Banner image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, A Garden in Montmartre, 1890 - 1899 Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

By Richard Freeman

Not too long ago, two visitors to the outstanding exhibition at The Lightbox, Impressionism – the Art of Life, were overheard discussing how significant portraiture was in the oeuvre of the Impressionists.

After some time - and a little heat - they did not reach a conclusion.

Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940), Le Salon c.1910, oil on card laid on canvas, 615 x 680mm. Image courtesy of The Henry Moore Foundation acquired 1984

The visitors raised an interesting question, often discussed by art scholars who seem to largely agree that portraiture and figure drawings were secondary to landscapes and genre paintings but still of importance in understanding the contributions of Impressionism to culture. As with landscape and genre painting, the Impressionists changed the nature of portraiture and figure drawings.

When the Impressionists first exhibited as a group in 1874, they faced much ridicule and scepticism. But critic Jules Castagny wrote that Impressionists “do not describe a landscape, but rather the feelings behind that landscape”. The same can arguably be said of their portraits and figure drawings. Edouard Manet’s portraits of Berthe Morisot are an excellent example. In these portraits Manet brings a strong feeling of the seduction of the sitter, something new in portraiture. Incidentally, Berthe Morisot was an accomplished portrait painter herself and one of the few women Impressionists.

Camille Pissarro, Madame Pissarro sewing beside a Window, c. 1877 Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Many of the Impressionists were leading portrait and figurative artists. A few stand out. Auguste Renoir brought feelings of movement and freedom to his lavish society portraits of aristocracy, his sumptuous nudes and figure paintings. Among his well-known works are “Mme Georges and her Children” (1878), “The Luncheon of the Boating Party” (1881) and “Young Boy with a Cat” (1888).

Edgar Degas was important in the field. The two Degas items in The Lightbox exhibition show clearly the fluency of his subjects as they carry out their toilette or dance. His portraits of dancers are classics in their field. “Portraits at the Bourse” (1878) exhibits all the tensions and emotions Degas could produce. Camille Pissarro – well represented in The Lightbox exhibition – was a prolific portraitist and drawer of figures whose works are full of movement, and with those of Renoir and Degas, remain today as fresh as ever.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Bather (Baigneuse), c. 1890, The Barnes Foundation

One of the most productive artists was Edouard Vuillard who is also well-represented in The Lightbox exhibition.  He is reported to have painted some 500 portraits of his mother alone. In addition he executed large numbers of other portraits and figure drawings.

The figurative works in The Lightbox exhibition show well the new freedom that the Impressionists brought to the depiction of humans in all aspects of their lives. There is a great zest for life and the environment. A second look at their works is always rewarding.

See Impressionism: The Art of Life as it transcends into its final few weeks before Women in Photography: A History of British Trailblazers takes over at the end of January.