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The Moment of Impressionism


Théodore Duret, one of Impressionism’s most impassioned champions, wrote in his famous brochure of 1878, Les Peintres impressionnistes:

The impressionists didn’t come into being by themselves, they didn’t shoot up like mushrooms. They are the product of a regular evolution of the modern French school. Natura non facit saltus any more in painting than in other things. The impressionist descend from the naturalist painters, their fathers are Corot, Courbet, and Manet. It’s to these three masters that the art of painting owes the simplest procedures of facture and that spontaneous touch, proceeding by large lines and by the mass, which alone brave the passage of time. It’s to them that one owes la peinture claire, definitively free of all the discoloring brown “juices” of the academic norm. It’s to them that we owe the study of le plein air; the sensation not only of colors but of the smallest nuances of color tones, and again the research into the relations between the state of the atmosphere that illuminates the painting, and the general tonality of the objects that one finds painted there. To all that the impressionists owe their forerunners, one should add the influence of Japanese art.1

Duret’s emphasis, in other words, falls squarely on the notion of continuity with the art of the previous decades: there has taken place a significant evolution, but by no means a break with the art of major predecessors. In this his thinking is in line with that of the other art critics of his time who were at all sympathetic to the young painters in question. Equally to the point, it is in line with the assumptions of the small army of modern art historians who have made Impressionism their specialty (many of them students of Robert Herbert, a major scholar of the subject).

Simply put, my aim in this essay is to trouble that consensus, reasonable as it sounds, as distinguished as its pedigree undoubtedly is. Specifically, I want to suggest that the advent of Impressionism around 1870 marks a fundamental break in what I will call the dialectical continuity of French painting going back to the middle of the eighteenth century, when a new conception of the absorptive and dramatic tableau came to the fore in the paintings of Jean-Baptiste Greuze (themselves inconceivable apart from the precedent of the genre paintings of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin) and the art critical and theoretical writings of the polymath philosophe Denis Diderot, the founder of art criticism as we know it. This is the fateful development analyzed in my 1980 book, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot, in which I argue (I would like to think I demonstrate) that starting in the mid-1750s and 1760s in France the art of painting found it necessary to confront a new imperative: to find the means to suspend or neutralize—to somehow wall off—the now suddenly distracting presence of the beholder; or to put this slightly differently, to somehow establish the supreme fiction or ontological illusion that the beholder does not exist, that there is no one standing before the painting.2 I describe this imperative in terms of a need to stave off, if possible to overcome, a newly distinct danger of theatricality. And I argue that this was to be accomplished with the aide of two principal strategies: first, the thematization of absorption, which is to say the depiction of personages each of whom was felt to be entirely caught up (absorbed) in whatever was understood to be taking place within the representation; and second, the promotion of a new, more exigent ideal of dramatic unity, according to which all the elements in the painting were directed toward a single dramatic end, thereby achieving a compositional effect of closure vis-à-vis the beholder.3

In two subsequent books, Courbet’s Realism (1990) and Manet’s Modernism, or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s (1996), as well as in several essays in Another Light: From Jacques-Louis David to Thomas Demand (2014), I carry the argument roughly a century further, in an attempt to show how a succession of major painters—at a minimum, Jacques-Louis David, Théodore Géricault, and Gustave Courbet—found themselves compelled to come to grips with ever more severe stages of the same fundamental problem, until with the advent of Edouard Manet in the early 1860s the very basis of the Diderotian project, the suspension or neutralizing of the beholder, proved no longer tenable.4 At that point it became necessary for Manet (so I argue) to take a radically different tack by acknowledging the presence of the beholder with a new pointedness, in effect striving to assert the painting’s facing character to a degree that contemporary viewers found positively disorienting. (Also, by virtue of that facingness, to assert a new striking power vis-à-vis the beholder.) Indeed I suggest that much of the resistance to Manet’s painting in the 1860s was based precisely on this dynamic: thus critics of the Olympia seem to have felt personally assaulted by the protagonist’s impassive gaze and equally impassive naked self-display as well as by the starkly contrasted areas of light and dark (with a minimum of modulating values) that blatantly and in a sense defiantly violated accepted norms—not to mention the free brushwork that in certain areas, such as the bouquet presented to Olympia by her black maid, defied the expectation of a certain consistency of execution throughout the picture.

