My kids’ elementary school holds a “Van Gogh” night every year, where students share various paintings they’ve done copied off of Monet and Seurat and one-eared Vincent. For whatever reason, the Impressionists make good fuel for children’s art classes- as the art dealer character says in Six Degrees of Separation, a good 2nd grade teacher can turn every student into Matisse. Maybe Impressionists are just easier to copy than realistic art? Unless you’re Picasso, who said that it took him four years to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child.
But it is interesting also that the Impressionists, unlike almost all earlier European art, never seem to grow more culturally distant with time. College book stores still sell stacks of posters of Starry Nights and Sunflowers and Water lilies to adorn freshman dorm rooms, but almost never realist paintings of the same era or Renaissance Madonnas; alienated high school students can disappear into Seurat in a way that would never work for Raphael or Rothko:
It’s easy to say that the Impressionists simply solved aesthetic problems in ways that allowed them to be universal, immediate, not to require the dense fabric of classical or Biblical reference that makes earlier paintings comprehensible. My dad will sometimes complain that whenever he’d take me to a museum when I was a kid, I’d demand to know what “the story” was of any painting we looked at- though truth be told , there was a story more often than not. An Impressionist painting is simply about “us”- about our modern, individual, pleasure-seeking perceptions– in a way that the centuries of realist landscapes and still lives and portraiture before them can’t be. The Impressionists may be on the other side of the great gulf of time, the other side of the cataclysms of war and ideology that destroyed the society that produced those paintings, before the age of instantaneous electronic reproduction of sight and sound and imagination that we live in now, but they are still ours. We’d like, like young children, to be able to see the thing itself, not the story we tell about it or the movie it reminds us of. But we can’t, so we have our children copy the dot painting or the broad strokes or the flower made of water colors, and hope to see, in those beautiful colors, the world that was, the world that is.