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.
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.
Professor Herbert takes over from Tuckerman the role of guide and explainer, and leads us through Paris as it is being transformed by Haussmann from a medieval city into the city familiar to us today. Herbert makes it clear that the information he presents here derives from a quarter of a century of teaching and he uses the relative informality of the lecturer’s rambling discourse to good advantage. The excellent reproductions of the paintings are very well coordinated with the text, and supplemented by vivid details that, as in a slide lecture, are used to make particular points about technique or subject matter. (Unfortunately, as with a slide lecture, we are not given any sense of the actual size of the pictures, since dimensions are omitted from the captions.)
Indeed, Herbert is at his best when he is drawing our attention to telling details in particular paintings. The book is full of illuminating and thought-provoking observations, such as the discussion of the Vicomte Lepic as a flâneur in Degas’s Place de la Concorde:
Lepic, impeccably dressed in his light walking coat, strides resolutely to our right. He clenches his cheroot firmly in his teeth, squeezes his umbrella between his cocked left arm and his body, and, like Caillebotte’s flâneur, pushes his right arm behind his back: all indications of his purposeful, absorbed strolling. A veritable distillation of the flâneur, Lepic proves his aristocratic remoteness by showing no interest in whatever has attracted his daughters’ attention. Although they have their own upperclass tone (the daughter to the right emulates her father’s upraised chin), they have the opposite of the flâneur’s indifference. We do not know what has drawn their curiosity—an omission that Degas teases us with—but by looking to the left, they augment Lepic’s detachment. The dog seconds their role, and its pedigreed look makes it a fit companion (Lepic was a dog breeder). The man on the left who stares at this group…stands there as a mere badaud, an onlooker who is easily distracted by what comes within his notice. “The idler [badaud],” wrote Victor Fournel, “under the influence of the spectacle, becomes an impersonal being; he is no longer a man: he is the public, the crowd.” Lepic appears as Fournel’s true flâneur, who observes and reflects, instead of taking part, who is therefore entirely in control and “in full possession of his individuality.”
Along the way, Herbert explains all sorts of things that one has always wanted to know, but didn’t know whom to ask—from the history of absinthe and coffee drinking to the codes of behavior practiced by the mothers of Parisian ballerinas and the rich older men who paid for their favors.
Elaborate as the descriptions and capsule histories of nineteenth-century manners are, they are mainly intended to provide background for the paintings. And although Herbert’s account of the relation of the paintings to their social background is frequently somewhat mechanical, the sheer quantity of information he provides enhances our understanding of the paintings. The descriptions of the opera and the racetrack are particularly informative, giving a candid account of the social and financial relations between performers and their patrons: after you have read them you see Manet’s and Degas’s opera and racetrack pictures with new eyes. Herbert’s analysis of the social and sexual dynamics in Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera is particularly brilliant:
At the heart of the picture’s inner workings is the opposition of the mass of black-clad men and the bright accents of Polichinelle and the costumed women: the coolest versus the warmest, the soberest versus the most animated…. Like the men whom Degas represented in his backstage views of the later 1870s, Manet’s men dressed in black to signal self-control and a knowing reserve, a public decorum all the easier to maintain because of the certainty of being masters of the women they sought or who sought them.
Effective as the lecturer’s style is, it also has limitations. Although it provides the opportunity for the inclusion of some wonderful perceptions—such as the description of the boats in Monet’s Bridge at Argenteuil as enjoying “their own repose before the holiday onslaught,” and evoking “their absent owners, rather the way an empty chair summons up a human body”—it also allows for a certain looseness and imprecision in the development of ideas. The descriptions of social background and the discussions of individual works tend to remain somewhat separated, and the book lacks the kind of intellectual rigor that we find in T. J. Clark’s Painting of Modern Life. Although Clark seems to me at times wrong-headed,2 he nonetheless constantly questions, probes, and expands the implications of his own ideas.
Herbert, by contrast, is somewhat complacent, more apt to take his own perceptions at face value. And as with a lecturer who is at times uncertain about the character of his audience, he sometimes addresses us as if we were a captive group of undergraduates, for whose moral improvement he feels responsible (although he says that he has “a horror of outright preaching”). Herbert also seems at times uncertain about how he conceives his own relation to the works of art he discusses. He discusses the characters in paintings using the names of the models, even though the models often were clearly used only as prototypes for the painted equivalent of fictional characters. When Herbert writes of The Man at the Window “we are looking over the shoulder of Caillebotte’s brother René,” we are uncertain whether he is referring to the fictional character (with his back turned to us), whom we see in the finished picture, or to the man Caillebotte saw as he was painting it.3
The confusion between the painted invention and the model from which it was created recurs throughout the book. Discussing Renoir’s Dance at the Moulin de la Galette of 1876, for example, Herbert writes that although Renoir’s friend Georges Rivière identified and described the people who posed for the picture, Rivière then “gave the false impression that Renoir painted an ordinary Sunday dance of Montmartre residents.” Herbert, who offers his own lengthy description of the models, attributes this “false impression” to Rivière’s failure to see objectively behind his friend’s “ideal.”
