Floating on the sea of memory is an anecdote about a young artist—I think it was Géricault—whose teacher told him that his paintings resembled nature the way a violin case resembles a violin. So, too, an exhibition of paintings and its catalog are related in much the same way as a violin case and a violin. To the extent that a catalog molds an exhibition, it is like a violin case, and because viewing an exhibition is a temporal and mostly visual experience, it can be likened to a musical performance, temporal and mostly auditory. There is some resemblance in the shapes of exhibition and catalog, but one cannot substitute for the other. Sometimes the case is more elaborate than the instrument.

Since the 1950s, catalogs of major exhibitions have steadily grown in size and are now lavishly illustrated, with literally weighty texts. 1 They are marketed as books by trade publishers, and the shops in large museums have become major bookstores in their own right. Catalogs can therefore be considered art books as well as complementing the exhibitions they accompany. I shall discuss the three catalogs under review somewhat differently since I visited the London and Chicago shows and can comment on their installations, but I did not see the one in Edinburgh and will have to treat its catalog primarily as a container or case.

Chicago’s Claude Monet is a celebratory presentation of the most popular of the Impressionists (he is given more room in the London and Edinburgh shows than Cézanne or any other of his peers).2 Charles Stuckey, the Art Institute’s curator of twentieth-century painting and sculpture, apparently believes the value of Monet’s landscapes to be self-evident. Except for a scattered sentence or two, no commentary accompanies the excellent color plates of the 159 exhibited works. Stuckey precedes the plates with a short introduction and follows them with a chronology of seventy-two pages, embellished with photographs of Monet’s family and his estate at Giverny and many reproductions of his paintings, plus a few by other artists.3 Such a skeletal “life” is evidently intended to provide the means by which one may interpret the reproductions, not the paintings, for it is too unwieldly to consult while visiting the exhibition itself.

Of the three catalogs, Stuckey’s is the most like a violin case, in making no attempt to match the elegance of the performance it shelters. Once the visitor has passed through the forbidding marble mausoleum that fronts Michigan Avenue, however, he comes upon Stuckey’s installation with intense pleasure. Instead of the neoclasical room dividers that have been a museum vogue recently, we find plain walls that do not call attention to themselves, including portable walls that sometimes rearrange the spaces to suit chronological and visual groupings. Most rooms have one or two large wall texts that present informative commentaries on the artist’s life and work, the kind of annotation that Stuckey’s catalog lacks. Referring to Monet’s paintings of the cliffs of Etretat (1883–1886), Stuckey’s panel tells us that the artist

approached the coast motifs with the intent to make time—in this case tidal and solar—his subject. He carried five or six canvases to any given site in order to switch from one work-in-progress to another as the “envelope” of colored air surrounding the coast-scapes changed. The dramatically striated and eroded forms of the cliffs provided a framework of geological time measured in centuries for Monet’s minute-to-minute observations of changing light conditions.

These panels seem much preferable to the small texts some exhibitors attach to each picture, forcing the visitors into a kind of head bobbing. Partway through the sequence of rooms Stuckey has spread out in two long scrolls a chronology juxtaposing Monet’s history with Chicago’s, and featuring city patrons like the redoubtable Mrs. Potter Palmer, one of the artist’s first American clients. These huge scrolls are sensibly in a room by themselves, after which the wall texts resume their roles as helpful guides.

