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February 21, 2003

Two or Three Things I Learned About Impressionism, Part V


Here’s yet another installment in my (ongoing) attempt to reconstruct what Impressionism meant to its creators and its contemporaries. As I explained in parts #1-#4, 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).

As I mentioned in Part #2, 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.

Well, we dealt with Mr. Harris’ claims of “economic and social transformation” (overstated), “bourgeois wealth and power” (obscures critical conflict between rurals and urban bourgeoisie), and “bourgeois responsibility for the creation of a revolutionary proletariat” (largely a consequence of Napoleon III’s activities) in Parts II, III and IV. Now we’ll deal with his next claim: Did the bourgeoisie shun “exposes of economic realities” and did they possess a “deep fear of revolution in any form”?

The claim that the bourgeoisie couldn’t handle economic realities is a little hard to understand. The bourgeoisie were professionals or business people; generally, I think it’s safe to say they had a pretty clear idea of economic realities. Presumably, however, Mr. Harris is implying by the word “expose” that the bourgeoisie (being, in his opinion, morally stunted creatures) disliked being exposed to ridicule or moral criticism.

Well, nobody likes to be ridiculed or criticized, but the urban bourgeoisie, anyway, seems to have born up under such criticism fairly well. To select one example of this out of many in 19th century Paris, I would call attention of the career of political and social caricaturist Honore Daumier, whose humor came chiefly at the expense of the urban bourgeoisie.

H. Daumier, News bulletin: Scenes of Paris life since we played the moral comedy entitled "The Stock Exchange"

H. Daumier, To Anyone With Capital To Lose

The readers of Charivari and the other publications for which Daumier drew were, of course, the very urban bourgeoisie being caricatured. And Daumier was not the sole purveyor of such critical content. Throughout the 2nd Empire a major theme of literature and drama was how the pursuit of wealth was undermining France’s social and moral life, as noted by Alain Plessis in his book, “The Rise and Fall of the Second Empire 1852-1871”:

A considerable number of novels, plays and works by moralists of the period dealt with Money, as if all society were obsessed by its power….Admittedly, the theme was not original, and it was often treated in a traditional and moralizing manner. But the authors stressed that society was under the absolute and exclusive domination of this new god, which bestowed power and fame. Money was the key to all pleasures; to own wealth was already to experience the enjoyment of power.

The claim that urban bourgeois of the 2nd Empire couldn’t take satire or moral criticism, looks even more ridiculous when we consider that this was the era during which literary realism established itself. The novels of Flaubert and the Goncourts and the drama of Dumas fils and Augier all aimed their microscopes squarely at the bourgeoisie. Moreover, examinations of contemporary moral or social questions even made their way, now and again, into the citadel of the academic painting itself. Thomas Couture—rather interestingly, the teacher of Manet—addressed the epidemic of sexual “commerce” in Parisian life:

T. Couture, The Love of Gold, 1840 (Detail)

Now all this—caricatures, social problem plays, realistic novels, moralizing paintings—may well strike you (as it does me) as sharing a fascination with the powers of capital hidden under a lighter or heavier coating of disapproval. That raises a key point. Mr. Harris asserts a simplistic view of the psychology of art: good people, according to him, will buy works of art in order to subject themselves to criticism—presumably eager to become better, or at least less offensive, people. It appears more likely to me that consumers of socially critical art have a complex relationship with the subject matter, and—at some level—find themselves enriched or empowered by the “bad” behavior being described (either by superiority to, or complicity with, the “bad actors.”) To give a somewhat simplistic example, why do so many lawyers collect Daumier caricatures of lawyers? Because the caricatures, despite their exposure of very human foibles of attorneys, still celebrate the power and the importance of the legal profession.

Likewise, as we’ve seen, Mr. Harris’ claim that the bourgeoisie had “a deep fear of revolution in any form” is nonsense, at least as applied to the urban bourgeoisie. Where did the 3rd Republic come from if urban bourgeoisie had such a deep fear of revolution in any form? Granted, the (highly outnumbered) urban bourgeoisie—at most, 3-5% of the total French population—didn’t instigate a violent revolution like that of the Paris Commune. This was in part simply prudent, as the fate of the Communards demonstrated. But despite their lack of interest in taking to the streets, the urban bourgeoisie waged a sometimes covert, sometimes overt and always determined political struggle for dominance against the authoritarian “rurals” over a twenty-year period, a struggle which they finally won only in the closing days of the 1870s.

