Impressionist, and proud

Underdogs have taken note and reclaimed terms that were once hurtful or derisory: ‘queer’ has become a positive label for the LGBT community, ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ are no longer insults but badges of honour (thanks in part to the Gleeks), ‘slut walk’ participants have tried to de-stigmatise the word, and the Tea Party movement’s ‘tea-baggers’…well, that’s a bad example. But this ‘current’ propensity for linguistic reappropriation is not such a modern phenomenon…

The Impressionists came to be known as such after a 10-year battle for recognition. In 19th-century France, artistic esteem could only be attained by recognition by the Academy of Fine Arts and the displaying of their artwork in the Salons, or yearly exhibitions in Paris. This new art movement was too mind-blowing for those stuffy old codgers – Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass didn’t make the grade because of the daring inclusion of a stark-naked lady frolicking at a picnic. I can’t imagine what they would make of Prince Harry’s trip to Las Vegas…

 

Reconstruction of Prince Harry’s trip to Vegas…
Edouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass, 1863.
Oil on canvas, 208 x 264.5 cm.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

 

A brief glimmer of hope came in 1863 when Napoleon III, shocked by the quality artwork that was being sidelined, opened an exhibition alongside the official Salon, an Exhibition for Rejects. This group of artists received more visitors than the official Salon, but most came along for a good chuckle at these deluded ‘artists’ and their strange paintings. Requests for another exhibition were denied, until in 1874 they decided to take matters into their own hands…

Thirty artists including Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne, Degas and Morisot participated in a private exhibition, which was still too zany for many. Louis Leroy wrote a sarcastic, satirical review, coining the term ‘Impressionists’ as a play on words of the title of Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise. The term caught on, and what was meant to be a moniker of derision became a badge of honour for the group. And Leroy must have been laughing on the other side of his face when Impressionism spread beyond France, paving the way for Modern art, and even becoming the long-lasting legacy of 19th-century French art.

So take a leaf out of the Impressionists’ book and wear those insults with pride. My suggestions for some topically beleaguered individuals include: Prince Harry – ‘The Naked Prince’, Todd Akin – ‘The Legitimator’, and I’m sure Julian Assange could put a positive spin on ‘coward’, ‘tool’ or ‘cyber terrorist’.

Sweden’s Nationalmuseum has an exhibit dedicated to 19th-century France and the beginning of the Modern era, until 3 February 2013. If you would like to read more about the peppy Impressionists, try this impressive art book or compact gift version, written by Nathalia Brodskaya.