The exhibition has a great many famous pictures such as Garden at Sainte-Adresse, 1867 (Metropolitan Museum), and Woman with a Parasol, 1875 (National Gallery of Art, Washington), and a welcome sprinkling of unfamiliar ones from private collections, including Boats on the Thames, London, 1871, and The Coast, Looking East from Fécamp, 1881. The Art Institute naturally contributed some of its own Monets, including six Wheatstacks (formerly called Haystacks) of 1890–1891.4 Until this room is reached, the selection draws from each of the artist’s major subjects and favorite places (the Norman coast, Argenteuil, the Gare Saint-Lazare, Vétheuil, Giverny, Belle-Isle, the Mediterranean coast, the Creuse valley). But the decade of the 1890s is only thinly represented, because, as a wall text explains, Monet’s series of the 1890s was recently shown in Chicago.5 Indeed the Nineties are represented by only one Rouen Cathedral, one Poplars along the River Epte, and one Morning on the Seine; except for the Wheatstacks, only nine, paintings are included from these years. This has the advantage of giving Stuckey the space for the works that seem closest to his heart. All but five of the remaining fifty-one pictures belong to two groups, eight of the Houses of Parliament, London of 1900–1905, so reminiscent of Fauve painting, and thirty-eight of the water lily gardens, ranging from 1900 to about 1924, two years before the artist’s death at age eighty-six.


The water lily rooms are preceded by a wall text in an anteroom stripped of all else save the splendid Water Lilies (The Clouds) of 1903 (private collection), in which nacreous lavenders, pinks, blues, and whites in the foreground give way to greens and warm browns before ending in a narrow frieze of dark waterside foliage at the top of the canvas. This is a prelude announcing the grand symphony of rooms which climaxes the exhibition, an arrangement without words (except labels and one descriptive panel) that conjures up not only Debussy’s La Mer but Stravinsky’s Sacre. In each of four Water Lilies of 1907 placed side by side, the reflection of the sky rises up to the top of the canvas in an ecstatic, flame-like dance between the somber darks of reflected trees and the lighter green clusters of lily pads that seem somehow to lie on top of the watery sky.

Because of the large size of the late pictures and the generous space they are given, these final rooms take up nearly a third of the exhibition. Stuckey’s introduction complains that Monet’s later paintings have been relegated by art historians “to a limbo for masterpieces made too late to matter much.” Historians have instead preferred Cézanne’s “complex diagrams”—in his still lives and his paintings of bathers and the Mont Ste. Victoire, for example—which have been made to seem more relevant to twentieth-century art. To counter this view, Stuckey writes that “like so many twentieth-century artists who have stressed ‘nothing’ as the ultimate theme, Monet conceived his primary subject as empty space.” By this last phrase he means Monet’s devotion to the “envelope” (the painter’s own term) of colored light rather than to the traditionally conceived object; and this approach, in turn, embodies modern concepts of space and “the full spectrum of time, observed as a succession of instantaneous truths of quickly moving light and water.” Because of these innovations, Monet’s heirs accordingly are said to include Matisse, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Brancusi, Duchamp, Mondrian, Miró, Calder, Yves Klein, and still others.

Stuckey makes such claims for Monet’s disparate influences by emphasizing formal conceptions, derived in part from Clement Greenberg, in which technique and qualities of paint are taken to be more important than subject matter. He gives himself away when he writes that from the mid-1880s onward, Monet’s canvases “extend the original goals of Impressionism from prosaic pictorial journalism to meditative nature poetry.” Like the defenders of Seurat and Gauguin in the late 1880s, Stuckey treats Impressionism before 1885 as a kind of prosaic naturalism which was supplanted by a more cerebral art. This seems a surprising resurrection of a sharp difference between Impressionism and the later “conceptual” work of Monet and Cézanne that has long since been disputed, and convincingly so, notably by the art historian Richard Shiff.6

Despite his outmoded stress on early Impressionism’s literal naturalism, Stuckey is right, however, to claim that the later works are really twentieth-century creations. The four paintings of 1907 mentioned above would look at home next to the work of Clyfford Still, and the two-part Wisteria of 1919–1920 (private collection) can be seen as a fugue of gestures of the kind admired by Jackson Pollock and Joan Mitchell. Dangling skeins of swirling greens, yellows, oranges, pinks, and maroons are draped over a flat, horizonless surface thirteen feet wide. Of course it is just this dreamy world of quasi-abstract “nature” which, despite Stuckey’s complaints, has made the water lily pictures his most popular work, and the artist’s garden at Giverny a major tourist site.

