From Monet to Van Gogh: A History of Impressionism

Course No. 7187
Professor Richard Brettell, Ph.D.
The University of Texas, Dallas
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Course Overview

They appeared in a period of upheaval. They saw the rebuilding of Paris, the rise of industrialism, the ruin of the Franco-Prussian war. They displayed their startling and shocking works in a series of exhibitions from 1874 to 1886. And by the 1890s, this "loose coalition" of artists who rebelled against the formality of the French Academy had created the most famous artistic movement in history. "They" were the Impressionists, and Professor Brettell is your expert curator and guide to a movement that created a new, intensely personal vision of the world.

Whether the subject was a city street, a holiday beach, a harvest field, or a demoiselle's boudoir, they virtually invented the sensibility—urbane, contemporary, ever-changing—that today we take for granted as the "modern."

Who were the Impressionists? What's the difference between a Manet and a Monet? How does a Pissarro landscape differ from one by Cézanne? Were they really as personally scandalous as the Establishment alleged?

And why is Impressionism, a 19th-century phenomenon, still so appealing in the 21st?

What You Will Learn

These artists documented life in the latter half of the 19th century and provided models of behavior, decorum, and urban beauty that persist to this day. This series of lectures will introduce you to the style, subject, and function of Impressionist painting by artists including Monet, Renoir, Cassatt, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, and van Gogh.

Separate analysis is given to the important Impressionist exhibitions and their contemporary critics like the writer Baudelaire. Among key topics covered are the public and private worlds of Parisian modernity, life in the countryside, the new leisure class, and the influential legacy of Impressionism.

Dr. Brettell, Professor of Aesthetic Studies at The University of Texas at Dallas, is a teacher and curator of international renown and is widely published on 19th- and 20th-century art. His lectures are designed as a way for you to view and discuss the Impressionist revolution with a deft mix of history, biography, and art:

  • You'll learn how the Impressionist aesthetic was driven by the rise of the railroad and suburban tourism.
  • You'll learn how Mary Cassatt painted the lives of wealthy expatriates, while Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec scoured the dives of Montmartre to draw Paris by night.
  • You'll learn about technique: Degas's use of lighting effects. Renoir's plump, sensuous brushstrokes. Pissarro's use of slabs and pieces of paint. Gauguin and Van Gogh's bold, bright colors.
  • You'll see how Berthe Morisot could convey women's sense of boredom, sadness, and frustration.
  • You'll see how Monet's approach changed in his later years from one in which the subject was in flux and motion to one of constancy and stability.
  • You'll learn what happened to this radical movement as its leaders grew older—and more successful—by century's end.

"We will take a chronological, and oftentimes biographical, approach to studying the artists rather than looking at each career separately," says Professor Brettell. "This is due in large part to the fact that there was a certain amount of collectivity among them, visible not only in the Impressionist exhibitions but in the artistic tours/retreats that pairs of painters took in order to study modern life and its environs.

"As the life and career of each painter unfolds, we are introduced to their families, friends, and colleagues, all of whom become subjects in and influences on their work. The careers of many of the artists are discussed from their early exposure to art, their teachers, travels, and later stylistic influences."

Great Impressionist Works You Will See

Presented with these absorbing lectures are more than 200 vividly reproduced artworks for your study and enjoyment, including:

  • Ballet Rehearsal on the Stage, by Edgar Degas. This sepia-toned painting, done in the style of a photograph, was part of the first Impressionist exhibition and raised questions about how visual images were created.
  • Impression: Sunrise (Marine), by Claude Monet. This painting of a sailboat at dawn may have given Impressionism its name, along with Monet's well-known Impression Sunrise. Light, freely painted, about color and immediacy, it is one of the most radical paintings in the history of modern art.
  • Déjeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon on the Grass), by Edouard Manet. This depiction of Manet's favorite model, Victorine Meurent, as a nude on a picnic with two clothed men was considered scandalous. It exemplifies Manet's tendency to shock, provoke, and raise more questions than he answers.
  • The Beach at Trouville, by Claude Monet. Painted on Monet's honeymoon, this canvas depicts his wife and Madame Boudin at Trouville, on the Normandy coast. The dots on Madame Boudin's dress are actually grains of sand that blew onto the canvas as Monet painted.
  • The Garden, by Berthe Morisot. Morisot executed this work, her career masterpiece, with an incredible gestural abandon that few male artists could match.
  • Vision after the Sermon, by Paul Gauguin. One of the most bizarre and powerful paintings in the history of art, this painting combines elements of high art, Japanese art, and religious imagery.

