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Art and ‘Accuracy’

Beyond Impressionism: The Naturalist Impulse

by Gabriel P. Weisberg
Abrams, 303 pp., $75.00

A random sampling of the picture titles and prose in Mr. Weisberg’s book takes us back to another world. Among the pictures he includes: The Catechism Lesson, All Saints’ Day, Innocent Wedding, In Front of the Relics, Forlorn, Winter Work, The Last Furrow, A Hopeless Dawn, Peasants Lunching in a Field, The Sermon, and Women Plucking Geese. He also writes as follows:

Even if [the picture] was not inspired by a specific event, it focuses on the camaraderie of French youth in rural villages and their support of nation and flag.

The emaciated figure at the left, who tries to keep warm while she receives alms from the young girl, serves to underscore the necessity of giving, sharing, and remembering on [All Saints’] day.

Paintings of children with wide eyes and a fresh expression that conveys sincerity are both touching and immensely sentimental. Indeed, such works promoted a mass popular interest in childhood.

At first glance Beyond Impressionism seems to be the effort of a beginning student who had access only to provincial museums and libraries that ignored the major currents of art from Courbet and Manet onward and the books about them. It soon becomes apparent that beneath its flat-footed prose,1 Professor Weisberg’s book is a direct attack, and a very reactionary one, upon the whole enterprise of modern art.

Weisberg locates what he sees as Naturalism in France during the late 1870s and 1880s, when, according to him, the leading painters are P.A.J. Dagnan-Bouveret, Jules Bastien-Lepage, Emile Friant, and Jules-Alexis Muenier. For the 1880s and 1890s, he moves to England, Hungary, Germany, the Lowlands, Scandinavia, and to American painters in France. Among his preferred artists are George Clausen, H.H. La Thangue, Károly Ferenczy, Wilhelm Leibl, Fritz von Uhde, Theodor Verstraete, Constantin Meunier, Louis Pion, Michael Ancher, Anders Zorn, and Charles Sprague Pearce. Russian artists are mysteriously omitted, although they are surely Naturalists by his definition, and only two reproductions of paintings by women are included among the illustrations.

Weisberg defines Naturalism as “a style that could be read at a glance.” His criteria are found in phrases like these: “accurate, objective reflections of the real world,” “reliance on a realistic vision of society,” and “scientific exploration of considerable raw data.” He traces this “impulse” to Naturalist writers, particularly to Zola (but doesn’t allow for that writer’s emphasis on the values of temperament over fact) and to Jules Castagnary (but ignores that writer’s conviction that “an aesthetic order” must precede a choice of subject). He seems to believe that an artist can directly and “accurately” transcribe the external world.

The kernel of his argument is found in photography, for he has uncovered its extensive use by Muenier and Dagnan, on whom he has done original research of interest, as well as by Pion and Zorn. Unfortunately he nowhere discusses how and why photographs can be accepted as “accurate” records (all recent writing on photography seems to have escaped his attention). He appears unaware of the implications of the facts that artists posed figures for photographs on the basis of prior compositional ideas, or that Dagnan used photos of Brittany for a painting of the Franche-Comté. True, he once says that photography “allowed painters to change reality according to their personal vision”; but any sense of the personal is, for him, overwhelmed by “innovation and experiment in using photography to heighten description, to hone a sense of actuality.” So enthusiastic is Weisberg about photography that he repeatedly suggests that artists made use of it even when proof is lacking; here he uses words like “plausibly,” “possibly,” “presumably” and “reminiscent of photography.” For one alleged use he resorts to the ultimate hedge: “Without further documentary evidence, this can only remain an intuition.”

These words reveal that Weisberg’s dominant criterion is a kind of imitative “accuracy,” an impulse often served by photography but not always. Yet even here he is not consistent, for he includes several works by Zorn, like Midsummer Dance (1897) because it was based on photographs, although it has notably free, broad brushwork. Similarly he shows that Zorn used photographs in painting Red Sand (1902), a female nude that is a “fine art” subject incompatible with the everyday genre that characterizes Weisberg’s other artists. These inconsistencies are possible because Weisberg has no other way of looking at his pictures except to remark on their “accuracy” and their “real” subjects. He discusses neither the actual techniques of applying paint nor, more surprisingly, composition and other pictorial devices such as modeling, spatial illusion, etc. He seems unaware that art is a visual language, which is why his book is reactionary and not just conservative.

