Mallarmé and Impressionism in 1876
In his essay “The Impressionists and Edouard Manet,” published in The Art Monthly Review and Photographic Portfolio in September 1876, Stéphane Mallarmé produced a substantial defense of Manet and the Impressionists that made “air” and “truth” central to their art.1 As he wrote: “The search after truth, peculiar to modern artists, which enables them to see nature and reproduce her, such as she appears to just and pure eyes, must lead them to adopt air almost exclusively as their medium, or at all events to habituate themselves to work in it freely and without restraint.”2
Mallarmé’s text is arguably the most sophisticated reading of Impressionism in the 1870s and one that diverges in important ways from other early accounts. He recognizes the simplicity, directness, and truth that Impressionist art offered, but also a “peculiar quality outside mere Realism” and “one of those unexpected crises which appear in art,” charging himself with developing “its idea” in his text.3 “Movement, light and life” were Impressionism’s true subjects, but the poet understood these not merely as the fleeting sensations of the mobile perceiver, nor as the basis of an art of enjoyment, naturalism, or individualism.4 The crisis in art whose idea Mallarmé developed in his essay paralleled the crisis in literature that his own work was exploring from the 1860s on, and his evolving poetics shaped his analysis of Impressionism in its first years.5 One of the goals of this essay is to suggest the intersections and divergences between the poet’s and the painters’ work and to develop through close study a more complex interpretation of individual works in the light of Mallarmé’s writings on Impressionism.
Mallarmé’s comments on Manet’s Le Linge (The Laundry, or, alternatively, The Washing, or The Linen) of 1875 in the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia (fig. 1)—which was rejected by the Salon jury and exhibited in the artist’s studio exhibition in April of 1876, something of a retrospective—are a highpoint of his celebration of the new “medium of air.”6 In his essay Mallarmé chooses Le Linge to introduce his ideas about plein-air painting before he goes on to discuss in briefer terms the work of Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, and Berthe Morisot. As he writes:
Some fresh but even-colored foliage—that of a town garden—holds imprisoned a flood of summer morning air. Here a young woman, dressed in blue, washes some linen, several pieces of which are already drying; a child coming out from the flowers looks at its mother—that is all the subject. This picture is life-size … It is deluged with air. Everywhere the luminous and transparent atmosphere struggles with the figures, the dresses, and the foliage, and seems to take to itself some of their substance and solidity; whilst their contours, consumed by the hidden sun and wasted by space, tremble, melt, and evaporate into the surrounding atmosphere, which plunders reality from the figures, yet seems to do so in order to preserve their truthful aspect. Air reigns supreme and real, as if it held an enchanted life conferred by the witchery of art; a life neither personal nor sentient, but itself subjected to the phenomena thus called up by science and shown to our astonished eyes, with its perpetual metamorphosis and its invisible action rendered visible. And how? By this fusion or by this struggle ever continued between surface and space, between color and air.7
While the language in which Mallarmé responds to Le Linge is surprising with its emphasis on “transparent atmosphere” taking on “substance,” “plunder[ing] reality,” “contours … wasted by space,” and “invisible action rendered visible,” the poet also interprets Impressionism in more familiar ways in this essay, highlighting its sketch-like aspects and registration of fleeting effects. He presents Impressionism in terms of simplification and directness, as an art in which hand and eye forget what they know. Manet, he reports, says he makes each painting as if throwing himself into the water to learn how to swim.8 The Impressionists use color “fresh or lightly laid on,” such that the “results appear to have been attained at the first stroke.” In their painting “nothing should be absolutely fixed in order that we may feel that the bright gleam which lights the picture, or the diaphanous shadow which veils it, are only seen in passing, and just when the spectator beholds the presented subject, which being composed of a harmony of reflected and ever-changing lights, cannot be supposed always to look the same, but palpitates with movement, light, and life.”9 The Impressionist artist paints the world seen “in passing,” “touch by touch,” on a canvas that would be different from every other.
Mallarmé’s emphasis on the “instantaneous and voluntary” character of Impressionist painting, its “rapid execution,” “effects of simplification,” attraction to “subjects close to home,” its “shifting glimmer of light and shadow,” and notion of “see[ing] … for the first time” corresponds to many contemporary and subsequent accounts of it.10 Edmund Duranty’s “The New Painting: Concerning the Group of Artists Exhibiting at Durand-Ruel,” for example, was a long, supportive pamphlet published at the time of the second Impressionist exhibition in April 1876, preceding Mallarmé’s publication the following September. Duranty outlines a number of features that would commonly be identified with Impressionism: the use of bright color; the observation of movement and rendering of passing effects of light and sensations of luminosity; plein air painting on site; the model of Japanese prints; the rejection of traditional rules and conventions; unusual and cropped compositions; lack of finish; originality and individual means of expression; artistic independence and freedom; and subjects of contemporary, everyday life.11 However, unlike Mallarmé, Duranty’s understanding of Impressionism is rooted in Realist and Naturalist ideas and commitments: he emphasizes individuality, Mallarmé impersonality; he stresses Impressionism’s response to contemporary life, Mallarmé the artist’s relation to Nature; his understanding of the “truth” of Impressionism depends upon the representation of modern life that Mallarmé’s text complicates.