The exhibition Landscapes of France: Impressionism and its Rivals, in London, is arranged quite differently, and so is its accompanying catalog. John House, Reader at the Courtauld Institute, who conceived the show and wrote most of the catalog, has published a major study of Monet (Monet: Nature into Art, 1986) and was a curator or co-curator of several exhibitions of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. His announced purpose here is to show that the dominance of Impressionism has led to its isolation from the paintings shown in the Salon, the periodic government-sponsored exhibition held annually after 1863.


To this end he has put together a remarkable group of Salon pictures, five by the Impressionists and fifty-one by a host of artists, including ten by Barbizon painters like Boudin, Corot, Daubigny, and Millet, with the rest (mostly from French provincial museums) by landscapists largely forgotten today. These are the “rivals” of the exhibition’s title; their work on view includes Charles Bavoux’s Entre-Roches on the Doubs, Salon of 1864 (Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon), Emmanuel Lansyer’s The Château of Pierrefonds, Salon of 1869 (Musée Départemental de I’Oise, Beauvais), and Octave Penguilly I’Haridon’s Roman City built at the Foot of the Alpes-Dauphinoises sometime after the Conquest of the Gauls, Salon of 1870 (Musée d’Orsay). Such huge pictures were destined for the walls of public buildings or private galleries of the well-to-do, and appropriately these three were purchased by the state.

The government’s interest is not difficult to detect. Bavoux’s canvas, a handsome rendering of a cleft between two rocky cliffs is a pastiche of Courbet’s more daring uses of the palette knife; we can see from it how Courbet’s radical innovations entered public collections in a compromised form. Lansyer’s more finicky manner placed peasants in front of the château that had been restored for Napoleon III; Penguilly l’Haridon echoed Poussin’s grandest historical compositions while using recent archeological evidence to show a Gaul resisting (by inaction) a Roman officer.

Balancing the fifty-six Salon pictures (which include five Impressionist landscapes) are fifty-seven independent works by the Impressionists. Monet has the largest showing (thirteen), Sisley and Pissarro next (eleven each), then Cézanne and Renoir (seven each), Gauguin (four), Morisot (three), Caillebotte and Guillaumin (two each), and finally Bazille and Manet (one each). Monet’s The Sheltered Path, 1873 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) is a precocious example of the artist’s “all-over” technique in which myriad small strokes deposit a spectrum of sun-struck pinks, lavenders, yellows, reds, and greens on an embanked pathway, contrasted with the much darker hues of the trees above and to the right. Pissarro’s very different approach, based on the technique of flatly brushed patches he shared with Cézanne, is found in The Climbing Path, L’Hermitage, Pontoise, 1875, at the Brooklyn Museum (see page 46). Here a sharply rising path on one side defies conventional perspective, while on the other we see geometric slabs of buildings between slanting tree trunks that give a tilted energy to this astonishing composition. Both landscapes show unremarkable pieces of nature devoid of the anecdotal or illusionistic concerns of the Salon painters.

This wonderful selection of unfamiliar and familiar landscapes is differently presented this autumn in Boston. Fourteen of the Salon and seven of the Impressionist paintings have not traveled there, although the Museum of Fine Art’s own riches provided substitutes for the latter. I am informed by the exhibition’s organizers that the installation is different from London’s. More Impressionist and traditional pictures are placed in the same rooms than was the case in London, where House’s wish to have the rival landscapes considered together was undermined by their separation. Except for the five Impressionist canvases shown in the Salon, the Impressionists were in their own rooms, distant from the other artists. And since the Hayward is only an exhibition gallery, the visitor could not walk, as he will be able to do in Boston, into a room of contemporaneous canvases.

