‘Exhibition of the Impressionists’ by Louis Leroy
Oh, it was indeed a strenuous day … when I ventured into the first exhibition on the boulevard des Capucines in the company of M. Joseph Vincent, landscape painter, pupil of Bertin (perhaps, this Bertin. — Artchive), recipient of medals and decorations under several governments! The rash man had come there without suspecting anything; he thought that he would see the kind of painting one sees everywhere, good and bad, rather bad than good, but not hostile to good artistic manners, devotion to form, and respect for the masters. Oh, form! Oh, the masters! We don’t want them any more, my poor fellow! We’ve changed all that.
Upon entering the first room, Joseph Vincent received an initial shock in front of the Dancer by M. Renoir.
‘What a pity,’ he said to me, ‘that the painter, who has a certain understanding of color, doesn’t draw better; his dancer’s legs are as cottony as the gauze of her skirts.’
‘I find you hard on him,’ I replied. ‘On the contrary, the drawing is very tight.’
Bertin’s pupil, believing that I was being ironical, contented himself with shrugging his shoulders, not taking the trouble to answer. Then, very quietly, with my most naive air, I led him before the Ploughed Field of M. Pissarro. At the sight of this astounding landscape, the good man thought that the lenses of his spectacles were dirty. He wiped them carefully and replaced them on his nose.
‘By Michalon!’ he cried. ‘What on earth is that?’
‘You see … a hoarfrost on deeply ploughed furrows.’
‘Those furrows? That frost? But they are palette-scrapings placed uniformly on a dirty canvas. It has neither head nor tail, top nor bottom, front nor back.’
‘Perhaps … but the impression is there.’
‘Well, it’s a funny impression! Oh … and this?’
‘An Orchard by M. Sisley. I’d like to point out the small tree on the right; it’s gay, but the impression …’
‘Leave me alone, now, with your impression … it’s neither here nor there.’
Sisley’s famous canvas Orchard in spring was painted much later, in 1881. Prior to the First Exhibition, Sisley did paint gardens in bloom, but the picture in question is known today as Spring at Bougival.
In the Exhibition’s catalogue, Sisley’s works are listed like this:
2, rue de la Princesse, à Voisins-Louveciennes.
161. Route de Saint-Germain: app. à M. Durand-Ruel.
162. Ile de la Loge: app. à M. Durand-Ruel.
163. La Seine à Port-Marly.
165. Port-Marly, soirée d’hiver.
Perhaps, numbers 162 and 163 are the landscapes below — they are, too, filled with ‘impression.’ As for the Flood at Port-Marly, the subject was of special meaning for the artist — two years after the exhibition, he would paint another version of the same scene.
‘But here we have a View of Melun by M. Rouart, in which there’s something to the water. The shadow in the foreground, for instance, is really peculiar.’
‘It’s the vibration of tone which astonishes you.’
‘Call it sloppiness of tone and I’d understand you better — Oh, Corot, Corot, what crimes are committed in your name! It was you who brought into fashion this messy composition, these thin washes, these mudsplashes in front of which the art lover has been rebelling for thirty years and which he has accepted only because constrained and forced to it by your tranquil stubbornness. Once again, a drop of water has worn away the stone!’
Henri Rouart was an industrialist and art collector. He never took himself seriously as a painter. Suffice it to say that, out of the eleven pictures Rouart presented at the First Exhibition, only one was labelled with a name in the catalogue — Vue de Melun, — and the others were merely numbered. Terrace on the Banks of the Seine at Melun is one of the few works by him that are now in big museums (this one is in the Musée d’Orsay). Usually, it is dated at 1880, but some experts believe that it is the very landscape that took part in the First Exhibition of the Impressionists — which means that it is an older painting.
The poor man rambled on this way quite peacefully, and nothing led me to anticipate the unfortunate accident which was to be the result of his visit to this hair-raising exhibition. He even sustained, without major injury, viewing the Fishing Boats Leaving the Harbor by M. Claude Monet, perhaps because I tore him away from dangerous contemplation of this work before the small, noxious figures in the foreground could produce their effect.
Unfortunately, I was imprudent enough to leave him too long in front of the Boulevard des Capucines, by the same painter.
The Boulevard des Capucines received its name after a convent of Capuchin nuns that once was located in the vicinity.
It is uncertain about which one of Monet’s two views of the Boulevard was on display at the Exhibition in 1874. Art historians from the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, have no doubt that it was the version now residing in Moscow. And the website of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Kansas City, Missouri) is more careful admitting that either of Monet’s two Boulevards des Capucines might have been presented at the First Exhibition — so, there is a chance it was ours.
‘Ah-ha!’ he sneered in Mephistophelian manner. ‘Is that brilliant enough, now! There’s impression, or I don’t know what it means. Only be so good as to tell me what those innumerable black tongue-lickings in the lower part of the picture represent?’
‘Why, those are people walking along,’ I replied.
‘Then do I look like that when I’m walking along the boulevard des Capucines? Blood and thunder! So you’re making fun of me at last?’
"I assure you, M. Vincent. … "
"But those spots were obtained by the same method as that used to imitate marble: a bit here, a bit there, slapdash, any old way. It’s unheard of, appalling! I’ll get a stroke from it, for sure.’
