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Description: Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society
It is about twenty-five years since I began lecturing along the lines of this book. My notes for those early lectures tell me how crude my approach then was to the social history of Impressionism; my book has certainly benefited from its long gestation. It took shape in my mind, though not on paper, when I gave the Slade Lectures at...
PublisherYale University Press
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It is about twenty-five years since I began lecturing along the lines of this book. My notes for those early lectures tell me how crude my approach then was to the social history of Impressionism; my book has certainly benefited from its long gestation. It took shape in my mind, though not on paper, when I gave the Slade Lectures at Oxford in 1978. My ten lectures, which eventually became the principal subdivisions of this book, were entitled: The Transformation of Paris; The Artist as flâneur; Urban Detachment and the Urban Stranger; Café and Café-Concert; Dance and Theater; The Races; Parks and Gardens; The Transformation of the Suburbs; Suburban Leisure; Seacoast Leisure. Well before those lectures, fellow historians had been turning increasingly to the social context of Impressionism, a shift that has now made it the dominant approach among younger scholars. Numerous articles and exhibitions of recent years have studied Impressionism in the light of contemporaneous society, and one book has almost single-handedly reoriented the field: T. J. Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life, Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (New York, 1984).
Unlike most other recent studies, which too often are limited to an assemblage of social motifs, Clark’s book tries to articulate the social structures and attitudes that characterized Paris in the third quarter of the century, and to interpret Manet’s painting in their light. His first chapter is particularly successful in this regard, and throughout his book the reader encounters the kind of idea that excites and instructs. I nonetheless take issue with much that he writes, and our two books have rather little in common. Most of the subjects I discuss are simply omitted by Clark, and he concentrates on Manet far more than he should (I would not reduce the number of his pages on Manet, but add others). Degas is given a very secondary role, Monet and Renoir the back of his hand, and Morisot is hardly mentioned. This is because Clark’s chief concern—though he might deny it—is style, and particularly the way in which Manet’s pictorial structures look forward to the loss, in the twentieth century, of a felt harmony between pictorial structure and illusions of the social world. He regrets the disjunctures of Manet’s art, correctly related to the dislocations of Paris and of Parisian society, but he concentrates upon him out of the conviction that he is the chief progenitor of abstraction.
Clark’s book is also saturated in theory, and represents (more brilliantly than most) the inroads of literary criticism indebted to semiotics and structuralism. This trend shows at its best in Richard Shiff’s Cézanne and the End of Impressionism (Chicago, 1984), a shrewd and highly original reinterpretation of impressionist esthetics. In other hands this current has been less rewarding. Too often it leads to nearly exclusive attention to style, at the expense of history, to ideas that have more to do with twentieth-century criticism than with French painting of the previous century. The allure of literary criticism, of “deconstruction,” semiotics, and structuralism has reinforced the formalism that marked so much writing about modern art and esthetics from the early years of the century. Attractive though it is, especially for its contacts outside art history, it nonetheless perpetuates the view that art is somehow above the history of mundane events, that it exists in a rarified realm of its own.
Much writing about art now strikes me as history-less. Because the social matrix for art is not examined, because art seems to beget art without the intercession of society, too many authors write about one another’s theories rather than about paintings. My book, by comparison, will seem old-fashioned. It is long on practice and short on theory. I must admit that, like others, I went through a phase during which the attractions of theory loomed large; earlier drafts of this book would have seemed more in tune with current trends. I shed that costume, however, and donned my ordinary clothing for the sake of the final manuscript. I also take my distance from the kind of art history that is devoted to finding precedents and “influences” in earlier art. Too many writers mix and match reproductions of pictures, looking for earlier examples of the same theme within the seemingly autonomous world of images. It is a great temptation to assume that the “answer” to a given picture’s café table or river bridge is found among earlier representations of tables or bridges; this pseudo-method should be called “iconodolatry.” Of course painters do indeed look at earlier pictures, for art is built upon professional conventions that no one is free to ignore. The trouble is that all too often the string of earlier representations becomes a self-sufficient cycle, a closed one in which chronology is confused with history, and mere research with analysis. It is a higher calling in addition to look beyond our repertory of reproductions to the history of café tables and bridges contemporary with the paintings, to whatever we can learn about those social forms and their uses, and then to interpret the artists’ interpretations of them.
Two interpretations, therefore? Yes. I am aware that my attempts to restore paintings to their socio-cultural context cannot constitute “objective” history. No such thing exists. We cannot escape our subjectivity, nor the shared prejudices of our own generation. What we can do is attempt to approach the goal of objectivity, even knowing that we can never reach it. It is a way of using the energy of our passions—all history should spring from passions and ideals—while we try to avoid prejudice. To paraphrase Whistler: Objectivity is a nurse who keeps us from falling into prejudice. I believe that I have illuminated paintings with the aid of social history, and I mean their forms, not just their images. I think I have demonstrated the impossibility of separating form from subject, that an artist develops forms partly in response to the subject (and not just to forms in earlier art). To this end I have studied the artists’ lives, and time after time I am able to show their involvement in the subjects they rendered. I do not, therefore, use biography for its own sake, but as an aid to interpretation. The same is true of nineteenth-century history, which is put through the filter of convincingness, so that it matches in reliability and utility the pictures’ visual terms.
