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February 28, 2003

Two or Three Things I Learned About Impressionism, Part VI


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-#5, 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 1860s or 1870s. To make sense of this the mysterious market failure, he provides the following (essentially Marxist) 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.

After examining each point of this analysis (and finding it wanting), I’ve developed a less schematic but more factual version of the social background to Impressionism:

Friedrich’s Revised Account of Impressionism: Under the 2nd Empire, France entered the railway age. This didn’t create wrenching new social conditions but did provide many highly visible symbols of modernism—promoting a belief in progress and modernity as a positive force. As the rapid growth of the 1850s petered out during the 1860s, the urban bourgeoisie, which lagged the rural landowning class both financially and in terms of political influence, began to think that it could do better under a republican system of government. Meanwhile, although the financial lot of the Parisian proletariat was improving relative to its miserable conditions of the 1840s, it was deeply alienated by being exiled to the suburban wasteland by the urban renewal programs known as Haussmannization. Under the leadership of a socialist labor movement encouraged by Napoleon III, the politicized working classes attempted to seize control of the country via the Paris Commune (during an extraordinary vacuum of power caused by the Franco-Prussian War). The defeat of the Commune and its savage repression however, no matter how dramatic, were essentially distractions and only temporarily obscured the "slow revolution" by which the moderate republican ideal was gaining traction against the dominant political class, the rural landowners. The struggle of urban bourgeoisie to implement their “revolutionary” ideal (i.e., a capitalist democracy, offering universal opportunities for advancement, with separation of Church and state) was hard fought and lasted through through the decades of the 1860s and the 1870s before the republican urban bourgeoisie emerged as dominant. During the period of that struggle, artists that spoke to the interests of the urban bourgeoisie were, like republican politicians, in for a rough ride at the hands of their political and social opponents.

There is, however, one more “background” element that we must examine before we can fully understand Impressionism, its struggle for acceptance and the meanings it carried for its contemporaries. This is the nature of the French art world in the mid-19th century, the battlefield upon which the Impressionist war was fought.

F. J. Heim, Charles X Distributing Awards to Artists Exhibiting at the Salon of 1824, 1827

The Standard Account of Impressionism also acknowledges the importance of developments in this area. As Mr. Harris explains:

Cultural life was governed by an organization called the Institut de France, in which the Academy of Fine Arts was the subordinate body responsible for painting and sculpture. The Academy was a self perpetuating elite of artists who elected their own new members and kept a tight hold on the two key institutions that determined the fate of aspiring painters: the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Salon. As well as inculcating a strict orthodoxy in its teaching, the Beaux-arts awarded markings, distinctions and prizes that constituted the earliest honours to which ambitious painters aspired. Later, these artists would hope to have their works shown at the Salon, a great exhibition…Regular showings at the Salon were necessary if a painter was to become well-known enough to make a good living by selling his works; and the jury of the Salon, which selected the pictures to be hung, consisted of—Academicians. In this closed system, there was no room for dissent…In retrospect, the surprising fact is that there were so many dissenting groups, among them the Impressionists, prepared to suffer for years outside the system. [Emphasis added]

To this, Mr. Harris adds a description of the symbiotic relationship between the authoritarian Academy and the ‘rudderless’ bourgeois art market:

[The Academy] exercised an unusually great influence over [bourgeois] public opinion. In previous centuries, artistic patronage had mainly been wielded by the cultivated sections of the aristocracy—men certain of the own taste and standards, which they unhesitatingly imposed upon society as a whole. By the middle of the 19th century, economic power had largely passed to the industrial and commercial classes, who now became the main ‘public’ for art. Lacking a traditional culture—and, it should be said, living in a difficult period of change and confusion—they were uncertain in their judgments and inclined to trust ‘experts’ who pandered to their prejudices and emotional preferences. In art as in literature, they enjoyed anodyne fantasies, moral stories, ‘jolly’ humour, pathos and sentiment; and they shied away from sexuality and anything connected with the less glamorous realities of life.

