The Impressionists on Trial

The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers

by T. J. Clark
Knopf, 338 pp., $25.00

Why did Manet’s Olympia cause a scandal at the 1865 Salon? Because the painting was a parody of high classical art? Because it was a picture of a prostitute in a realistic style? Because of the presence of a Baudelairean cat, or the odd eroticism of the tranquil nude? Because the canvas employed flat colors and a generous painterly touch in the age of the “licked” surface? The Harvard art historian T. J. Clark has his own answer: Olympia caused an uproar because she was a proletarian nude and because her hand over her sex was really pointing out the absence of a phallus. According to Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life, the key to Olympia’s “modernity” is still to be found in Marx and Freud.

At first glance Clark’s approach may appear intriguing, and, at least in art history, even somewhat novel (for in other fields, particularly literary criticism, it has been overworked). He wants to locate the work of art in its historical and sociological setting, isolated from the personal circumstances that produced it—the artist’s “self,” his cultural background, and his aims. To be sure, this approach has its claims on art history, along with those based on the artist’s sources and influences, or on a formal analysis of the relations between successive works. But although Clark has found very interesting critical writings in the press of the time, and although he shows undeniable sensitivity when he allows himself actually to look at paintings, his convictions, inconsistencies, and intellectual quirks distort what might have been a useful approach. They reintroduce into art history a ghost one imagined had been banished a long time ago: the specter of censorious moral judgment.

Essentially, Clark views the period between 1860 and 1880 through a dated historical approach and sensibility. His distaste for much of what happened at the time recalls the austere opposition of many Republicans to the so-called fête imperiale at the end of the Second Empire. He draws on analyses such as Louis Chevalier’s work on “classes laborieuses et classes dangereuses” that have been outmoded by recent studies in demographic history. (To cite a single instance, crime was not rising in the Paris of Haussmann, as Clark would have it, but actually decreased.)1 The overall approach of the book is thus rather conventional, notwithstanding its nod in the direction of recently fashionable ideas—not only semiotic and feminist criticism, but also the French “situationists” of the 1960s whose Marxist-poetical rhetoric was an updated version of the traditional Romantic criticism of the “modern.”

It may be amusing, then, for those of us who have lived for many years in Paris, to be sent from across the sea a blurred picture of our own city and its social past. Our daily landscape, after all, has not changed all that much since Manet’s time, while we have seen the movements among Paris intellectuals on which Clark has drawn come and go during the last twenty years. Clark seems to be using ideological keys that have to be forced into their locks, and in many cases the doors already stand ajar.

What does Clark have to say that is new on the great Baudelairean theme, “the painting of modern life” in the Paris of the 1860s and 1870s? Clark’s aim is to develop an idea articulated first in 1937 by Meyer Schapiro, and quoted in Clark’s introduction, that “early Impressionism…had a moral aspect.”

In its discovery of a constantly changing phenomenal outdoor world of which the shapes depended on the momentary position of the casual or mobile spectator, there was an implicit criticism of symbolic social and domestic formalities, or at least a norm opposed to these. It is remarkable how many pictures we have in early Impressionism of informal and spontaneous sociability, of breakfasts, picnics, promenades, boating trips, holidays and vacation travel.

Schapiro’s ideas, although they had a political basis, had the virtue—fifty years ago—of offering an analysis of Impressionism that was a departure from the contemporary formalist approach, with its concentration on sensitivity to atmosphere and painterly values. The iconography of Impressionism to which he briefly called attention has long been accepted as central to any study of the art of the period and has even become a cliché. What Clark now proposes to do is to study this iconography in its relation to social developments between 1860 and 1880. It is an ambitious and valuable aim, but one that requires an examination of all the works of the period—not just certain ones carefully chosen to fit a theory.