The careers of several bourgeois politicians and journalists illustrate the degree to which “revolutionary” was an accurate adjective of the republican movement. Leon Gambetta was a well-known lawyer and opponent of the 2nd Empire. (As you recall, we last met him in the late 1860s publicly labelling as illegal the coup d’etat that had installed Napoleon III in 1852.) In 1869 Gambetta won a seat on the National Assembly. After the news of the surrender of Napoleon III to the Prussians reached Paris on September 4, 1870, Gambetta harangued the crowd into invading the Legislative Assembly and forcing them to declare the end of the 2nd Empire. That night, Gambetta, acting with several other prominent politicians, announced the foundation of the Third Republic at Paris’ Hotel de Ville (City Hall) with himself as Minister of the Interior. (Given the conservative mood of the moment, France might well have become a monarchy without Gambetta’s energetic action.) Gambetta’s spectacular escape from Paris in a balloon to raise new armies for the war with Prussia won worldwide sympathy. After heroically resisting the French capitulation, he devoted himself to the creation of the Third Republic. He was influential in shaping the republican constitution of 1875, and as the leader of the republican forces, he successfully opposed and eventually overcame President MacMahon and his “Government of Moral Order” in the late 1870s.

E. Manet, Portrait of Clemenceau, 1879 (Unfinished, Detail)

Georges Clemenceau was born to a father who was an avid supporter of the 1848 Revolution. As a student he began publishing Le Travail, a publication of strong left-wing and anticlerical views (Clemenceau was both an atheist and a socialist). Napoleon III’s police seized the newspaper and Clemenceau spent 73 days in prison. When he got out, he promptly started another newspaper, which likewise got him in trouble. Finishing up his medical studies, he moved to America, where he was impressed by the degree of political liberty and considered staying on. After marrying, however, he returned to France, practiced medicine and moved to Paris, where he once again became involved in radical politics. In the elections of February, 1871, he became a deputy in the National Assembly, voting against the peace terms offered by Prussia and supporting the insurrection of the Paris Commune. As the leader of the Radical Republicans, the Socialist Clemenceau was re-elected to the National Assembly in 1876 where he earned the nickname, 'The Tiger,' both as a result of his aggressive debating style and his ferocious left-wing opinions.

E. Manet, Portrait of Henri Rochefort, 1881 (detail)

Henri Rochefort came to prominence as a fire-eating journalist and newspaper publisher after censorship was lifted by the 2nd Empire in the late 1860s. His paper, La Lanterne, became the favorite of the working man and had daily press runs of 120,000 copies. A constant scourge of the Empire, he was briefly imprisoned (as you recall) during the funeral of the journalist Noir which led to civil unrest. During the Franco-Prussian War he supported Gambetta and during the Paris Commune Rochefort supported the Communards. In the repression after the Commune he was tried and deported in 1873. After a spectacular escape from his island prison, he returned to France only after the 1880 amnesty (voted by the now-dominant republicans.)

So as these biographies attest, describing the urban bourgeoisie as possessing a pathological fear of revolution is not terribly accurate. Now, of course, perhaps Mr. Harris’s formulation is less a political statement and more a reference to the bourgeoisie’s purported horror of art that carried even faint or indirect associations of the life of the laboring classes. Such art did exist in France during the 2nd Empire, produced by artists like the avowed Socialist Gustave Courbet, by the officially distrusted (because of his real or imaginary Socialist leanings) Jean-Francois Millet and by the female (and lesbian!) Rosa Bonheur, all of whom painted realistic scenes of country life and its inhabitants. While all three endured periods of profound struggle, all eventually became successful artists. Who were their collectors and supporters? Courbet includes a portrait of one of his chief patrons, Alfred Bruyas, wealthy offspring of a family of Montpellier bankers, in his self-hommage, “Bonjour Monsier Courbet.”

G. Courbet, Bonjour Monsieur Courbet, 1854 (Detail)

Rosa Bonheur was down on her luck in the late 1840s when she turned to Adolphe Moreau, a stockbroker and art collector for a loan. After the wealthy American who had commissioned “The Angelus” from Millet refused to pay for it, Millet took it in 1859 to Paris to get it framed and seek a buyer. It was purchased, in fact, for the very respectable price of 1000 francs, roughly half a year’s middle-class salary. The new owner was the Baron Papelue, who in turn sold it almost immediately to the dealer, Stevens, who in turn sold it to a wealthy Belgian collector.

