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Fleeting Impressionism

1.

Impressionist paintings often seem somewhat like painted snapshots—views of a particular place at a particular time, so vividly rendered that they convince us utterly of their verisimilitude. Sailboats moored at the river’s edge, women lounging in a garden, sun-drenched fields of flowers—in Monet’s or Renoir’s depictions of such subjects, you frequently have the sense that the painter merely set his easel down and began to paint, capturing the scene almost instantaneously.

A number of contemporary accounts, by both critics and advocates of the Impressionists, emphasized the spontaneity of their paintings. By their adversaries, the Impressionists were criticized for painting thoughtlessly and quickly, without respect for the rules of artistic propriety. Among their supporters, they were lauded for precisely this same freedom of approach. The artists themselves also emphasized the sincerity, immediacy, and spontaneity of their art. “I paint the way a bird sings,” Monet told his friend and biographer, Gustave Geffroy.

During much of the 115 years that have passed since the first Impressionist exhibition, the notion has persisted that Impressionism was a kind of “natural,” almost primitive way of painting, based on an innocent, childlike vision. In recent years, however, it has become apparent that even Monet’s paintings were not done as spontaneously as was previously thought, that even he—commonly considered the “purest” of the Impressionists—frequently executed his pictures over an extended period of time and reworked them in the studio. This was first demonstrated in detail ten years ago in an article by the influential Yale art historian Robert L. Herbert, who through careful examination of the visual evidence showed just how much planning and reworking went into Monet’s seemingly spontaneous paintings.1

The reconsideration of Impressionist technique led to a widespread reevaluation of Impressionism in general. Once it was recognized how much calculation and thought went into the Impressionists’ paintings, it had to be recognized that despite their almost documentary appearance, those paintings are to some degree fictions—though fictions based on actual places and events rather than on history or imagination. With hindsight, of course, it became apparent that when Monet and Renoir painted scenes of people bathing, rowing, sailing, or strolling, they had to reinvent or compose pastiches of their subjects, since life caught on the run could not be made to stand still and “pose.” And because they used somewhat complicated technical procedures, their paintings, like Wordsworth’s poems, are to some degree based on “emotion recollected in tranquility.”

The formal means as well as the subjects of the Impressionists were more deliberately chosen than was previously thought. Impressionist brush strokes, for example, evoke spontaneity even when they do not actually enact it—for spontaneity was a necessary fiction of Impressionism. Sincerity, immediacy, and naturalness were felt by the Impressionists and their admirers to be inherent virtues that had ethical as well as aesthetic significance. Underlying most recent writing about Impressionism is a reevaluation of the moral universe of the Impressionists. We now must reckon with the fact that in Impressionist painting, as in other forms of artistic expression, aesthetic issues are not easily separable from ethical ones.

2.

Until recently it seemed that the battle over Impressionism had already been waged, and definitively won, nearly a century ago, by “progressive” forces. In fact, Impressionism was the one modernist movement that could safely be said to be free of controversy. Unlike most of the subsequent modernist painting styles—such as Cubism or Abstract Expressionism—which have been slowly and grudgingly accepted by the general public, Impressionism went almost overnight from being reviled to being nearly universally loved. Why this is so has never been satisfactorily explained, but it must surely be related to the general appeal of both the Impressionists’ “easy,” apparently bland subject matter and the agreeably bright and colorful way in which their pictures are rendered. Since so many of the Impressionists’ paintings celebrated the pleasures of what has been called “the earthly paradise,” once people’s eyes adjusted to the formal peculiarities of the style, the paintings came to seem comforting and familiar, and eventually even to evoke a certain nostalgia for more innocent and elegant times. What could be safer, aesthetically—or financially—than Impressionism? Even the British Rail Pension Fund realized this and has profited handsomely by investing in Impressionist pictures.

In recent years, however, the situation has changed. Until about a decade ago, John Rewald’s magisterial History of Impressionism told the story of Impressionism in a supposedly objective way, recounting the known facts about the lives of the painters and chronicling their personal struggles and formal innovations. Now the literature on Impressionism has become a kind of ideological battlefield, in which more attention is paid to the subject matter of the paintings, and to social and moral issues, than to form and style. Especially since the publication in 1985 of T. J. Clark’s controversial The Painting of Modern Life, theoretical and politically engaged discussions of the period, which often pay attention to issues such as the differing treatment of men and women, and the exclusion of modern industry and labor from the pictures, have tended to crowd out the stylistic analysis favored by Rewald and his followers. The Impressionist canon itself has also been revised, admitting a number of artists such as Gustave Caillebotte, who previously seemed peripheral to Impressionism, in view of his crisp rendering of form. The degree to which writing about Impressionism has become charged with all sorts of ideological issues is apparent in the preface to Robert L. Herbert’s new book, in which he both defends and apologizes for his lack of a clear theoretical approach and characterizes his own empirical approach as “old-fashioned.”