Of the book’s four sections two are expanded versions of articles Clark published in 1977 and 1978 on Manet’s Olympia and Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère. “The View from Notre-Dame” attempts to connect the paintings of the time to Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris. “The Environs of Paris” tries to show the relation between painting and the changes imposed by the rise of industry on the surrounding countryside. Much of the information in these chapters is already available in Jeanne Gaillard’s Paris 1852–1870 (1977) and Paul Tucker’s Monet at Argenteuil (1982), both excellent books. The principal source for Clark’s discussion of Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère (particularly as an article) was Alain Corbin’s Les filles de noce (1978).

Each chapter contains a long theoretical account of social conditions which is then brought to bear on one of Manet’s paintings: the public impact of Haussmann’s transformation of the city on L’Exposition Universelle de 1867; its more “intimate” effect on Olympia; the meretricious pleasures of the Sunday outing on Argenteuil, les canotiers. The final chapter looks at Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère and its famously ambiguous mirror, already the subject of much critical speculation.

It is worth noting that none of these paintings (with the possible exception of Argenteuil) is actually “impressionistic” and that Clark’s view of Manet as the painter of “la vie moderne” is hardly new: that is how Baudelaire, Zola, and Mallarmé all saw him. What is new is the way Clark defines “modernity”: he argues that the paintings of the period qualify as “modern” when they show the members of the rising new class that has been victimized by the “alienating spectacle” offered by triumphant capitalism. What we are seeing is people on the borderline, no longer quite a proletariat and not yet bourgeois, a new population emerging in the growing cities that sought to share some part of the benefits of a society offering a spectacle of pleasure and prosperity—as glimpsed in the department store, the café-concert, fashion, Sunday outings. Much as they yearned for all these pleasures, Clark argues, the members of the new class could only partake of the images and “signs” of them. The result in his view was that they became isolated, bitter, disappointed. This idea comes directly from the critic Guy Debord, who summed it up in a cryptic formula: “The spectacle is capital accumulated until it becomes an image.”

Clark’s discussion of the development of Haussmann’s Paris in The Painting of Modern Life is marked throughout by a shuddering horror in the face of the emerging city, seen as a sort of capitalist Sodom and Gomorrah, a place of corruption and iniquity. One is reminded of the description at the end of Zola’s La Débâcle of a Prussian officer, a Lutheran, taking in the spectacle of Paris in flames at the end of the Commune and reveling in fanatical delight at this “retribution” for the generations who devoted their lives “to vice and crime.” At length, Clark comes to Manet’s painting of the 1867 World’s Fair, which he sees as a comedy of manners, a “parade of ‘types”’ on an artificially constructed stage whose purpose is to display the city and the triumphal world’s fair as a spectacle. Clark’s description of the painting is clever and enjoyable but the connection is not clear between his account of the work and the thirty pages that precede it.

What he apparently finds modern about L’Exposition Universelle is that the people in it are dissociated from one another, defined only by their different activities: “The types in the park are drawn for easy reading and do not seem to detain one another’s attention too long.” Everything is “part of the same disembodied flat show, the same spectacle.” Are we then to deduce that Manet’s La Musique aux Tuileries, with its homogeneous social group, smartly dressed and occupied in small talk, is not a picture of modern life? According to Clark, it is “hardly a picture of modernity at all, as it is sometimes supposed to be, but, rather, a description of ‘society’s‘ resilience in the face of empire.”

What about Manet’s 1862 lithograph Le Ballon in which a socially mixed crowd is gathered to watch the release of Nadar’s hot-air balloon? Presumably for Clark this is not a picture of modern life either. But Manet was not interested in making moral judgments; he painted what he saw, and he would have been amazed at the author’s stern eye and his strange barometer of modernity.2 Had Clark been more accurate, in fact, he would have risked revealing that under Napoleon III there were places and circumstances in which “class struggle” was of no importance whatever and where ladies in crinoline, workers, and Paris gamins could meet peaceably as part of the same urban pageant, and perhaps even take some pleasure of a peculiarly modern sort in doing so.