Well, how does this account correlate with the facts? As usual, I find the Standard Account of Impressionism wanting.

In the mid-19th century, far from being a powerful, closed system with “no room for dissent,” the Academic system was under considerable pressure, both from the producers and consumers of art.

On the supply side, the sheer volume of artists and paintings was overwhelming the institution of the Salon. Held once a year (or even, occasionally, once every two years) it was a single national art show in which--by the mid-19th century--thousands of paintings were hung, only a few of which were ever officially recognized by being awarded medals and/or being purchased by the government for a museum. The Salon was thus trying to fulfill all the functions carried out in today's art world by multitudes of art theorists, critics, art magazines, dealers and galleries. Unsurprisingly, it was beginning to creak at the seams.

This surplus of art production was the result, ironically, of the excellence of the French art-education system. Renowned as the best in the world, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the provincial academies all-too-successfully recruited aspiring artists from France and abroad. According to estimates by Harrison and Cynthia White in their study, “Canvases and Careers: Institutional Change in the French Painting World” there were (in 1863) perhaps 3,000 recognized painters in the Parisian art world and another 1,000 operating in the provinces. These 4,000 painters produced at least 20,000 competent, professional paintings a year.

While the Salon had been an adequate device for hooking up painters with patrons in the 18th century (when only a few hundred artists were active), as the 19th-century wore on it was proving unable to provide financially for the ever-growing art “industry." And the financial pressure on the average artist was even more intense than you might imagine because teaching, commerical work and government art subsidies--which today support most artists--were available only to a very limited extent in the mid-19th century. As Mr and Ms. White point out:

It seems safe to conclude that the majority of professional painters on the national scene received little direct income from the government. Elite painters received much more but the wealthiest of these made their money from private clients. The basic importance of the government commission or purchase, like the Salon prize, was in building a reputation…Most painters had no regular teaching post; few had posts in the government-run art industries of the Sevres and the Gobelins works.

On the demand side, the bourgeoisie—who effectively were the mass art market—wanted decorations for their home. And they wanted those decorations to be to their taste (not the taste of the Academy). The impact of this well-defined consumer preference on the art world was enormous and indeed revolutionary, as Mr and Ms. White note:

Three hundred provincial museums there might be, government commissions for public works there might be, but the only possible paid destinations for the rising flood of canvases were the homes of the bourgeoisie. History painting had not and never would rest comfortably in the middle-class parlor. “Lesser” forms of image art—genre, landscape, still life—did.

As in any growing industry with low barriers to entry and thus a flood of suppliers, the mid-19th century art market began to fragment into multiple niches. There was a visible trend towards diversification (in order to ensure that no art-consuming appetite went unaddressed) and specialization (in order to give the customer exactly what he wanted.) More and more painters took a particular subject and made a career of it. To take one example, the Barbizon painters Rosa Bonheur and Troyon became extremely successful with pictures of domestic animals.

BonheurR1850PloughinginNiverais.jpg R. Bonheur, Ploughing in Niverais, 1850

(Troyon’s paintings of cows at one point were in such demand that he subcontracted the backgrounds to the landscape painter Boudin!)

An example of this trend towards diversification and specialization in subject matter was the striking growth of French landscape painting in the mid-19th century. It met a particular need: that of the bourgeois art patron who wasn’t looking for a synthetic landscape full of classical allusions, but who wanted an attractive, believable landscape on which to rest their eyes after a hard day’s work. (Unsurprisingly, artists of unconventional or rebellious views, such as Courbet and the Barbizon school, were drawn to this relatively immature--and thus commercially wide-open--market niche.)