Unusual aspects of Mallarmé’s essay include his strong assertion, without extensive elaboration, of Impressionism as the art of democracy, particularly in his conclusion—Impressionism is the “representative art of a period which cannot isolate itself from the equally characteristic politics and industry”; his emphasis on the impersonality and “doubly forsworn” originality of the Impressionist artist, who loses himself in “nature herself, or in the gaze of a multitude until then ignorant of her charms”; his particular emphasis on “air” as a medium; and his use of concepts such as “Idea” and “Aspect.”12 At this historic time, he writes, “nature desires to work for herself,” “to reveal herself” to the “multitude” through “new and impersonal men,” who will teach the “newcomers of tomorrow” how to observe her.13 To do this, artists “must adopt air almost exclusively as their medium,” “air” which is the bearer of a “life neither personal nor sentient.”14 At the end of his essay, Mallarmé deepens his claims for the truth of Impressionism. He rejects the idea that the painter should imitate nature: “then his best efforts can never equal the original.” Ventriloquizing the Impressionist artist, he writes:
That which I preserve through the power of Impressionism is not the material portion which already exists, superior to any mere representation of it, but the delight of having recreated nature touch by touch … I content myself with reflecting on the clear and durable mirror of painting, that which perpetually lives yet dies every moment, which only exists by the will of Idea, yet constitutes in my domain the only authentic and certain merit of nature—the Aspect. It is through her that when rudely thrown at the close of an epoch of dreams in front of reality, I have taken from it only that which properly belongs to my art, an original and exact perception which distinguishes for itself the things it perceives with the steadfast gaze of a vision restored to its simplest perfection.”15
In a famous letter of 1864 to his friend Henri Cazalis, Mallarmé writes of his aspiration as a writer to render “not the thing, but the effect it produces … all the words should fade away before the sensation.”16 In Impressionist painting, as often in Mallarmé’s poetry, “things” dissolve as details are eliminated, forms are abbreviated, and bright colors vibrate; mimesis and convention are negated; and fixed meanings are abandoned. In Impressionist painting, Mallarmé writes, the “penetration” of things by the “ever-present light” renders effects of transparency and “palpitation,” like the shifting reflections of words on one another in a poem. “Chance does not weaken verse, it’s the important thing … what we should especially aim for, in the poem, is that the words … reflect one another to the point that they no longer have their own color, but are only transitions in a scale,” as Mallarmé put it in a letter of 1866.17 Plein-air painting erodes distinctions and activates reciprocal reflections as does Mallarmé’s poetry. Like literature, Impressionism also aimed “to transpose a fact of nature into its almost vibratory disappearance, according to the play” of its medium, as he would put it years later in “Crisis of Verse.”18
Like the Impressionists, the poet often chose circumstantial, everyday occasions as generative motifs. But Mallarmé’s writing was also often the result of long reflection and revision, the reading and remembrance of “old books,” not quick execution, and there are glimpses of this too in his reflections on Impressionism. He notes that Sisley “seizes the passing movements of the day; watches a fugitive cloud and seems to paint it in its flight; on his canvas the live air moves and the leaves yet thrill and tremble. He loves best to paint them in spring ‘when the yonge leves on the lyte wode, waxen al with wille’ … for then space and light are one.”19 The quotation, a slight misquotation, is from an anonymous Middle English poem known as “Spring,” among the secular lyrics compiled in the fourteenth-century collection of verse known as the Harley manuscript.20 Perhaps he is appealing to his English readers with this rare old poem, connecting the deep past of lyric and the eternal cycles of nature with the poet’s and the painters’ present. His intertextual thought references a Middle English reverdie (“regreening”) love-lyric that both underlines and complicates the poet’s ideas about Impressionist landscape painting and its approach to nature. Like Impressionist painting, “Spring” closely observes and describes the natural world. Its sonorous Middle English is simple and direct, with rhythmic alliterative patterning and repetition of words that encourage comparison not just with the spring subjects of Sisley’s landscapes, but also the repeated, successive touches of their facture.21 The citation also echoes Mallarmé’s understanding of the sonorousness of language and of poetry as song, and, in his own recent poems, the grove sprinkled with chords by the piping faun and the confusion between the faun’s song and the landscape in “Afternoon of a Faun” (“L’après-midi d’un faun”), for example, a poem that had been gestating since 1865, but was published in a livre d’artiste with illustrations by Manet in April 1876.22 Several times in his essay on Impressionism Mallarmé asserts the value for painting and literature of “modernizing” by mining the “aspirations” of the past and the “freshness” to be found in the “co-ordination of widely-scattered elements.”23
Mallarmé defines “air” as “daylight … space with the transparence of air alone. The natural light of day penetrating into and influencing all things, although itself invisible,” an “air” that is “supreme and real” and “despotically dominates over all else.”24 He privileges natural light over artificial light because it reveals the “flesh-pollen” of the complexion that “springs from the very source of life” that is too altered by artificial illumination.25 Both space and light are key to his conception of “air,” but this “space with the transparence of air alone” is unfilled not just by bodies or objects, but also by conventions and fixed meanings, and it resonates with the poetics of suggestion, silence, and invisibility so central to Mallarmé’s thought and work.
