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« Two or Three Things I Learned About Impressionism, Part I | Main | Art Class »

February 05, 2003

Two or Three Things I Learned About Impressionism Part II


As I promised in my previous posting, this is the second part of my series attempting to reconstruct what Impressionism meant to its creators and its contemporaries. I’m trying to re-evaluate each element in what I’ve called the Standard Account of Impressionism (which, for purposes of convenience, will here be represented by quotes from a popular art history book: “A Treasury of Impressionism” by Nathaniel Harris).

Mr. Harris begins his book by denying the existence of any controversial content in Impressionist pictures. He is then left with the problem of explaining why the French art market didn’t embrace this happy, cheerful painting in the late 1860s or 1870s. To make sense of this the mysterious market failure, he provides the following social analysis:

…France [during the Second Empire]was going through an economic and social transformation: her version of the Industrial Revolution, with its accompanying factories and workshops, booms and slumps, railways and steamships. The middle class, or bourgeoisie, grew rich and powerful from the proceeds of expanding industry and trade. A new industrial working class began to resent the appalling conditions in which it lived and laboured. The specters of socialism and communism began to haunt France; and indeed the radical workers of Paris took the opportunity provided by the defeat of 1870 to organize a revolutionary government, the Commune, that was bloodily suppressed by the regular army. Bourgeois distaste for exposes of economic realities, and a deep fear of revolution in any form, were two shaping factors in contemporary attitudes to art.

Let’s take a closer look at this one point at a time.

Did France undergo during the 2nd Empire an economic and social transformation sufficiently drastic to merit the title of an industrial revolution?

The Second Empire came into existence as a sort of delayed result of the revolutionary uprisings of working class Parisians in 1848. The urban proletariat, enraged by its declining economic prospects (wages had been falling for decades), and inspired by similar uprisings throughout Europe, forced the then-constitutional monarch Louis-Philippe to abdicate.

H. Vernet, Barricade in the Rue Sufflot, Paris, 25 June 1848, 1848-50 (Detail)

The Second Republic that followed immediately thereafter was ill-starred; Louis-Napoleon, nephew of the famous Corsican military adventurer, was elected president. When the public became disenchanted with the Republic’s ineffectual political squabbling, Louis Napoleon proceeded to organize a coup in 1851 to seize supreme power. (Gee, who could have seen that one coming?) Napoleon III, as he became known, set up a proto-Fascist government: authoritarian with an emphasis on public order to placate the property owners, and with close ties to big business in order to (hopefully) force the pace of economic growth and keep the masses happy. The masses that Napoleon III was particularly interested in were not, however, urban but rural, since his imperial status had been validated by a plebiscite with a universal male franchise, and France remained a predominantly rural country.

H. Flandrin, Portrait of Napoleon III, 1862 (Detail)

In practice, Napoleon III’s economic program amounted to bringing France into the railway age; his government eagerly handed out concessions for railway development, guaranteed the interest on railway debt, and undertook legislation to encourage the creation of joint-stock bank companies to help finance the growth of these new large-scale endeavors. His goal was a state-led industrial revolution that would hoist France to the level already reached by England; in so doing his government became the welfare state of large-scale French capitalism. (The more things change...)

The immediate consequences were the rapid growth of the French railway network, the iron and steel industry, and the heavy engineering industry. The secondary effects included a modest rise in rural standards of living. The railroads permitted the large-scale import of chemicals to improve soils and expand arable land in certain regions, thus relieving at least locally the peasants’ obsessive land hunger. The railroads also encouraged the development of a unified national market in food, which encouraged a switch from subsistence farming to cash crops. (To give some idea of the primitive level of French agriculture, however, the most noticeable effect was the curtailment of regional famine, a previously common element in the countryside.)

C. Monet, Gare St. Lazare, 1877 (Detail)

Other secondary effects included the growth of major urban areas, particularly Paris, as increases in the rural population were “bled off” via rail to the big city; the birth of modern retailing (including the first department stores), made possible by the development of cheap transportation; and a major expansion of the newspaper industry with the introduction of rotary presses, high volume runs, and a captive audience of railway passengers who needed something to read during their train rides.

However, the idea that France was undergoing a profound “economic and social transformation” is anachronistic. While France did undergo a serious (and dislocative) industrial revolution in the 1890s, what was happening in the 1850s and 1860s was an altogether more modest affair. Those cited above are virtually the only sectors in the French economy that saw any modernization. As Alain Plessis notes in his book, “The Rise & Fall of the Second Empire 1852-1871”:

The [2nd] Empire witnessed not a brutal structural change, but a series of remarkable inroads of new capitalism. These inroads, being limited in scope, rarely provoked the disappearance of old forms of production and trade. Hence a mixed, dualist economy, in which very modern features coexisted with vast sectors or regions that remained enclaves of tradition. All in all, the extent of modernization must not be overestimated. [emphasis added].

Despite the “railway revolution” the French economy remained essentially rural and mostly pre-modern. Agriculture employed directly half the nation’s workforce and indirectly far more. (There was no fall in the absolute numbers of workers employed in agriculture during the Second Empire, as occurs in any truly modernizing economy.) The urban working class grew only slightly throughout the two decades of the Second Empire, remaining around 28% of the total population. The large, modern retail stores were a dramatic innovation but didn’t “eat the lunch” of traditional retailers; in 1866, the labor force of the retailing industry had three times as many bosses as employees, reflecting the continuing predominance of small owner-operators in this sector. Even industries as basic as coal mining did not show the pattern of consolidation and large-scale capital investment that one would expect from a truly modernizing economy.

So let me rewrite the Standard Account of Impressionism:

Friedrich’s Revised Account of Impressionism: Under the 2nd Empire, France entered the railway age. This didn’t create wrenching new conditions but did provide many highly visible symbols of modernism—promoting a belief in progress and modernity as a positive force.

Next I’ll be on to discussing Mr. Harris' next assertion regarding the role of the favorite whipping boy, er, class of Modernism: the bourgeoisie! Stay tuned.



posted by Friedrich at February 5, 2003


give more information

Posted by: kimberly on March 19, 2003 02:20 PM

To whomever this may concern:
> My name is Lisa DeMarco, and I represent Upland High School
> in San Bernardino County, Southern California. I am participating in a
> project and competition entitled National History Day. My main topic of
> study is Impressionism, but I would also like to learn of Realism,
> Post-Impressionism, the Industrial Revolution and the Englightenment for
> these occurred durring the time of Impressionism. I am specifically
> focusing on Renoir, Manet and Monet, and their affects on Impressionism
> and Parisian society. I am enrolled in a college level AP European
> History class, and I am a sophmore/10th grader. The theme of National
> History Day is "Exploration, Exchange, Encounter" and I must relate these
> three words to my topic. If you could assist me in ANY way possible I
> would greatly appreciate it, whether it be a brochure, interview (via
> phone, instant messaging, e-mail), another contact who might aid me
> better in my studies, or simply a response. I greatly appreciate your
> time and look forward to your response.
> Lisa DeMarco

Posted by: Lisa DeMarco on December 29, 2003 01:49 AM

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