But the matter is more complex than that. Although he does not clearly say so, Herbert’s description of the people who posed for the painting is based on a conflation of two different accounts by Rivière—one published the year after the picture was painted and the other in 1921, over forty years later. In the later account Rivière identified the models, but in 1877 he did not identify them by name and described their social background only in the most general way. In fact, in his 1877 discussion of the painting, Rivière deliberately insisted on the general and typical nature of the painting because he saw it as “un tableau historique” of a very particular sort. Rivière believed that Renoir’s picture, in contrast to traditional historical paintings, would provide future generations with a truthful rendering of the time in which it was actually painted. And such a painting would do so, according to Rivière, precisely because it treated its subjects in a generalized way, with more emphasis on style than on subject: “by the tones and not for the subject itself.”4
What then are we to make of Herbert’s often literal-minded—and in this case, at least, somewhat cavalier—treatment of historical sources? To what degree does he want us to see the paintings he discusses as illustrations of the daily life of the period, and to what degree does he think they transcend that life? These are questions that he never quite resolves. In his preface Herbert tells us that in earlier drafts of his book he gave more emphasis to theoretical issues, but that he “shed that costume” and put on “ordinary clothing for the sake of the final manuscript.” It isn’t clear whether we are to take this as reflecting the author’s uncertainty about the nature of the complex relationships between form and subject matter in Impressionist painting or as suggesting his own flexibility of mind. An imaginative reader might even be tempted to interpret Herbert’s uncertainty as reflecting the state of much art-historical thinking these days, in which the works themselves occupy an increasingly controversial position within the “history” that they are supposed to elucidate. In spite of his own uncertainties, Herbert seems to be particularly impatient with other art historians; they come across in his book as a somewhat benighted group, who, among other errors, constantly seem to be getting the historical situation of particular paintings wrong.
Despite his impatience with what he perceives as the dogmatism of others, Herbert is frequently dogmatic himself, especially about his interpretations of paintings. Other critics have commented on the estrangement or tension that seems to characterize the couple shown in Manet’s In the Conservatory. Herbert claims the picture is devoid of such feelings, but his argument seems to me exasperating as well as specious. When he argues that the fence-like back of the bench “unites as much as it separates” the couple, and that their apparent emotional reticence is the result of “a deliberate rendering of a wealthy marriage,” he seems to be pushing an already tenuous argument to the point of absurdity. Why, we ask ourselves, is the author unwilling to concede even the possibility of an interpretation other than his own view that a “correct couple” is being portrayed? Here as elsewhere Herbert supplies information about the background of models—Mme Guillemet was an “independent” American, and the Guillemets owned a clothing store on the fashionable rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré—but in this case such details seem to obfuscate rather than clarify the discussion of the painting itself. Especially since, as Herbert points out, the painting was “neither commissioned nor shown as a double portrait, so we deal here with a modified genre piece.”
Although he describes the Impressionist style as one that avoids anecdote and detailed narrative, Herbert’s readings of pictures are at times surprisingly literal and anecdotal. His interpretation of Manet’s At the Café, for example, is based on an elaborate series of deductions from which he concludes that the three people seated at the bar are man, wife, and daughter, and the painting “a wry commentary upon marriage and the bourgeois family.” Yet there is no clear reason why the three people must be linked in this way, or need necessarily be members of a family—and the picture, in any case, seems to me a much less direct commentary on “marriage and the bourgeois family” than In the Conservatory. Similarly, in his discussion of Degas’s somber and unsettling Interior (also called The Rape), Herbert asserts that “we know that it is based on Zola’s Thérèse Raquin,” and goes on to describe the scene as representing Thérèse and Laurent’s wedding night. In fact, we “know” nothing of the sort. The relationship between the painting and the scene in Zola’s novel is hypothetical and the imagery of the painting is not consistent with the scene in the book.5 Indeed, this painting defies a simple and straight-forward anecdotal reading; its emotional force comes precisely from the mystery and ambiguity about what exactly is going on in it. Here Herbert’s insistence on finding an anecdotal source diminishes the power of the painting.
To some degree the recent emphasis on subject matter and social “context” in art history may be seen as part of a general reaction against formalism, a reaction well reflected in Professor Herbert’s book. It also seems to be related to a new awareness of—and desire for—subject matter in contemporary art, for how we perceive the present surely affects how we look at the past. Recently, even the paintings of Abstract Expressionists have been subjected to searches for recognizable images, in an attempt to affirm that “subjects” exist even in art that once seemed almost by definition to be purely formalist.