G. Courbet, Low Tide at Trouville, c. 1865

These supply- and demand-side pressures, in combination, caused a serious problem for the Academy. Previously, by controlling the Salon, the "market" for art, the Academy had been able to impose a "prestige" structure on the different classes of painting, with its own specialty, history painting, at the top of the heap. The identification of the Academy with history painting wasn't a mere historical accident, but rather a vital underpinning of the whole institution's raison d'etre. Painting’s role as a liberal art (that is, what made it distinct from being just one more form of superior craft work) rested on the intellectual content of history painting. "Histories" were paintings of high and noble subjects taken from the Bible, from Greek or Roman antiquity or myth, or from moments of French national greatness, and presented in a fashion that commented on the meaning of these episodes for contemporary Frenchmen. This type of painting derived from the famous compositions of the Italian Renaissance, which were valued not for the mechanical skill of the artists (which was necessary, granted) but for their greatness as exercises in ‘composed thought.’ Genre painting, landscape and still life lacked the necessary intellectual content of high art. No one needed a classical education or an Academy interpret the content or to judge the effectiveness of such "dumbed-down" painting.

A. Cabanel, Fallen Angel

The trend of mid-19th century painting was not going the Academy’s way, however. The “grand machines”—huge neoclassical history paintings—that had dominated the French art world in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras were appearing less and less frequently at the Salons, where they were now almost lost among the huge masses of “genre” pictures. (Genre, unlike history painting, usually illustrated some episode taken from daily life, although often set in the past to permit charming, exotic costumes.) In fact, if one had asked an established 2nd Empire insider where the “action” was in contemporary painting during the 1850s, he would have responded that it was in the battle between history painting and genre. By the early 1860s, the issue had been settled—and genre had won. The bourgeoisie—rather than being timidly dependent on the Academy as the arbiter of style—had handed the Academicians a stinging (and eventually fatal) defeat.

The Academicians responded in part by strategic retreat; in 1861 they elected Meissonier—who, while a "mere" genre artist, was the most financially successful painter in France—to the Academy.

MeissonierJ1854AManinBlackSmokingaPipeHorizontal.jpg J. Meissonier, A Man in Black Smoking a Pipe, 1854 (Detail)

Their other response was more aggressive. The Academicians didn't intend to let themselves be outflanked again by low forms of painting. As a consequence they waged an exclusionary war against the other "minor"—but up-and-coming—modes, landscape painting and still life. A Salon jury in 1863—made up entirely of Academicians—rejected fully half of all the paintings submitted and was particularly ruthless against still life paintings, almost none of which were accepted.

Here the Academicians overreached, however. 1863 was an election year and Napoleon III—ever sensitive to political tremors—didn’t want to be seen as defending the elevated status of the Academy at the cost of the livelihoods of thousands of artists, who were just trying to make an honest franc. Craftily, the Emperor instituted a losers’ Salon, a Salon des refuses, at which the rejected artists might exhibit. (As a result, Manet’s “Olympia” and “Dejuner sur l’Herbe” were shown for the first time to the public.) Napoleon III also decided to remove the Ecole des Beaux-Arts from the direct supervision of the Academy and revamp the Salon jury selection process. The government would appoint a quarter of the jurors, with the rest being elected by artists who had won medals at previous Salons. Both of these were reforms without much substance: the actual teaching at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts remained in the hands of artists who just happened to be academicians, and the medal winners voted for their old instructors, who of course were by definition academicians. In the first election (1864) the four leading vote getters were all current or former professors at the Academy, with Cabanel topping the list. Over the next few years, the government fiddled with the selection process, mostly favoring the Academy. Finally, in 1868—at the same time as censorship was loosened and other liberal reforms promulgated by a weakened Imperial administration—any artist who had exhibited in a previous Salon was permitted to vote for the candidates for the Salon jury.

The results showed how far the interests of the “average artist” had diverged from the the Academic Establishment. With four times as many artists voting as in 1864, the Barbizon landscape artist Daubigny was the leading vote-getter. In turn he used his “mandate” to fight for landscapes in general (and “realistic” landscape, including some by the budding Impressionists in particular.)

