Rapid expansion of the railways in France during the Second Empire opened up the country and pushed Impressionist painters to introduce suburbia into art.
Argenteuil, on the banks of the Seine and connected to Saint-Lazare station, was their chosen residential village. It offered a variety of open- country motifs and views of the iconic river. Impressionists depicted middle class individuals and their families relaxing in parks and gardens, and bathing in streams and lakes – an affluent society at play.
At the same time, they re-discovered the traditional theme of the cityscape after Haussmann’s drastic rebuilding of the capital was finally completed. Paris was on the mend and Impressionism the joyous expression of the patient’s recovery. Artists enthused about painting the renovated city, applying new stylistic means to depict its boulevards and stations in rain, snow, or sunshine. With a nervous energy of brush strokes they caught the movement of metropolitan life, taking delight in recording the buzz of the city. Urbanism started as a celebration. Modernity was a keyword in art and literature – not an empty slogan, but a vital concept.
Impressionist painters aimed to capture the immediate sensory impact of a scene. By increasing the pace of creation, they sacrificed traditional qualities of outline and detail which put them at odds with the establishment. Painting ‘en plein air’, atmospheric conditions were an essential part of the creative process. Impressionism was weather reporting in paint. There was a significant parallel development in a context of meteorology. Manet, the Godfather of Impressionism, created Le déjeuner sur l’herbe in 1863. That same year, the Observatoire de Paris began publishing the first synoptic weather maps under the guidance of its director Urbain Le Verrier, a former student of the École polytechnique.
For the Impressionist, a festive day of flag waving was the perfect occasion to meet the technical challenge of catching the wind on canvas. The Exposition Universelle (3rd World Exhibition) took place from 1 May through to 10 November 1878 and was the biggest such showcase that was ever held. To commemorate the exhibition, the government declared 30 June 1878 a national holiday. Called ‘Fête de la Paix’, this festival marked the nation’s recovery from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1 (Germany was not invited to take part in the exhibition) and the divisive Paris Commune that followed. The emotive commemorations were captured in paint by both Édouard Manet and Claude Monet.
Manet’s oil painting La Rue Mosnier aux drapeaux is a vivid evocation of Paris in the late 1870s: the construction site on the left, where the street overlooked the railway cutting, records the transformation of the city. Claude Monet’s La Rue Montorgueil celebrates the same fete in a more jubilant image. He applied Impressionist techniques to the full. His multitude of small strokes suggests the animation of the crowd. The repeated use of the tricolore causes an undulating pattern that suggests the euphoria of the event. Monet’s display is a telling example of Impressionist ‘forgetfulness’ in art. The here and now – nothing else counts. Radicalism is an aesthetic criterion here, not a political one.
By contrast, Manet’s mood is reflective, his colours are cooler, the street is almost empty, and the atmosphere nostalgic. A hunched amputee on crutches amidst construction debris, is most likely a victim of war. Sensitive to the sacrifices made during those troubled years, Manet’s approach implies political engagement. Monet suggests that modernism signified a revolution in style and technique; Manet reminds us that the idea (and the metaphor) of avant-garde had its origins in the socio-political thinking of Saint-Simon. One flag-waving celebration, two streets, two strands of modernism.
Paris and New York
Boston-born (Frederick) Childe Hassam established his first studio in 1882, but his development was hampered by a lack of formal training. During the summer of 1883 he undertook an extensive study trip to Europe. Back in Boston, he created Columbus Avenue: Rainy Day in 1885. The image of a buzzing city in damp weather conditions indicated his ambition to introduce urban themes in the Impressionist manner to an American audience. Hassam then returned to Paris and settled near Place Pigalle. One of his Parisian streetscapes was exhibited at the Salon of 1887. Two years later he moved into a studio apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue and established the reputation of being ‘America’s Monet’. A genius in depicting rain and wind, he was instrumental in promoting Impressionism to dealers, collectors, and weather watchers.
Once flags had lost their original strategic purpose on the field of battle, they acquired a wider allegorical significance. With the stoking of patriotic passion emerged the desire to display the flag as a symbol of civilian emotion. Most European countries adopted their national flag in the course of the nineteenth century. Artistic representation ran parallel to political developments. In 1830, Delacroix had set a precedent with his political masterpiece La Liberté guidant le people. In the years leading up to the First World War banners became emblematic of belligerent nationalism. Between 1916 and 1919 flags flew from almost every pole in Paris, London, and New York.
Hassam composed a set of about thirty paintings showing images of a flag-decorated Fifth Avenue. The first in the series of Stars & Stripes paintings had been inspired by a so-called ‘Preparedness Parade’. War in Europe had sparked a debate on involvement. Theodore Roosevelt advocated expanding the military in anticipation of a widening conflict, but President Woodrow Wilson preferred a position of armed neutrality. Hassam supported the idea of intervention. Being an avid Francophile and passionately anti-German, his flag paintings were both deeply patriotic and aimed at encouraging the Allied war effort. He transformed Impressionism into a political statement. One of the paintings in the series is The Avenue in the Rain, dating from February 1917, shortly before America joined the war (after it had become public knowledge that German submarine attacks had been extended to neutral, hence American ships). Since 1963 the painting is part of the White House Collection, hanging by the side of the President’s desk.
Illustrations, from above: La Rue Mosnier aux drapeaux by Manet; La Rue Montorgueil by Monet; and President Barack Obama at work in the Oval Office besides Hassam’s painting.