Some of the separation may have to do with the Hayward Gallery’s architecture brute, in which cement walls form relatively small rooms whose shapes cannot be altered. Perhaps House feared that if he put examples from the two camps in one room, the huge sizes of the Salon “machines” (so named two centuries ago from the equipment needed to move them about) would be utterly incompatible with the Impressionists’ small easel paintings. If the paintings by Bavoux, Lansyer, and Penguilly l’Haridon were on one wall, about a dozen Impressionist works would have been required to fill the same space on another wall. In the catalog’s reproductions both kinds of painting appear to be the same size but in the exhibition itself the visitor was struck by the different scale and can sympathize with the dilemma the installers faced. Yet it might have been worth the gamble to bring them together; when I was there on a sunny Friday afternoon in June, there were only five or six visitors in each of the Salon rooms, and forty or fifty in those showing the Impressionists.7

The overwhelming preference of the Hayward’s visitors for Impressionism is not, after all, surprising in view of its prominent place in our culture. I doubt that House could have effectively countered this preference, even with another kind of installation. Not only is his catalog divided in two (first half Salon, second half Impressionism), but the word “rivals” in his title gives away his underlying premise. He perpetuates the basic opposition established by John Rewald, whose influential History of Impressionism (1946) pitted the struggling, independent Impressionists against the Salon painters, whom he treated as reactionaries.

House wishes to combat this old idea of good versus bad artists, so instead of selecting just the most famous Salon prize winners, he artfully chose some traditional pictures that now seem more modern than others. He felt that his choices “had to appeal to a 1995 audience. We therefore adopted a more personal and intuitive approach, selecting paintings that we found splendid and fascinating.” One of these splendid works is Elodie La Villette’s The Bas-Fort-Blanc Path at Low Tide, Dieppe, Salon of 1886 (Musée des Jacobins, Morlaix), which takes up a theme well known from Monet’s earlier coastal views—hence its fascination. Broad slabs of creamy colored stone along the shore, flanked by rising Channel cliffs, form a strong geometric pattern attractive to the twentieth-century eye, although the colors are very muted.

To guide the visitor, House printed seven texts on huge panels, one per room (helpfully duplicated in the flier handed to ticket purchasers). Unlike Stuckey’s public paragraphs, which often point to specific aspects of Monet’s life or paintings, House’s discussed social and artistic currents of the nineteenth century. He adroitly showed how the Salon largely depended on state patronage while the Impressionists’ group shows were private, and the subjects of both kinds of painting were neatly summarized. In the room dedicated to Salon landscapes of the mid-1870s, House wrote that the state bought landscapes that

were markedly traditional in style, presenting the French countryside in an ordered, carefully structured form, focusing on old villages and historical sites…. Such images of a seemingly unchanging rural France played a significant part in the government’s attempts to rebuild national morale. Viewed in this context, the informality of the Impressionists’ paintings, together with the fragmented, modernised scenes they depicted, could appear as a denial of both artistic and moral values.

Most of House’s wall texts, however, referred either to Impressionist or to Salon pictures, and I missed concise statements that would have helped the viewer compare the two more frequently. (By contrast, Boston’s wall panels, although shorter and less informative, often ask the viewer to consider one kind of landscape with respect to the other.) Nowhere did House say succinctly that the huge Salon pictures were based on chiaroscuro, on modeling in light and dark, which determined both the pattern in detail and the broad effects of deep, stage-like spaces, in contrast to the Impressionists’ dependence on color, more readily managed on small canvases.8 In Charles Busson’s Village of Lavardin (Loir-et-Cher), Salon of 1877 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Angers), rural buildings are rendered in flat planes that might inspire comparison with Pissarro’s The Climbing Path, L’Hermitage, Pontoise. But they were centered in a composition whose tipped-back foregound and dramatic play of light and shadow construct an illusion of material reality. It is just such an illusion that Pissarro refuses to create. Instead of Busson’s soaring clouds and theatrical illumination, Pissarro shows only a small patch of sky. Pathway, foliage, rocks, and buildings loom up immediately in front of us in a limited palette of greens and honey-colored hues that convince us that the landscape is being freshly observed while also appearing to us as frankly revealed paint.

When Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and Cézanne gave up chiaroscuro in favor of more intense hues, they had to invent new ways of making convincing illusions of three-dimensional form and space. Part of the persuasion was done (with the aid of explanations by friendly reviewers in the Paris art press) through equating spontaneous brushwork and saturated hues with the sincerity of one’s response to nature. “Spontaneity” (rather than smooth finish), “sincerity” (instead of sanctioned studio practice), and “impression” (not fully elaborated compositions) became the buzzwords of Impressionist discourse, terms that celebrated individualism. And individualism, at first rebellious, eventually suited the capitalist marketplace of art dealers; hence the shift from the grand scale of Salon painting to the private one of smaller easel paintings.9 Pissarro’s Climbing Path, like the landscapes of the other Impressionists, is more modern than Busson’s picture in part because his exposed brushwork lets us see the marks of a particular painter at work, not those of an artist whose conventional technique assimilates him to the mass of already accepted artists.

House’s introductory essay in the exhibition’s catalog deals informatively, if briefly, with many of the recent concerns of art historians. He notes that by the time of the Impressionists “nature” was both a subjective construction of artists and also an ideal that had become part of urban culture. City dwellers journeyed as tourists to well-known forests, rivers, seacoasts, and other landscapes outside Paris to experience the natural world they had heard and read about in a variety of books, essays, and popular myths.

For more concentrated treatments of social and cultural issues, House includes short essays by Ann Dumas, James F. McMillan, and Jane Mayo Roos, who is especially good on the struggles of the art officials of the Second Empire and Third Republic to accommodate their policies to the quickly growing popularity of landscape, previously held in low esteem in comparison with figure painting. The rest of the catalog consists of House’s one-page comments on the pictures, solid mini-essays that concentrate on issues of technique and subject. Nowhere is there a concern for the ways in which class structure affected artists and their work; and House makes little allowance for recent feminists’ interpretations of nature as a terrain controlled by men.

By staking his claim on the confrontation of Impressionism with its “rivals,” House has given up the usual practice of describing historical development. Neither in his exhibition nor in his catalog does he pay much attention to the origins of Impressionism. We are not asked to consider the brushwork and color of Delacroix; and we get a sense of the naturalism of Boudin, Daubigny, Corot, Courbet, and Millet (Jongkind is absent), which prepared the way for Impressionist landscape, only from their Salon entries, hardly representative of their art.

Historical development, by contrast, is the main concern of Richard Thomson’s Monet to Matisse: Landscape Painting in France 1874–1914. Thomson, Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester, is the author of books on Degas and Seurat, and curator of several exhibitions of Impressionist artists. In his catalog for the 1994 exhibition in Edinburgh he was far more interested in the influence of Impressionism on early twentieth-century art, including Cubism, than in its antecedents. However, he, too, was determined to “overhaul old assumptions and prompt new lines of inquiry.” It should come, he writes, “as a surprise to see together, for example, panoramic views by both a Salon painter such as Ségé and the Impressionist Sisley….” In fact the only picture shared by House and Thomson is Alexandre Ségé’s In the Land of Chartres, c. 1884 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Chartres), in which a huge, ghostly cloud, lit from behind, heaves forward over a flat plain terminated by the silhouette of Chartres Cathedral. Thomson included a few Salon artists (Brouillet, Cazin, Merson, Ponson, Simonnet, and Tanzin), but none of these is in House’s show. He also added Degas, whose pastel landscapes have received much scholarly attention in recent years.

Unlike Stuckey and House, Thomson thoroughly subordinates the exhibition to his publication: the case is more elaborate than the instrument. In his book the ninety exhibited works of Impressionists and their lesser-known contemporaries are scattered among the 255 illustrations (mostly colored) as they find places in his evolving argument. One cannot tell from the reproductions’ captions whether or not the original was an exhibited picture. It seems obvious that Thomson intended his survey of landscape from Impressionism through Fauvism and early Cubism to be considered as an independent book.

