Beyond the Picturesque

American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885–1915 10–July 24, 1994

an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May

American Impressionism and Realism: Drawings, Prints, and Photographs 3–July 24, 1994

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May

American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885–1915

catalog of the exhibition by H. Barbara Weinberg et al.
Abrams, 384 pp., $75.00

The megashow gives way to the talk show—an art exhibit where more time is spent absorbing the pedagogic text on the walls than in looking at the pictures. As insurance costs rise and government support dwindles, and the number of artists for whom the public will form long queues approaches its limit, the kind of global roundup that Matisse and Renoir and Picasso and Degas and Sargent and Caravaggio have received in recent years may be joining the junk-bond boom in the annals of heydays; in these drabber times museums are turning scholarly, delving into their and their fellow institutions’ copious reserves of less than supremely fashionable works of art to assemble purposeful lectures through which we walk as if galleries were paragraphs and paintings were slides of themselves. “American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885–1915,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, uses eighty-five canvases by twenty-six artists to illustrate its deconstruction of a verbal distinction that, in the minds of all but art curators and professionals, was rather hazy anyway.

According to received cultural history, the American Impressionists, following their French masters in rebelling against the studio-bound academic tradition of the nineteenth century, had become by the beginning of the twentieth century the contemporary art establishment and were in turn rebelled against by the Realists, who signaled their rebellion with an independent exhibition, at the Macbeth Gallery in 1908, of The Eight—named in distinction to The Ten, a group of Impressionists that had seceded from the Society of American Artists in 1897. The Impressionists were exemplified by William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, and J. Alden Weir, and the Realists were led by Robert Henri, William Glackens, George Luks, and John Sloan.

But according to the abundant wall inscriptions, the more than usually ample exhibition brochure sponsored by Alamo Rent A Car (“If, after you’ve seen these scenes of American life in the exhibition, you’re inspired to take your own show on the road, call us,” the brochure cunningly urges), and the heavy, opulently informative catalog by H. Barbara Weinberg, Doreen Bolger, and David Park Curry, the Impressionists and the Realists weren’t as different as has been thought. “Both studied in Europe, taught in the same schools, sought patronage in the same circles,” the first wall tells us. And both, the dominant message of the commentary repeatedly insists, were guilty of “genteel euphemism” in presenting the grim facts of an America in the throes of urbanization, industrialization, and mass immigration.

True, the Realists employed a more somber palette and sometimes depicted the poor and the slums, but even when they did so they sheltered the viewer from the true hardness of the case. John Sloan’s painting A Woman’s Work (1912) shows a healthy-looking—nay, attractive—young woman hanging wash from a tenement fire-escape landing; the wall caption points out that this clean, sunny moment leaves out of sight the dirt purged by “soapy water heated on a stove” and …

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