According to Weisberg, photographs “facilitated the observation of real light,” and in this fashion, he gives, without irony, a new meaning to the “en plein air” painting that supersedes Impressionism (which he doesn’t mention when invoking that famous phrase). Photography, one of the “advanced technologies,” and its concomitant “accuracy” in painting (“cinéma vérité” is another Weisbergian analogy) are therefore ultra-modern and “beyond” Impressionism.

Since the Naturalists’ greatest tool and ally—photography—is no longer viewed with suspicion, what these artists were able to accomplish with their paintings seems anticipatory. Their work appears modern though different from the type of ‘modernism’ that has been applauded in the canons of art history; their involvement with new technologies reached further into the future than at first thought.”

Weisberg believes he has uncovered a Modernism that was not just hidden from view but deliberately suppressed by aggressive modernists, such as Walter Sickert, whose strictures on Bastien-Lepage (who died young) demonstrate “to what lengths the Modernist camp would go to discredit painters who practiced photographic verisimilitude—even those who were venerated as young martyrs.”

In order to convey a sense of detached reporting, the leading Naturalist writers and painters tried to authenticate their vision through the accumulation of detail, without giving vent to flights of imagination or excessive emotion. Such photographic objectivity separated the Naturalists from the more intensely personal Modernists.

Those cruel Modernists overshadowed Weisberg’s objective artists thanks to their “flights of imagination,” and by the turn of the century, he tells us, “symbolism and personal interpretation” had won out over Naturalism. Earlier in the book he found Thomas Eakins hard to place among his Naturalists, even though he used photographs, “because of his avowed sense of personal liberation,” and, later, Lovis Corinth was equally difficult for Weisberg because of “the way the artist used his Naturalist roots to convey his own personal meaning.” “Personal” meanings are worrisome to Weisberg because he sees them as the opposite of “accuracy” and believes they lead to idiosyncratic, overly imaginative techniques that cater to an elite, whereas his artists had the touch of Everyman.

Since the Naturalist style could be taught both in private ateliers…and in public art academies,…individuality proved insignificant. The uniformity of Naturalism could be passed from painter to painter, from country to country—a fact that infuriated modernists interested in subjective moods, personal states of the soul, and abstraction.

Just how democratic was Weisberg’s Naturalism? Muenier’s clients wrote letters about The Catechism Lesson (1890) that “confirm the canvas’s broad appeal and indicate that many collectors from the upper middle class were eager to acquire a painting that they could understand.” Weisberg—no irony grows in his garden—documents the purchase by the French government of works by Muenier, Dagnan, and Friant, as well as their official prizes, high positions, and good sales. All of this he takes as proof of their being readily understood, until those Modernists did them in.

Weisberg believes that by painting the poor and the humble, his artists were creating “a type of instant social history.” Social history, in this book, consists mostly of a nostalgic display of premodern subjects. One hundred and three paintings show peasants, rural figures, and fisher folk. A further thirty-two show villagers. Twenty-three (some overlapping with the preceding) have religious themes. By comparison, only fifty-two show city, factory, or suburb (and some of these also have religious themes). There are no pure landscapes, although Weisberg once says that “the emergence of landscape painting can be regarded as a major triumph of Naturalism.” Nostalgia for rural scenes and genre painting dominates Weisberg’s sensibility, as it did that of so many of his artists. There is no sense whatever in this book of the rapid dissolution of old rural “lifestyles,” or of the fierce debates about religion that accompanied the expulsion of the Church from public schools in the early 1880s, and that render many of his pictures highly political.

As we might guess, the “ugly” side of naturalism associated with Flaubert and the Goncourts is not for Weisberg. He ignores paintings of prostitution and we do not find references in his book to threatening peasants, although Zola’s La terre is mentioned in another context. He shows us Constantin Meunier’s factory workers, but without regard to the social meanings of labor or to Meunier’s socialist convictions. Weisberg frees “social” subjects from politics to offer us the comfort of middle-class condescension. He mentions J. A. Muenier’s use of his own farm workers as models, and describes Dagnan’s studio as “fashionable,” but draws no lessons or conclusions from these observations. Rather disingenuously, Weisberg notes that

the successful rustic or urban Naturalist veered away from socially upsetting themes or subjects charged with radical implications. Those who defiantly presented morally difficult ideas or focused on the indigent often found no buyers…. Painters soon learned that showing a specific figure rather than a stereotypical type [sic] enabled viewers to read and then relate the image to what was known without becoming mired in political issues.