Trace the Beginning of "Modern Art"

The Impressionists were the first formal group of professional artists to include women: Berthe Morisot and the American, Mary Cassatt. Morisot, in fact, participated in seven of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, more than any other member of the movement except Pissarro.

In their first exhibition in 1874, the "Société Anonyme des Artistes" (the name Impressionists came later) took an approach that was not only modern, but unprecedented.

We tend to think of the history of art as one of individual geniuses who acted as teachers for subsequent groups of artists. But the Impressionists worked very differently. They chose to develop their craft as equals, painting and learning from one another in small groups.

Rather than promoting sameness, this way of working highlighted the unmistakable differences among the groups and artists.

Impressionist painters often painted the same scenes, at times simultaneously, with their easels side by side. These occasions present a fascinating opportunity to compare technique and to see the Impressionist approach at work. Renoir's and Monet's 1869 studies of La Grenouillère (The Frog Pond), a well-known spot for swimming, socializing, and renting boats, offer a notable case in point.

One of the legacies of Impressionism is to leave the viewer with a profound sense of life—of life captured on the canvas, through motion, light, and color, and life lived by these remarkable artists, always seeking to experience and to learn, to better capture the reality before their eyes.

This course is an absorbing lesson in the marvelous cultural, historical, and visual experiences that great paintings provide.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Realist and the Idealist
    In 1855 Paris held the first of many international exhibitions, allowing Frenchmen and foreign viewers to witness the tensions raging in the French art world. At mid-century, the bitter rivalry was between two competing trends: the French Classical tradition exemplified by Jean-Dominique Ingres, and the French Romantic tradition presided over by Eugène Delacroix. To this mixture was added the new strand of art called Realism. x
  • 2
    Napoleon III’s Paris
    Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, declared himself emperor of France in 1853. His aim was to modernize the economy of France, create a sophisticated and centralized rail-transport system, and completely rebuild and glorify the capital city, Paris. This systematic development meant that, for most Parisians, life was utterly disrupted and altered from fundamental patterns. x
  • 3
    Baudelaire and the Definition of Modernism
    A poet and art critic named Charles Baudelaire began writing systematically about art in 1846. His basic idea was that art should be "of its own times," and he struggled to find artists who would embody his ideals. x
  • 4
    The Shock of the New
    Edouard Manet, the son of a prominent civil servant, was among the best-educated and most authoritatively independent artists of the 19th century. He painted works that, although fundamentally Baudelairian, actually transcend Baudelaire. Manet's painting is as great as Baudelaire's poetry, and greater than his art criticism. x
  • 5
    The Painters of Modern Life
    By 1865 Manet's fame made him the de facto leader of a group of young painters who wanted to push painting further and further into modern life. These artists included Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Frédéric Bazille, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Cézanne—all of whom would become central members of the Impressionist group. x
  • 6
    Pierre-Auguste Renoir
    Of the young artists in Manet's circle, Auguste Renoir was the most naturally fluent and, hence, sensual painter. His works vary widely in composition, subject, and style, indicating a willingness to experiment that was greater than that of any of his colleagues. x
  • 7
    Impressions in the Countryside
    In 1869 Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Pissarro all moved to a landscape along the Seine just west of Paris and easily accessible to the capital by train. The aesthetic created by these four men in what we might call the Cradle of Impressionism stressed the modern and the mutable. The landscapes were not only up-to-date in terms of their fashionable urban/suburban subjects, but also in their fascination with the frank use of materials. x
  • 8
    Paris under Siege
    The Second Empire crumbled in 1870 when, after provocation from Prussia, France declared war. Inadequately prepared, the French endured a humiliating defeat. This was followed by another in a series of 19th-century French revolutions, the Commune, based completely in Paris. These upheavals caused many Impressionists to leave Paris and France, and had notable effects on their lives and work. x
  • 9
    The First Exhibition
    Within two years of the group's return to Paris, they had organized themselves into a new and, in French art, unprecedented private and independent group of artists. Their aim was to organize an exhibition of their own work on their own terms, outside the governmental strictures that limited artistic freedom in France. The exhibition, in May of 1874, quickly came to be called an exhibition of Impressionists or an Impressionist Exhibition, possibly based on the title of a quickly painted canvas by Monet entitled Impression: Sunrise. x