The Impressionist artist paints “that which perpetually lives yet dies every moment … the only authentic and certain merit of nature—the Aspect.” The fleeting Aspect is an appearance, but it is also a disappearance that negates the mimesis that aims to make the world transparent in a different sense by reproducing its forms mimetically. The painter’s successive “touch by touch” recreates the flickering truth of that alternation of appearance and disappearance in the flow of instants. For Mallarmé Impressionist painting “reflects” the oscillation between substance and transparency, appearance and disappearance, visibility and invisibility, and its radical potential was linked to the fact that its truth had to be won individually, singularly, each time the artist painted a picture, in part through the dissolution of forms and fixed significations by the “impersonal” artist:
The eye … should forget all else it has seen and learn anew from the lesson before it. It should abstract itself from memory, seeing only that which it looks upon, and that as for the first time; and the hand should become an impersonal abstraction guided only by the will, oblivious of all previous cunning. As for the artist himself, his personal feeling, his peculiar tastes, are for the time absorbed, ignored, or set aside26
This “impersonality” goes beyond the tropes of Impressionist criticism that highlight the artist’s individual sensation, forgetting of convention, or visceral reaction to the “spectacle of reality and contemporary life.”27 Despite the everyday motifs and simplifications of the Impressionists, Mallarmé’s insistence on their “impersonality” recall the poet’s own spiritual and poetic crisis of the 1860s, when he declared in a letter that “I am now impersonal, and no longer the Stéphane you have known—but a means by which the Spiritual Universe has to see itself and unfold itself, through what was once me.”28
The poet’s emphasis in “The Impressionists and Edouard Manet” on the “fusion or struggle … ever continued between surface and space, between color and air” and on “perpetual metamorphosis” suggests not only immediacy and temporal flux, but also rhythmic oscillation, extension, gaps, and intervals. This also finds parallels in Mallarmé’s poetics, in ideas that he was working out in his letters and in poetry such as “Igitur,” or “L’après-midi d’un faun,” and that would be unfolded more fully in later critical texts (poèmes critiques) such as “The Mystery in Letters” (“Le mystère dans les lettres”) and “Music and Letters” (“La musique et les lettres”).
In “The Mystery in Letters” Mallarmé writes of “the air or song beneath the text,” which he associates with the Idea. He responds to the criticism that his writing is obscure by chiding his contemporaries for not knowing how to read (except for newspapers) and suggests a different approach:
To apply, according to the page, to the white [blanc] which inaugurates it, one’s ingenuousness, to oneself, forgetful even of the name that might speak too loud: and, when chance, conquered word by word, has aligned itself in the slightest, disseminated break, unfailingly the blank [blanc] returns, gratuitous before, certain now, so as to infer the nothing [rien] beyond and to authenticate the silence—
Virginity which solitary, before a transparency of the commensurate gaze, is itself as if split into its fragments of artlessness, the one and the other, nuptial proofs of the Idea.
The air or song beneath the text, leading divination from here to there, applies its motif as an invisible fleuron or tailpiece.29
The word blanc has an important role in Mallarmé’s writing and interpretations of it. This passage from “The Mystery in Letters” associates the blancs of writing and reading with ingenuousness, forgetfulness, chance, dissemination, nothingness, silence, virginity, transparency, air or song, and invisibility. Blanc refers to the white, unwritten page on which the black marks of a text might be inscribed and is associated with other blancs in Mallarmé’s writing (veil, sail, and cloud, for example, to mention three that appear in the Impressionist essay). But it also suggests, despite the difficulties Mallarmé’s text poses for the reader with its punctuation and syntactic confusions, the operation of blanks (blancs): the intervals, breaks (brisures), and spacings of writing and reading, which Mallarmé often associates with rhythm and music; and silence, nothingness (rien), and non-signification.30 “Air,” as Mallarmé uses it in “The Impressionists and Edouard Manet,” is akin to these notions of blanc.
In “Music and Letters” Mallarmé highlights the attractions of nothingness and vacant space:
We know, captive of an absolute formula, that, no doubt, only what is, is. However, forthwith to wave aside, under a pretext, the lure, would show our inconsequence, denying the pleasure that we would like to take: for this beyond is its agent, and the motor I would say if I was not reluctant to carry out the impious dissection of fiction and consequently of the literary mechanism, to disclose the principal part or nothing. But, I admire how, by a trick, we project, to some great forbidden and thunderous height! the conscious lack in us of what shines forth up there.
What is this good for—
For a game.
In light of a superior attraction like a void (vide), we have the right, drawing it from ourselves out of an ennui with regard to things when they have become solid and preponderant—passionately detaching them to our fill and endowing them with splendor too, through vacant space, in solitary festivals at will. As for me, I ask nothing less of writing and am going to prove it.