What this meant, putting the matter strongly, is that with Manet’s revolutionary figure paintings of the first half of the 1860s—the Old Musician, Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Olympia, Dead Christ with Angels, Mlle V . . . in the Costume of an Espada, and Christ Mocked at the forefront—the century-long immensely productive tradition or problematic of ambitious figure painting directed to antitheatrical ends came to a close. At which point the question became: in what would the future of ambitious painting consist? Or rather, was there a future for ambitious painting, in view of the fact that figure painting as a vehicle for an antitheatrical project was no longer able to deliver the goods? Not that either question was asked by anyone concerned with the art: the antitheatrical basis of the most ambitious painting of the previous century had never been recognized for what it was (except implicitly by the artists in question), and in fact would remain unacknowledged for a long time to come. And in any case an answer to both questions was on hand: there was indeed a future for ambitious painting in France and it lay in landscape, in the movement that quickly became known as Impressionism. Moreover, once Impressionism “took”—certainly by 1878, when Duret published his brochure—it was viewed as connecting more or less seamlessly with artistic predecessors on what might be called formal or stylistic grounds.

It is in this context that Claude Monet’s attempts at ambitious figure painting in a series of works of the 1860s reveal their true significance.5 The first of these, the monumental and unfinished (and no doubt unfinishable) Déjeuner sur l’herbe of 1865-66, was a blatant attempt to outdo Manet’s example both as regards sheer size (five times larger than Manet’s picture, had Monet been able to complete it) and with respect to executing the painting not in the studio but in plein air, thereby replacing the brilliantly “fictional” status of Manet’s early masterpiece with a commitment to a realism that looked back to Courbet (who at that moment was strongly supportive of the younger painter and who appears to have modelled for one of the figures in the composition). This is not the place to rehearse the various factors that prevented Monet from bringing his painting to a successful conclusion, though it seems clear that the sheer scale of his figures put a kind of pressure on his paint-handling—necessitating a breadth of execution that abstracted forms and stayed too obdurately on the surface—that could not be satisfactorily resolved.6

Claude Monet, Femmes au jardin à Ville d’Avray (1866)

A second attempt, the Women in the Garden (1866), is to my mind likewise not a success, the women in question being barely distinguishable from one another (in fact all were modelled for by his companion and future wife Camille Doncieux), with the emphasis falling equally on their fashionable dresses in direct and indirect sunlight and, again, on a breadth and flatness of handling that on the one hand is technically impressive but on the other detracts from a sense of the reality of the scene. There is also in the Women in the Garden what amounts to a frank admission on the part of the painter that he has been unable to devise a scenario for his composition that goes beyond allowing the women as if inadvertently to display themselves; the unnatural “fleeing” movement of the woman at the right is particularly eye-catching in this regard.

Finally, there is Le Déjeuner of 1868, which in certain respects is the most accomplished of the three major figure paintings, but which by opting for a scene of sheerest domesticity (a luncheon table loaded with edibles, Camille seated next to her and Monet’s infant son Jean, a woman in black looking on, a maid in the background either entering or leaving the room, and an empty chair and a place setting evidently meant as the painter’s) as well as for the most traditional execution falls far short of providing a strong solution to the larger problem at hand. It goes without saying that none of the three canvases just cited bears on the issue of antitheatricality in any meaningful way, the Women in the Garden coming closest, perhaps.