  • 10
    Monet and Renoir in Argenteuil
    After the First Exhibition, a core group of the artists spent the summer together in the suburban town of Argenteuil, just west of Paris, a popular spot for sailing on the Seine. That summer can easily be considered the classic moment of suburban Impressionism. x
  • 11
    Cézanne and Pissarro in Pontoise
    While "The School of Argenteuil" painted modern suburban landscapes along the Seine, Camille Pissarro gathered a different group of artists around the much less-modern town of Pontoise, on the river Oise. Although several artists were part of this group, the most important, after Pissarro, was the young provincial painter, Paul Cézanne. x
  • 12
    Berthe Morisot
    Berthe Morisot was the first woman in the history of French art to have a career comparable to the best of her male colleagues. She was also the first to be accepted completely by a group of male artists, including Manet, Degas, and Renoir. Her social position in the haute bourgeoisie and her gender shaped her oeuvre powerfully. x
  • 13
    The Third Exhibition
    In 1877 a relative newcomer to the group, Gustave Caillebotte, organized the third Impressionist Exhibition. His modern and thoroughly urban works anchored what can now be called the single most important of all eight Impressionist exhibitions, defining the major artists for the next several generations. x
  • 14
    Edgar Degas
    One artist, more than any other, represented the modern urban condition as a psychological as well as social condition. Edgar Degas created a body of work in various media that defines Parisian modernism through the interaction of figures with their settings. x
  • 15
    Gustave Caillebotte
    Caillebotte was the wealthiest of all the artists associated with Impressionism. Long known as a collector and patron of the group, he was recognized as a painter in his own right only after World War II, when works from the family collection began to be acquired by major museums. x
  • 16
    Mary Cassatt
    Mary Cassatt was a well-born American painter who had worked extensively in Europe before she met Edgar Degas in 1876. He introduced her into the Impressionist circle, and she became the only American painter who was a major force in the movement. Like Morisot, Cassatt's paintings depict the lives of wealthy women. x
  • 17
    Manet’s Later Works
    Edouard Manet is known today chiefly as a painter of major Salon Paintings in the 1860s, and as the creator of a late masterpiece, The Bar at the Folies-Bergeres. That view is incorrect and undervalues the importance of his Impressionist experiments. He is among the few great painters in the history of art who adapted his style as a mature painter to that of younger artists. x
  • 18
    Departures
    Renoir and Monet became increasingly successful in the early 1880s and, perhaps as a result, increasingly dissatisfied with the group dynamics and politics of the Impressionists. Each of them also became restive about Paris and its suburbs as the sole subject of their art. x
  • 19
    Paul Gauguin
    A young banker-stockbroker named Paul Gauguin met Pissarro in the late 1870s and became a major collector of Impressionism. He also embarked on a career as an amateur painter and sculptor, and exhibited with the Impressionists in their last four exhibitions. x
  • 20
    The Final Exhibition
    In 1885 Pissarro went to visit a young, academically trained painter named Georges Seurat. This meeting changed both men's careers and the subsequent history of art, introducing a scientific rigor into conception, composition, and execution of art. Their collaboration brought an end to the Impressionist experiment when they dominated the final Impressionist Exhibition in April of 1886. x
  • 21
    The Studio of the South—Van Gogh and Gauguin
    A young Dutch painter, Vincent van Gogh, came to Paris in February of 1886 and visited the final Impressionist exhibition. He befriended many of the artists but came increasingly under the spell of Paul Gauguin. In 1888, van Gogh moved to Arles in the south of France and succeeded in convincing Gauguin to join him to create an artistic brotherhood called "The Studio of the South." x
  • 22
    Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
    Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the only son of the Comte de Toulouse, was the wealthiest and most nobly born painter in the history of French art. All of Toulouse-Lautrec's early subjects have their origins in the art of Manet and Degas. Hence, Lautrec can be considered a second-generation Impressionist. x
  • 23
    The Nabis
    In the late 1880s a small group of young men formed a brotherhood of artists called "Nabis" (the Hebrew word for prophet). Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, the most important artists of the group, took the informal art of Impressionism into the interiors of 1890s Paris—a realm relatively unexplored by the Impressionists themselves. x
  • 24
    La Fin
    After their final exhibition, boycotted by Renoir and Monet, the Impressionists worked more or less independently of each other. Monet's pictorial production of the 1890s was dominated by the concept of "series" paintings. Pissarro and Degas also devoted much of that decade to series of their own. x