Still, Thomson probably had in the back of his mind the huge exhibition of landscape and figure painting at the Royal Academy in 1979–1980, Post-Impressionism: Cross-Currents in European Painting, for which John House was one of the principal curators. 10 Although appreciated for bringing together disparate pictures, it was criticized for its lack of a cohesive historical and intellectual definition. By limiting himself to landscape and to painting in France, Thomson avoided that exhibition’s patchwork quality. In his twelve chapters on separate topics, he does not, however, attempt to show that a unified chronological development took place.11 In “The Suburbs of Paris,” for example, Thomson considers pictures of suburban Paris painted over a period of some thirty-five years: from The Seine at Petit-Gennevilliers, 1872, one of Monet’s most dazzling variations on Dutch seascapes of the seventeenth century, to Seurat’s Field of Alfalfa, Saint-Denis, c. 1884–1885, an early instance of that artist’s closely controlled interweaving of opposed colors, to Vlaminck’s Barges at Le Pecq, c. 1905–1906, where a riverside quay becomes a flowing stream of saturated orange-reds and greens. Another chapter, “The Nocturne,” covers only about fifteen years, bringing together pictures of twilight or nighttime by Redon, Seurat, van Gogh, the Douanier Rousseau, and others. Of Rousseau’s The Keep, 1889 (Santa Barbara Museum of Art), which looks back to Romantic prototypes and forward to Arthur Dove, Thomson writes perceptively that

It is highly likely that The Keep was painted from an illustration to a guidebook or a photograph…. This lack of direct observation of the motif is borne out by the ambiguities in the painting: a strange diagonal of what would seem to be moonlight runs through the valley along what might be either a path or the top of a wall. Rousseau matched this uncertainty with incidents of precision: the spiky leaves of the foreground plant, the sinister barred window in the cottage above, the exact rendition of the constellation in the night sky.

Thomson’s eclectic choice of topics argues against a single conception of art history, and one can easily infer competing or even conflicting viewpoints from the separate chapters. “The Suburbs of Paris” stresses the social history of the changing relation between the capital and its suburbs; the paintings in “The Nocturne” have motifs similar to those in the discussion of the suburbs, but their social meanings are not explored. This much said, Thomson’s clearheaded prose, free of jargon, represents fairly the different approaches currently being taken by art historians. Unlike House, he is alert to feminism, and in “Landscape as Vision and Metamorphosis” he comments on the ways natural forms are treated as female bodies by artists as different as Degas, L. Lévy-Dhurmer, Kees van Dongen, and the obscure Clémentine-Hélène Dufau. His comments, however, do not take up feminist concerns both for “Lacanian psycho-sexuality” and for the analysis of the viewer’s gaze as revealing of his or her attitude about gender.

Since they had different purposes, House and Thomson cannot be judged by a single standard, but it is fair to say that both are leading examples of liberal art history, “liberal” because they include both traditional and more recent perceptions but do not practice the “new art history,” which puts more emphasis on feminism and the impact of social and political settings on artists. For more radical approaches to landscape history one would turn instead to James Herbert, Ann Bermingham, Andrew Hemingway, and the late Nicholas Green.12 In their work artists’ techniques and subjects are claimed to be directly responsive to the social conceptions and uses of landscape that were dominant at the time they painted, and responsive as well to the demands of the growing capitalist art market.

Of course those art historians did not have to organize their books around exhibitions, which always impose compromises. House and Thomson are like the auteurs of film, chiefly but not solely responsible for their productions.13 Nevertheless, since visits to exhibitions are ephemeral, we are left with catalogs and have to treat them like books. Stuckey’s is a pretty case whose instrument, silent after Thanksgiving, will be much regretted; House’s is more elaborate than the performance, and is the most daring of the three in its attempt to bring about a harmony of opposites; Thomson’s catalog will be more generally appreciated because of its inclusiveness, although it is the case, not the instrument, that supplies the music.

This Issue

November 2, 1995