Claude Monet, Woman in a Green Dress (1866)

Two other single-figure paintings by Monet are pertinent here, the Woman in a Green Dress (modelled for by Camille), supposedly painted in just a few days for the Salon of 1866 after it became clear that the Déjeuner sur l’herbe could not be completed in time. In fact the Woman in a Green Dress was a considerable success, with praise lavished especially on the realistic rendering of the costume, the woman herself having been depicted largely from the back (somewhat as if she were walking away) with a closed fan raised to her cheek, holding a pose that might well be described as theatrical in the sense of archly self-aware (in effect a touch of Manet put to a different purpose). And then the strangest of all Monet’s figure paintings, La Japonnaise (1875-76), shown in the second Impressionist exhibition (along with Le Déjeuner) in 1876, in which a young woman with red-blonde hair (Camille in a wig) dressed in an outlandish red Japanese actor’s robe decorated with a half-monstrous warrior drawing a sword and with an open fan raised above her face gazes provocatively over her shoulder at the beholder. The effect is openly theatrical, which I understand as a deliberate vulgarization of the far more complex and arresting confrontations with the viewer that one finds in works by Manet like Mlle V . . . in the Costume of an Espada or for that matter The Fifer of 1866. In any case, a picture like La Japonnaise had no future in Monet’s art.

Putting aside La Japonnaise, a special case, it seems clear, reviewing the figure paintings just briefly described, that Monet in the years 1865-68 made a sustained effort to insert himself in the figure painting tradition I began by summarizing without however succeeding to his own satisfaction. And in fact the situation with regard to that tradition was dire. For one thing, absorption as such no longer worked as it once did (a claim I develop in Courbet’s Realism and Manet’s Modernism, partly in relation to Jean-François Millet, whose intensely absorptive peasant scenes struck many contemporary viewers as unpersuasive, hence theatrical); for another, Courbet’s hyperbolic “solution,” never in his lifetime recognized as such, of painting himself all but corporeally “into” his paintings and thereby in principle removing himself as first beholder (or painter-beholder) from before the canvas, was unavailable to anyone but him (in effect it represented his instinctive relation to the pictorial enterprise as such); and for a third, Manet’s resort to a radical facingness was much too individual, and in effect too off-putting, to be of use to anyone else. In all three of Monet’s principal figure paintings we see him struggling with this situation, on the one hand eschewing absorption because it no longer worked, on the other avoiding Manet-like facingness in order to preserve some space for originality. But the “actional” structures that result are too bland and indeterminate to compel conviction in the viewer. In other words, when it came to ambitious figure painting in the antitheatrical tradition (and Manet’s paintings for all their presentational theatricality must still be understood in that light) there was at least for the moment nowhere for the young Monet—for anyone—to go.


Of course throughout the second half of the 1860s and first half of the 1870s Monet was also painting landscapes, as were his gifted contemporaries, all known to each other from early on, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Paul Cézanne (the last after working with Pissarro in Pontoise in 1872-74). Such a confluence of serious young painters was bound to attract notice but what really made a difference was that in 1874, having recognized that even when accepted by the official Salon their isolated submissions were often hung much too high to attract the attention of the viewing audience, they came together with other mainly young painters such as Armand Guillaumin and Berthe Morisot to constitute an informal organization (La Société anonyme des artistes) and to show their works in an independent exhibition which would allow them both to present more than just one or two at the same time and also to control the conditions of display—the hanging, lighting, hours of opening, and so on. At first the group was known as the Intransigents but quickly the name Impressionists (derived from Monet’s 1874 canvas Impression: Sunrise) came to prevail; in the end there were eight exhibitions in all, the last in 1886, a critical year in various respects (more on that further on).7

In fact, the Impressionist exhibitions often included paintings of the figure, not only Monet’s Women in the Garden and Le Déjeuner but diverse works by Renoir, Edgar Degas, and someone not mentioned until now, Gustave Caillebotte, to name just three significant figures. But with one outstanding exception, Edmond Duranty’s La Nouvelle Peinture of 1876, the unnamed protagonists of which are clearly Degas and Caillebotte, the emphasis in the most interesting reviews of the first five Impressionist shows fell largely on the painting of landscape (or related subjects, such as the Gare Saint-Lazare in Monet’s canvases of 1877).8 And what I find fascinating and more than a little surprising is that from the first the art critics who wrote about the exhibitions recognized the landscape Impressionists as constituting something like a distinct new school of painting, one whose basic commitments were in line with those of the predecessors cited by Duret in the paragraph I began this essay by quoting: Corot, Courbet, Manet. Or to put the source of my surprise more precisely: none of the critics in question seem to have been troubled or even struck by the thought that by the early 1870s the site of “advanced” painting was in the process of migrating to the practice of landscape, which until then, even in the hands of immensely gifted, productive, and successful artists like Corot and Charles Daubigny, inevitably was understood to represent something other than the cutting edge of the art.9

