Paris during this period was without doubt the most decadent city in the world. It was also the birth place of modern art. The controlled art of the state run academies was soon to give way to a more expressive and experimental art. Debate over who was the first truly modern artist gets quite heated, but probably the only true answer is that it was a progression.
Delacroix Courbet Manet
Delacroix is often held up as the first truly modern artist – for others it was Courbet – and for many it just has to be Manet.
In a nutshell, Delacroix was modern in technique because he put expression and unexpected touches of colour into his brushstrokes that were contrary to the teachings of the Academies so he was seen as a bit of an anarchist. Courbet was modern in content because he painted political messages into his pictures – and was also one of the first to hold a one man show.
Manet is thought of as the most modern of all because he used a modern technique and painted modern subjects. In other words, Manet’s technique was sketchy and unfinished looking and the content was modern because he painted the people of the Paris streets – the down and outs, the beggars and the prostitutes.
There were a huge number of Cafés and Cabarets in Paris at this time. The bourgeois would rarely go out in the evenings to eat or drink, preferring to entertain in their modern apartments with gas lighting and every modern convenience. And so, the cafés were left to the artists, the poets , the philosophers and the bohemians. Debate ensued, and it is often said that the story of modern art can be tracked by looking at the cafés in which the artists drank, argued, and discussed ideas.
This painting by Degas (above left) of the café known as La Nouvelle Athenes shows two friends of Degas. She is Helen André and he is Marcelin Desboutin. In real life, she was a beautiful cabaret singer. But Degas has painted her staring into her glass of absinthe. This is the ‘green hour’ when La Fée verte (the green fairy, as absinthe was known) would swoop down and take you out of your miserable life and into oblivion for a few hours. Looking more closely, it is uncertain if she has her legs crossed or her shoes on the wrong feet. He has pushed his hat to the back of his head and is concentrating on his pipe and his beer. Now I should have said that these two WERE friends of Degas because neither apparently spoke to Degas for years after they saw this painting. Degas had the reputation of something of a grumpy old man and you would have thought he could have used all the friends he could have got, but painting this way did not endear him to either André or the philosopher and engraver, Deboutin. By the way, have you noticed that the tables don’t seem to have visible legs? Perhaps its the power of the absinthe.
The Moulin Rouge La Goulue the Greedy one La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge
Cabarets were a popular way of spending the evening and one of the most popular venues opened in 1889 and is still going strong – The Moulin Rouge. There were 13 working windmills in Montmartre at this time but the Moulin was bright red windmill that never ground anything other than its customers money. But their troupe of dancing girls are fascinating. Nini Patte en l’air (Nini foot in the air) because she could kick higher than any of the other girls. La Sauterelle (the little shrimp) because she could jump higher than the other girls – and La Goulue (the greedy one) who would drink the clients drinks as she danced past their tables and claimed to be able to drink any man under the table. What a fascinating lot they were – their stories just go on and on…!
It would seem that this history of the beginning of modern art in Paris is based on the huge energy that spurred debate and inspired the artists to produce something completely different.
From this academy painting by Cabanel to this Renoir Impressionist picture to this Gauguin Post Impressionist and finally to Picasso and the beginnings of cubism!