Elsewhere in the same chapter another canvas stands in flat contradiction to the author’s main thesis: Caillebotte’s famous Pont de l’Europe. The painting is, of course, a lyric and triumphant celebration of Haussmann’s modern Paris, centered on the image of the new metal bridge. The focus of the painting is the bridge, not the couple walking toward us. Yet Clark, quite seriously, asks us to consider the relationship between the couple: is the woman his mistress or his legal wife or a prostitute? What “mysterious transaction” are they engaged in? Vice is everywhere in these big cities! Oddly, Clark says nothing about the dog casting a shadow in the foreground; yet here, surely, is the ultimate figure of lonely isolation, the wanderer, the creature without a class, the alienated victim of this bright, modern spring day!

The figure that epitomizes modern Paris for Clark, “the truth of the city Haussmann had built,” is the prostitute, Olympia. Whether Clark’s chapter on Olympia brings anything new to the subject is, on the whole, doubtful in view of the excellent recent studies done by Beatrice Farwell and Theodore Reff.3 His only new idea is questionable at best: the assertion, referred to earlier, that Olympia was shocking because she was a proletarian, a sexual proletarian—“Class was the essence of Olympia’s modernity and lay behind the scandal she provoked”—and because her hand showed her lack of a penis. This interpretation is all the more tenuous and “irrefutable” since Clark’s main evidence for his argument is the silence of the critics.

In this chapter, however (as in the one on Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère), Clark has done remarkably extensive research. Quoting generously from the contemporary press, he compiles the first systematic catalog of the reviews of the period, which takes up about a third of the book. His translations, moreover, are extremely good, and in the footnotes he provides the original texts in French, thereby completing the pioneering work on critical sources begun by G. H. Hamilton in Manet and his Critics (1969). Here Clark has produced a useful and meticulous account—even if he cannot help giving marks (a little like the “stars” in the Guide Michelin) according to the interest the reviews have for his own purpose. For all his partisanship, though, Clark has the honesty to find equally feeble the work of “leftist” art critics (such as the amusing Ravenel, alias Alfred Sensier, Millet’s friend, who is one of the book’s most valuable trouvailles) and that of right-wing critics such as the “legitimist” Fournier. Clark is particularly fascinated by reactionary writers—those two curmudgeons the Goncourt brothers, for example—but is this really so surprising? Here, after all, is the eternal meeting place where all nostalgic ideologies converge.

Clark has two ways of looking at paintings. The first is an attempt to fit them into a system in order to demonstrate something. Here Clark’s approach resembles a sort of intellectual contortionism, for the assumptions he makes are often contradictory, deriving variously from Marxist, psychoanalytic, semiotic, and feminist schools of thought. The second approach is more direct, when Clark really seems to look at a painting, to examine it lovingly. Unfortunately, the first method takes precedence over the second and one can’t help wishing it were otherwise. For when he wants—or when he will allow himself—Clark demonstrates strong feeling for painting. He alternates between the two approaches fairly consistently, and it is almost touching to see him let himself go only to censor himself.

A strong sensibility is at work, for instance, in Clark’s description of the placid, vacant expression on the face of the woman in Manet’s Argenteuil, les canotiers. But he insists on making the expression a metaphor for the mood of a rising class that senses its own inferiority and aspires to “a new form of life—a placid form, a modest form, but one with a claim to pleasure.” Unfortunately we find that same “posed” and slightly bored look on the faces of virtually all the people in Manet’s paintings, no matter where they are or where they come from. We see it on the face of Victorine Meurend in La Femme au perroquet, and on the face of Manet’s adopted son in Déjeuner dans l’atelier; we see it on the face of the elegant lady in Dans la serre and even on the face of the artist’s wife in Madame Manet. The fact is that it was very boring to sit for Manet; everyone complained.

The barmaid at the Folies-Bergère, according to Clark, hides her social origins behind the “face of fashion,” fashion being a common manifestation of feminine alienation. Her face, with its bored expression, for Clark, is one “whose character derives from its not being bourgeois, and having that fact almost be hidden.” So much for Suzanne Manet. So much for all the fashionable women Manet painted with that same sleepy look. Clark even goes so far as to impugn the poor girl’s morals—“It is the picture of a woman in a café-concert, selling drinks and oranges, and most probably for sale herself or believed to be so….”—and this when her place behind the counter is surely proof, if anything, of her respectability, for she could easily have earned more money as a prostitute than tending bar.

