Romanticism to impressionism: art to music

Romanticism to impressionism: art to music

The early 19th century was dominated in Europe by the Romantics. Romanticism, sown by contemporary writers, poets and philosophers, gave rise to an aesthete that exalted emotion and nature and their representations in art forms. The Industrial Revolution, Napoleonic wars, the American Civil War and overall disenchantment with the status of society propelled the rise of this style.

Dancers in Blue, Edgar Degas, oil on canvas/
Edgar Degas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From time immemorial, various forms of art have influenced each other, across mediums, geographies and styles. The artistic forms that prevail in the painting as well as the musical realm are indeed a microcosm of all the inspiration that each artist has had over decades, or centuries. Many are familiar with the concept of Impressionism in art. Oscar Claude Monet’s Water Lilies remain till today one of the most iconic, most recognisable of images. Through his works, Monet (1840-1926) ushered in a new era for art. More so, he and his cohorts, inadvertently, helped forge a similar transition in style in Western classical music. Monet’s counterpart in the musical world, Claude-Achille Debussy (1862 -1918), debuted a style far removed from the prevailing Romantic style of music in the late 19th century and captivated the audiences. How did impressionism come about in art? What are the components of impressionism, in both art and music? This article attempts to understand more of this great creative period of imagination.
The early 19th century was dominated in Europe by the Romantics. Romanticism, sown by contemporary writers, poets and philosophers, gave rise to an aesthete that exalted emotion and nature and their representations in art forms. The Industrial Revolution, Napoleonic wars, the American Civil War and overall disenchantment with the status of society propelled the rise of this style. It was a style that championed nature, human virtues, the value of the common man and above all, ostensible and palpable emotions. Artists expressed as much feeling and passion as could be loaded on to a canvas. A landscape had to evoke a mood while a crowd scene had to show expressions on every face. Portraits were not just representations of the physical self—the sitter would be given eyes meant to be mirrors of the soul, a smile, a grimace, or a certain tilt of the head. With deft touches, the artist would portray a subject surrounded by an atmosphere of innocence, madness, virtue, loneliness, altruism or greed. One need only look at a few canvases of the leading artists of the period to understand.