One problem that is especially evident in Professor Herbert’s book has to do with the variety of perspectives from which a single work of art can be considered. It is important, for example, to distinguish between how the work of art was seen in its own time and in the periods that followed—and especially how and why it is seen as a vital work in the present. We also have to distinguish between the work as a kind of poetical experience and the work as a historical document—between the object as art and as artifact. If we are concerned primarily with the object as art we try to discern meanings that derive from the distinctive qualities in the image before us and try to assess its place in the history of images. If we consider the work as an artifact we may find in it documentary evidence about the period in which it was produced, either because of what the work consciously shows us or because of what it unconsciously takes for granted about what it shows us—much as we use archeological evidence to interpret the history of a culture. In this kind of analysis, questions about the artist’s intentions and the quality of his work will not necessarily have the same weight as they do when we address the artistic meanings of the work; the picture is considered primarily as a source of information.
In Professor Herbert’s book there seems some uncertainty whether he is using what he knows about late-nineteenth-century French society to illuminate the pictures or using the pictures to illustrate what he knows about nineteenth-century French society. Moreover, he ignores—not to say disdains—some of the more revealing methods of art-historical analysis. His discussion of Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère provides a good example of what I mean. Here, as in other places, Herbert seems almost as interested in carrying on an oblique argument with T. J. Clark as he does in discussing the picture itself. He begins by telling us that in this painting “the curious reflections in the mirror…provoke the issue of male-female commerce, but the picture as a whole does not resolve it.” From there he rushes into an interesting but nonetheless distracting history of the Folies-Bergère—how it was changed from a department store to a music hall, how it was transformed into an elegant hall with balconies by the entrepreneur Léon Sari, and in exactly what part of the place Manet’s picture is supposed to be set. (The painting, we may remember at this point, is a fiction, painted not at the Folies-Bergère but in Manet’s studio. In fact, the painter Georges Jeanniot, who saw Manet working on it, remarked how “Manet, though painting from life, was in no way copying nature.”)6
We are told that the model, whose name was Suzon, was actually a waitress at the Folies. From this point on, we are on a first-name basis with the enigmatic woman in the painting, and we are invited to consider her with respect to late-nineteenth-century sexual mores, especially in relation to the sometimes fine line that separated professional and “amateur” prostitution. Herbert, displaying his remarkable erudition, provides a fascinating (but somewhat beside-the-point) description of such a barmaid by the memoirist Arnold Mortier, written in 1876. When Herbert finally comes back to the painting, he veers off again almost immediately. Referring to Suzon’s impassivity, he informs us earnestly that it
should make us think again of Georg Simmel’s concept of objectivity, and also of his interpretation of the money economy which reduces human encounters to abstract terms and leads to the blasé look that protects against involvement. Suzon’s distant aspect would therefore result from Manet’s having responded not to the attraction of Sari’s performances, nor to the glamour of the society which swarmed through his building, but instead to the condition of this participant and victim of commercialized leisure.
But the mysterious reflection in the mirror of the woman talking to the man still remains, and Herbert is too sensitive to pictorial values to ignore it. He returns to it again, discussing its “faulty” reflection in relation to other of Manet’s departures from traditional perspective. Only near the end of his long discussion of the painting does he finally deal with what he calls “the second dialogue” in the mirror—that between the barmaid and the “apparently aberrant detachment of the reflection [of the man] in the mirror.” So literally has Herbert situated the painting in the mundane details he recounted in his discussion of the Folies that he simply stops his analysis of the painting just as it begins to get interesting, ending on the rather weak note that for Manet to “have ‘corrected’ it [the perspective] would have destroyed the painting.”
Nowhere does he discuss the style of the painting or draw attention to the parallels between the evanescent manner of rendering employed by Manet and the fleeting nature of the image in the mirror. Because he is so rooted in mundane realities, Herbert seems to miss the point that the reflection in the mirror is not only not “faulty” in perspective but was made that way intentionally, as a clear sign that this painting is meant to be taken not only literally but also as a meditation on the elusiveness and mystery of the subject painted. The woman’s name and the history of the Folies tell us virtually nothing about this particular picture, but instead distract us from more important considerations—of precisely the sort that the benighted art historians Herbert criticizes might want to raise.
