Parisian Art Movements in the Time of Gertrude Stein

by Jennifer Billings

Gertrude Stein was lucky to have lived in Paris during one of the most influential and turbulent periods of art movements. There were four major art movements that Stein was privileged to have witnessed in the making, and even more privileged to call the influential artists of the movements her friends. During the years 1903 to 1946, when Stein was living in Paris, the major art movements were Impressionism, Postimpressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism.

Although Impressionism truly was born in the 1880’s, the art movement was still alive and well while Stein was in Paris. Impressionist painters thought that their paintings should “express a perception and, while less fully descriptive than the usual picture, [have] its own validity – a truth to an experience” (Schapiro 22). Impressionists wanted to capture their first impression when viewing a scene. They sought out qualities and colors that normally people would not notice. Impressionist painters dealt with colors “as uninterpreted sensations” (Schapiro 49). This emphasis on “bizarre and untrue” colors that the artist perceived in the subject was “one root of the public’s uneasiness with impressionist paintings” (Schapiro 48). Artists used intense, abstracted color to convey their perception of the subject at hand.

Impressionist painters focus mainly on color, texture, and light in their works. Typically Impressionist painting plays with natural lighting and colors usually reflect from one object to the next; having the colors transfer from one object tends to the next creates a movement for the viewer’s eye to follow throughout the painting. Artists did not wait for one layer of paint to dry – they usually applied paint over wet paint, which produced softer edges and lines and allowed colors to intermingle. Unlike earlier artists, Impressionists did not include transparency in their paintings; impressionist works are typically opaque. Impressionist painters, such as Edgar Degas, were greatly influenced by photography. Their paintings began to take on a photographic composition; their works were not painted as a photograph – they stayed true to their use of color, texture and light – but how the paintings were composed changed. Subjects are centered in the work, and appear as if posing for a portrait. A good example of this centered composition is Renoir’s painting “On the Terrace”. The women are framed in the middle of the painting, and the work has the appearance of a portrait. Note that Renoir maintains his Impressionist roots and uses bold colors and bright natural lighting in this outdoor setting. All Impressionist artists did not strictly follow the centered, symmetrical composition. Degas in particular is known for his “snapshot” like compositions which emphasize color, light and movement. His subjects are off center and often asymmetrical. For example, in “Blue Dancers,” Degas has chosen to focus on the bottom of the canvas by placing his subjects there. He also breaks with traditional composition by cutting parts of his subjects out of the painting. Note the woman at the bottom of the canvas whose back is the only portion visible to the viewer.

Impressionism was not ever fully accepted by the Parisian public. They thought the works of Degas, Renoir, Monet, and other Impressionist painters to be “untrue” representations of the colors in nature. Without the artist’s searching, inquisitive eye, the Parisian audience could not understand or accept the bold color, natural lighting and textural emphasis that the Impressionists used in their works. Impressionist paintings did not have much success financially until much later in the twentieth century. In the 1870s and 1880s in France, there were economic recessions that stole the focus on the arts. This “financial stringency was accompanied by ideological reactions that led to a doubting and sometimes scornful view of the art and implicit ideals of the Impressionists” (Schapiro 299). For these reasons, Impressionist art was underappreciated in France during Stein’s time there. Gertrude Stein, however, recognized the importance and beauty of Impressionist works and collected several Renoirs to add to her gallery in Paris.

After the Impressionist movement, Postimpressionism took hold. This new movement was simply a slight change in Impressionism. New, younger artists emerged and they began to play mainly with the style of painting. They changed the use of textures and stroke techniques, altered their use of lines, and toned down the boldness of the colors on the canvas. Postimpressionists differ because they “[broke] with [the Impressionist] practice of sacrificing nuanced values to intensity [of color] and the abstract treatment of backgrounds as flat areas of strong color” (Scharpiro 304). Influential Postimpressionist artists such as Cezanne wanted to restore structure and order to painting by reducing objects to their basic shape while still maintaining the use of bright colors (Rewald). Postimpressionist artists include Cezanne, Rousseau, Van Gogh, Seurat, Lautrec, and many more. Stein was fond of Cezanne’s paintings and had many in her gallery.

