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March 11, 2003

Two or Three Things I Learned About Impressionism, Part VII


This is the next in a series of my postings on what Impressionism meant to its contemporaries and creators. Having disposed of what I’ve described as the Standard Account of Impressionism in my previous posts, let’s move on to what I think is a more accurate explanation of the phenomenon known as the New Painting (a term that, like its synonym, the jeune ecole, subsumes the Impressionists along with fellow-travellers like Manet, Fantin-Latour and others):

In the 1860s, the urban bourgeoisie were political underdogs to the rural landowning class, who were the key supporters and beneficiaries of both the 2nd Empire of Napoleon III and the authoritarian governments of the 1870s. Frustrated by a slowing economy and their subordinate political position, the urban bourgeoisie began trying to gain power by pushing a capitalist-republican political “uprising.” This uprising was encouraged by the “railroad revolution” of the previous decade that had encouraged a general belief in the virtues of technology and commercial progress, convincing the urban bourgeoisie that history was on their side.

At the same time, there was a significant oversupply of artists and paintings in the French art industry. This led to a greater diversification of subject matter by artists, as they attempted to sell into the genre, landscape and still life niche art markets where growing numbers of bourgeois art buyers had unmet demands.

This effort was de-legitimized by the Academy because it would reduce painting to mere craftwork (unlike the Academic specialty, history painting, which by theory and tradition possessed an elevated intellectual dimension.) This was accomplished by denying such paintings opportunities to be seen at the Salon, and by denying any that did get seen any official recognition.

Because the Academy and the Salon were government institutions, the battle between artists eager to tap new niche art markets and the Academicians who were working to deny them artistic legitimacy in this effort became politicized. This intensified as republican journalists used the issue to attack Napoleon III’s regime at the end of the 1860s.

The Impressionists, as ambitious painter-businessmen with chiefly urban bourgeois backgrounds and sympathies, recognized that there was a market for pictures of the environment and daily life of the urban bourgeoisie, and wanted to tap it. Finding the Academy was blocking their efforts to supply this market, they set out—with help from critics and dealers—to break the commercial monopoly enjoyed by the governmentally organized Salon. Their eventual success created the modern art market.

The last paragraph provides a nice climax to my version of events. The only question (all the other paragraphs having been addressed in my previous posts) is: do the facts support this last paragraph? Well, let’s see.

Did the Impressionists have chiefly urban bourgeois backgrounds and republican political sympathies?

As far as background goes, calling the Impressionists urban bourgeoisie was a pretty fair statement. Edouard Manet’s father was a wealthy Parisian judge. Berthe Morisot father was a well-to-do official at the Cour des Comptes (the financial agency auditing public expenditures) in Paris. Edgar Degas was the scion of a Parisian banking family. Alfred Sisley was born and grew up in Paris and London; as the son of a wealthy English businessman, Sisley had independent means until his father was ruined in the Franco-Prussian war. Although hailing from provincial cities rather than the capital, Paul Cezanne and Frederic Bazille came from bourgeois families headed by republican fathers. Cezanne’s father was a banker in Aix who moved in local republican circles. Bazille was born to a well-to-do, wine-growing Protestant family from Montpellier; his father, a local notable, was elected a Senator in 1879, and voted with Jules Ferry’s Gauche republicaine. Camille Pissarro was born into a French Jewish family on the West Indies island of St. Thomas; as storeowners they led a comfortable bourgeois existence and could afford to send young Camille back to France for his education. Claude Monet's father moved his family to the port of Le Havre in order to work in his brother-in-law's wholesale grocery and ship chandlers business; he earned enough money to pay his son an allowance through the late 1860s. The only member of the group not from a bourgeois background was Auguste Renoir, whose father was a tailor (albeit a Parisian one).

As for their political sympathies, Manet’s can be judged from a letter he wrote as a teenager going on a naval training cruise in 1849, just after Louis-Napoleon had been elected president of the Second Republic (and before the coup d’état that made him Emperor of France):

…[T]ry to preserve our good Republic until my return, for I well and truly fear that L. Napoleon is not himself much of a republican.

