(Note: Now it's more widespread, but for about a year I got a taste from an atelier tradition, albeit compromised, that had a link with impressionist art and a whole different take on it. It's a piece of hands on history in contrast to written history. If you read through the insights in art should be interesting, and the concept of history itself put into perspective. I touched the past with people connected to the past. After a year I left and went my own way.)
My studying and the consideration of making art led me to realize history itself is not a definite. For instance, let's examine the 19th century movement called Impressionism. Van Gogh, Pissarro, Gauguin, Degas, Manet, and Monet were some players in this movement. The common impression I received from history books, discussions, and lectures was that artistically impressionism was an attempt to capture movement and motion in shorthand. Since movement was fleeting, there was only time for an “impression” of the object to be recorded. It was a take on the scene. The light and dark of the scene, forever changing, was encapsulated within a time frame. An example was Monet's water lilies and cathedral paintings at different times of day. Realism was sacrificed for a general optical effect of the light and atmosphere of an object or person.
At some point I studied with a student of the Boston portrait painter Richard Ives Gammell and received another perspective. Painting used to consist of layers of translucent gels mixed with pigment. Colors were kept pure and not diluted, preserving their integrity. Intensity and hue and values remained true and sharp. Jacques Louis David knew this craft completely but passed it on only partially to his student Ingres. Ingres wanted a more alla prima method of painting, truer to observation and less dependent on artistic formula. This conflict between inherited formulas versus direct observation has been a polarization throughout western art.
Under Ingres hand colors were mixed, applied directly to canvas with less layering, and nature, combined in his case with a classic bent, was recorded directly. The price was that the colors were muted because without the protective layers of gels and mixtures their freshness gradually disappeared. Also when mixed the colors became muted. This, plus lack of old school canvas preparation and too much canvas absorption caused dull colors.
The Impressionists, to bring back color vibration and intensity, and still directly observe the subject, applied colors directly without mixture and depended upon their complementary colors to arrive at color combinations. Simply put, to achieve an orange color on a flower yellow and red would be patted adjacently on the canvas and the effect would be orange. Vibrations between the two primary colors would keep color alive. The impression of orange was achieved without actually making orange. Hence, as befits this procedure, comes the name “Impressionism.”
When I learned this interpretation, it sounded truthful, and the historic interpretation seemed irrelevant. Yet with time the old interpretation seems also true. Painting was a notation that captured a brief happening as it appeared to the eye during a particular time. So which view is correct? Well, what I find in life is that history doesn't tell the full truth, but has some truth in it. My first hand encounter with what was passed down orally also is the truth.
History can tell a story, and as in a story, the plot has to move on, right or wrong. Digging up and uncovering hidden truths can fly in the face of this. How do we resolve this? Demanding absolute resolution is a mistake. Observing and being aware of the tension with curiosity and inquisitiveness is healthy and leaves enough space and breathing room.