Clark, I believe, has misconstrued the caricature of Manet’s painting in a contemporary newspaper, whose caption characterizes the barmaid as “a seller of comforts” (une marchande de consolation). But the “comfort” in question is not of a sexual variety; the word had a precise meaning in the language of the period and referred specifically to the “comfort” to be purchased in alcohol—as the vast increase in the number of bottles in the caricature suggests.

Sometimes, when Clark allows his interpretation to coincide with formal analysis—unfortunately all too rarely—his arguments go beyond the moral to become hallucinatory. His description of Olympia is a case in point, minute though it is. He discovers not only a Japanese screen in the wallpaper behind Olympia’s head—which may or may not be there—but also, more surprisingly, hairs in the shadow above her navel, which would make her truly an anatomical oddity—a sort of Mona Lisa for the sex freak.

It is also worth looking at Clark’s reading of the contemporary criticism on the subject of Olympia’s so-called unwashed look, the quality she has of seeming to need a bath. In the contemporary press Olympia was called “the cabinetmaker’s wife” or “the coal-merchant’s wife,” which Clark takes to be a reference to her social origins. But the French for “cabinetmaker” is “ébéniste” and, of course, the names were used to refer only to the color of coal and ebony—nothing more. By failing to take form and style into account, Clark makes an obvious blunder: the contemporary criticism of Olympia was aimed, in part, at Manet’s “realism,” his departure from the traditional chiaroscuro and modelé techniques. Clark forgets that one of Manet’s principal innovations was stylistic: he was using dark outlines to describe shapes, and the contrast between dark and light in the painting would have seemed crude to the conventionally trained eye of the time.

Again, with Manet’s Argenteuil, les canotiers, Clark looks very closely at the artist’s work and observes—here quite rightly—a visual joke, typical of Manet, in the vertical line that seems to be a reflection of a factory chimney in the water but is, in fact, made up of bits of rope and the flowers from the woman’s hat. This is a perceptive observation which contributes something to our understanding of Manet’s approach to painting. But Clark only permits himself to enter into the spirit of Manet’s visual humor in order to discover a hidden meaning: a visual metaphor for art and illusion (like the mirror in Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère). Manet, he concludes, class-conscious at last, is using a formal joke to express the objective connection between the world of labor (the factory) and that of leisure (the boat and hat). Thus factory workers and white-collar canotiers would be, at least symbolically, reunited by the artist’s intuition!

Throughout the book there is a tension between Clark the connoisseur and Clark the ideologue and it is unfortunately the latter who wins out. A particularly telling footnote throws all Clark’s inconsistencies into relief. He asserts that the social intentions underlying the work of artists such as Gervex, Goeneutte, Nittis, Raffaëlli, and Zandomeneghi have more relevance to his own interests, adding that unfortunately it is an inferior variety of painting. “The value of a work of art,” Clark pronounces, “cannot ultimately turn on the more or less of its subservience to ideology.” This comes as a relief! Misleading appearances notwithstanding, Clark would not go along with Zhdanov all the way.

In the long run, though, Clark’s relentless moralism tends to prevail. It must be very discouraging to study an art that does not conform to your own ideology, and to study artists of no political convictions who mischievously wriggle out of systems and (thank heaven) out of the grasp of art historians. According to Clark, where Manet and the Impressionists foundered was in their failure to produce an accurate portrait of society. Bourgeois that they were, they proved themselves incapable of finding “an iconography of modern life” with which “to picture class adequately.”

It is not enough to say that they were bourgeois artists; it needs stressing, rather, that their practice as painters—their claim to be modern—depended on their being bound more closely than ever before to the interests and economic habits of the bourgeoisie they belonged to.

