Painting a Picture of the Definition of Impressionism
I wrote this essay for my art history elective on Impressionist art. Ideally, the ideas developed within would require much more time and a higher word count to be fully realized.
Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right? 
Language is both the great gift of humanity and its great challenge. With the ability to communicate comes the struggles of ambiguity, imprecision, and connotation. In the field of art history these struggles are amplified by a dependence on broad, descriptive categories. The tension between ideas and the words used to describe them permeates much of artistic discourse; it is easy to call a painting “art” but more difficult to make the same distinction about a urinal.
No definition of an artistic movement will ever neatly and satisfactorily identify the set of artists who comprise it, because such a well-defined group does not exist. The value of artistic discourse lies in the debate and evolution of words and ideas rather than with some absolute solution. In this spirit of evolution, I propose a new paradigm which evaluates artistic movements using the statistical idea of the “bell curve.” By conceptualizing an artistic movement as a normal distribution, the complexity and variability of human nature can be accommodated. In a given movement, a main bulk of artists will share many similarities and fit the movement’s description neatly; they belong near the 50th percentile. Less typical artists can be evaluated on how they vary from the average, hopefully producing a more nuanced conception of their place
in art history. The key point of comparison would be the artistic movement’s “median” at the 50th percentile, which can be represented by an archetype of the movement.
On the bell curve representing the Impressionist movement, the 50th percentile archetype is a typical Impressionist painter who matches all the “stereotypes” of the movement. The closer to the left side of the graph and the lower the percentile, the nearer the artist’s style and philosophies are to traditional academic painting. The closer to the right side of the graph and the higher the percentile, the more the artist approaches Post-Impressionism. I will use this theoretical tool to discuss whether Manet is an Impressionist by comparing him to the archetypal Impressionist painter, emphasizing three main categories: painting style, subject matter, and professional characteristics.
Manet begins his career with a painting style highly different from the archetypal Impressionist and ends it with a typical Impressionist style. The Impressionist median exhibits choppy, loose brushstrokes and bright, light colors. Most of Manet’s work is far from this style: a “5th percentile” technique. Pieces like the Absinthe Drinker show smooth, modelled brushstrokes and shadowy color tones that rely heavily on black pigmentation; this reveals his conservative academic training. He is still on the Impressionist bell curve, however, rather than that of “academic painting.” This is due to the categorical similarity Manet shares with the Impressionists when he uses a “visual shorthand” in response to the subject and lighting before him. Art historian Robert L. Herbert describes this Impressionist characteristic as “the illusion that natural light was being recorded instinctively, without formulae.” Most Impressionists, however, took this ideal further than Manet’s early works did. Yet he produces
some paintings by the end of his career in a style highly faithful to the Impressionist archetype. Monet Painting in his Studio Boat, for example, displays all the “bright chromatic harmonies and free-flowing brushwork” of the purest Impressionist painter.
Manet differs little from the archetypal Impressionist painter in his painting subjects. He shares with Impressionism a focus on modern life, which is a fundamental characteristic of the movement. Like many of the Impressionists, Manet was rejected multiple times from the Salon and suffered harsh criticisms for his subject matter choices. Olympia, for example, is a painting of a high-class courtesan of the kind that populated contemporary Paris; Manet remained faithful to his observations about modern-day reality. This portrayal of realistic contemporary “characters” (and the flaneur tendencies that accompanied them) place Manet near the median of the Impressionist bell curve. The only potential point of divergence is Manet’s overwhelming emphasis on portraiture, but this is minor, as his portrait subjects are taken from modern life.
In his professional characteristics Manet perhaps differs most from the Impressionist archetype. First and most obviously, the Impressionists organized themselves, and Manet never participated in any of their exhibitions. Although he was friends with and socialized with many of the Impressionists, his career goals diverged from theirs. Manet strove to sympathetically present modern subject matter to a conservative audience. This approach to his vocation was unique; the archetypal Impressionist was more thoroughly modern. Manet can once again be characterized as “5th percentile Impressionist.” This is distinct from “95th percentile academic painting” which might look like “aiming, professionally, to display historical paintings in a way that is sympathetic to liberal, avant-garde individuals.” This goal is based on a value judgement which prioritizes tradition and convention, while Manet’s underlying value judgement prioritizes modernity. His career goals are near the edge of Impressionism, conforming to some Impressionist focuses while still interacting with the ideals of conservative society.
Through analyzing Manet’s position on the “Impressionist bell curve” it is clear that he is an Impressionist, albeit an unusual one. He conforms well to the Impressionist archetype in his painting subjects, displays a wider variance in painting style, and differs most from the archetype in his professional characteristics; yet never do his differences exceed what must be expected from the variability of human nature. Despite his unique characteristics, the nuances allowed by the bell curve conceptualization of Impressionism admit him into the movement where other definitions and frameworks might not. One potential drawback to this theoretical framework is the difficulty inherent in translating qualitative judgements into quantitative ones. Qualitative judgements always possess some degree of ambiguity, however—this theoretical framework merely brings the issue to the forefront of one’s awareness. And with shifting awareness and new perspectives comes the value of discourse, in art history and beyond. Opinions should be challenged and ideas should be changed—as humanity strives to point ever more clearly at the moon.