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.) 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 …

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Letters

Painting of Modern Life’ August 15, 1985