During the 19th century, with rapid developments in the psychology of perception, artists began to experiment with the idea of formal elements of paintings — colours, shapes, textures — as having emotional and intellectual qualities in themselves.
The “content” of a work of art could be the found in the sensory anticipation, by which I mean the possibility of different colours and textures having experiential values. In this way, the instance of a single brushstroke could be a bearer of meaning, transferring from the artist’s hand to the viewer.
Take for example this painting by Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), View from Louveciennes, which shows a country lane in a town not far from Paris. The lane is painted in shades of brown with small trees on either side. It is a simple painting that celebrates the rustic charm of rural life in the outside elements. One can almost feel the breeze blowing as the sky bubbles up with clouds from just beyond the horizon.
For me, where the real interest of this painting lies is in the thickly painted dashes of cream and yellow-ochre towards the bottom left of the image. These patches are supposed to show areas of light from between the branches of the trees, to contrast with the darker tones of the shadows.
Yet the logic of the light doesn’t quite make sense: the depiction is meant to render the gaps between the branches, whereas Pissarro has painted the patches of light on top of the shadows.
The effect is to make this area of the painting a lively patchwork of brush marks. It is not quite appropriate to fete these patches as “near to abstract” because in Pissarro’s time abstract was not an established category in the field painting. Pissarro, rather, was part of the process of abstraction’s invention, and these brush marks are the early forerunners.
More importantly, they show the means by which modern art would come to highlight the interplay between art and artifice, between the attempt to show something real in paint and the human activity that lay behind that attempt.
This display of art making — a type of performance — would become the very ground upon which modern artists sought to claim and express their subjective responses to the world around them.
Pissarro was by no mean the first artist to make the brushstroke a formal feature of his paintings. Contemporaries like Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley were also advocates of this new, looser style of working.
Before them, the British artist J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851) — working a generation before Pissarro — was profoundly alive to the textural possibilities of paint. As he developed his painting style, making grand landscape works in the belief that they could convey the full range of artistic, historical and emotional meanings, he began experimenting with the surface quality of his canvases by scraping and wiping the paint while it was still wet, or else scratching into dry surfaces.
Turner’s achievement was to put aside the virtues of sheen — signs of excellence, virtuosity, finish — and instead let the present moment of painterly activity stand our as clear attributes of his work. As if to say, “My hand made this,” Turner allowed the vitality of texture to count as a proper means of depiction.
Turner made and kept extensive sketchbooks which contain brisk pencil and watercolour sketches he made outdoors, of the sea and the sky. The purpose of these sketches were to train his painterly instincts towards making marks that spoke of direct experience.
Page after page, he make expressive brush marks that often resemble very little. But for Turner, they emphasised the three-way relationship between place, artist and paint that underpins any landscape work.
Turner was influential on the Impressionist painters like Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet. In term, their bold use of colour and individualised brushstrokes were to inspire Vincent Van Gogh (1853–1890) and his deeply personal works whose style we now call Post-Impressionism.
The sense of texture that dances in many of Van Gogh’s works is achieved through the individual application of brushstrokes that he purposefully painted without blending the colours. The dashes and scraping of the brush into a field of stripes distills the painters activity — his actual physical energy — into something we can, as the viewer, experience directly.
In this way, the action of art-making turns into a spectacle, with the drama of the painter’s struggle brought to the very surface of the painting.
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