Manet’s family was in fact highly politicized and extremely pro-republican. His cousin Jules de Jouy was an established lawyer who for a period employed the young Leon Gambetta. Manet’s brother Gustave, also a lawyer, had been friends with Gambetta from their days as students when the two had frequented the café Procope. Manet’s other brother Eugene—Berthe Morisot’s future husband—was a pal of another notorious republican lawyer, Emile Ollivier. Manet himself is on record as actively disdaining the Empire. When J. F. Millet refused the Legion of Honor in 1868, Manet applauded the gesture, dismissing the award as a “dirty gewgaw,” suitable for children and regime toadies. Two of his early paintings, “Execution of the Emperor Maximilian” and “Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama” were direct slaps at the foreign policy of the 2nd Empire, as Maximilian had been placed on the throne of Mexico by French troops and Napoleon III was pro-South in the U.S. Civil War (the Kearsarge, a Northern vessel, had sunk the Confederate raider Alabama in French waters).

Berthe Morisot’s family were firm supporters of Adolphe Thiers—as we have seen, a politician who ruthlessly suppressed the commune on behalf of the rurals but ultimately was ousted from power for adopting a conciliatory stance towards the republican insurgency. Possibly under the influence of Manet, or Manet’s brother Eugene (her eventual husband), the young Ms. Morisot irritated her father by venturing pro-republican political opinions at the dinner table.

Once having arrived in Paris to study, the young provincial Bazille attended the Salon of Commandant Hipppolyte Lejosne, who was not only a relative and an art-lover who frequented the Café Guerbois, but also a fervent republican. The guest list at his salon typically included Bazille, Fantin-Latour and Manet as well as Leon Gambetta. The conversation apparently often turned to criticisms of the 2nd Empire and its policies. When, as a soldier fighting the Franco-Prussian war, Bazille heard of the fall of the 2nd Empire and its replacement by a 3rd Republic, he was jubilant.

When the teenaged Monet arrived in Paris in the late 1850s he patronized the Brasserie des Martyrs in Montmartre, where he met Courbet (who was later a witness at his marriage) and the critic and journalist Castagnary. Shortly thereafter he moved to the Latin Quarter, where he befriended Clemenceau. At this time Clemenceau, as we have seen, was quite busy harassing the imperial authorities with his republican socialist views. Two well-known republican troublemakers and militant atheists, Dr. Paul Dubois and Antonin Lafont, brought the two men together. And these weren’t passing acquaintances of a bohemian youth; Monet gave paintings to Dubois and Lafont, both of whom also acted as witnesses at Monet’s first marriage in 1870, and remained close friends with Clemenceau until his death in 1926.

While politics was never to be a great passion in Renoir’s life, his Aunt Lisa was known to be an admirer of Auguste Blanqui, the republican socialist and revolutionary. She attended the meetings of a “groupe revolutionnaire” in a nearby neighborhood. In the waning months of the 2nd Empire, Renoir was painting in the forest at Fontainebleau, where he ran into Raoul Rigault, a Blanquist provocateur who was on the run from the law. Renoir gave the fugitive from the Imperial police a painter’s smock as a disguise and hid him for several weeks. At Renoir’s urging, Pissarro got in touch with the fugitive’s friends back in Paris, who arranged to smuggle him out of the city. Not only does this story suggest Renoir’s sympathy towards an extremist republican fugitive (who later went on to be the Chief of Police under the Paris Commune) but it also shows that his friend, Camille Pissarro, was extremely well-connected to radical republican circles. Pissarro’s left-wing friends included the painter Ludovic Piette who was vehemently against the 2nd Empire as well as the homeopathic physician Paul Gachet, who later played a role in Van Gogh’s story.