Nature takes place, we will not add to it.31
Mallarmé’s meditations on the “void” (or nothingness, le Rien or le Néant) had begun in the 1860s, when he first identified it with truth. In a famous letter written while he was working on his poem “Herodiade,” he writes:
Yes, I know, we are merely empty forms of matter—but indeed sublime for having invented God and our soul. So sublime, my friend! that I want to yield to the spectacle of matter, have consciousness of it, and yet launch madly into Dream, which doesn’t exist, singing of the Spirit and all such divine impressions which have accumulated within us since the beginning of time and proclaiming, in the face of the Void (Rien) which is truth, these glorious lies!32
In “The Impressionists and Edouard Manet,” the “medium of air”—”space with the transparence of air alone”—breaks down distinctions between things (in Le Linge, for example, the figure, linen, washtub, flower, foliage and also the space around them) and between the signifying marks of the painting and their signifieds. “Air” suggests not only atmosphere or ambient space and the instantaneity and fleetingness of appearance and visibility, but also nothingness, silence, and a sous-texte rhythm or spacing, the “air or song” beneath the “text” of the painting. Invisibility, non-signification, and the not-now are also key to Mallarmé’s understanding of the “truth” of Impressionism. How might this “truth” manifest itself in particular Impressionist paintings?
Monet’s Red Boats at Argenteuil (Les Bateaux rouges, Argenteuil) of 1875 (Harvard University Art Museums, fig. 2) or a close relative was exhibited at the Impressionist exhibition in the spring of 1876.33 Mallarmé writes of Monet in his essay that the artist “loves water” and portrays its “mobility and transparency”: “I have never seen a boat poised more lightly on the water than in [Monet’s] pictures or a veil more mobile and light than his moving atmosphere.”34 The floating boats, clouds wafting across the sky, colored reflections on the river’s surface, casual boaters, and varied broken brushwork all suggest Impressionist plein-airisme as an art of fleeting sensation, mobility, improvisation, and quick execution. While it would be possible to explore how this picture might exceed more conventional understandings of plein-air painting, Monet’s Camille in the Garden at Argenteuil (Camille dans le jardin de la maison d’Argenteuil) of 1876 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, fig. 3) more readily lends itself to Mallarmé’s language of “plundered” reality and “contours, consumed by the hidden sun and wasted by space,” and the struggle between “surface and space, between color and air.”
In this painting Monet pictures his Argenteuil house and garden with his wife Camille on the garden path on the left, a mound of hollyhocks, gladioli and other flowers in a round flowerbed (corbeille) in the center, and his house in the background, its pink facade and green shutters visible through the branches of two trees whose crossing trunks rise near Camille’s feet on the edge of the path.35 The foreground is largely in shadow, the house in the background in sunlight. Camille, in a white dress shadowed in blue-violet, wears a large hat with a red flower and a dark blue bow around her neck. Her pale, amorphous figure is diminished relative to the tall stalks and vivid saturated hues of the flowers, and she is nearly faceless. The path, dappled by sunlight, opens up at the bottom of the canvas and disappears around the dark mound of multi-colored flowers which is scattered with touches of bright red.36 Our point of view is slightly raised, looking down at the rising ground of the garden. The proximity of animate forms suggested by the freely layered, broken brushwork and bright color of the profuse blooms in the foreground vies with a countervailing remoteness, even unearthliness, of this bourgeois garden paradise, suggested by the scintillation of the color and the strong contrasts of light and dark, the blurry woman on the path, and the disjunctive spaces.
Patches of cool shadow and warm sunlight on the coupled trunks of the trees rhythmically alternate as they rise to the right of the figure. Entwined branches marked with delicate lines of alizarin crimson and soft feathery foliage arc over the mound of flowers and open in a horseshoe shape in the top center of the painting, just above the tallest stems of the flowers and around a shuttered window on the second floor of the house, thickly painted in bright green. The painting seems to invite us to walk up the path, enter the house, and go up to that shuttered room, its shadowed interior secreted within the outdoor garden. Monet had painted his own house and garden in its suburban setting in previous Argenteuil garden pictures, such as The Artist’s House at Argenteuil (La Maison de l’artiste à Argenteuil) of 1873 (Art Institute of Chicago) and The Artist’s Garden at Argenteuil (Le Jardin de Monet à Argenteuil) of the same year (National Gallery of Art, Washington, fig. 4), both of which include figures. Like the 1876 painting, The Artist’s Garden at Argenteuil features a mass of flowers in a riot of colored taches in the foreground and a house in the background.37 But Camille in the Garden at Argenteuil is a more enclosed view, with only a small area of sky visible in the upper right and tiny patches of sky breaking through the dense web of tree branches.
While her face, flowering hat, and stalk-like figure suggest vegetal forms, Camille’s erect and undifferentiated figure hovering on the path like a wraith does not convey the sensory fleetingness of the lightly poised boats on the river or floating clouds of Red Boats at Argenteuil. Her evanescence is of another sort, more like the sudden appearance and imminent disappearance of a specter. The high angle of view that also positions the viewer hovering above the ground creates an unsettling effect. Camille’s vertical form rhymes with the rising tree trunks and the straight stems of the flowers that stiffen the mass of blooms. Despite her weightlessness her erect figure is part of the armature of the garden, like the trees, the geometric forms of the house, and the spikes of the flowers that structure the varied irregular forms of the foliage and flowers and the dispersed and layered touches of color that suggest fragmented, momentary, discrete sensations.38 The figure appears suspended, ghostly, while elsewhere the painting vibrates and hums with the discrete touches of saturated and contrasting color that suggest the palpitation of “movement, light, and life” Mallarmé evokes in his essay.
