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« Blog Reading | Main | Two or Three Things I Learned About Impressionism Part II »

February 04, 2003

Two or Three Things I Learned About Impressionism, Part I


In a previous posting I suggested that visual art is a way of talking about sources of power (or perceived power) that people are either unwilling or unable to discuss openly. After I wrote that post I ran down a mental list of art-historical movements which this idea seemed to account for properly enough, but I quickly ran up against one famous example that I couldn’t fit into my shiny new theory: Impressionism. What kind of “not-openly-discussable” subject matter, if any, was hiding in this sunny painting of people enjoying themselves in and around Paris?

Unfortunately, in trying to puzzle this out, I realized that my only knowledge of France in this period had come from art books, which gave what I would call the Standard Account of Impressionism. But the more I pondered this Account the less it seemed to make sense to me.

H. Daumier, Just Look At Where They've Stuck My Picture, 1859

I mean, say you were a young man who wanted to be a professional painter in mid-19th century France. You lived in a country with the best-developed art market and institutions in the world. Artistic taste and standards were clearly articulated in your society, which was wealthy enough to reward its favorites richly. There was even the possibility of a certain level of government patronage if you played ball with the system. At the same time, however, the system tended to withhold rewards from those who deviated from these standards. Why on earth would you have gone out of your way to introduce an unfamiliar style of painting and use it to describe non-traditional subject matter? Just to make your already difficult task —making a living at painting—a nearly impossible one? Surely few people would take self-expression that far, and especially few people who were as ambitious as the Impressionist painters.

And yet the Standard Account never seems to treat this as a question that even needs an answer: apparently, according to this account, the Impressionists were simply born to paint modern life with broken color and a lack of "finish." The closest the Account edges to an explanation (which it never quite says explicitly, but heavily implies) is that the Impressionists were just too darn manly to settle for the watered down formulae of a decrepit Academicism. And they rejected these timeworn formulae even though doing so meant they couldn’t count of the support of their era’s blinkered and timid art consumers. Alternatively, the Marxist Variant of the Standard Account suggests that the Impressionists, like all Modernists, were just too darn manly to put up with the degrading aspects of industrial capitalism and created new aesthetic formulae to take critical potshots at it. Of course, the fact that the Impressionist paintings (with or without “critical” content, depending on your point of view) were then sold to the very bourgeoisie that was supporting the Academy as well as cracking the whip of industrial capitalism is a bit of conundrum neither seem to address.

Looking for answers that were a bit more, ahem, factually based, I’ve spent the last few weeks doing a little reading on the history, politics, etc. of France in the latter half of the 19th century. And I’ve come across some things that surprised me a bit, so I thought I’d share them with you. To help develop my own Revised Account of Impressionism, I’ve organized my discussion of several key issues in counterpoint to some quotes from a version of the Standard Account which I had on my bookshelf: “A Treasury of Impressionism” by Nathaniel Harris (a book I got 20-odd years ago as a present).

To show how far apart we are, Mr. Harris actually begins his version of the Standard Account by insisting on the absence of the kind of content I was looking for in Impressionism:

The extent to which people enjoy Impressionist paintings can be gathered from museum sales of the cards, slides and posters: unless the museum has a Leonardo, its biggest sellers will almost certainly be works by the Impressionists or members of their circle…Yet at the first Impressionist exhibition, little more than a hundred years ago, the spectators came for a good laugh, convinced that the whole display was a grotesque bohemian joke; and the critics backed them up. What makes all this the more peculiar is that Impressionist paintings seem, more than any others, designed for immediate popularity: for the most part they are colourful, cheerful in mood, easy to understand, and utterly uncontroversial in intention—without, for example, any political, social or moral undertones that might offend spectators with strong views of their own. [emphasis added]

Well, one of the more interesting books I’ve been reading, “Impressionism and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century” by Philip Nord takes a rather different view:

A society open to all comers, the brotherhood born of shared contentments, the reconciliation of nature and technology, the idyll of a secular domesticity: such themes bespoke a particular, harmonious vision of what modern life might be, a vision whose appeal has not tarnished much with the passage of time. And in the context of 1870s France, it may be ventured, such a vision carried a distinct political charge…[emphasis added]

So who is right? Well, I'll start my evaluation of that by looking at the "political, economic and class issues" that formed the background to my next post, of course.



posted by Friedrich at February 4, 2003


I got most of my history education -- most of my education period, at least at a college level -- via the arts. 19th century London? Hey, like a Dickens novel! Paris? The Impressionists! Etc. What a ludicrous way to learn history. Completely untrustworthy (I now know) and misleading, something more like a mythology than actual history.

So good for you for going into these questions. I seem to remember that Tyler Cowen's "In Praise of Commercial Culture" had some interesting things to say about Impressionism, though I can't remember what and I can't seem to find my copy of the book either. I do retain the feeling that the Impressionists were a lot less starry eyed and revolutionary than our art-history teachers wanted us to believe. Something about lots of family money, and a lot of marketing shrewdness too. Entrepreneurial guys, by and large.

Funny how the basic "where did they find the time" and "how did they make the money" questions are so seldom brought up in art history -- the very questions that press on you the more time you actually spend among the arts. Except, I guess, by the Marxists, but they're always up to their completely predictable thing, so who cares.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 5, 2003 11:25 PM

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