The reaction of the New Painters to the events surrounding the Paris Commune also helps us to situate their political sympathies. Although none of the New Painters showed any particular enthusiasm for Napoleon III’s war with Prussia (regarding it as yet another piece of Imperial military adventurism), Degas and Manet had volunteered for service with the National Guard units being raised in Paris. (Bazille, of course, had gone a step farther and enlisted in the army, where he was killed in combat with the Prussians.) As a result of their time in the National Guard, both of the haute bourgeois young men were horrified at the savagery of the post-Commune repression, aimed often at their old comrades. In the summer of 1871, several months after the battle between the forces of the Commune and the Versailles-based national government was over, Berthe Morisot’s mother told the story indignantly of a conversation between her son and two “communards”:

Manet and Degas! Even at this date they are condemning the drastic measures used to repress them [the revolutionaries.] I think they are insane…

Mrs. Morisot was overstating the case, however, by describing Degas and Manet as pro-Commune. Despite the New Painters’ friendships with such a prominent communard as Courbet (and Renoir’s personal acquaintance with Raoul Rigault, the police chief of Paris under the Commune), they had little sympathy with the political goals of the revolutionaries. As Philip Nord notes in his book, “Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century”:

Both Manet and Pissarro had occasion in 1871 to characterize the communards as “assassins.”…Renoir [40-odd years later] in conversation with his son Jean sentimentalized the revolutionaries as “brave fellows” but was quick to add, “you can’t start Robespierre all over again.”

As these remarks illustrate, the politics of the New Painters ran towards moderate—capitalist, not socialist—republicanism, sentiments which at the start of the 1870s were widespread among the urban bourgeoisie. (Twenty-five years later, many members of the New Painters had adopted more extreme positions, but that’s another story.)

Therefore, the perception on the part of Academicians like Cabanel that the New Painters had republican leanings was quite accurate. And Cabanel—no dummy—accurately sensed that the correspondence between such political sentiments among the upstart New Painters and the more widespread upsurge of republican political sentiment portended trouble for authoritarian institutions like the Academy.

Did the Impressionists set out—with help from critics and dealers—to break the commercial monopoly enjoyed by the governmentally organized Salon?

Again, I'd have to say the answer is yes. Three factors came together in the early 1870s to push the New Painters (or, more accurately, the activist group among them that became known as the Impressionists) away from mere resentment at the hostility of the artistic establishment and into open rebellion.

The first factor was that the attitude of the Salon jury towards innovative painting got worse—a lot worse—in the early 1870s. If you recall, in the late 1860s the politically weakened 2nd Empire had seen considerable liberalization in many sectors, including in the makeup of the Salon jury and in its treatment of the New Painters. For example, in 1868 Manet, Degas, Pissarro, Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Bazille and Morisot submitted paintings to the Salon; all were accepted except the perennial reject, Cezanne. 1869 and 1870 were also good years for the New Painters at the Salon. However, after the disasters of 1871—the loss of the Franco-Prussian war and the uprising of the Commune—the dominant “rurals” had no interest in institutional experimentation or anything that smacked of rebelliousness. Accommodation with the forces of democracy and the lower classes had, in their opinion, been shown as nothing but symptoms of a fatal weakness—a mistake they didn’t intend to repeat. Charles Blanc, appointed as director of fine arts in 1871, promptly rejected the idea that the Salon jury should be elected by the votes of a wide selection of artists. Instead, the state asserted its right to fill a portion of jury seats by appointment, and the remaining jurors were elected by the vote of prize-winners at previous Salons. Universal sufferage, seen as the demagogic hallmark of the 2nd Empire, was out. The delighted Cabanel remarked pithily:

It’s just like in politics, it makes a fine mess of things.

The Salon jury selected in this manner turned out—as it was intended to be—even more partisan than its notorious predecessor of 1863 (the uproar over which had led to the Salon des refuses.) It rejected roughly 60% of the paintings submitted (an unheard-of number) and focused its special disfavor on landscape painting, the mainstay of the New Painters. Seeing the lay of the land, most of the New Painters didn’t even bother to submit paintings in either 1872 or 1873; Renoir, the only representative of the “landscape wing” of the movement to submit paintings went down in flames both years. It began to appear to many of the New Painters that they had no future within the bounds of the art establishment. And people with nothing to lose tend to be willing to take greater risks.