Not only does Clark blame them for catering to the fin du siècle market, but for catering even then to (horresco referens) the American market as well. On this count he finds Monet perhaps the most guilty: guilty of forsaking a rapidly industrializing Argenteuil—teeming week in, week out with the new class industrialization had given rise to—for his garden at Giverny and the pleasures of the contemplative life and the cultivation of private sensibility.

But Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro are guilty as well. Their canvases depicted trains, railway bridges, and factory smokestacks, more to create a setting than to represent a world at work. “Industry could surely be made part of the idyll if the painter tried hard enough,” Clark writes.

The Impressionists are guilty: guilty of having had a serene vision of industrial modernity, for instance of having seen a motif of lyric modernity in the Gare Saint Lazare; guilty, in short, of having seen something more in the symbols of modern life than the suffering they could mask and the reproach they should convey. What Clark really cannot forgive Impressionism for, it seems, is exerting from beyond the grave a force to reaffirm the American leisured classes in their smug complacency. And for this crime he finds its “dissolution into the decor of Palm Springs and Park Avenue” to be “well deserved….”

And so, having placed History’s dunce cap on the Impressionists—and on Renoir in particular—Clark ends, like Meyer Schapiro before him, by holding up Seurat as the one exception, Seurat who managed to capture in its loneliness and disaffection the new borderline class of clerks, calicots, and demimondaines halfway between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Of course Seurat’s inspired Grande Jatte certainly lends itself to Clark’s demonstration: this social image is—and has been recognized to be for about a hundred years—one element in the painting. But to reduce the painting to a social statement, ignoring all its technical, historical, and metaphysical implications, seems oddly restrictive.

Here we see all the ambiguities and dangers that result from exploring art through iconography alone; for by this standard, Raffaëlli (who painted suburbs) or Léon Frédéric (who painted factory workers) would exceed Seurat in importance. “I don’t have that much to say,” Seurat used to complain. And yet there seems to be no limit to what he can be made to say by those who hold university chairs. For the last two hundred years, mixing art and moral sentiment has been the recurring hope of every clergyman with aesthetic pretensions. But where would this leave Degas, the misogynist who loved to paint women, the reactionary who sought in his paintings to capture people at work? Is Degas to find salvation in his singers, laundresses, dancers, madames, and modistes? Will they sue for grace on his behalf before the high court of feminism and modernity?

And what about the lecherous old Renoir? Do not the people in his Déjeuner des canotiers belong to the very class whose emergence is the subject of Clark’s book, depicted in the very sort of setting to which he devotes an entire chapter? Why is nothing said about this painting? For the simple reason, one suspects, that the people in Déjeuner des canotiers are enjoying themselves: they seem quite happy and no trace of “alienation” or Angst pales the cheeks of Aline Charigot, the working girl who became Mrs. Renoir. The picture and Clark’s omission of it testify to the dangers of ideology, not the least of which is simple frustration. Clark himself, formerly at Leeds University, writes in this book like a new breed of pilgrim who has come to the shores of Hawthorne’s New England seeking to breathe new life into a dying Puritanism with the formulas of historical materialism.

translated by Mimi Kramer


Painting of Modern Life’ August 15, 1985

  1. 1

    Jean Claude Chesnais, Histoire de la violence (Paris: Hachette Pluriel, 1981), pp. 42 and 74.

  2. 2

    Clark locates the scene of Le Ballon in the Tuileries, although recent studies have conclusively identified the site of the lithograph as the esplanade in front of Invalides (J. Bareau, Manet Exhibition Catalog, no. 44, New York, 1983). This is a niggling point, perhaps, but it is by putting together trifles, unpretentious but precise details, that knowledge is advanced—not by shrinking the facts to fit a preestablished theory. (By the way, Clark should have read the catalog of the 1983 Manet exhibition, where all the letters from Manet to Zola are published for the first time, including the “unpublished” letter he refers to in note 85, p. 314.)

  3. 3

    B. Farwell, Manet and the Nude (Garland, 1981); T. Reff, Olympia (London: Allen Lane, 1977).