And in fact our modern understanding of the history of modern painting endorses such a view: a capsule history of “advanced” painting in France moves directly from Courbet and Manet to Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, Renoir, and Cézanne, who are understood to have set the stage for almost everything to come—conspicuously, the art of Seurat, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and the Nabis, and beyond that the twin pinnacles of Matisse and the Cubism of Picasso and Braque. In other words, there is in the story as it has come to be told—indeed as it began to be told in response to the Impressionist exhibitions of the 1870s and 1880s—a striking amnesia with respect to the fate of ambitious figure painting, as if from the very first it were simply irrelevant to the new conditions of the enterprise.10

I have said that I find this surprising, but there is at least a partial explanation lying more or less in plain sight. The explanation concerns Manet, or rather the singular position he occupied in relation to the developments in question. First, there is the fact that throughout the second half of the 1860s and the 1870s his work continued to provoke an uncomprehending and often hostile response both from the greater part of the art-critical community and from the public at large. In other words, he occupied no settled place in the tradition of what I have been calling ambitious painting—on the contrary, each new work he showed, either in the Salon or in his studio to interested viewers, provoked at best a mixed response, thereby keeping him in the forefront of contemporaneous reflections and debates over the state of the art. And second, there is the fact that in virtually all the early writing about Impressionism Manet was seen as the presiding master or tutelary source. That is, it was recognized from the first that although Manet chose not to exhibit with the Impressionists, preferring to conduct his campaign to impose himself in the familiar (albeit by no means friendly) arena of the Salon, the younger painters themselves were oriented to his achievement, in particular with respect to issues of execution, as to no one else’s. In this important regard the difference between figure painting and landscape was minimized, as the discussion of Impressionist innovations invariably looked to Manet as a major point of comparison (Duret cites Corot, Courbet, and Manet as decisive predecessors, but it is the last of these who mattered most).

Several issues quickly emerged as central to the discussion. First, that of painting en plein air, in nature, rather than in the studio. Now Manet had produced his game-changing works of the 1860s in his studio (this would change somewhat in the 1870s under the influence of Monet, though doubtless the studio remained primary for him). But this did not prevent Ernest Chesneau, a knowledgeable critic, in his article on the first Impressionist exhibition, naming the movement “the school of plein air”—as he goes on to say, “because it’s that, in its pursuit of reality, which is the most apparent object of its efforts.” And then almost immediately remarking: “The leader of the school is absent, that’s M. Manet.” Chesneau speculates as to why Manet might have chosen to abstain from taking part in the exhibition, finally leaving the question open. He concludes: “But it is incontestable that a choice of his paintings would have given this manifestation the prestige of a more decisive or at least more complete affirmation.”11 (Notice, by the way, that the concern with le plein air meant that for Chesneau the Impressionists were realists of a sort, which formed another link with Manet and indeed Courbet.)

A second issue was la peinture claire. Briefly, almost all the critics who wrote at all favorably about the new painting remarked on its brightness, the fact that its gamut of colors was pitched toward the bright end of the value spectrum. Here is Zola in 1877: “What they have in common between them, I’ve said, is a similarity of vision. They see all of nature bright and gay without the bituminous juices and sienna brown of the romantic painters. They paint le plein air, a revolution with immense consequences. They have blonde colorations, an extraordinary harmony of tones, a great originality of aspect. In addition, each one has a very different and specific temperament” (individuality of temperament being a major consideration for Zola).12 Now, in the eyes of the critics la peinture claire, too, went back to Manet. As Zola had written in 1867 (ten years prior to the passage just quoted): “Edouard Manet, ordinarily, works in a tonality brighter than the actual tonality of nature. His paintings are blonde and luminous, of a solid paleness. The light falls blonde and large, illuminating objects in a gentle fashion. There isn’t the least forced effect; the personages and the landscape settings bathe in a sort of gay brightness that fills the entire canvas.”13 Or at greater length, here is Duret in 1906, after briefly characterizing the traditional, pre-Manet practice of excessive half-tones and brownish “sauces,” both of which suppressed “l’éclat des couleurs”:

