent from Impressionism. It’s hard to say why, but in forging their identity, it was clearly other aspects of their time that they chose to focus on, such as leisure and entertainment.

Camille Pissarro, Les Toits rouges, coin de village, effet d'hiver (The Red Roofs, Corner of a Village, Winter), 1877. Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Les Toits rouges, coin de village, effet d’hiver (The Red Roofs, Corner of a Village, Winter), 1877. Oil on canvas. 21¼ x 25⅗ (54 x 65 cm). Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo: Bridgeman Images. The work was exhibited in Impressionists 1877, the first and only time the artists advertised themselves as ‘impressionists’

Do you look beyond 1874 in this exhibition?

AR: Yes. Impressionism wasn’t born fully formed. It took until the exhibition of 1877 before there was what you might call homogeneity in terms of the style, aesthetic and subject matter we generally consider to be Impressionist. The number of participants was now reduced to 18. This was also the show in which the artists embraced their new name and officially referred to themselves as Impressionists. To close our show, we therefore decided to dedicate the final gallery to the 1877 exhibition. [There would be eight Impressionist exhibitions in total, the last of which took place in 1886.]

What we hope to get across is how radical these artists were in the early days: not just in terms of what they depicted and how they depicted it, but in the way they took control of their careers. With the help of gas lights, they opened the 1874 show late into the evening, for example, in a bid to attract a broader clientele.

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These artists are beloved figures today, but one of our aims with this exhibition is to stress how bold they once were, too.

Paris 1874: Inventing Impressionism is at the Musée d’Orsay until 14 July 2024. The exhibition will then move to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., under the title Paris 1874: The Impressionist Moment, on show from 8 September 2024 to 19 January 2025

Christie’s is proud to support American Friends Musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie’s spring-summer 2024 Impressionist season

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