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Your professor

Richard Brettell

About Your Professor

Richard Brettell, Ph.D.
The University of Texas, Dallas
Dr. Richard Brettell is the Margaret McDermott Distinguished Professor of Art and Aesthetics at The University of Texas at Dallas. He earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Yale University. Prior to joining The University of Texas at Dallas, Professor Brettell taught at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, Yale University, and Harvard University. Professor Brettell was the founding American director of the...
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Reviews

From Monet to Van Gogh: A History of Impressionism is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 110.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceptional And Knowledgeable Professor One of the best courses I've ever taken. Professor knew the material well and expanded into levels unknown to me. I majored in Art History, and this course really provided a capstone moment to my education.
Date published: 2019-11-10
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Unpleasant, unfocused, distasteful at times Professor Brettell’s “From Monet to Van Gogh: A History of Impressionism” is one of the worst Great Courses I’ve watched. Much of the presentation seemed unfocused, opinionated, and distasteful if not downright offensive. Great Courses rarely disappoint, so I was quite surprised to find at times these “Impressionism” lectures ranged from slightly ridiculous to laughably bad. I often felt as if I were watching a parody of the stereotypical, educated-beyond-his-intelligence, elitist art critic snob, complete with over-exaggerated French pronunciation that bordered on choking, an approach to every painting as if it were an allegory, a reliance on gender and socioeconomic stereotypes when interpreting artworks, a dismissive attitude toward women, and a tendency to make simple things seem esoteric, arcane, and obscure. Some aspects of this course were so aggravating I found myself beginning to be bothered to an inordinate degree by other issues that might perhaps seem petty in another context. A more accurate title for this course might be “One Hundred Years of Painting in France from 1820”: the First Impressionist Exhibition is the subject of lecture 9, and the Final Exhibition is the topic of lecture 20. Other than discussing Ingres and Delacroix (although Brettell referred back to Delacroix when discussing Renoir’s “Odalisque”, I was rather shocked he didn’t mention Ingres’s “Odalisque” when discussing Manet’s “Olympia”), the first few lectures were hardly about painting at all, rather talking about rebuilding Paris, Napoleon, Baudelaire…Context is valuable, but when a lengthy digression is isolated from the main topic it can seem distracting or more like an uninteresting diversion. It’s fine for Brettell to assume no prior knowledge on the part of the audience he’s addressing, but it doesn’t mean he should talk as if what he says doesn’t matter because the audience may not know much about the subject. Years ago at a local art museum annual used book sale I bought a copy of “A Day in the Country” by Brettell which I haven’t read yet, but I hope he’s more effective communicating in print than he is standing at a podium in front of a camera. I think he didn’t even look directly into the camera for any length of time until lecture 8 or 9, then went back to looking mostly at the audience in the room, the computer screen in front of him, and the papers on his table. If nothing else, I certainly gained a greater appreciation for Great Courses professor William Kloss: I admit early on I considered Kloss to be a bit dull when I took his “World’s Greatest Paintings” course, but I’ve been watching lectures from his “Dutch Masters: The Age of Rembrandt” course while finishing Brettell’s “Impressionism”, and now I really enjoy how pleasant Kloss is, how many facts he provides, and how few mistakes he makes. We all hear art’s subjective, but a course should offer more than Brettell’s own opinion, often characterizing a person or artwork as best / most / greatest, famous / beautiful / ugly, etc., and always finding it necessary in every artist’s biography to indicate just how much money their family had. As someone who often enjoys looking at beautiful things, I can honestly say Brettell’s way of describing artworks took some of the joy and pleasure out of looking at them. I wish I could un-hear much of what he had to say. I found some of his descriptions quite odd, as with Edouard Manet’s “The Old