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February 06, 2003

Two or Three Things I Learned About Impressionism, Part III


As you've probably caught on by now, this is the next installment in my attempt to reconstruct what Impressionism meant to its creators and its contemporaries. As I explained in parts #1 and #2, 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 the somewhat questionable accuracy of Mr. Harris’ “economic and social transformation” in Part #1. Next we have the question: did the middle class, or bourgeoisie, grow rich and powerful from the proceeds of expanding industry and trade, as Mr. Harris maintains?

The early years, at least, of the 2nd Empire were undeniably prosperous. Apart from the effects of the government’s economic program, France benefited from the discovery of gold in California (1848) and later in Australia. As a consequence prices, which had generally been falling since 1815, rose sharply until 1856, and remained thereafter at those levels, which, until the price increases percolated through the economy, provoked a sharp increase in entrepreneurial profits and thus triggered a rapid expansion.

However, neither this favorable effect nor the impact of the government’s economic program lasted past the 1850s. As Alain Plessis notes in his book, “The Rise & Fall of the Second Empire 1852-1871”:

…[O]ne can distinguish two successive and very different rhythms in this expansion…[T]he production indexes seem to show that growth was more rapid at the beginning of the Empire, until 1858-60, than after. The early years were also marked by steadily rising prices. Hence an undeniable euphoria among businessmen that consolidated the new political regime.
Napoleon III

Thereafter, however, things clearly slowed down, causing a clear loss of support for the Imperial regime among the urban business classes:

Around 1860 began the long ‘deceleration of the French economy’. Even in expanding sectors, prices tended to drop, as evidenced by this comment from the Comite des Forges on 11 March 1867: ‘Owing to the low level of prices at present, the situation of the French metal industry today is to no one’s advantage…The industry is growing, but industrialists are not prospering.’ Production was still expanding, but profits seemed threatened. Consequently, the boldness of entrepreneurs often gave way, during the final years [of the 2nd Empire], to an obvious gloom.

The picture was not all gloomy, however: in fact, things were quite rosy in the countryside. Here we also come across a phenomenon that Mr. Harris doesn’t recognize: a split within the bourgeoisie between the interests of urban businessmen and the rural landowners (who were often former civil servants, military men, and lawyers). The latter were actually the group that made out the best during the 2nd Empire, according to Mr. Plessis:

…[T]here was a fundamental divergence between the movement of agricultural prices and that of industrial prices. While the former increased by 66 per cent, the latter continued to drop, on account of technological progress and the ensuing decline in costs… In actual fact, farmers, whether landowners or tenants, reaped the greatest profits [during the 2nd Empire]. In the Loir-et-cher, their profits rose by between 82 and 125 per cent, thanks to the combined effects of increased output and, more importantly, of rising prices.

The industrial sector, in contrast, did not see remarkable growth during the Second Empire, growing by only approximately 2% per year. And even this average hides the fact that industrial growth was deteriorating, going from almost 4% in the early 1850s to only 1% in the later 1860s. If this seems hard to reconcile with the growth of the railway industry, this just underlines my earlier point: the sectors showing modernization were quite small in the overall French economy, despite the drama of their emergence.

As for Mr. Harris’ claim that the claim that the middle class grew powerful from the proceeds of expanding industry and trade, I think this has to be viewed with outright suspicion. The 2nd Empire was an authoritarian government, a very top-down affair. While a number of Napoleon III’s ministers were bourgeois, he allowed them no policy-making voice. The newspapers were censored until 1868. The secret police were active. On the infrequent occasions when elections were held, the electoral power of the bourgeoisie was swamped in a tide of peasant and proletarian voters—who were mostly under the thumb of and voted at the direction of the large landowners or local Imperial officials. There were, in short, very few opportunities for bourgeoisie profiting from expanding trade and industry to wield political power, or even to publicly express political opinions. One of these few opportunities involved elections to the national Legislative Body. Mr. Plessis analyzes the makeup of the Legislative Body under the Second Empire as follows:

The assembly included few, if any, intellectuals and journalists, and virtually no representatives of the ‘new strata’ (doctors, for example.) Professionally speaking, deputies fell into four major categories. First, some 19 per cent were ‘property-owners’, men of independent means, living particularly off income from their landed properties…The second category comprised a sizeable number of former civil servants (26 per cent) and former military men (8 per cent)…Third, 7 per cent of the deputies were in the professions and 13 per cent were hommes de loi, a percentage indicative of the importance of jurists in this institution... Finally, industrialists, merchants and financiers made up nearly a quarter of the Legislative Body (24 per cent).