Some Postimpressionists, such as Seurat, experimented with a new style of painting know as pointillism – this style uses tiny, bright dots of color closely placed together on the canvas to give shape and value to the subject. Texture is basically non-existent in pointillism and blending of colors is frowned upon. The artist should strive to use pure, bright colors placed closely together to create the sense of a blending colors. Postimpressionism was short lived, and was quickly followed by Fauvism.

Fauvism, although one of the shortest lived twentieth century art movements, was definitely one of the most controversial. This painting style was based on provocative subject matter, aggressive brushstrokes, and intense colors. These specific traits led to creation of the art movement’s name of Fauvism. “Les Fauves, the Wild Beasts, was the name an art critic spontaneously gave to a group of young painters after seeing their works hanging together at the Paris Salon d’Automne of 1905” (Whitfield 7). For an audience that was only beginning to come to terms with the Impressionist and Postimpressionist movements, the aggressiveness of Les Fauves paintings was startling. The public also found the frequent subject matter of nude women provocative. Fauvist art was characterized by wild, strong brushstrokes, and bold colors and placed little emphasis on the realistic representation of the subject. Fauvism was the result of “assimilating the richness and variety of first Impressionism and then Postimpressionism” (Whitfield 8).

A good representation of Fauvist art is “Harmony in Red” by Matisse. In this painting, the bold colors are overwhelming – almost the entire room is bathed in a bright, blood red. The painting is also highly unrealistic – the woman and the table are flat and two dimensional due to the lack of value. A Fauvist piece that accentuates the wild brushstroke technique is Derain’s “View of London and the Thames.” Here we see that the clear, strong brushstrokes, especially in the sky, appear hurriedly placed on the canvas. The painting maintains the Fauvist characteristic of bold and unrealistic color but portrays space and distance more realistically than Matisse’s “Harmony in Red.”

The short lifespan of the Fauvist movement was due mainly to the lack of “clear sighted pictorial aims or ringing moral directives” (Whitfield 8). The Fauvist artists, including Derain and Matisse, were held together due to friendship rather than being held together through their collective artistic aims. Matisse emerged as the leader of the friend group and the Fauvist movement because of his “authority as an artist and his passionate conviction that new art could and should find a public” (Whitfield 7). While the Parisian public did not embrace the Fauvist movement, Stein was a great fan of Matisse and collected many of his works.

Cubsim was the final art movement that Stein experienced in Paris. The Cubist art movement was considered to be an “avant-garde” movement (Cottington 125). This meant that Cubism was beyond what was considered normal and socially acceptable.  The two major Cubist artists were Picasso and Braque, but Cezanne and Matisse can also be classified as Cubists. Picasso and Matisse actually met through Gertrude Stein and continued a friendly lifelong artistic competition. Cubist artists were influenced the simplicity and strength of tribal art and masks of Africa (Cottington 129). Cubist artwork takes everyday objects and abstracts to the point that they become unrecognizable. Artists such as Cezanne would reduce normal objects to geometric shapes on component planes (Cottington 129).

An example of Cubist art is “The Accordionist” by Picasso. This painting exemplifies the Cubist style; it is strictly geometric shapes on one plane. Color is irrelevant in this work, however, Cubists did not shun color all together. Note that Picasso’s “The Guitar Player” is boldly colorful while still maintaining the Cubist style. Stein was a huge fan of Picasso’s work, and the two were close friends throughout her time in Paris. Picasso was definitely one of her favorite artists and his work was a focal point in her art collection.

Gertrude Stein lived in Paris from 1903 to 1946. During her time in the city of light, she was able to experience four hugely influential art movements – Impressionism, Postimpressionism, Fauvism and Cubism. Stein was fortunate to call many of the artists from these movements her dear friends, including Braque and Picasso. While the Parisian audience did not embrace these art movements, Stein realized the importance of each art movement and the pieces it produced. Her Parisian art gallery was a safe haven for artists and their work from all four art movements. She was undoubtedly ahead of her time.

Works Cited

Schapiro, Meyer. Impressionism: Reflections and Perceptions. New York: George Braziller, 1997. Print.

Rewald, John. Post-impressionism: from Van Gogh to Gauguin. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978. Print.

Whitfield, Sarah. Fauvism. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Cottington, David. Cubism and Its Histories. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2004. Print.

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