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…

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