The second factor promoting the Impressionist rebellion was that the republican press had, if anything, turned up the polemical volume. Having found—once the dust had settled from the political explosions of 1871—that the same forces that had supported (and benefited from) the 2nd Empire were in even more direct control under the fledgling 3rd Republic, republican journalists and activists like Castagnary, Camille Pelletan, Zacharie Astruc and Burty jumped on what were (in the big picture) minor developments in the art world, seeing in them an excellent opportunity to score political points. Philip Nord summarizes their attacks:

On the one side stood Thiers who “takes the part of the ruling classes in art as in politics.” Thiers had chosen a fitting second-in-command in the person of Charles Blanc, a dessicated rulemonger who, “like Louis XIV,” made a cult of the State. Together, they had imposed an “altogether authoritarian” regime on the Salon, whittling down the franchise to “a privileged few.”

Over the years I’ve read many times of how uncomprehending and buffoonish newspaper critics to a man savaged the Impressionists. Well, chalk this up to the fact that art history is quite often bad history. In actuality the publicity provided by the republican press was a vital element in allowing the New Painters to make an end-run around the Salon to untapped markets and thus a major factor in the ultimate success of their rebellion. (And given the political leanings of their supporters, the hostility of the anti-republican press was hardly a huge surprise—or a sign of lowbrow tendencies among these critics, as modern historians often condescendingly imply with 20/20 hindsight.)

The third factor pushing the Impressionists to outright rebellion was their discovery of a commercial alternative to the Salon—picture dealers. Or, one might say, the discovery of the Impressionists by a particular picture dealer, Durand-Ruel (an individual quite possibly far more important to Modern art than any of the Impressionist painters.) A second-generation picture dealer, in the 1860s he inherited his father’s clientele—which focused on the buying and selling of paintings by Delacroix, the Barbizon artists and the English painter, Constable—as well as a network of galleries in London, Holland, Belgium and Germany. Durand-Ruel was, as befitted a member of the 2nd Empire bourgeoisie, a speculator and a very aggressive one.

Speculation, of course, only makes sense when dealing with commodities that can suddenly become much more valuable today than when you bought them yesterday. This pushed Durand-Ruel in the direction of contemporary paintings by lesser-known artists such as the New Painters. Old Master paintings were good long-term investments (particularly useful for the very rich in that they were highly mobile and the market was international), but they didn’t appreciate violently from one year to the next. The prices for current Salon favorites, like Meissonier or Cabanel, were so high that they were unlikely to rise sharply anytime soon (unless of course the painters died, but regrettably you couldn’t count on that). But Durand-Ruel’s father had demonstrated that there was good money to be made in controversial living painters, and Durand-Ruel had inherited a group of buyers who trusted his judgment and were ready to “plunge.”

Very much along the lines of Michael Millken, Durand-Ruel was not adverse to priming the pump of the market he himself “made.” In his early years he bought up large numbers of paintings by the artists his father specialized in at higher-than-market prices, boosting their apparent appreciation in value, and then refusing to sell at any but the highest prices when interested clients clamored for a piece of the action. He also took a banker on as a silent partner when he purchased one particularly large collection, thus giving himself the financial ammunition to wait for the best moment to sell—which he knew might take several years. And like a good speculator, he realized the danger that failing to “corner the market” represented; he shocked the Parisian art world by buying up virtually the entire output of several Barbizon painters.

When Durand-Ruel met first Monet and then Pissarro in London during the Franco-Prussian war, he knew (being an excellent judge of painting) that he had found a significant financial opportunity. As soon as they all got back to Paris in 1871 he not only started buying up Monet’s and Pissarro’s works, but also works by Renoir, Sisley and Degas. (He even, on a visit to Manet’s studio made an apparently impulsive offer of 35,000 francs for the 23 pictures Manet had on hand at the time; a purchase that was validated economically by his eventual sale of those 23 paintings for over 800,000 francs, mostly to American collectors and museums.) But, remembering the danger that failing to corner the market represented to a speculator, he went beyond mere purchases—he started making large advances to the Impressionist painters to be paid off in their future picture production. In return, he expected—and more or less received—100% of their future efforts.

