Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, 1872-73.
Edgar Degas, Place de la Concorde, 1875.
In comparing and contrasting the two paintings below, I dissect their formal qualitites to address the following two questions: First, how does each work relate to the larger project and goals of the Impressionist movement? Second: What is specifically “modernist” about each painting?
Renouncing the academic dogmas of the Old Masters, Impressionists strove to capture contemporary subjects and themes. Claude Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines (1872-73) and Edgar Degas’s Place de la Concorde (1875) present the viewer with masterfully depicted moments of Parisian life. The fleeting and the spontaneous of the everyday was a primary focus of Impressionist artwork. In Monet’s Boulevard, we see a crowded street from the vantage point of an onlooker — likely viewing from one of the Haussmann structures, whereas Degas’s rendition shows a more detailed and fragmented (literally edge-cutting) scene of an empty Parisian plaza. Both works attest to representation of the era’s Modernity: the Industrial Revolution of vast cities.
Clement Greenberg understood Modernism to be an art of “self-criticism.” This movement chose to criticize art itself, questioning all the artistic standards and expectations of the time. The Impressionists focused their practice on the act of painting, not the illusion of a painting. They acknowledged the materials of art’s process: the pigments of paint, the flatness of the canvas, and the limitations of its shape.
Here, both Degas and Monet utilize this “painterly” method. Monet’s interpretation is sketchy; he used quick dabs of paint, giving the work this unfinished, ethereal quality. Degas recognizes the canvas’s physicality with his emphasis his scene’s vast empty space.
They rejected the super-real mimesis of Neo-Classicism for the optical sensations of the ephemeral visions of Impressionism.
“For them, the purpose of their art has been to simply give new perspective to familiar landscapes, to refresh and draw attention to these sites — even their overly familiar urban-scapes. Their art, which is so strong and majestic, rejects any meaning beyond itself. Perhaps, that’s where its power lies and builds upon itself. It’s pure.”