C. F. Daubigny, The Hamlet of Optevoz, c. 1857

By this point, moreover, the tensions between supporters of the 2nd Empire and their republican challengers had reached such a point that the entire process—originally purely a skirmish within the artistic community—had developed a distinctly political overtone. Count Nieuwerkerke, the government’s superintendent of the arts establishment, was quoted as deriding Barbizon-style landscape as “the painting of democrats, of men who never change their [underwear].” As Philip Nord notes in his book, “Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century”:

…Castagnary, a pro-Barbizon critic, [chortled] in the pages of [the republican newspaper]Le Siecle: “M. de Niewerkerke has got it in for Daubigny, and why? Because he thinks him ‘a climber, a liberal and a free-thinker.’"

And this, Mr. Nord acknowledges, was not a mistaken impression on the part of the superintendant:

…Daubigny liked to sing while he worked, and the repertoire he favored—the subversive verse of Pierre-Jean Beranger, Pierre Dupont’s rustic chansons, and “La Marseillaise”—is revelatory of the mix of views he subscribed to. He was a republican with a Christian socialist twist.

This was not the only public criticism of the Academic system from the newly unleashed republican press (who were conducting a thoroughgoing critique of all aspects of the Imperial establishment. To the republican journalists, Academicians were nothing but Imperial camp followers, dining on the government's largesse. Mr. Nord catalogues only a fraction of the growing swell of invective from the pens of republican journalists:

Juries, Zola remarked, were not elected by “universal suffrage” but by a “restricted vote” [which of course made the Emperor, who routinely asserted that his position was held as a result of plebescites conducted by universal sufferage, a hypocrite]. The painters chosen were partisans of an outworn academic aesthetic, Prix de Rome laureates who had made their reputations imitating the art of antiquity and the Italian renaissance. “The Roman-foreign Pleiad,” as Thore called them, favored its own, handing out the top prizes to like-minded epigones. The lesser awards went to favorites of imperial officialdom, to “what in the political world liberals…like to call official candidates” (the reference here is to the imperial regime’s practice of lending administrative and financial backing to state-approved hacks at election time.) Castagnary rejected such proceedings as “an offense to the freedom on industry.” It was “public opinion,” not a clique sponsored by the administration, which ought to decide which paintings had value and which not. In the political domain, jabbed an angry Castagnary, the public had begun to clamor for a separation of Church and State. Why not then a separation of Art and State?…In the art of Cabanel, Gerome and Bougereau were to be read the mores of the Empire itself: a despotism that dressed up its corruptions and worldliness in the language of religion and high ideals.

So this is my version of events:

Friedrich’s Account of Impressionsim: The Academic System was undergoing a slow collapse, as the result of a growing mismatch between its institutional ideology and the desires of its prime patronage market, the bourgeoisie. Ambitious young painters, fighting for recognition against a huge oversupply of artists, found the greatest opportunities in forms of image art that lacked the traditional endorsement of the Academy(i.e., genre and landscape); as a consequence of this, the new painters aroused the defensive hostility of the art establishment, a conflict that carried strongly political overtones.

Next we’ll consider how the battle between the Impressionists and the Academy evolved and created a brave new art-industry world.



posted by Friedrich at February 28, 2003


Wow, you're the Fernand Braudel of 19th century French art history.

How do you like the academic painting? I haven't seen enough of it, but I've visited and revisited a little NY museum that's devoted to it. And -- surprise -- a lot of it is impressive, and some of it I even feel for, although (modern person that I am) especially for the drawings and oil sketches. It's the Dahesh Museum, here:

We'll have to visit it together the next time in you're in NYC.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 28, 2003 9:28 PM

I'd love to go. What I mostly find from researching pictures for these postings is that, well, almost all French painting of this era is stuff I wouldn't mind putting up on my wall--from Courbet to Bougereau, from Daubigny to Meissonier. My hard drive is stuffed with pictures I can't find an excuse to upload into this series. Ah, 19th century France--a great place to look at, even if you wouldn't want to live there.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 1, 2003 2:28 PM

Just a notion--but maybe once you figure out how to paint like Monet or Renoir, it's too much fun to stop.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on March 2, 2003 9:28 PM

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