The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘Impressionism’

The New Age, 30 June 1910, pp.204–5.

By Walter Sickert.
I have to use the word after all. It is a label I have always disliked and kicked against, but when a label has been used for a matter of forty years, it is, perhaps, useless to protest. So I will say no more about it, and just use it like everybody else.
A certain intemperate fury of intellectual curiosity has led some French writers, some French painters, and some Frenchmen who are perhaps half painters and half boomsters, to reason in this manner. “Impressionism,” they say, “gave us something new. The generation that brought it forth is passing away. What they produced was good because it was new. Henceforth art that is to be vital will have to be something quite other than Impressionism, and something brand new. The art of the Impressionists bewildered and enraged the bourgeois and eventually acquired a high value in the market. Therefore if we now produce things that astonish and annoy the public we shall become classics.” In the language of the stage-manager they cry “strike and set.” The Impressionist act they consider is played out, the curtain is down.
I would invite the new French school, the Violentistes, the Tantpisistes, shall we say, to consider for a moment that intellectual evolutions take more than one generation to deploy. One generation suspects a potentiality, the next hints at it. Tremulously the third stammers a few syllables, and so it goes on.
We may perhaps say that the addition made to the wealth of ideas by the Impressionists was twofold. They have shown us that composition has infinite possibilities, infinite permutations and combinations other than those already found by the old masters. In this discovery their chief guide was nature. But their research was greatly stimulated and sharpened by the importation of certain work from the Far East.
It is interesting to compare the different uses to which this stimulus was put, on the other hand by the French Impressionists, and on the other by Whistler. The Impressionists being, to begin with, a group, and therefore mutually braced, at once supple and rigid, having their roots firmly embedded in the tradition of the school of their country, digested the East, took from it what they wanted for their nourishment and rejected the rest. What they learnt was entirely assimilated. They went on with their own business, like a cobra who has swallowed a goat, goes quietly on with his own business of being a cobra with the goat inside him.
Whistler, coming from a country with no traditions, did not stay long enough in France to affiliate himself to the French school as he might have done. (Sisley, who was an Englishman, did this.) Whistler had the egomaniac view of art and life, and did not understand the spirit of the hive. So that when, among the Chelsea æsthetes, he came under the fascination of the Japanese imports, he did not digest what they had to teach. He painted pictures in which Japanese fans were pinned on to English walls, and Japanese pots were arranged on English shelves, and English ladies or models were popped into kimonos on Chelsea [end of p.204] balconies. He took the art of oil-painting, of which he was just getting a real grasp, and thinned it into an imitation of the gouache delicacy proper to a Kakemono. (Conder, painting on taffeta silk with gouache, took a more cunning path.) Whistler, instead of the cobra who had swallowed the goat, was rather like a cobra who wondered whether he hadn’t better become a goat. His immense talent, his natural genius for painting, his exquisite eye for colour, his profound sense of drawing in three dimensions, his passionate romantic feeling, his amazing industry, enabled him to produce an oeuvre of infinite beauty and pathos. But fatherless as he came into the world, so he left it childless, while the Impressionists have peopled a universe with their art. I say this with due respect to the weight that must be attached to the opinions of Mr. Ricketts and Sir Philip Burne-Jones.
Perhaps the importance that we must attach to the achievement of an artist or a group of artists may properly be measured by the answer to the following question: Have they so wrought that it will be impossible henceforth, for those who follow, ever again to act as if they had not existed? To this there can be but one answer.
They have changed the language of painting. Oh, not from the foundation to the coping-stone! Only journalists and politicians make claims of that kind. We, who know the steps of the progression, know better than that. We, who know Poussin, can see how Degas follows on, normally, naturally, in most conservative order. We can see Camille Pissarro evolve from Corot gradually. (Not from the big Bond Street Corot, but from the Corot we know in French collections.) We know certain canvases of Pissarro that mark the half-way house in this development, this normal, natural, and most conservative development.
I have said that the Impressionists have added two things to the language of painting, and I have named one, enlargement of the possibilities of composition. Their second gift has been an enlargement equally extensive and important of the understanding of colour, especially in the shadows. In this the essential fact was that they reacted from the abuse of glazes which had completed the decadence of the art of oil-painting. They returned to the practice of the great primitives and secured their effects by the juxtaposition of definitely intentional colours, rejecting entirely the softening and dirtying veil of brown which made, of a mechanical process, a substitute for the accumulation of touches of precise thought and observation.
I remember once standing in the wings of the old Connaught Theatre in Holborn, which is now I think the repository of a seed merchant, with much the same frontage. I was talking to a scene-shifter, who also worked in the paint-room a little, if I remember rightly. “O, yes,” he said, “I know all about artists’ work as well. Artists’ work lays entirely with the badger. It’s all softening.” Well, with the Impressionist there is no softening of that kind, no slurring. Each touch is put on knowingly, clean and separate, with a definite and foreseen function.
I am glad to say that now more and more is it becoming possible to see fine examples of the Impressionists in England. The absent are always in the wrong, and it was only in the absence of the work itself that it remained possible for the panic-stricken opponents of the light to represent this severe and pure reaction in art as being the cult of the vague or the refuge of the negligent. The dismay and fury of the men who depend for their living on the dwindling horse-traffic in a town is natural, and excites sympathy and pity. But these are unfortunately not the men whom it would be useful to elect on a traffic board for the consideration of the future lines on which a one-pace electrical system should be laid down and linked up.
The Impressionists have killed many things, among others the exhibition picture and the exhibition picture system. The directness of their method and the clearness of their thought enabled them to say what they had to say on a small surface. The canvases they produced were such as are suitable to the rooms we live in, and to the growing mass of customers of moderate means. They introduced the group system into exhibition rooms, showing that one picture by an artist, though a detachable unit, also forms a link in a chain of thought and intention that runs through his whole oeuvre. By their burning enthusiasm and steady purpose they succeeded, led by Durand-Ruel, the Napoleon of dealers, in creating a circle of convinced and understanding patrons. They were willing to work for bread and water and their materials for many years. Masterpieces changed hands for £2, for £4. As to £12, “ça c’est déjà un prix.” In that direction lies the salvation of English painting. A generation is arising here that has learnt its lesson from the Impressionists. They want little patrons for little portraits, little still-lifes and little landscapes. They will no longer consent to prepare expensive exhibition-posters, to “submit” them, or to pass the best nights of their youth awake with the hope of some day, by the favour of an “expert” or a group of “experts,” hanging in Mr. Tate’s collection by the side of Millais’s “Speak, speak.”
© Estate of Walter R. Sickert

How to cite

Walter Richard Sickert, ‘Impressionism’, in The New Age, 30 June 1910, pp.204–5, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 21 May 2024.