The truly avant-garde artist divides opinion, without intending either to please or
to upset. Criticism can similarly inspire the opposition of professional and public opinion,
and still draw the admiration of any reader. The reproduction of art, and in parallel the
invention of criticism allowed for a readership and a viewership of art. And so not only
did the artist have an audience, but the critics as well. With the passage of art historical
time, certain artists and movements appear nonetheless to have become accepted as being
indisputably classic, seemingly regardless of however avant-garde they once were in their
The philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his aesthetical treatise entitled The Critique of
Judgment, was perhaps the first to acknowledge that the essence of the most advanced or
the most important art was the capacity to generate controversy—something which he
estimates to be the only equal of aesthetic beauty. How then might this quality be
recognized in art, or in the artist? It has certainly since become the subject of philosophy
but of literature: artists have long distinguished themselves not only by their art, but just
as often as figures of fascination. One may only conclude, with any certainty at all, that
they invariably frustrate expectation.
Both may certainly be perceived in those who were the first to write about the art
of Édouard Manet. Some were set against the attention given to this novel painter, and
then there were the others, among them some friends old and new, who defended him.
But what is truly remarkable is that they all did so on the very the same grounds. In short,
his canvases perplexed the eye because of how his subjects, so attractively rendered
despite their appearance, proved to be none other than two-dimensional. The way a hand
was left partially painted delighted and infuriated the most eminent critical voices,
whereas faces were nonetheless favoured over every other thing.
Manet presented a picture that more intimately resembles vision, in that it
valorizes what matters to the mind. The question of how he could so neglect to finish his
paintings properly, drew the response that he alone knew when they were complete. If he
neglected to the consternation of many to include a background, then this achieved for
the foreground an unseen theatrical intensity. In reductive terms, the critical issue was
seen to be one of skill. Yet if some concluded that he had never mastered this or that
academic technique, it was because as others saw they disturbed artistic convention, and
discovered truth within this compelling contradiction to be most beautiful of all.
Art, as conceived by the Romantic philosopher F. W. J. Schelling, is to be found in
“a spirit’s odyssey outside of itself”. The art of watercolor evokes a relation between
artist and medium, unlike any other. More reactive than resistant to the brush, it appears
to respond to every gesture, so as to mirror human volition. By a means of delicate
mastery over the otherwise free conduction of coloured water upon a modern paper
surface, the passions of the artist may thereby be imagined to find their most indirect
outlet. Thus the most delicate of painterly processes, it relies upon the most spontaneous
intention or gesture.
Scientifically, its qualitative properties are those sensible to the eye, its
quantitative properties those which can be measured, and the properties of which it is
composed and it potential to react contribute to its chemistry. Aesthetically, it is much the
same, except that it may not at all be obvious which of these may be due to colour and
which to the transparency of the water. In their mysterious relation, watercolour may be
said to naturally capture the elements of air, water, and earth. But the discovery of the
fourth element, as dramatized in the paintings of J. M. W. Turner, conveys not only
lightning and fire but tells the story of human history and mythology both.
More commonly practiced in the west widely throughout the late eighteenth- and
early nineteenth-centuries, watercolour is known to have matured as a British art. It so
rendered not only its unique landscape but daily events, either often spectacular. A
cultural odyssey theretofore known only through classical literature would make travelers
of these painters, of largely their own lands nonetheless unknown to them visually--
thanks to the enviable compactness of the watercolour set. Consistent with this discovery
of “local colour”, the advent of Romantic culture thus represented a new freedom that
was being visited upon the soon to be modern individual.
It would incline not only the painter J.M.W. Turner but the poet Percy Bysshe
Shelley to further venture abroad in search of sublime subjects, taking nameless
inspiration in the human scale of a mountains and forests. While in England, others like
the painter Thomas Gainsborough, who had been known for his portraiture but was
privately passionate about the marvellous possibilities of landscape, and later John
Constable, would render famous theretofore secluded scenes of their childhood. Some
would endeavour therefore to reach beyond time, others beyond place, to recall the
philosophic image of Schelling.
*All opinions and views stated by the authors here are not necessarily the same as the Art History Students' Association.