Impressionist paintings are not only reflections of light and weather, but of the culture of the time. "Impressionist paintings cannot be separated from the history of events…"(1) Cultural and political inferences can be made from what artists portray in their paintings as well as what they avoid and choose not to represent. The period of Impressionism began around 1870 and continued until approximately 1910. Through this curriculum unit, my students will approach Impressionist paintings with a method of analysis that will open them to French culture and history of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Students will use the method of object analysis developed by Professor Jules Prown of Yale University to study paintings from the Impressionist movement as well as the Pre-Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements. We will examine paintings done by artists of these movements, looking for the less obvious and deeper meanings. We will then explore these meanings to see their relationship to French culture at that time.
This curriculum unit was created to complement the French curriculum in the New Haven Public High Schools. The study of a foreign language goes beyond language itself. It includes the study and appreciation of a country's culture and history. My aim in writing this unit to use with my students is to increase their awareness and appreciation of art and to make the study of history more interesting and meaningful. The content of this unit also lends itself to an art or history class. The interdisciplinary nature of the unit would work well in a team approach across disciplines. The content could also be revised to work with younger students in a junior high or middle school program. The unit meets the following National Standards for Foreign Language Learning:
Standard 1.1: Students engage in conversations, provide and obtain information, express feelings and emotions, and exchange opinions.
Standard 2.2: Students demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between the products and perspectives of the culture studied.
Standard 3.1: Students reinforce and further their knowledge of other disciplines through the foreign language.
The artist I have chosen for an example of Pre-Impressionism is Gustave Courbet. Courbet helped found the Realist movement in art. He believed that art should represent people and events in a realistic and honest manner. Courbet's break with the classical style influenced the Impressionist movement. Students will view work by Claude Monet and Mary Cassatt as representative of Impressionism. Monet led the Impressionist movement by painting outdoor scenes and events as personal and spontaneous. His art shows his concern with the effects of light and atmosphere. Cassatt was an American painter who settled in France and joined the Impressionist movement. Her paintings used light, bright colors and often portrayed people engaged in ordinary daily activities. Post-Impressionism will be examined through the work of Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh discovered a world of light and color that was strong, rebellious and daring and went beyond the colors of the Impressionists. Paintings by these artists will be examined in the classroom via film, slides, overhead transparencies, photos and/or posters along with biographical information on each artist.
Through the analysis of paintings I hope to lead my students to note comparisons and contrasts, similarities and differences between the Realism of Courbet, the Impressionist style of Monet and Cassatt and the Post-Impressionist work produced by Van Gogh. Looking at
Le Grand Pont
by Courbet reveals an outdoor scene/landscape painting which is one of the fundamental types of painting to be pursued by the Impressionist artists who followed him.
Le Grand Pont
further reveals the play of sunlight in the filtering of light through the trees, the reflections on the leaves themselves as well as on the cliffs, the bridge and the water. In addition to Courbet's open-air painting, the Impressionists also focused on this effect of light. That Courbet influenced the Impressionists is further evidenced by this statement by Impressionist painter Henri Fantin-Latour, "As artists, we all proceed in the direction indicated by Courbet…a powerful artist has shown us the way." (2)
Students will discover the influence of Courbet's open-air painting and light effects in the work of Monet. Monet used these influences to paint modern life and to portray the new leisure time activities of the middle to upper middle classes. The Impressionist themes will become further evident to my students as they do an analysis of first
The Beach at Trouville
(an example of leisure activity) and
(an example of modern train travel) by Monet. While she also followed the ideas of Impressionism, Cassatt focused on family scenes. As students view her painting
Breakfast in Bed
they will note this as an impression of a particular fleeting moment in time and will note the light effects on the sheets, clothing, cup and saucer. Also evident in this and other works by Cassatt is the Impressionist concern with everyday events.
Van Gogh also painted outdoors and showed an interest in light effects.
His Corner in Voyer d'Argenson Park
is a work he created in the Impressionist style. His rapid brush strokes in
The Night Café
resemble those of the Impressionists although his exaggerated color use goes beyond that of Impressionism. Van Gogh attempted to turn away from the Impressionist style of capturing a fleeting moment as shown by Monet and Cassatt. His paintings show an effort to record an image with more conciseness to the point of strong dark outlines around objects.
A cultural and historical perspective will be presented following the art analysis and biographical study. In relation to the paintings reviewed, students will be encouraged to ask what was happening in France at the time this work of art was produced? What evidence of historical events do we see in the artist's work and conversely what lack of evidence of historical events is shown by the artist's work? Only by exploring the history and culture of France will students understand the underlying historical context in which Impressionist paintings were created. Students will examine events leading up to, and including, the Impressionist period (1870-1910) thus providing insight to the transition from the culture of Pre-Impressionism (Courbet), to Impressionism (Monet, Cassatt), and then to Post-Impressionism (Van Gogh).
With Courbet, students will find that his realistic portrayal of life mirrors his realistic perception of politics and his involvement with the revolutionary Paris Commune. Students will note that Monet's and Cassatt's absence of political overtones in their paintings mirror their non-involvement with revolutionary activities. Monet left France and went to England at the same time that Courbet's involvement increased. Cassatt also left France during this period, returning to America until peace was restored. Van Gogh's move to France occurred after the political climate had stabilized.
The lessons continue in a field trip to the Yale Art Gallery to see actual paintings by the artists and their contemporaries. During our visit, we will use the methods for in-depth reading of a work of art as presented by Professor Prown. As the culminating activity my students, as young aspiring Impressionists, will copy and paint, as they are able, an Impressionist painting. It is not expected, and students will be aware, that this is an exercise in artistic expression and they will be encouraged and complimented on their best efforts. The emphasis will be on an awareness of light effects and the attempt to copy them. My students will learn that Impressionist artists were trained according to the acceptable methods of the time. "In the 1860's the art world was a tightly structured microcosm of political life in the Second Empire."(3) The government had strict policies regarding art training and which artists could participate in the Salon and exhibit their works. It was accepted that, as part of their training, young, aspiring artists spent hours painting and copying original works of art.