The mound of flowers, silhouetted against the bright pinks and greens of the house in the background, is the central focus of the painting, framed by the path, the woman, the trees, and the house. The contrast of the cool dark blue and green of the flowers and the warm pink of the house creates a halo around them that accentuates their dark glow, the bright luminousness of the house, and the scintillating color contrasts (fig. 5). Variations of texture, light, and color in the painting create multiple and contrasting effects of shimmer and glow, transparency and opacity that the paint handling accentuates. Monet uses the oil medium to layer, build up, and show through, animating the painting and the viewer’s share through contrast, variation, and the visibility of the process of painting on the canvas surface. As in his earlier Impressionist works with sketchy execution and rough facture, Monet experiments with paint densities and varied brushwork. He exposes the primed canvas and uses its texture and pale tone to set off his impasto and saturated color. In the trees the feathery brushwork produces soft wisps and trailing flourishes; the flowers are painted in irregular, loose, discrete taches of colors layered on at all angles; the forms of the house show through the veil of vegetation as glowing pink, salmon, and green. The painting’s dematerializing effects—contours that “tremble, melt, and evaporate”—go hand in hand with thickenings of the painted surface that congeal the act and substance of painting.
The paint density varies from heavy impasto to thin primed canvas, the surface thickening and flattening, dissolving and wrinkling. There are brushstrokes whose crests break on the surface, catching the light; discrete layered touches that gather and swarm or feather and trail; areas where the canvas weave grabs the color from the brush, enhancing reflective or textural effects. Tiny taches of red on the flowers at the center float through the air, over the path to the beds on the other side of it, grazing the trees and Camille’s hat and hands on the way, an instance of substance becoming air. Scattered throughout the picture are areas where the primed canvas shows through: around the head of Camille, where it creates a bright, textured halo (fig. 6); in her torso, where it tears holes in her dress; in the midst of the flowers in the center, where it adds subtle highlights to their cool dark colors and punctures the mass of blooms with light and air; and around the spires of the hollyhocks (fig 5). Forms break up and disperse and the ground is repeatedly returned to, its pale tone and bare surface suggesting the “air” around, behind, or within the painted forms, the textured materiality of the canvas paradoxically taking on the role of vaporous “air” in its struggle with color and substance. The “medium of air” is literalized, materialized, and can reign, as Mallarmé writes: “supreme and real,” “with its perpetual metamorphosis and its invisible action rendered visible.” In Mallarméan terms, the blanc (blank, white) ground of the painting suggests the “air” of vacant space—of silence, invisibility, and non-signification—and the “air or song” beneath the “text” of the painting.
The darkly glowing flowers, whose thick stems pierce the pink facade of the house and point up to the shuttered window, are a dramatic counterpoint to the pastel forms of the house, the softly intertwined trees, and Camille’s weightless columnar form floating on the path, to which their dark splendor is a reproach. Despite the presence of the usual motifs, there is an intensification of the plein-air garden into something dream-like and strange. With the overall dissolving of form into smaller, more fragmented touches of color, the structures of sensation and feeling in the garden are interacting in a new way. The figure appears in its appointed place near the flowers and the house, but floats on the path, spectral and formless, haloed by the grainy blankness of the unarticulated primed surface and upstaged by the showy display of colored touches of the flowers at the center. Through the mound of flowers, broken up by the light behind it, we look deeper, back to the blocks of salmon and pink on the house, seen through the atmospheric haze of a hot summer’s day, as if looking back to a memory or inward to a wish.
The painting suggests multiple temporalities: the instantaneity and evanescence of the manifold discrete sensations of light and color; the oscillating rhythm of alternating appearance and disappearance; and the dreamlike, suspended, and discontinuous temporality suggested by the floating specter of the woman, the arcing path, the darkly glowing flowers, the luminous facade of the house, and the interior nested within the garden. Memory and anticipation mingle in the stream of immediacy that Mallarmé would later call the “false appearance of a present.”39
Mallarmé’s ideas about Impressionism were shaped by looking at Impressionist paintings and by his close association with Manet at this time, including their conversations about art.40 It was Manet’s Le Linge (fig. 1), after all, with which he began his discussion of Impressionist “air.” Manet’s picturing of a woman and child in an informal garden setting is emphatically unlike the fashionable bourgeois garden that underpins Monet’s Camille in the Garden at Argenteuil. Manet followed his earlier practice of blurring pictorial and social categories, refusing to define his laundress securely in terms of dress, class, and social, even familial, identity, and the critics were duly confused: he stages oppositions of the rough wooden washtub and fashionable straw hat, of the woman’s energetic wringing of the linen and her still poise and benign demeanor. His pairing of Le Linge and L’Artiste of 1875 (Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, São Paulo) in his unsuccessful submission to the 1876 Salon jury made a provocative contrast between an outdoor garden subject in natural light and one posed in a studio interior, displaying two distinct manners, handlings of light and color, and subjects, with L’Artiste an incongruous doppelgänger of the painter himself and acutely referencing the artistic persona behind the pairing.41
Le Linge is large, nearly four-by-five feet.42 Its figures fill the foreground. The pictorial space is much more crowded and compressed than in Monet’s Camille in the Garden at Argenteuil, and the angle of view puts the viewer in the garden, not hovering above it. The woman and child are encircled by plants; we cannot see their feet, and the laundry and dense foliage close off the background.43 Light penetrates an even more secluded garden where no sky or house is visible.