The test will be in the value of the results, which are presented as assured convictions for the most part. I usually introduce a given theme with a description of its place in French society, but I then follow this with a series of judgments and analyses of related paintings that leave no doubt about my interpretation. To those who protest that I am trying to persuade the reader to a point of view by disguising it as objectivity, I have two answers. The first is that I am indeed trying to persuade, but instead of wagging the authorial finger, I try to construct a word-stage on which my ideas will be convincing because I give the reader a chance to examine them without much interference. I have a horror of outright preaching. When I mention that Baron Haussmann took a mistress from the ballet corps, I do not feel that I have to condemn him overtly; the reader will condemn him because I show that his action was part of a pattern of male power common to the era.
The second answer is that I believe my points of view are vindicated by my findings. Picture after picture is given a new reading, and in the multiple dialogues among artists, their contemporaries, and their subjects, new emphases develop which enrich our understanding of Impressionism. Differences between Manet’s and Renoir’s paintings, for example, are shown to have some of their origins in the one’s being an upper-class Parisian, confident of his chic and yet capable of probing into the disquiet behind the pursuits of fashionable people, while the other, who hated both the chic and the harshness of modern life, had the aspirations of a working-class youth who transformed the seamstresses of Montmartre into dwellers of a perpetual Arcadia. Degas’s distrust of human goodness is embodied alike in his renderings of dancers as automatons, and in his revelations of the predatory backstage actions of members of the Jockey Club. Monet’s ambitions, those of an aggressive provincial determined to make his way, are revealed in his giving to his first wife the wardrobe and the gardens of a wealthy estate owner, until he ultimately possessed, for his second wife, a true estate. Stated this way, these readings seem sensationalist, but in the body of my text they are closely attached to the structures and images of painting in a way that, I believe, makes them subtle and persuasive.
Throughout the book I have defined Impressionism in a pragmatic way. The term is essentially one of convenience, and refers to the work of a group of avant-garde painters who made common cause and who were associated together by their contemporaries. Manet did not share in the independent exhibitions organized by the others, but he was consistently treated by the press as a leader of the group. Degas and Monet were poles apart in many ways, and yet both jettisoned most traditional subjects in favor of a strong commitment to contemporary life. It could be argued that Caillebotte’s harsh architectural lines and his glaring light, compared to Monet’s or Morisot’s more vaporous tones, mark him out so strongly from the others that he should not be called an impressionist. However, we should not narrow down the definition of Impressionism to say, broken brushwork, and then use such a lens to cast non-conforming artists into the shade. Like his fellow impressionists, Caillebotte renounced history, mythology, and religion in favor of the contemporary world; like many of them, he drew most of his subjects from Paris and its suburbs; like them, he was attracted particularly by the new Paris, not by the quaint old streets or buildings; like them, he treated color as the vehicle of light, which he rendered in unusual effects of strong sunlight, moist reflections, and backlighting, on planes that tilt radically upwards to give us a sense of immediacy. He was a friend of many of the leading critics who defended Impressionism, he was regularly associated by them with his fellow painters, and he was a vital figure in their group exhibitions, not just a passive participant.
Among the many things that link the impressionists is that all of them jettisoned the customary way of modeling in light and dark and based their pictures instead on bright chromatic harmonies and free-flowing brushwork. These were used to give the illusion that natural light was being recorded instinctively, without formulae. This spontaneity is more appearance than reality, as we shall see when the painters’ brushwork and compositional methods are discussed. Another linking feature is the painters’ resistance to anecdote and detailed visual narrative. They presented the world in a detached manner whose provocative elisions and omissions entered into the development of modern art. For that reason they are distinguished in this book from contemporaries like Béraud, Duez, or Heilbuth, who painted similar themes but who lacked meaningful innovations in pictorial language. I realize that this will lay me open to a charge of élitism, but the impressionists are the artists whose inventiveness had the greatest impact on subsequent history. Since my intention is to revise the history of Impressionism, I am intent upon dealing with its principal artists and not with other aspects of the history of art.
Most books on Impressionism are organized chronologically, partly to preserve the interest of the movement’s biography, partly to concentrate on the evolution of style. If, however, one wishes to deal with subjects and their meanings, such an arrangement is a disadvantage, because the continuity of similar subjects is broken up by the need to observe chronology. My book, therefore, is organized topically, so that the study of theater spectators, or fashion, or gardens, can focus on the social customs relating to each, while I group together paintings that are not usually compared with one another. When Renoir’s Moulin de la Galette is compared with Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opéra, and both with Degas’s ballet dancers, one learns a lot about each artist’s work, as well as about the social roles taken on by dancers. This results in new dialogues among pictures and revealing patterns of social history, although it means that the evolution of impressionist style appears as discontinuous fragments. Any reader who regrets the comfort offered by an overall chronology should first read one of the histories of Impressionism (see Bibliography), but the discomfort will be more apparent than real: each section is organized chronologically, and frequent reference is made to style.