J. F. Millet, The Angelus, 1857

This collector traded it for another painting with the French collector Paul Tesse (later to purchase “The Gleaners” another of Millet’s masterpieces), who sold it to the Georges Petit Gallery. It was then purchased by yet another of Millet’s collectors, the wealthy Parisian architect Emile Gavet, who sold it in 1869 to the dealer, Durand-Ruel, for 30,000 francs (!). Durand-Ruel in turn sold it to a Belgian collector, Wilson, for 38,000 francs in 1873. When Wilson died in 1881, it was purchased at auction for 160,000 francs (admittedly, Millet’s prices had risen sharply after his death in 1875, ensuring no further supply of his paintings). Apparently the “deep fear of revolution in any form” that should have prevented any interest in Courbet’s, Bonheur’s or Millet’s work was not strong enough to discourage these collectors, virtually all of whom were—as you may have noticed—urban bourgeoisie.

So this is my version of events:

Friedrich’s Account of Impressionsim: The urban bourgeoisie, while ambitious and aggressive, were underdogs in the political life of France during the 2nd Empire. Their struggle to implement their own “revolutionary” ideal (a capitalist democracy, offering universal opportunities for advancement, with separation of Church and state) was hard fought and lasted through all through the decades of the 1860s and the 1870s before it emerged triumphant. During the period of that struggle, artists that spoke to the interests of the urban bourgeoisie were, like bourgeois politicians, in for a rough ride at the hands of their political and social opponents.

In my next posting I’ll go into the way in which the urban bourgeois struggle for political power translated into activities in the art world. Let the battle with the Academy begin!



posted by Friedrich at February 21, 2003


Thanks for this, and looking forward to the next installmen. Arty people need more correctives of this sort to the arty view of history (let alone of so much else). It seems to me that art has been so high-jacked by those who would see it as being on the side of the good (for the oppressed, for the revolution, for the general betterment of mankind, anti-repression,etc) that all track gets lost of many, many basic things. Who pays for it? Why? How do the artists themselves make a living? Why do some works "work" and others don't? What use is made of art? By whom, and for what reasons? But the idea that art is a non-self-interested, noble thing, forever out there fighting the good fight for poor people, sex and self-expression lives on. It's worth thinking -- so I think -- about where this myth gets its staying power. It's one of those mysterious memes, if you will, like socialism, that despite everything persists. There must be something terribly addictive and attractive about it. Maybe it's related to the way people seem to enjoy projecting onto artists themselves. An actress make you cry, or turns you on -- you conclude that there's really something to her, that you'd really like each other should you ever meet. (Unlikely.) A novelist writes something that really nails where you come from, and you know, you just know, that the two of you would have a hell of a conversation if only ... (Unlikely.) Ads seem based on the way we project -- we dream up entire scenarios based on the way someone's cheekbones take the light. Why do we assume that any of it "means" anything? Maybe it's just a matter of the cheekbones taking the light, and our fantasy life taking off from that. Interesting, yes. But politically/morally significant?

You've got me wondering too about the bourgeoisie and its taste for anti-bourgeois entertainment. Recently, for example, something like "American Beauty." I wondered for ages about why some of my suburban-parent friends loved the movie. Didn't they realize it was pissing on them? I semi-suspect these days that liking the movie (which I can only assume they genuinely did) was also a way of asserting a bit of critical independence: ie., "I'm a suburban mommy, sure, but I've got some perspective on it and can laugh at how cliche'd the whole scene is." Ie., I'm a bigger soul than I appear to be. And, to my regret, I find myself wondering, well, what's wrong with that? It's possibly a drag, in the sense that they're sneering at themselves.But maybe it's OK, too, in the sense that they're saying, I'm not just what I appear to be.

In any case, Roger Scruton has written some entertaining and enlightening things about how the bourgeoisie, far from being the enemy of art, is what makes art as we know and (sometimes) love it possible....

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 21, 2003 07:18 PM

Now more than ever Im convinced Michael Stripe (and REM) is a very very smart and sensitive human being.

Posted by: FREE PORN on May 29, 2004 07:13 PM

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