Women in the Garden, Claude Monet, oil on canvas /
Claude Monet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Eugene Delacroix (1796-1863)’s masterpiece Liberty Leading the People is perhaps one of the most representative pieces of French Romanticism. It depicts an uprising in France. It champions revolution, resistance to age old social orders and above all, nationalism. The main protagonist of the painting is a woman who is nude to the waist. Her yellow dress has fallen from her shoulders and yet she manages to hold up a bayonetted musket in her left hand and raise the French national flag, the tricolour, in her other hand. Struggling to stay fully attired she may be, but she is no less confident as she powerfully strides forward looking back partially to reassure those she leads. This is not a portrait or an image of any specific individual; rather, it serves as an allegory for liberty. The individuals surrounding Liberty herself represent different members of society. In this painting, factory workers, children and even seemingly affluent members of the society are running to Liberty’s call. Likewise, the dead underfoot represent the insurmountable human loss and sacrifice during a period of social and economic upheaval. Delacroix’s message that revolution is for all, not just the down-trodden or disenfranchised, reverberates across the image and beyond. Pride, glory and overall rush of adrenaline are a few of the emotions onlookers feel upon glancing at this image. Consequently, it remains one of the iconic paintings of the west simply for the plethora of emotions it elicits.
Jacque Louis-David (1748-1825) was another painter of the Romantic era in whose paintings the sobriety typical of the Romantic period is evident. Oath of the Horatii depicts a battle between Roman soldiers of warring cities. The protagonists, Rome and Alba Longa, stress the importance of self-sacrifice and patriotism. The colours chosen appear to be intentionally dull to give prominence to the underlying story. There is a notion of righteousness and timelessness in the way the two parties are up in arms, holding their weapons almost at straight angles.
Another artist of the Romantic era known for his love of landscapes was Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). Turner painted shipwrecks, fires, natural catastrophes and natural phenomena such as sunlight, stormy weather, rain and fog. Dutch Boats in a Gale is an example where he juxtaposes the all-encompassing brutality of nature with the vulnerability of humans. Nature is painted, through dark ominous clouds and silvery, frothy crests of waves, at its most virulent, in a type of savage grandeur, a natural world that no man can master.
Western classical music experienced the emotional excesses of the romantic period as well. During this period, musical instruments were being improved to provide a better range and stronger sounds. The orchestra itself had increased in size to accommodate new instruments. Music had also undergone a metamorphosis of sorts—becoming an art to be enjoyed in concert by the public and not remain just a pastime of the aristocracy. Aided by all these changes and the prevailing environment, music became more expressive and emotional. Famous early Romantic composers include Robert Schumann (1810-1856), Frederic Chopin (1810-1849), Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) and Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). Others who followed are Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Franz Liszt (1811-1886), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Using the classical forms of sonata and symphony as a starting point, composers began focusing more on new melodic styles, richer harmonies, new chords, and ever more dissonance, ie, a combination of tones which seemingly suggest a requirement of resolution or coming together. In music, the term colour is used to define how the sound feels to the listener and identify the type of instrument the music is being played from. By virtue of the improvements in instruments, particularly the piano, the colour was largely intensified.
The experience for the listener today continues to be a rich one. Ride of the Valkyries, a popular piece from Wilhelm Richard Wagner’s Die Walkure opera is exemplary in this regard. The piece is clearly a clever demonstration of orchestration and a journey across melodies and tonality and has a deafening intensity of sound delicately partnered with short durations. As the music moves swiftly back and forth from intense to very calm, the experience is one that is tremendously emotional.
The Romantic period carried on in full force in both painting and music until a group of artists in Paris decided to endeavour in a journey that would leave an indelible mark in the history of art. In 1874, a group of artists called the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc organised an exhibition in Paris. Its founding members included Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro. The group was unified only by its independence from the official annual salon or exhibition in Paris for which a jury of artists from the Académie des Beaux-Arts selected artworks and awarded medals. In putting together this exhibition, the artists chose to publicly and vehemently eschew the prevailing Romantic style and introduce something very new. Staging the equivalent of a coup of sorts in the art world, these artists, perhaps unknowingly, ushered in the period of impressionism.
The name impressionism itself came about rather fortuitously. Impressionism gets its name from an interesting incident surrounding one of Monet’s exhibits when the artist showed his painting titled Impression, Sunrise in Paris in 1874. Louis Leroy, an eminent art critic of the time who had, no doubt, been strongly influenced by the classical school of thought, derided Monet’s work as an ‘impression’, a mere shadow of a work, a sketch which was not quite complete, not quite ready. Leroy could not have foreseen the ramifications of his choice of words, intended in fact to be derisive.
While art critics of the time may have lamented this great departure from the then established style, few will now contest that the style is technically impressive. The technique is characterised by short, broken brushstrokes that barely convey forms, pure unblended colors, and an emphasis on the effects of light. Rather than neutral white, grays, and blacks, Impressionists often rendered shadows and highlights in colour. The impressionists took ordinary subject matter, a lake, a park, people going about their daily lives—often in familiar settings across Paris or France; they offered unusual visual angles and they did so with the usage of the small, thin, visible brush strokes. These strokes emanated a look of incompletion, a premeditated desire to not belabor on the exact pictorial content—rather emphasise the mood of the moment with ample usage of light. The artists’ loose brushwork gives an effect of spontaneity and effortlessness that masks their often diligently constructed compositions.
Impressionism characterised a new wave of consciousness amongst artists in France, a rise of a new style breaking all previous conventions creating ripples amongst artistic sensibilities in Europe, Americas and beyond for decades to come. While few know what sort of an uproar these seemingly incomplete, garishly coloured paintings created, more than a century later their work is recognised today for their modernity, incorporation of new technology and ideas, and its depiction of modern life. And in this respect, Monet and Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917) can be considered the forerunners. Monet’s Water Lilies, is a series of approximately 150 oil paintings depicting the scenery in his own flower garden at his home in Giverny, France. The paintings span a 30-year period from 1897 to 1926. In each piece is evident his preference for loose brushwork, his use of bright colours to paint not just the lilies but the leaves and the reflection of other trees on the water.

Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David, oil on canvas / Jacques-Louis David [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Monet is most skillful in portraying the passage of light, on the water, the reflection of the sky on the water with deft usage of lighter and darker shades of the same colours – greens and blues. When viewed up close, as seen by the writer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York’s permanent collection, the art work appears fluid, spontaneous and loose—mainly attributable to the brushwork. Compared to other paintings of the early renaissance or the Romantic period, these works feel lighter—perhaps for the subject matter or perhaps simply for the way the light plays across the canvas. When viewed from slightly afar, all these brushstrokes forge together to present a soothing image that the viewer cannot stop marveling at.
Whilst Monet focused mainly on natural landscapes, Degas’ is known for portraying elements of contemporary life. For nearly thirty years, Degas painted ballerinas at dance recitals, at practice sessions, perhaps because these proved to be his most commercially acclaimed pieces of work. But each painting is a study in his predilection for unorthodox composition. The Orchestra of the Opera is one such painting. This is the portrait of a prominent bassoonist at the Paris Opera who is shown in mid-performance and is surrounded by other musicians of the orchestra with ballerinas in the background. The juxtaposition of the orchestra with the silhouettes of almost headless dancers defied the rules of traditional perspective, perhaps even today. Degas’ works range from interesting urban studies of disenfranchised people to an array of female nudes. However, his most prolific work remains the Dancer series. Dancers in Blue, from this collection, remains one of the most iconic images. Portraying four dancers, who appear to be preparing for a recital, the artist displays the figurines in different postures. The vivid blue of their ballet dresses is contrasted with the generous daubs of deep ochre and green forming a stage background. Despite the deep hues, there is no dearth of light and the canvas appears illuminated. The picture seems to hold a voyeuristic appeal as the artist appreciates this deeply intimate moment of bonding. Through this portrayal, the artist also indicates the underlying strength in an otherwise feminine and delicate art form.

Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, oil on canvas / Eugène Delacroix [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The grand rhetoric of the late Romantic era thus changed from a realistic treatment of the subject in the early nineteenth century to a conveyance of an individual impression of the subject at a given moment in time. The most important discerning characteristic of musical impressionism is the use of ‘colour’, or in musical term, timbre, which can be achieved through orchestration, harmonic usage, texture, etc. Other elements of music impressionism involve new chord combinations, ambiguous tonality, extended harmonies, use of modes and exotic scales, parallel motions, and evocative titles. In orchestral works, for example, the percussion section was enlarged to include the celesta, the piano, the glockenspiel, and the triangle. Nuance, subtlety, and a predilection for unexpected rhythms were the aesthetic currency. The subject matter of nature – such as the various manifestations of water – held particular attraction for the French masters (eg, Debussy’s orchestral masterpiece, La Mer, and Ravel’s magical piano work, Jeux d’eau). Notable musicians of this era were Englishman Frederik Delius (1862–1934), the Spaniard Manuel de Falla (1876– 1946), the Italian Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936).
Overall, impressionist music is characterised by atmosphere and subtle emotion. Technically, this period saw a departure from the major/minor harmonies and an inclusion of whole tone scales, advanced chromatic harmony and dissonance. Shorter musical forms such as the prelude, nocturne and the song were preferred to the traditional sonata and the symphony concerto. As the orchestra gained stature, orchestration began to be viewed as an art by itself. With regard to rhythm, the impressionist era musicians abstained from a strict sense of pulse to allow for a more free-flowing feeling. Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune from The Suite Bergamasque allows for precisely that experience. Any listener, acquainted with Western classical music or otherwise, will perceive the tempo, the tone and colour which altogether induce a calming, gentle, soft and soothing experience. The piece is by no means monotonous as Debussy in his own style brings forth undulations in the tempo.

Dutch Boats in a Gale by Joseph Mallord William Turner, oil on canvas / J. M. W. Turner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

However, this rise and fall is very different, perhaps slightly understated, versus that in pieces such as Ride of the Valkyries. Bolero is a one movement orchestral piece by Mauricio Ravel (1875-1937). Originally composed as a ballet, the piece which premiered in 1928, is Ravel’s most famous musical composition. Accompanied by a ubiquitous cadence throughout the piece, the Bolero lifts the mood of the listener through the rise and fall of the piece.
The period of impressionism straddles many an artist, many a musician and a tremendous wealth of talent. The influences of the impressionist era redefined the artistic aesthete and paved the way for the modernists of the early 20th century. There is no documented evidence of the link between impressionism in art and music or the link between poetry, literature and art. Figureheads in each stream perhaps sat together, thought together or simply liked each other’s work but chose to channel their energies as per their own interpretation. Perhaps, that is the most appealing feature of this movement and the reason why it continues to endure. And whilst several other art movements have followed in both the artistic realms, these artists and musicians remain symbols of innovation and regeneration. They remain, and will continue to be, figures of inspiration.

Sabah Saleheen Azim is an aspiring art writer who has trained with the Sotheby’s Learning Institute. Banker by profession, Sabah Azim is an avid collector and looks for inspiring and moving art across the world.

December 2017

The early 19th century was dominated in Europe by the Romantics. Romanticism, sown by contemporary writers, poets and philosophers, gave rise to an aesthete that exalted emotion and nature and their representations in art forms. The Industrial Revolution, Napoleonic wars, the American Civil War and overall disenchantment with the status of society propelled the rise…

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