Michael Fried has suggested that the giant sunflower head in the upper right corner stands in for the sun.44 Its rays strike the top of the woman’s straw bonnet. Besides the sunflowers—there are several more summarily indicated at the top—there are a variety of other flowers, including geraniums, irises, and standard roses that suggest both a tended garden and thick, teeming, irregular growth, what Philippe Burty in his review referred to as “wild” blooming and “mad” foliage.45 Manet’s unruly planting contrasts with the more formal flowerbed in Monet’s Camille in the Garden at Argenteuil. Monet’s round corbeille was characteristic of contemporary bourgeois gardens, but the word also suggests marriage, and the motif of the artist’s family house and garden contrasts with Manet’s indefinite urban garden and inhabitants.46
Two large red blooms accent the bottom center of the canvas, just below the chair. A yellow butterfly beats its wings on the left. A standard rose stem crosses a sunflower stem, also on the left; the two clothes-lines cross above. There is only a hint of a rising garden path that appears as an area of brownish gray visible on either side of the child’s whimsical hat, with its burst of golden locks escaping. The linen on the line looks like everyday family laundry, possibly a man’s shirt, a striped stocking, and a larger piece of household linen. The viewer’s position is that of the artist opposite the figures and evidently seated; while our eyes are about at the height of the woman’s chest, we look both down into the tub and up under the woman’s hat.
In his “Fine Art Gossip,” published in English in The Athenaeum: Journal of Literature, Science, The Fine Arts, Music, and The Drama on 1 April 1876, just before Manet’s atelier exhibition opened, Mallarmé composed his initial thoughts about the painting, which would be the basis for his extended consideration of it in “The Impressionists and Edouard Manet”:
Against a background of greenery and blue atmosphere that borders a Parisian garden, a woman in blue washes, in play [par jeu], her linen that is not yet drying in the transparent and humid air. A child emerges from the flowers and gazes at the maternal washing [lessive maternelle]. The body of the young woman is entirely bathed in and as if absorbed by the light that leaves of her only an aspect at the same time solid and vaporous, as is rendered by the plein-air that everyone aims for in France today. This phenomenon is particularly evident in the flesh tones, mobile rose touches [taches] melding into the ambient space.47
Mallarmé emphasizes the liquidity and mutability of the garden and imagines the scene of washing as one in which the linen is still damp and the “rose touches” of the flesh meld into the surrounding space. Manet’s maternal laundress squeezes one end of the cylindrical, rather phallic, roll of linen and twists the other in a gesture that appears both firm and delicate: the right hand grasps one end and the left twists the other. Her action and the cascading water are the focus of the child’s fascinated and fixed gaze. However, this water lacks the fluid, layered, and broken brushwork of the more Impressionist parts of Le Linge—the flowers, for example, in the foreground—and to paint it the artist dragged a fairly dry brush across dry, built-up paint layers.48 Impressionist plein-air handling appears not here but in the crossing clothes-lines, for example, where color shifts as the lines pass over the background foliage, the hanging linen, and the sunflower, registering the lines’ dissolution into the colored lights and reflections of the garden air; or in the swarm of small, open touches of color, painted with a finer brush, that flicker about the legs of the chair and float over to the woman’s skirt, tiny buoyant flowers and foliage that rise like soap bubbles or drifting smoke. But Manet does not dissolve form into touches of color throughout the painting: areas of the background, for instance, are painted with broad, flat areas of opaque color. The paint handling is inconsistent and uneven. In some areas the ground is visible through loose layers of brushstrokes and in others the canvas is built up to a thick impasto. There is much evidence of reworking and layering of color.
The “whites” of the linen hanging on the line—those articles of family laundry—are rendered in blue tints.49 In the unpublished “Artistic Gossip” of November 1875 in which he mentions Le Linge, Mallarmé writes of a woman in morning dress in a town garden washing and drying “linen imbued with daylight” (un linge imbu de jour).50 Some critics complained that the “blue” (bleu) of the bluing (laundry whitening) had not been sufficient or properly rinsed out. Critics indulged in a variety of witticisms about dirty laundry, laundry washed en famille, and the conflation of blue paint and laundry “bluing.”51 Manet’s blues had already been judged “too blue,” a sign of the actual pollution of his motif or his own artistic pollution, by critics of earlier pictures like Argenteuil of 1874 (Musée des Beaux Arts de Tournai, Belgium), exhibited at the Salon of 1875. But there would be no white linen in an Impressionist laundry scene painted en plein-air: all whites would be tinted by colored light and shadows, by reflection. Impressionist plein-airisme and laundry “bluing” were both supposed to “revive” faded linens, whether canvas or clothing. Imbued with light and analogous to painted canvas—white linen “dirtied” by modern painting—the hanging laundry suggests both luminous reflection and artistic reflexivity.52
During his atelier exhibition, sparked by his encounter with Méry Laurent, Manet is reported to have said that he wanted to paint women like her “in the verdure, in the flowers, on beaches, where the air would eat away at the edges of things, but where everything would be founded and merged in the splendors of light.”53 “Air eating away at the edges of things” resonates with Mallarmé’s idea of the contest of “surface and space … color and air,” and contours “wasted by space.” But passages of open, broken brushwork alternate with flatter, more opaque paint handling in Le Linge. The faces and arms of the figures are particularly thickly painted and overworked, and the “flesh-pollen” Mallarmé imagines melding into the atmosphere is a pasty materialized surface.54 Descriptive paint handling appears on the woman’s hat and the washtub: light yellow is applied over the ridges of previously dried paint on the edge of the woman’s straw hat with ragged brush hairs simulating light brushing against the straw weave (fig. 7); on the washtub raised ridges of dried paint trace the thickness of the cords that bind the wooden slats. The handling of the frozen water at the center contradicts what it purports to represent: water is assimilated to built-up pigment here, as if the laundress were wringing paint out of the wet linen, not wash water, again marking an instance of reflexivity (fig. 8).