In 1874, two Ottins, the father and the son, were among the participants. Which picture is meant and by whom of the two remains a problem, as most of their works are not listed by names in the catalogue, just numbered. However, we know for sure that the senior Ottin, though famous mostly as a sculptor, did paint views of Montmartre.
As for Stanislas Lépine, the St. Denis Canal was the subject of quite a number of his canvases. The one above meets the criteria of the date — and the range of colours, too. The spectacular nocturnal views of the canal (1, 2, 3) are unlikely to have satisfied Leroy’s and his indignant companion’s tastes, but in this picture, they would probably have found the colours delicate enough (see the text of the article below).
I attempted to calm him by showing him the St. Denis Canal by M. Lépine and the Butte Montmartre by M. Ottin, both quite delicate in tone; but fate was strongest of all: the Cabbages of M. Pissarro stopped him as he was passing by and from red he became scarlet.
‘Those are cabbages,’ I told him in a gently persuasive voice.
‘Oh, the poor wretches, aren’t they caricatured! I swear not to eat any more as long as I live!’
‘Yet it’s not their fault if the painter …’
‘Be quiet, or I’ll do something terrible.’
Suddenly he gave a loud cry upon catching sight of the Maison du pendu by M. Paul Cézanne. The stupendous impasto of this little jewel accomplished the work begun by the Boulevard des Capucines; père Vincent became delirious.
At first his madness was fairly mild. Taking the point of view of the impressionists, he let himself go along their lines.
‘Boudin has some talent,’ he remarked to me before a beach scene by that artist, ‘but why does he fiddle so with his marines?’
‘Oh, you consider his painting too finished?’
‘Unquestionably. Now take Mlle. Morisot! That young lady is not interested in reproducing trifling details. When she has a hand to paint she makes exactly as many brushstrokes lengthwise as there are fingers and the business is done. Stupid people who are finicky about the drawing of a hand don’t understand a thing about impressionism, and great Manet would chase them out of his republic.’
We can but guess which of Boudin’s landscapes was included into the First Exhibition Catalogue as Le Toulinguet, cotes de Camaret (Finistére): in the early 1870s, the artist painted this view in Brittany quite often (the same place, the same names — how Impressionistic!). But we are sure about Berthe Morisot’s pictures at the Exhibition. Here are two of them, the ones with the characters’ hands clearly seen.
1.2. Berthe Morisot. Portrait de Mme Morisot et de sa fille Mme Pontillon ou La lecture (The Mother and Sister of the Artist — Marie-Joséphine and Edma)
‘Then M. Renoir is following the proper path; there is nothing superfluous in his Harvesters. I might almost say that his figures …’
‘… are even too finished.’
‘Oh, M. Vincent! But do look at those three strips of colour, which are supposed to represent a man in the midst of the wheat!’
‘There are two too many; one would be enough.’
I glanced at Bertin’s pupil; his countenance was turning a deep red. A catastrophe seemed to me imminent, and it was reserved to M. Monet to contribute the last straw.
‘Ah, there he is, there he is!’ he cried, in front of No. 98. ‘I recognise him, papa Vincent’s favourite! What does that canvas depict? Look at the catalogue.’
‘Impression — I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it … and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.’
In vain I sought to revive his expiring reason … but the horrible fascinated him. The Laundress, so badly laundered, of M. Degas drove him to cries of admiration. Sisley himself appeared to him affected and precious. To indulge his insanity and out of fear of irritating him, I looked for what was tolerable among the impressionist pictures, and I acknowledged without too much difficulty that the bread, grapes, and chair of Breakfast, by M. Monet, were good bits of painting. But he rejected these concessions.
1.2. Claude Monet. The Breakfast
‘No, no!’ he cried. ‘Monet is weakening there. He is sacrificing to the false gods of Meissonier. Too finished, too finished! Talk to me of the Modern Olympia! That’s something well done.’
Alas, go and look at it! A woman folded in two from whom a Negro girl is removing the last veil in order to offer her in all her ugliness to the charmed gaze of a brown puppet. Do you remember the Olympia of M. Manet? Well, that was a masterpiece of drawing, accuracy, finish, compared with the one by M. Cézanne.
Finally, the pitcher ran over. The classic skull of père Vincent, assailed from too many sides, went completely to pieces. He paused before the municipal guard who watches over all these treasures and, taking him to be a portrait, began for my benefit a very emphatic criticism.
‘Is he ugly enough?’ he remarked, shrugging his shoulders. ‘From the front, he has two eyes … and a nose … and a mouth! Impressionists wouldn’t have thus sacrificed to detail. With what the painter has expended in the way of useless things, Monet would have done twenty municipal guards!’
‘Keep moving, will you!’ said the ‘portrait.’
‘You hear him — he even talks! The poor fool who daubed at him must have spent a lot of time at it!’
And in order to give the appropriate seriousness to his theory of aesthetics, père Vincent began to dance the scalp dance in front of the bewildered guard, crying in a strangled voice: ‘Hi-ho! I am impression on the march, the avenging palette knife, the Boulevard des Capucines of Monet, the Maison du pendu and the Modern Olympia of Cézanne. Hi-ho! Hi-ho!’
Published in Le Charivari, 25 April 1874
Le Charivari did not stop satirising the Impressionists. In 1877, it published a cartoon of a constable not letting a pregnant lady in.
Illustrated by: Natalia Kandaurova