Oil on canvas
65.5 x 81.7 cm
Bequest of Gertrud Feuerring, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum
Accession number: B02.1559
In the field of French art, both academic and avant-garde, the 1880s were an unusually turbulent decade. The last official state-sponsored Salon, an institution that had been in existence since 1699, was organized in 1880. As a result, new independent artists’ societies and exhibition venues, public and private, began to emerge from various flanks of the Parisian cultural arena. Around the same time, the Impressionist group, torn by internal disputes, was losing its direction and aesthetic unity. As the rebellious Impressionists of the 1870s adopted a more conservative aesthetic and social outlook, the banner of progressive art was now waved by members of a younger generation of artists, among them the future masters of Neo-Impressionism, Synthetism, Symbolism, and even early Expressionism.
Armand Guillaumin, ever the political leftist, remained socially attuned to avant-garde developments through the aesthetic and cultural commotion of the 1880s. In his own art, however, he showed remarkably little interest in the new aesthetic trends and remained instead the middle-of-the-road Impressionist he had been since the early 1870s.
Of the Israel Museum’s two paintings by Guillaumin, the later one, River Scene, dates from around 1890. Echoes of the recent improvements in the painter’s private life emanating from his marriage in 1887 are perhaps revealed in the painting’s leisurely subject matter — boating and fishing on the Seine — but stylistically and compositionally the picture relies on the same structural rhetoric as Guillaumin’s earlier works. Moreover, while bourgeois leisure is the painting’s protagonist in the foreground, its background, punctuated with smoking factory chimneys, underlines Guillaumin’s enduring interest in the social dichotomy between city and country. The forward march of modernity through the agency of industrialization, the picture suggests, is achieved only through the gradual conquest of nature. The major technical development evident in this painting, and others contemporaneous with it, is Guillaumin’s emerging tendency to focus on effects of color as opposed to those of light. The luminosity of this painting is directly anchored to patches of color, not to the fleeting light effects that the Impressionists had been so keen to capture and communicate to the viewer through the medium of paint. The difference seems subtle at first, but actually it goes to the very heart of the Impressionist enterprise that Guillaumin wanted to keep afloat, artificially if need be, even after Seurat’s Neo-Impressionism and Gauguin’s Synthetism had opened the eyes of the Parisian art world to new aesthetic vistas. Around 1890, as manifest in the works of Guillaumin and others, Impressionism’s pioneering engagement with the optical effects of light was yielding to the new power of the colorful brushstroke abstracted from the haze of fleeting reality. Impressionistic trends and techniques survived in modern art well into the twentieth century, but only as a nostalgic memory of a time when the optical continuum between phenomenal reality and a painter’s spontaneous brushwork was a credible and, to many, a shocking means of pictorial expression.