The watering can hidden in the leaves on the left is also an instance of self-inscription in the painting, like what seems to be a man’s shirt on the clothes-line or the point of view that places us, like the artist at his easel, seated in the garden in front of the woman and child (fig. 9). Not improvised or accidental, it is buried, almost invisible, and nearly forgotten amidst the play of light and the array of colored brushstrokes rendering flowers and foliage around it. It is fractured by stem and leaf and painted with sketchy abbreviation in blue, green, and violet; highlights glisten on the handle, top, and spout. The spout is nearly lost amidst the foliage. This is one of the most Impressionist passages in the painting in terms of its layered, loose, and broken brushwork, but the kind of looking required to see it is hardly quick or immediate. It is only by coming back to this area of the painting, by looking longer, that one discovers it by looking through the surface layers to what lies beneath. The watering can’s near invisibility is another sign of the sous-texte “air or song” within the plein-air garden of seeming immediacy and instantaneity. Once seen, it can be imagined as a vessel for the flowing water that sustains the garden, but this liquidity is suggested only by the flickering splash of colored touches that obscure it. At the center of the painting, the cascade of water created by the woman’s wringing of the linen is the focus of the child’s ecstatic gaze, but it is not rendered there as fluid medium. With its child in thrall to visual delight, Manet’s Le Linge explicitly stages what Mallarmé characterizes as Impressionism’s “vision restored to its simplest perfection,” but the painting contradicts our expectations of that vision, thickening and suspending Impressionist instantaneity and evanescence in a primal scene of laundry en famille, where the central action is frozen.
Monet’s Camille in the Garden at Argenteuil and Manet’s Le Linge suggest more complex “truths” of Impressionist painting, resonating with Mallarmé’s essay and his poetics more generally. Close engagement with these works suggests how formulaic our understanding of Impressionist art has been. The dense and fragmented touches of color of the Monet garden activate a rhythmic buzzing and humming that dissolve forms and meanings as they struggle to emerge; divergent spaces, temporalities, and sensations multiply; the flow of immediacy is perforated by gaps and interrupted by temporal suspension; the painting repeatedly returns to its ground and to its power not to signify. In Le Linge, instantaneity is contradicted by temporal fixation and extension and by passages of materialization, even freezing up, of the painted surface. Plein-air sensation is staged as an everyday and a primal scene. The lessive maternelle incites the explicit, fascinated act of seeing of the child at the center, while the painting also invites a different kind of seeing that weaves together visibility and invisibility and that operates in, through, and under the layering of colored touches, in the “air or song” that flows beneath the “text.” In each painting anticipation and desire as well as the obscurity, suspension, and discontinuity associated with dream, fantasy, and memory complicate notions of the immediacy and contemporaneity of Impressionist plein-airisme.
Early in his essay Mallarmé invokes the need for Manet, and by implication the Impressionists, “to educate the public eye, as yet veiled by conventionality,” so that the multitude may see the “true beauties of the people,” through the artist’s struggle “to render those truths in nature which for her are eternal, but which are as yet for the multitude but new.”55 The final paragraphs of “The Impressionists and Edouard Manet” are devoted to aesthetics and to how the Impressionist artist reflects on the mirror of painting “that which lives yet dies every moment.” But just before this conclusion, Mallarmé includes a long passage that develops his political and social ideas at greater length, emphatically linking the “radical and democratic” art of Impressionism with the characteristic “politics and industry” of an age of “universal suffrage”:
The participation of a hitherto ignored people in the political life of France is a social fact that will honor the whole of the close of the nineteenth century. A parallel is found in artistic matters, the way being prepared by an evolution which the public with rare prescience dubbed, from its first appearance, Intransigeant, which in political language means radical and democratic …
Today the multitude demands to see with its own eyes; and if our latter-day art is less glorious, intense, and rich, it is not without the compensation of truth, simplicity, and child-like charm.
At that critical hour for the human race when nature desires to work for herself, she requires certain lovers of hers—new and impersonal men placed directly in communion with the sentiment of their time—to loose the restraint of education, to let hand and eye do what they will, and thus through them, reveal herself.
For the mere pleasure of doing so? Certainly not, but to express herself, calm, naked, habitual, to those newcomers of tomorrow, of which each one will consent to be an unknown unit in the mighty numbers of a universal suffrage, and to place in their power a newer and more succinct means of observing her.