The financial support offered by Durand-Ruel explains the ability of the New Painters to disdain the official Salon in 1872 and 1873. However, being enterprising young men (and a woman) they realized that their market would be bigger and more lucrative with greater publicity. In 1873 they started mulling over the idea of mounting a group exhibition. What they were proposing, in effect, was a private-sector Salon in a country long famous for government control of its economic and cultural life (a step that was, in itself, an excellent example of the political and economic world-view their paintings exemplified.) And the political dimension to their undertaking was fully evident to the New Painters, as Philip Nord points out:

[The painter] Piette did not need much persuading. If the next Salon bears any resemblance to the last, he wrote to Pissarro, “if Courbet is excluded and the jury still composed of reactionaries and Bonapartists, I would join and with pleasure.”

During 1873 the future Impressionists got serious about an independent exhibition, which was formally organized in December and actually run the following Spring. As part of the campaign, clearly aimed at their targeted repubican urban bourgeois market, they carefully chose a symbolic location. Philip Nord points out that:

…[T]he site selected for the artists’ first independent exhibition, Nadar’s studio, had a political edge…Nadar was France’s premier portrait photographer, but he was known too as a veteran ‘48er [a participant in the revolution that established the 2nd Republic] who during the siege of Paris had run a balloon service ferrying mail out of the city and on occasion the high ranking political official. It was by such means that [the republican] Minister of the Interior Gambetta…had escaped to the provinces.

The press, as expected, provided the exhibition with significant publicity. The first Impressionist exhibition was reviewed in seven Parisian publications during the two weeks following its opening. Of the reviews in the three large circulation dailies that wrote it up, two were unfavorable and one was favorable. Of the reviews in smaller-circulation publications, two were favorable and two unfavorable.

Of course, just organizing a single exhibition, however revolutionary, hardly won the war. But the pieces--publicity via the press, exposure via the independent group exhibition and sales (combined with financial support) from Durand Ruel--were in place for a campaign that effectively resulted in victory by the early 1880s—roughly the same time that urban bourgeois republicans also climbed firmly in the saddle of the 3rd Republic.

Did the Impressionists—in collaboration with the press and Durand-Ruel—thus create the modern art market?

In a word, yes. Their accomplishments are summed up by Harrison and Cynthia White in their book, “Canvases and Careers: Institutional Change in the French Painting World”:

The Impressionists contributed to and were sustained by the new system. As it evolved, it came to provide:

Visibility. The Impressionists were lost in the mass of Salon paintings, even when accepted. With the dealer’s exhibition, the one-man show, and the independent group show, they could gain the public’s eye. The identification with a “school” and with a specific dealer enabled the public to place them.

Publicity. The laudatory review became a substitute for a Salon medal. The negative review was no less important in drawing attention to a painter or a movement.

Purchases. The dealer [Durand-Ruel], unlike any Academic institution, was able to offer a ready-made clientele and to personally influence its taste. From this base the painter could gain a personal contact with patrons and make some direct sales.

A More Steady Income. A contract with the dealer, or at least a fairly steady system for loans and advances, guaranteed the painter a minimu income, something the Academic system had not been able to do.

Social Support. The Impressionists’ circle of dealers, critics and buyers gave them recognition, sympathy, and encouragement. A painter was no longer a nobody when he could count on the social support of people like Durand-Ruel, Zola, the editor Charpentier, the singer Faure and the financier Hoschede, or lesser known but faithful buyers and friends like Chocquet.

So in my next post I’ll look at some of the specific messages that a contemporary would have been unable to miss in the paintings of the Impressionists.



posted by Friedrich at March 11, 2003


This is an amazingly erudite, yet readable dissertation. Diverting, even. When does the book come out?? No matter how little I know about a subject, I am enchanted and fascinated when I read essays by people who are experts on a subject, and who can also write about what gives them joy. Thank you, Friedrich.

Waiting for the next installment...

Posted by: Felicity on March 12, 2003 12:23 AM

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