In short, rural landowners and men tied to the government—former civil servants and military men (who were also commonly large landowners)—made up over half the chamber, while the number of people directly in a position to—in Mr. Harris’ terms—profit from the proceeds of expanding industry and trade constituted less than a quarter.

So if one defines the bourgeoisie expansively—i.e., as anyone who isn’t an aristocrat, a peasant or a proletarian—one can say that the class had a limited degree of power. But if we consider the specific situation of the urban businessman—the person I suspect we all think of when reading the Standard Account of Impressionism—well, he wasn’t calling the shots under the 2nd Empire.

The relatively un-privileged position of the urban bourgeois had the consequence one would expect: political disaffection with the regime of Napoleon III and a desire (among at least a portion of the urban bourgeoisie) to become their own master. The history of resurgent republicanism during the 2nd Empire clearly spells out this dynamic within the bourgeoisie. As Mr. Plessis again helpfully spells out, this was true even in the first, prosperous decade of the Empire:

…[W]hile the republican idea seemed to survive only in isolated rural cantons, it enjoyed a fairly broad popular following in the towns, particularly among artisans and workers. Students were still often republican, most notably in Paris. And republicans were to be found in all the strata of the bourgeoisie, among small shopkeepers, professionals, intellectuals, lawyers…newspaper editors…and even prominent industrialists…In the Isere, ‘no less than its rivals, the republican party was run by bourgeois…, by socially prominent men, usually lawyers, whose profession guaranteed them total independence’. In Paris, these notables met in the salons…

By the late 1850s and the early 1860s the young bourgeoisie—among whom must be numbered the Impressisonist painters—were clearly turning away from the 2nd Empire, as was lamented by the Bonapartist Granier de Cassagnac:

Just try to find ambitious young men who are embarking on a conservative career, and give us their names! You won’t find any. The [republican] opposition is taking in, gathering, assembling everyone.

This republican political opposition to the 2nd Empire, which often included opposition to the Catholic Church (considered an ally of Napoleon III) was spread in part through such quasi-innocuous, quasi-underground activities such as freemasonry which grew by leaps and bounds after 1861 and came under the increasing surveillance of the secret police.

The progress of republicanism, and the underlying social tensions which gave birth to it, were observable during the elections of 1863. The countryside largely remained loyal to the 2nd Empire, while the republican opposition carried nearly all the major towns, including Marseilles, Lyons, Lille, Bordeaux, Toulouse and Paris, where the republicans received 63 per cent of the votes.

I don’t wish to overstate my case: not all urban bourgeoisie took their disaffection in the direction of republicanism (many were, in fact, royalists) and as the above numbers indicate, republicanism was by no means confined to the bourgeoisie. But the widespread interest in republicanism—in which the bourgeoisie often had a leadership position—hardly accords with the Standard Account’s view of a universally politically timid and reactionary urban bourgeoisie. This became visible when the weakened Empire liberalized its press laws in 1868:

The republican opposition, most notably its angry young men, used the imperial concessions [on freedom of political activities] to lash out against the Empire….Above all, there was a an extraordinary proliferation of the press: in a single year, 140 newspapers were launched and, by the end of the Empire, the total print run for dailies had almost reached the million mark, five times more than in 1860…The republican newspapers started a fund to put up a fitting monument to the deputy Baudin, who had died on a barricade on 3 December 1851. The government prosecuted them and, at the trial that ensued, their lawyer, Leon Gambetta, openly denounced the coup d’etat and the men of 2 December. Thus, in Paris, the opposition was now impassioned and thoroughly revolutionary.
Leon Gambetta, Bourgeois

So let me again rewrite the Standard Account Impressionism:

Friedrich’s Account of Impressionism: Under the 2nd Empire, the bourgeoisie prospered in the 1850s, but things slowed during the 1860s. In particular, the urban business class, which was lagging the “rurals” both financially and in terms of political influence, began to think that it could do better under another system of government.

Next we’re off to discuss Paris, the working class, and the Commune. (Isn’t it amazing what tumultuous history was going on in the background of this pleasant and—according to Mr. Harris—utterly innocuous art?)



posted by Friedrich at February 6, 2003


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