Such, to those who can see in this the representative art of a period which cannot isolate itself from the equally characteristic politics and industry, must seem the meaning of the manner of painting which we have discussed here, and which although marking a general phase of art has manifested itself particularly in France.56
This insistence on the connections between aesthetics and “politics and industry” was present in Mallarmé’s other writings, whether poetic, journalistic, or critical, however obliquely. Rarely as explicitly stated as it is in “The Impressionists and Edouard Manet,” it permeates his understanding of the artist or writer’s situation in modern society, his/her relation to the public and to commerce and finance. As the author of an illustrated fashion magazine, The Latest Fashion: Gazette of Society and the Family (La Dernière Mode: Gazette du monde et de la famille), published from September to December of 1874, Mallarmé pseudonymously wrote articles on fashion, beauty, leisure, entertainment, travel, cuisine, education, literature, and music, among other topics. Here he poetically transformed fashion discourse and demonstrated his abundant knowledge and re-imagination of the lives of modern women and the society in which they lived.57 In poems such “The Future Phenomena” (“Le phénomène futur”) and “The Interrupted Performance” (“Le spectacle interrompu”), for example, both published in La République des lettres in December of 1875, Mallarmé staged the difficulty of the poet’s position in society and the problem of the incomprehension of his/her public; the painter’s equivalent situation was the impetus for his essay on the Impressionists. In “The Future Phenomena” a Barnum-esque Showman of things from the Past presents a woman of long ago to the unhappy crowd of a decrepit future society. Her ecstatically gold hair and jewel-like eyes are beyond the crowd’s comprehension: only poets, haunted by Rhythm, their extinguished eyes rekindled, will return to their lamps, forgetting they live in a time that has outlived beauty.58 In “The Interrupted Performance,” reminiscent of his poetic intervention in fashion journalism, the poet-narrator wishes for an association of dreamers who might found a city newspaper that would “draw attention to events in a manner appropriate to dream.” After witnessing the unexpected and potentially dangerous actions of a bear performing with a clown in a small theatre, the poet wants to recount his “Anecdote” before “reporters” can divulge it. He imagines the inner thoughts of the bear as the latter rests his paws on the clown’s shoulder, and then, once the curtain comes down, reflects on the truth of his own vision of this spiritual drama in contrast to the crowd’s.59
Mallarmé develops his ideas on the parallel crisis of aesthetics and society in his later critical writings, in “Music and Letters,” in particular. Here he characterizes the difficult situation of the poet facing incomprehension as comic: the poet is presented by the press as “a lamentable lord exiling his ghost from ruins slow to swallow him up” and accused of “the presentation, as explosive as a bomb, of a concept too virginal for Society.”60 The subject, “Music and Letters,” has a semi-submerged other half, “Industry” and “Finance,” or “Political Economy”:
The truth, if one wants to follow the trail, prescribes that Industry leading to Finance, as Music does to Letters, [is] in order to circumscribe a domain of Fiction, the perfect comprehensive term … It was appropriate not to separate them further. The title, proposed previously in a chat with the Oxonian messenger, was Music and Letters, half of the subject, intact: its social counterpart omitted. At the heart of the harangue, I am serving up this piece whole to my listeners … brought back to [their] attention precisely to try to make up for the lack of nonfinancial interest. —Everything is summed up in Aesthetics and Political Economy.61
In 1876 “The Impressionists and Edouard Manet” makes explicit these connections between “Aesthetics and Political Economy” by situating Impressionism as the art of its time, even if it was sometimes misunderstood. Through these “new and impersonal” artists, Nature (“what is”; “Nature takes place, we will not add to it”) would reveal herself to the “multitude” through the “medium of air.”62 Mallarmé’s poetics of “air” in his account of Impressionism contradicts the simple identification of transparency or immediacy with knowledge or truth. For him the “truth” of Impressionism was a matter of invisibility as much as visibility, disappearance as much as appearance, and of the play between obscurity and transparency. By the 1870s in early Third Republic France, visibility and transparency could also imply, in the social and political spheres, rationalization, the control of contingency, and the development of technologies of power. This is not the “air” that Mallarmé sought and found in Impressionist painting or in his own writing.
This is why the deep-rooted flowers of the earth Love her with silence, knowledge, and mystery, While in their heart the pure pollen dreams: And he, when the breeze, drunk with these delights, Suspends still a name that ravishes the calyxes In a faint voice sometimes calls softly “Ellen!” Voilà pourquoi les fleurs profondes de la terre L’aiment avec silence et savoir et mystère, Tandis que dans leur coeur songe le pur pollen: Et lui, lorsque la brise, ivre de ces délices, Suspend encore un nom qui ravit les calices, À voix faible, parfois, appelle bas: “Ellen!”Stéphane Mallarmé, “Dans le jardin,” in Marchal, Mallarmé: Oeuvres complètes, vol. 1, 66. This association of woman and pollen reappears in the 1876 essay on the Impressionists, where Mallarmé writes of the importance of daylight for painting when rendering the “flesh-pollen” of the complexion “that springs from the very source of life,” comments that immediately precede his discussion of Le Linge. Mallarmé, “The Impressionists and Edouard Manet,” 119. Fried notes that this “flesh-pollen” introduces a masculine substance into Mallarmé’s discussion, complicating its gender dynamics. Fried, Manet’s Modernism, 410.↑