Color, light and form have always defined the prime elements for illustrating beer. No matter the medium, proper composition demands an artist’s attention to those three fundamentals. Depicting a glowing, inviting glass of beer—a colored, but transparent liquid—tests the depth of an artist’s skill, and although many schools of art have risen to that challenge, no group was more adept than the impressionists. Their style was naturally suited to portray beer as art.
Long considered a staple of life, beer, in the late 1800s, evolved into more. It became stylish.
If art reflects life, there was no better time for beer than that of the impressionists in the latter third of the 1800s. The period witnessed an emergence of industry and technology as a powerful mixture that rendered all manner of societal change. Artists, capturing the image of change, used beer as a vehicle. But portraying beer, as well as other subjects they chose, also forced artists to alter their technique, resulting in an entirely new art style.
Beginning in the 1860s, the impressionists assembled as a loosely formed group of artists. Generally working in and around Paris, they began their careers following the same regime presented to all students. Honing their skills in the Louvre, they copied works of the masters for days on end. As “Rapins” (students), they were schooled in the traditional method that first required a mastery of drawing. Only then would their mentors allow the use of paint, applied in the classical technique of layers, in tones from dark to light. Colors were thought to be a distraction. In the ateliers (art schools), the emphasis was on texture and the gentle gradation of tone, a method totally unsuited for depicting beer.
Rapins Bazille, Renoir, Sisley and Degas found no room for beer in their studies. Instead, this core of the impressionists was forced to endure the rigid and oppressive school of traditional art. Nudes and allegory were plentiful as subjects, but beer was scarce. Unlike their predecessors, the masters of the romantic period never addressed the difficulty of portraying beer; to them it was irrelevant. Pursuit of subject matter and style other than the dark and conservative classics invited ridicule from critics and rejection by the public. But the impressionists soon braved that risk.
Influenced by the landscapes of the earlier romantic and Barbizon schools, impressionism traced its origins back to “The Hay Wain” by John Constable, which emphasized a “natural transparency and brilliance of color.” So influenced, the impressionists, too, turned to the outdoors as their subject. This approach was a revolutionary move toward realism in what the poet Jules Laforgue described as “…nature as she is, which is to say solely by means of colored vibrations.” From there it was a short step to depicting modern life as they saw it. In the process, they shifted the emphasis of art from the classic subjects to the activities and customs of people at leisure. Both art and society were changing and beer was changing with them.