Musician”: beyond asserting that the boy in white is a take on Pierrot the clown, and the far right figure is “a wandering Jew”, he went on to describe the rag picker’s top hat as “stolen”, and a second boy as being disabled because his eyes are “looking in two different directions”. In describing Berthe Morisot’s “Butterfly Hunt” (Brettell doesn’t mention it, but the image of the painting displayed in the lecture actually seems to be the reverse of its actual appearance), I don’t understand why Brettell says it shows a garden that no man has ever been in, or why he says the little girl is hiding behind the sapling as if she can’t be seen. His interpretations often don’t make much sense to me. In lecture 10 he describes Edouard Manet’s “Boating” as both “scary” and “claustrophobic”, while I find it calm and relaxing. Referring to the blue background of the self-portrait Vincent Van Gogh gifted to Gauguin, Brettell first says it “emanates like a halo”, then describes it with what could be considered rather violent imagery as looking “as if his head is a rock being dropped into a pool with ripples that go off to the side”. I’d like to believe a great work of art speaks for itself in a way that makes it irrelevant whether it was made by a man or a woman, but Brettell seems to regard everything in terms of gender specificity. His discussion of artworks very often includes the phrase “because it was painted by a woman”, even going so far as to say the ways it would be different if a man had painted it instead. The last straw for me in this regard was probably in lecture 16 when he described the child in Mary Cassatt’s “Little Girl in a Blue Armchair” -- who appears to me to be innocence personified -- as “posing almost as if she was a Renoir nude, there’s this wonderful sense of sexiness in her pose. She doesn’t look at us, thank god” (because everytime a woman’s portrait shows her looking forward as though at the viewer, Brettell says it means she’s a prostitute). Brettell also describes this same little girl as looking “like she’s about to jump up and start running at any second”, whereas to me the child looks as if she’s ready for a nap. The entire lecture 16 is on the subject of Mary Cassatt, although the guidebook chapter for this lecture has one illustration, which is a painting by Berthe Morisot (and it’s not a portrait of Mary Cassatt). One laughably ironic moment was in the last lecture when Brettell provided an explanation for not discussing the later careers of any woman painters (his reason being that neither Cassatt’s or Morisot’s style changed significantly) because he said he feared being accused of a form of sexism – AS IF the entire course wasn’t peppered by remarks that many could regard as sexist. In lecture 12 on the subject of Berthe Morisot, Brettell referred to pastels as a feminine medium because they’re crumbly and soft (?!), and constantly revisited the theme of women’s “boredom” (which some could interpret as the upper class projected image of reserve, aloofness, and unapproachability). In lecture 19 Brettell discusses Paul Gauguin’s “Study of a Nude”, and describes the body of a woman depicted as “pleasantly proportioned rather than beautiful” as if it has to be one or the other because it can’t be both. He refers to her as “heftily proportioned, not exactly most glamorous….Her breasts are sort of ok, sort of conventional classical breasts” – in the guidebook Brettell actually refers to the “sheer ugliness of the woman’s body” – when all I see is a realistic figure, although certainly not an idealized classical form, showing what most normal woman’s bodies look like when they have no clothes on, including nineteenth century French women once they took their corsets off. By contrast, male figures seem to be spared Brettell’s aesthetic judgments and criticism. In lecture 20 Brettell discusses Seurat’s “Bathers as Asnieres” in terms of the influence of ancient Egyptian style, with no comment whatsoever on the attractiveness or ugliness of their bodies in various states of undress for swimming. In fact, in lecture 22, after recounting Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s congenital physical deformities, Brettell actually refers to Toulouse-Lautrec’s appearance as “beautiful”. Aside from content that I found confusing and misogynistic, there were some things that were just wrong or mistakes. In lecture 21, while discussing Van Gogh’s “The Night Café”, Brettell describes the figure of the proprietor as like “the man at the edge of the River Charon who will take us over to the other side of death”. However, I believe the river he’s referring