A comparison of impressionism to more traditional techniques
Warning: Do not read ahead if you are easily offended by tongue in cheek punch lines. I did not want to ruin the surprise but really the style of writing might make the counterpoint with the nature of the punchline seem a little offensive.
Art historians during the latter half of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century, when considering the French art of the beginning of the twentieth century give great acclaim to the work of the impressionists. The striking style, dynamic brushstrokes and vivid colours of the impressionists suggested a modernity that was representative of the direction in which all western culture during these decades was taking. It was the practice of the impressionists to reject the traditional themes around which the great art of the past had revolved so it is difficult to make a direct comparison between the new art and the styles which had previously dominated the art scene but are now judged as less important by contemporary thinkers.
Traditional themes that were favoured by patrons focussed on religious iconography and mythological subjects. A perennial favourite was the figure of ‘Venus’ or ‘Aphrodite’. Fortunately we have an example of this subject painted by the impressionist Frederick Carl Frieseke in 1914.
A casual observer will have an immediate awareness of the rough jarring nature of the brushwork that gives an ‘impression’ of the structure of the scene rather than providing a detailed working of the composition, hence the name ‘impressionism’ that was given to this style. This was radically different to the way in which great art had previously been created and was the beginning of an avant garde approach which experienced massive development over the following century leading to the branching that has led to the ubiquity of different art forms one can see in the modern era from graffiti, through graphic illustration and on to the more controversial pieces of Hirst or Emin.
Their contemporaries had far less respect for the impressionists than modern critics and the same subject, Venus, was preferred in a more subdued and realistic style such as that of the French artist William Adolphe Bouguereau who painted his version, ‘The Birth of Venus’ in 1879. Bouguereau was considered to be old fashioned even then, 35 years earlier than Frieseke’s creation of his impressionist Venus. He employed traditional techniques and had a smooth style that was disdained by practitioners of the new styles such as Degas, who, with his associates, coined the derogatory term ‘Bouguereaute’ which they used when referring to the slickness and stylised smoothness of the more harmonious textures within these more traditional works.
Bouguereau was incredibly successful during his lifetime and never seemed to fall from popular favour as his work was widely sought after and commanded high prices throughout large areas of mainland Europe outside his native country and also in the United States. Wealthy patrons up until the 1920s some 15 years after Bouguereau’s death favoured his work and particularly his pleasing handling of the female form which was a repeated motif throughout his career. This was largely because in the days before modern reprographic techniques and methods of media delivery it provided a far less challenging graphic form than the style of the impressionists and was therefore far easier to masturbate to.
Although I have written this firmly tongue in cheek and stated my conclusion quite bluntly it is highly probable that I have actually made a very valid point which is no doubt swept under the carpet by our current generation’s art historians as un-befitting of art. While I will admit I have ultimately led you to a bluntly crass statement I think it is incredibly pretentious and misleading to claim that paintings such as this would not have served a pornographic purpose, if not in recent years, certainly in times gone past.
The images in question can be found below, click on them for a larger view.