by Roderick Conway Morris

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New Ways to Draw the Crowds

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 5 January 2024
David Lachenmann Collection
Lyda, Woman with a Pair of Binoculars
by Edgar Degas, c. 1866-8



The second Impressionist exhibition in 1876 was the occasion of the publication of a pamphlet, by novelist, critic and friend of Degas, Edmond Duranty, entitled 'La Nouvelle Peinture' (The New Painting), a spirited defence of the participating artists, who were 'trying to create a wholly modern art, an art imbued with our surroundings, our sentiments, and the things of our age'. The route to realize this, added Duranty, was 'a new method of colour, of drawing, and a gamut of original points of view'.

Duranty's mention of drawing was significant, since whilst we tend to think of the Impressionists as primarily an avant-garde movement in painting, they were also innovators in the graphic arts and the materials used to create them - as is demonstrated in a superb exhibition at the Royal Academy, 'Impressionists on Paper: Degas to Toulouse-Lautrec', curated by Ann Dumas and Christopher Lloyd.

Drawings had been collected by artists and connoisseurs since the Renaissance, the first known albums of drawings dating back to the Italian artist and draughtsman, Pisanello (1394-1555). But it was only in the 19th century that they became of interest to a wider public. In 1864 the Paris Salon for the first time designated a special category for them, which they had to share, however, with various decorative arts, such as porcelain, enamel, stained glass and fans. But drawings and paintings were largely treated as of equal importance at the Impressionists' exhibitions between 1874 and 1886, drawings constituting around a third of all of the works shown in the group's eight shows.

It must be said that there was a commercial element in this. Many Impressionist artists struggled to make a living in an often uncomprehending and even hostile market and dealers encouraged them to make more quickly executed works, even if they fetched less, in the interests of turnover. Nonetheless, this stimulus proved productive of sometimes daring and highly original pieces.

Needless to say, in a movement that advocated en plein air painting to catch the fleeting moment on the spot, preparatory drawings were a vital tool for recording on-the-spot images for later elaboration. This technique could be employed to sketch an ever-changing urban street scene or the transient effects of light in the landscape. Or in Duranty's words: 'The new painters have tried to render the walk, movement, and hustle and bustle of passers-by, just as they have tried to render the trembling leaves, the shimmer of water, and the vibration of sun-drenched air - and they have managed to capture the hazy atmosphere of a grey day along with the iridescent play of sunshine.'

Beyond straightforward drawing, watercolours had served artists for colour sketching since at least the time of the German artist Dürer in the late 15th century. Given the preeminence of British watercolour artists during the 18th century, this medium was regarded in France as somewhat alien, yet in the nineteenth century it attracted the attention of artists such as Granet, Delacroix and Victor Hugo. The Impressionists, too, came to look at watercolours anew, both as preparatory materials and as valid alternatives to oil for finished works.

As Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien in 1891: 'Remember that watercolours help the memory, and enable you to retain the fugitive effects - watercolours render so well the impalpable, the powerful, the delicate.' Pissarro himself became a devotee of the medium also for stand-alone works. Cezanne was no less enthusiastic and was perhaps the most successful of all French practitioners of the form during this period, his watercolours now being as much admired as his paintings.

While the Impressionists made striking use of colour in their paintings, many of them exploited the bold effects of monochrome in their works on paper. There was something of a general craze for the genre around this time. As with watercolour, Britain led the way. 'The First French Exhibition of Works Executed in Black and White' was held in the same year as the second Impressionist exhibition, 1876, at the Paris gallery in Rue Le Peletier of Paul Duval-Ruel, the dealer most responsible for promoting Impressionism in its early years. But this monochrome show was predated by 'The Black and White Exhibition' at the Dudley Gallery in London four years earlier, some of the works already displayed there appearing at the later Paris show, which included 745 works by 265 artists.

Odilon Redon first exhibited in Bordeaux in 1860 and all his early works were monochrome. In 1882, he maintained that a 'fundamental grey distinguishes all masters, and is the soul of colour'. When he finally succumbed to colour, the results were startling, as evidenced by his 'Ophelia Among the Flowers' (c.1905-08), on show here.

Nicolas-Jacques Conté made the first synthetic graphite pencils in France in 1797 during the French Revolutionary Wars in response to the difficulty of obtaining pure graphite from English mines. In the second half of the 19th century, so called Conté crayons, marketed as 'an infinite variety of pencils, of every possible black tint', were eagerly taken up by several avant-garde artists. The pointillist Georges Seurat, that most dazzling deployer of complex colour, could also handle Conté crayons to stunning effect, as is illustrated by his 'Seated Youth, Study for Bathers at Asnières' (the finished canvas of which is now at the National Gallery). Amusingly, the nude model for the monochrome work has been furnished with a pair of swimming shorts for the final painting.

In his review of the sixth Impressionist exhibition in 1881, the novelist, critic and aesthete Joris-Karl Huysmans wrote: 'Watercolour has a spontaneity, a freshness, a spicy brilliance inaccessible to oil, and pastel has a bloom, a velvety smoothness, like a delicate freedom or a dying grace, that neither watercolour nor oil can touch.' By this time, pastel had become the single most popular medium for Impressionist works on paper.

The eighteenth century had been a golden age for pastels in the hands of the likes of Rosalba Carriera, Chardin, Liotard and Quentin de La Tour. Jean-François Millet, who was an inspiration to many Impressionists, pioneered the revival of the medium in the second half of the 1860s. He liked to execute pastels on buff, grey, blue and lilac papers - this predilection for coloured papers being later shown by Degas, who took advantage of the increasingly wide range of them then coming onto the market.

Unlike watercolours, pastels could be altered by scoring, smearing with the fingers and built up in layers. Being dry they were ideal for both quick sketching on the spot and creating more complex compositions in the studio. The Italian Impressionist Giuseppe de Nittis took to recording in pastels Paris street scenes from the back of cabs, even acquiring one of his own for such expeditions, producing such glimpsed vignettes as 'In the Cab' (1880-83). Degas also found pastels the perfect medium for his pictures of ballet dancers performing, rehearsing and relaxing backstage. Renoir, Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot used them for intimate portraits, and Monet for depicting cliffs on the north coast of France and bridges on the Thames.

At the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition in 1886, Degas exhibited only pastels, including his celebrated series of female nudes, bathing, washing, drying themselves, combing their hair and having it combed. The artist was already experiencing problems with his sight when he was in his late teens. These had become serious by the time of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 when, at 36, he realized during rifle practice with the National Guard that he could not see the target with his right eye. One of the most humorous and poignant images in the exhibition is 'Lyda, Woman with a Pair of Binoculars' (c.1866-688), in which the subject gazes at the artist, and the viewer, through a pair of racing glasses. During the 1880s and '90s Degas had to give up painting but found he could still circumvent his failing vision and blind spots by turning to pastels. Thus the artist made a virtue of his affliction and he became the supreme modern exponent of the medium.

Synthetic dyes and new manufacturing processes led to a plethora of new colours and artists' materials becoming available. They were eagerly embraced by the Impressionists, but many of these novelties turned out to be unstable and to deteriorate and change colour when exposed to light for any length of time. Ironically, there are many surviving drawings and coloured graphic works from hundreds of years ago that are better preserved than not a few of these works from the second half of the nineteenth century. Consequently, whilst no graphic works can be exposed to light for more than limited periods, some of these splendid Impressionist pieces on paper are particularly vulnerable, so this rare opportunity to see them should not be missed.

Impressionists on Paper: Degas to Toulouse-Lautrec; Royal Academy, London; 25 November - 10 March 2024

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024