to is called Styx, and Charon is actually the name of the boatman who ferries the souls of the dead across. Also in lecture 21 Brettell says Van Gogh built and furnished the Yellow House in Arles, while the guidebook correctly specifies Van Gogh rented (didn’t build) it. And when describing “The Bedroom at Arles”, Brettell says the “door to the left of the painting” led to Gauguin’s room although the door on the right of the painting is actually highlighted (and probably correctly). In lecture 20 about the Final Impressionist Exhibition, Brettell talked almost exclusively about a single painting by Seurat, which he said was hung between other paintings by Pisarro and Signac, then misspoke toward the end when he described it as being hung between paintings by Pisarro and Seurat (rather than Signac). In lecture 12 Brettell describes the light as coming from the right in Manet’s “Before the Mirror”, while it looks to me as if the light is coming from the left. Other miscellaneous annoyances were Brettell’s pronunciation of “mirror” as “meer”, the number of times he referred to an item in a painted composition as a “thing”, the guidebook timeline section having years 1874 through 1877 on pages 103 to 105 duplicated on pages 105 to 108, and lecture 9 inconsistencies where the dvd said the First Exhibition had 174 works while the guidebook said it had 51 (the correct number is probably 165). I also found it ironic that Brettell used the French pronunciation of Van Gogh’s name because he found the Dutch too difficult while he began lecture 14 with criticism of many people’s pronunciation of Degas, insisting it’s “DER-gah” rather than “day-GAH”; Brettell actually claimed the incorrect pronunciation reminds him of the word “dago” (which is a derogatory term for people of Italian or Spanish descent).
Date published: 2019-08-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great lectures! We have been fans of impressionist works, and have seen many of the masters' paintings. However, we were particularly happy with the lectures--the organization, the tidbits of history, the overall view of this era in painting and its evolution, and the style and delivery of every one of the sessions. Really great work!
Date published: 2019-08-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Brettell is the greatest! This is a wonderful course. Professor Brettell begins by helping us understand what was going on in French painting (and French history) just before the beginning of the Impressionist movement and then moves us through its development. He is very clear and logical, but also interesting and excited - you can feel his love of the subject. He leads us through comparisons of artists and techniques, but never lets us get lost. I had very little art knowledge and even I could happily follow all of his lectures. His courses on the Louve and the New York Metropolitan Museum a also fantastic. Don't miss him!
Date published: 2019-07-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Super Thank you Professor Brettell for getting my husband interested in art and museum. Due to this course, he still like the impressionists best. Soooo informative
Date published: 2019-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding course; splendid visuals; I especially enjoyed the visuals that Doctor Brettell used and the way in which he placed the development of Impressionism in its historical and geographical context.
Date published: 2019-03-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 5 stars for sure. Presenter is awesome I only took the basic art history classes in school. Don't remember much. This series is absolutely awesome. I'm more a history buff. These changes in art reflect so much in history. The professor's style is top flight. He's special. When you get a little more knowledge about why and how this is important, then you feel excited. You don't have to be a college art major to really appreciate this series. It changed our world.
Date published: 2019-03-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from After a recent visit to the Norton Simon museum in Pasedena my wife and I discussed our knowledge of art, which although signifigant, left us wondering what more we could learn and thereby transmit the information to our grandchildren when the accompany us to art meusems. After listening to the lectures of Professor Brettell our stash of information about the Impresssionist world and of Paris and French politics increased immeasurably. We now need to move on to other eras of art.
Date published: 2019-03-02
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