At the same time, Professor Herbert dissociates himself from those truly old-fashioned writers, the formalists—presumably ranging from Roger Fry to Clement Greenberg—whose largely stylistic approach he feels has left the history out of art history. His own goal, he tells us, is “to restore paintings to their socio-cultural context.” In this he has succeeded to a remarkable degree. But at the same time, his very success in doing so raises a number of difficult issues.

In order to place Impressionist painting within its social setting, Professor Herbert has been obliged to do some reshuffling. He limits himself to the twenty-year period between the early 1860s and the early 1880s, and treats the painting of this period according to themes from French social life, such as “Café and Café-Concert,” rather than chronologically or by separate accounts of individual artists, as most studies of this period do. He also presents an extremely selective view of Impressionism. Cézanne is almost entirely omitted, along with Pissarro and Sisley—largely because their paintings do not fit in with Herbert’s emphasis on themes of urban life and suburban leisure. Manet, Degas, and Caillebotte—who paint scenes of urban life but who many would hardly characterize as Impressionists—dominate the first half of the book. Professor Herbert justifies his selectiveness by saying that he has “defined Impressionism in a pragmatic way.”

In any case, he has done so in a convenient way. For in urging us not to “narrow down the definition of Impressionism to say, broken brushwork, and then use such a lens to cast non-conforming artists into the shade,” he can allow himself a new and broader description of Impressionist painting. Such painting, for him, refused to make use of traditional chiaroscuro modeling and depended, instead, on “bright chromatic harmonies and free-flowing brushwork” to produce the effect of spontaneity. Another feature that he believes links the Impressionists is their “resistance to anecdote and detailed visual narrative,” although, as we shall see, he himself sometimes goes out of his way to read anecdote and narrative into their paintings.

Herbert’s approach has both obvious advantages and disadvantages. It strives for a more unified conception of nineteenth-century French painting, which would group the modernist painters together, and emphasizes their common concerns rather than their stylistic differences. But it also forces the author to omit some of the most important aspects of Impressionism. Portraits, pure landscape, and still-life painting are almost entirely overlooked. And in his concern with social setting, Herbert is forced largely to ignore the metaphysical ambitions having to do, for example, with capturing both the objective and the subjective effects of light, which seem to have characterized much Impressionist painting. The subtitle of his book—“Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society”—suggests its real subject.

Herbert begins with a discussion of how Baron Haussmann’s transformation of Paris, including the creation of the Grands Boulevards, changed both the visual and the social perspectives of the period:

To the historian of Impressionism, it is important to look at this altered Paris, because its new streets and squares, its expositions, cafés, restaurants, and theaters are the images we see in the paintings of Manet, Degas, Morisot, Cassatt, Monet, Caillebotte, and Renoir. Manet shows us men and women in the fashionable new brasseries and cafés; he paints the approaches to the fairgrounds of the 1867 exposition and the streets in the renovated district where he lives, near the Gare Saint-Lazare. Degas shows men outside the stock exchange and at the racetrack; he shows middle-class women in fashionable hat shops, and prostitutes seated at sidewalk cafés. Monet represents the grands boulevards, glittering centers of commerce and tourism, he and Renoir paint the new squares and quais. Caillebotte takes us upon the new bridge over the tracks of the Gare Saint-Lazare, and Monet places us in the train shed and also out on the tracks.

Herbert then discusses the modern artist as a detached observer of contemporary life. In his investigation of a number of themes related to Parisian leisure that were represented in modernist art, he gives his main attention to the ambience of cafés and cafés-concerts, to theatrical life, to racetracks and gardens, and finally to suburban and seaside pleasure spots. His account is fascinating, and I think that almost anyone who reads his book will come away seeing the painting of this period in a richer way. Herbert probably knows more about late-nineteenth-century Paris than did almost any Parisian of the period, and in sharing this knowledge with us he accomplishes something very rare: he actually helps us to see the painting of the period as if through contemporary eyes.

His strategy for doing so is to give the reader extensive information about the activities and places that the Impressionists painted, so that we can see their pictures in the light of our vicarious experience of their world. To give us this background, Herbert uses statistical studies along with evidence from contemporary guidebooks, newspapers, literary descriptions, and popular pictorial imagery (such as advertising posters and newspaper illustrations). This “guided tour” approach is built into the very structure of his book, which opens with American writer Henry Tuckerman’s description of Paris at the time of the Universal Exposition of 1867, which was memorably painted by Manet. Tuckerman’s account has the seductive effect of framing the place for us through the eyes of a knowledgeable contemporary who, like us, is a foreigner and whom we feel we can trust as a guide.

  1. 1

    Method and Meaning in Monet,” Art in America (September 1979), pp. 90–108. John House’s Monet: Nature into Art (Yale University Press, 1986) discusses Monet’s technique and working habits in great detail.

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