The Fort at Antibes Claude Monet 1888
When we think of watercolor flowers and ballet dancers, it’s easy to assume that the Impressionists lived in a peaceful serene time, but nothing could be further from the truth! The world was changing in France and everywhere! Revolution was on!
That first alternative show of the rejected works from the Salon (which included many of our Impressionists) was in 1864 – the very same time the American Civil War was going on! (1861-1865). Yet revolutions had been starting in Europe even earlier, including 1848 where it looked like they were going on everywhere! The Communist Manifesto, after all, was published in 1848.
The big ones started in France. Industrialization at that time meant workers were working crazy hours – if they could find work - and living in really wretched conditions. There were food shortages. Things were pretty bad. Even the nobles were getting tired of the absolute power of the monarchies.
In France in 1848, Napoleon III – the nephew of that really famous guy Napoleon I – was elected as the First President of France, but the French Constitution had a provision that he couldn’t seek re-election in 1852. Napoleon III was not ready to go! He staged a coup, and a new constitution was adopted with 10-year terms, no limits and a reduction in parliament’s power. Within a year on December 2, 1852, Napoleon III had enough of that and declared “The Second French Empire” with himself as Emperor!
Napoleon III by Alexandre Cabanel 1963
Far from simply being some crazy ego driven guy, Napoleon III actually did a lot of good! There was a huge renovation of Paris, modernization of banking, promotion of the Suez Canal and other agricultural reforms that helped end famines, consolidation of the railroad system and improvements in education like allowing women into universities! Workers were even given the right to organize and strike.
The renovation of Paris was a huge thing! We think of Paris as an architecturally beautiful city, with fabulous big boulevards, stunning parks and tree lined streets, but the Paris of the 1840’s was far from glorious! The population had doubled, and the streets were narrow, crowded and filthy. There were too many people living in the same rooms, disease flourishing, and bad sanitation.
The renovation was all encompassing! Two new railroad stations were built, areas outside Paris were annexed into the city proper, the sewer system was basically redone, old buildings were torn down and uniform looking buildings on new avenues were built. Buildings we now think of as iconic like The Paris Opera and Les Halles were part of the project as was the renovation and creation of gorgeous parks. In short, the city blossomed with new beautiful things and the construction of stuff that actually improved its people’s daily lives.
The Avenue de l'Opera Camille Pissarro 1898
Yet at the same time, by July 1870, Napoleon got the French involved in the Franco-Prussian War and not everyone was pleased with the modernization of Paris, especially its costs. The French lost the war, Napoleon III was captured, and went into exile in England, dying in 1873.
Yet the history above shows a couple of things. Our Impressionists sort of started in 1864 and continued their surge through the 1870’s and 80’s. Increased recognition that workers did matter led the Impressionists to their paintings of everyday people. Improvements in working conditions brought about some leisure time and thus the paintings of dances. The railroad allowed our painters to get out to the countryside more easily. Yet, not all welcomed the changes or got to benefit from them so there were somber paintings like “L' Absinthe” showing a forlorn woman drinking that dastardly drink!
The question arises - will our current times result in a new movement in art?