This is, then, history without history, entirely uncontaminated by “political issues.” Weisberg’s bibliography and text bear no references to Eugen Weber’s writings on peasants or to other modern studies of French social history. He makes use neither of earlier studies of genre, such as Lothar Brieger’s, nor of rural and urban themes as analyzed by Paul Brandt, whose Schaffende Arbeit und Bildende Kunst of 1927 deals with many of the artists in Weisberg’s book. And he does not include the works on realism (which also involve some of his artists) by Linda Nochlin and Gerald Needham. On the other hand, he refers to his own writings in forty-two footnotes, and his bibliography has thirteen items of his own (his nearest rival has five).

This is also history without art history. Courbet, Millet, and the other painters of the middle of the century are almost entirely absent, despite the many pictures that obviously derive from them, on the grounds that they are Realists and therefore a breed apart from Weisberg’s Naturalists. So too, contemporaries of his artists who painted similar subjects are found to be wanting if they used “dark tonal painting,” or if they were not “interested in the use of photographic influences.” The earlier Millet and the contemporary Munkácsy (who used photographs!) don’t deserve inclusion because they are among the artists who failed both “to place figures in easily recognizable contemporary settings” and to document “personalities and locales in more demanding, scientific ways.”

One might construe Weisberg’s exclusions as a form of self-abnegation, because in 1981 he organized The Realist Tradition, a huge exhibition of French art between 1830 and 1900. However there, too, Courbet and Millet were given short shrift, for Weisberg revealed his penchant for setting up a counter image to the “canon” of artists preferred by modernists. Unlike feminists and others who wish to expand and enrich the canon, Weisberg sets it entirely aside. To its supposed exclusiveness, he matches an equally restrictive set of choices.

Even though he is indifferent to historical comparison, Weisberg might at least have told us why he chose the artists he features in his book. Some of them are well known and need no justification (Zorn, Leibl, Max Liebermann, George Clausen, Léon Frédéric, Gari Melchers). But without interpretive guidance, how is the reader to judge Eugène Buland or Gotthardt Kuehl, as distinguished from dozens of comparable painters that are omitted? Why are Henry Geoffroy, Victor Gilbert, and Arthur Kampf included, but not Lucíen Simon, Jules Rougeron, and Wilhelm Trübner? Most of Weisberg’s little-known artists merit some attention, but he makes it difficult to rescue them from neglect because he hides their virtues behind screens of platitudes, and fails to relate them meaningfully to other artists.

How much better it would have been had he chosen to discuss his artists together with Pissarro, Gauguin, Bernard, or Sérusier, as has been done by Denise Delouche in another of the books omitted by Weisberg.2 Delouche is able to write wisely both about Dagnan and many little-known artists, and about the group around Gauguin, because she has a cohesive grasp of style, subject, and history. Among other features of a book that really expands the canon is her analysis of how style was put at the service of visual testimony (or a convincing “accuracy,” to use Weisberg’s term).

Is there no value in Weisberg’s book? It certainly will be useful to art dealers and auctioneers, who can now cite Weisberg’s volume to enhance the interest in many otherwise obscure artists. It must have some value to the publisher (the use of “Impressionism” in the title may be a way of catching an unwary reader). And there is value in the original elements of Weisberg’s researches that show how artists constructed glass-walled studios and made use of photographs. If readers are aware of the fragile twigs of reasoning on which these researches uneasily perch, they can make good use of them. It would have been far better if the author had confined himself to the bushes that he knew how to cultivate and spared us this unkempt thicket of a book.

  1. 1

    The writing consists almost entirely of simple declarative sentences, and is nearly devoid of metaphors. In view of one unwittingly earthy metaphor, it is probably just as well. (“both painters…deposit the argument…directly into the Impressionist camp.”)

  2. 2

    Les peintres et le paysan breton (Baillé: Editions URSA, 1988).

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