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Thursday, February 2, 2012

The label “Impressionist,” like “Tory” or “intellectual” or “suffragette,” was first used as an insult.

Monet’s Scientific Impressions
The label “Impressionist,” like “Tory” or “intellectual” or “suffragette,” was first used as an insult. In this case, the insult was hurled by Louis Leroy, who coined the term in “Exhibition of the Impressionists,” his famous review of the 1874 exhibit that made Renoir, Pissarro, Monet and others famous. Leroy described one painting as “palette-scrapings placed uniformly on a dirty canvas,” and many others agreed. The works of the Impressionists were dismissed as sloppy, slap-dash messes. There might be a few contemporary artists who would be happy to hear their work described like this, but the Impressionists weren’t. They insisted that their paintings represented the world far more accurately than the old masters had. According to a study published last year, they just might have been right.
Between 1899 and 1905, Claude Monet made 19 paintings of the British House of Parliament at various times of day. Like all the Impressionists, Monet was fascinated by subtle differences in light and shading and captured these in his works. He captured them with remarkable accuracy, as Jacob Baker and John E. Thornes demonstrated in last year’s study. Baker and Thornes compared the position of the sun in the paintings with astronomical records and found that they matched exactly. As Thornes told the New York Times, “We can date, almost to within 15 minutes, when he first put the sun onto certain images.” Now that they know how precise Monet’s observations were, Baker and Thornes hope to use his paintings to analyze “London fogs and air quality during this period.” Apparently, those “palette-scrapings” were placed on canvas far more carefully than M. Leroy cared to admit.

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