The reader, for example, might have been interested to know that the mirror and the flowers in the picture, which were painted when Manet knew he was dying, are common elements in “vanitas” paintings—pictures reflecting on the fragility of life in the face of inevitable death. If we can say—as it seems clear to me we can—that we are being shown the dual personality of the woman as seen inside and outside the mirror, it would have been of interest to relate this insight to the near-contemporary development of “interior monologue” by Edouard Dujardin. It would be interesting as well to consider the ambiguous use of the mirror as an imaginative way of doing something that is very difficult to do in naturalistic painting: to show more than one reality at the same time. Although the social and sexual dialogue suggested by the man in the top hat is surely of great interest, it also might be considered that in keeping with the vanitas theme, this mysteriously insubstantial man accosts the girl in much the same way as the personifications of Death do in danse macabre imagery.
My intention here is not to criticize Professor Herbert for not having interpreted the painting in the ways that I might have done, but rather to point out that here, as elsewhere in the book, his discussion of a specific painting gets bogged down in so much peripheral information that he seems out of touch with the poetry of the picture. Professor Herbert no doubt would agree that works of art are more than illustrations of social realities, but their relationships to society are frequently more complex than he acknowledges. If paintings were only illustrations of manners and mores, as we sometimes might think from his comments, then James Tissot would be as great an artist as Manet or Degas. In fact, as Herbert himself remarks, the Impressionists were not particularly conscientious illustrators of their social milieu. They not only tended to leave much ordinary experience out of their paintings—work and poverty, for example—but what they put in was so transformed by their style that it had only an indirect relationship to the social realities of the world they depicted. Their pictures were not only inventions, but inventions in which the pictorial syntax to some degree disrupts or gets in the way of clear description. Their paintings, in effect, have two levels of “subject”: what is represented and how it is represented. And in Impressionist paintings, the “how” calls attention to itself in ways that seem unprecedented.
At the very beginning of his book, Professor Herbert comes out firmly against “the view that art is somehow above the history of mundane events, that it exists in a rarified realm of its own.” But isn’t one of the main characteristics of a work of art precisely that it does exist both in relation to the real world and in a rarified sphere of its own? Indeed, I think that Herbert’s references to Zola, and the numerous journalistic and guidebook descriptions that he cites, interesting though they may be, are also somewhat misleading, notwithstanding the parallels that undoubtedly exist between the painters and the writers of the period. What Herbert seems to miss is that Henry Tuckerman or the author of the Guide Joanne or even Zola, is not the literary equivalent of Manet, Monet, or Degas. Indeed, Impressionist painting avoids the sentimentality, melodrama, and emotional strain characteristic of Zola’s prose on the one hand, and, on the other, the matter-of-fact descriptions of Parisian journalists. If one wanted to find a literary parallel to the painted language of Manet or Degas, one would turn not to Zola but to Mallarmé. The language of Impressionism is elliptical, indirect, abstracted—poetic in the fullest sense of the word.
“One might almost establish the axiom that there is no such thing as a subject,” Flaubert wrote. “Style in itself being an absolute manner of seeing things.” The Impressionist painters, who shared Flaubert’s preoccupations with style and also adopted a Flaubertian perspective of detached observation, probably would have agreed. This is not to say that specific subjects were not important to the Impressionists—or to Flaubert—or that studies of the social setting of Impressionism aren’t extremely valuable. But studies of social situation—like the formalism that they are reacting against—address only part of the underlying dynamic of the works of art that they seek to interpret, and their “explanation” of Impressionist painting is no more authoritative or comprehensive than studies confined to style and formal structure. To leave art out of art history is at least as grave an oversight as leaving out the history.
Professor Herbert’s book provides us with much information about the social setting of certain aspects of Impressionist painting, and is an important contribution to art history. But the study that will bring together a sense of painting with a sense of history—the worthy successor to Rewald’s History of Impressionism—remains to be written.
September 28, 1989
“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. ↩
See François Cachin’s review in The New York Review, May 30, 1985, and the exchange in the August 15, 1985, issue. ↩
This sort of confusion between the model and the fictional character created from the model is not uncommon in writing about the painting of this period—though probably no scholar would think of doing the same with the roman à clef literature of the period and referring to Claude Lantier in Zola’s L’Oeuvre as “Cézanne.” ↩
In fact, Rivière asserted, it was not so much the contemporary subject matter of Renoir’s painting that made it so original and important—after all, photographers and tailors also published pictures of current fashions—but the “new way of rendering a subject.” See Georges Rivière, “L’exposition des Impressionistes,” in L’impressioniste, No. 2 (April 14, 1877), pp. 2–6; reprinted in Lionello Venturi, Les Archives de l’Impressionisme, Vol. 2 (Durand-Ruel, 1939), pp. 308–314. The later account is given in Rivière’s Renoir et ses amis (H. Floury, 1921), pp. 131–140. ↩
The various sources that have been proposed for the Degas painting, and the impossibility of pinning down a single source, are discussed in Jean Sutherland Boggs, et al., Degas (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988), pp. 143–146. ↩
Cited by Françoise Cachin in Manet, 1832–1883 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1983), p. 482. ↩