An advantage of the way I have organized this book is the demonstration that the comprehension of style (including composition, brushwork, color, and so forth) is enhanced when it is closely linked with subject. Most art historians say that form and content work together, but they usually give precedence to form. Formalists, upon looking at my table of contents, will fear that I have gone too far in the other direction, but I have not. I did not first decide what the social issues were for the 1860s and 1870s, and then find pictures that suit them. Had I done that, the book would have dealt with factory work, housing, displacement of the working class, syndicalism, bankruptcy, prostitution, changes in retail trade, and other topics that form the social history of the period. Instead I started with the pictures of the impressionists and then tried to answer the questions posed by the kinds of subjects that they preferred and the way they painted them. Much was excluded by the painters (including most of the issues listed above), even though they were the first generation of modernists to deal principally with contemporary life. To a surprising degree their pictures concern leisure and entertainment, and when this became apparent to me long ago, I set about trying to explain why this was so.
The book that has resulted, given this focus, does not discuss all aspects of Impressionism. I deal only with two decades, from the early 1860s until the mid-1880s. Furthermore, portraiture, landscape, and still life do not figure here in their own right, although a few portraits and many landscapes appear in various portions of the book. Because of the orientation towards Parisian leisure, Pissarro and Sisley are given little place, and Cézanne none at all. Nonetheless, themes of leisure and entertainment are so much the heart of Impressionism that this book touches upon many of its main features. As the reader will discover, I am convinced that Impressionism’s place as the foundation of early modern art is closely allied to the significance in modern urban culture of cafés, outdoor concerts, theater, vaudeville, dance, picnics, swimming, boating, suburban outings, and seashore vacations. It is not just that Degas, Manet, and Monet looked forward to twentieth-century artists because of their style, it is also that popular songs and suburban leisure have loomed ever larger in modern culture. The proportion of time now given over to all aspects of leisure and entertainment, including its electronic forms, rivals work time, and to study Impressionism is to reveal the origins of this singular phenomenon.
The evidence I have used comes primarily from guide books, the accounts of visitors to Paris, the memoirs and observations of Parisians, histories of Paris from the turn of the century, and other contemporaneous writings, as well as from the biographies of the painters. I have not relied on the reviews of art exhibitions as much as most of my colleagues do. I worry about the limitations of art reviews; they functioned within very limited circles, and more surely reveal the authors’ attitudes than the inner workings of paintings. At times, of course, they are valuable for this very reason: Duranty had a parti-pris for Degas, and Rivière, for Renoir; shared attitudes between writers and painters become part of the historical record. Still, the reader should anticipate more reliance upon writings that deal not with art, but with the social customs that are given image by the paintings. Degas’s Print Collector (Pl. 54), for example, is illuminated more by reference to ideas of detachment and urban acquisitiveness than by attempts to link it with critics’ views. I realize that these other writings sprang from their authors’ subjective attitudes, but since they were not addressed to art, they are not entangled with its interpretation, and I feel more competent about sifting them for my purposes. The witness who is unaware of the reasons for questions is apt to give more honest answers.
A Note on Style
Notes have been reduced to a minimum, and to credit the publications I have used I rely chiefly on the Annotated Bibliography. (Both it and the notes employ short titles to direct the reader to the List of References.) I have included a chronology of Parisian history and Impressionism because, although I frequently refer to major events in French history, I did not find room in my text for a capsule history of the era. The chronology is no more than a skeletal set of events, of course, so anyone who wants more than this can find further readings in my bibliography.
I am sensitive to feminists’ objections to the eternal “he” when referring to a genderless person, and yet I find frequent use of “one” to be stiff, the phrase “she or he” clumsy, and “s/he” impossible to pronounce. I therefore introduce “she” instead of “he” from time to time, to alert the reader to the need to avoid taking the masculine as normative.
I have made my own translations from the French, except where otherwise credited. In order to be sure of exact meaning I have resorted to literal translations that do not preserve original flavor or rhyme. In notes I supply French for unusually pungent phrases, but otherwise I do not give the original language. Renderings into English of individual words and phrases follow common English usage, but are not entirely consistent: “Eugénie,” for example, but “Napoleon” without accent since its pronounciation is usually anglicized. The plural of “café-concert” in French is “cafés-concert,” but the Anglo-Saxon tongue is uncomfortable without the terminal s, hence the hybrid “cafés-concerts.” I have not translated proper nouns, nor names of streets and places. Modern names have been used for Paris streets, since their location on current maps is what counts, although I miss the charm of the old names. Aristocratic titles are preserved in the French to avoid odd hybrids, hence the “duc de Morny” and the “princesse Mathilde,” not the “Duke de Morny” or “Princess Mathilde.” “Opéra” is used to indicate the Parisian building itself and the national institution; the lower case form refers to opera generally. In image captions, Paris is understood as the place of publication, and the medium is oil painting, unless otherwise stated. Dimensions are given in centimeters.