Suddenly Manet, in 1863, at the Salon des refusés with his Déjeuner sur l’herbe and in 1865 with his Olympia, presented works that caused by their dissimilarity from the others, widespread horror. The content and the form broke with what were considered the essential rules of art. One had before one’s eyes nudes taken directly from life, which had the very forms of the living model, but which also seemed gross and of a frightful realism in comparison with the traditional forms of the nude, supposedly idealized and purified. The shadow summoned to make a perpetual opposition to the light no longer made an appearance. Manet painted bright on bright [clair sur clair]. The parts [of the body] other painters left in shadow were painted by him in less vivid tones, but always correct in their value. The entire ensemble was colored [as opposed to partly shadowed, dark]. The different planes were there, profiled [against one another] in the light. Consequently his works were disparate among the others, which appeared somber and colorless. They clashed with one’s vision, they offended the gaze. The juxtaposed bright colors, plainly visible, were taken for a hodgepodge [bariolage], the vivid tones, placed side by side, had the effect of simple patches [taches].14

Duret goes on to say that the young artists, struck by Manet’s work, turned to him as to a leader. “Manet brought together the young men, until then separate and unknown to each other. They connected with one another through him as intermediary.”15 In fact the future Impressionists knew each other independently, but Duret’s account accurately suggests the extent to which Manet’s art was widely seen as enabling for what came after.

A third issue, one of great moment for critical assessments of Impressionism, concerned le fini, finish, and more broadly the status of the picture with regard to a set of traditional distinctions (crucially: tableau, ébauche, esquisse). In the citation from Duret with which this essay begins, we find his reference to the simplest procedures of facture and that spontaneous touch. Another important critic, Jules-Antoine Castagnary, after words of praise for the new group, observes, as if rethinking his position: “Thus what essentially separates them from their predecessors is a question of more or less finish. The object of art hasn’t changed, only the means of translation have been modified, some would say altered.” And: “Non-finish [le non-fini], after Courbet, after Daubigny, after Corot, one cannot say that the impressionists invented it. They vaunt it, they exalt it, they erect it as a system, they make it the keystone of their art, they place it on a pedestal and adore it; that’s all.”16 It’s surprising that Castagnary doesn’t mention Manet in this connection. But others do, such as the little-known F. de Gantès in 1874, who sees Manet as having learned not to push non fini too far,17 and Marius Chaumelin who in 1876 refers to “the ‘school of patches,’ of which M. Manet was the founder and from which they all came.”18 (The term tache, in English “patch,” was made current for Manet by Zola’s pages on him in “Mon Salon” of 1866.)19 Moreover, even when Manet is not mentioned, one of the basic charges levelled against his art in the 1860s, his “failure” to achieve a true tableau, is recycled to fit the work of the Impressionists. Charles Bigot in 1876 spells this out:

The revolution that has been so brusquely announced is not at bottom a revolution. These innovators haven’t innovated anything. What are, to speak frankly, those “intransigeant” paintings? They go back a long way; everyone has made them and will go on making them. They are esquisses, ébauches. There would hardly be any intransigeants in the world if it pleased artists to show their esquisses. But an esquisse for an artist isn’t a tableau; it’s the first impression of things, in which the main planes are indicated by a few vivid touches, rough, often brutal. It is then, truly for the artist, that the labor of the hand and eye begins….The new school suppresses the tableau, dispenses with labor and offers the ébauche for public admiration.20

But without a doubt the plainest affirmation of Manet’s relation to the Impressionists takes place in Stéphane Mallarmé’s dazzling essay (known only in its English translation), “The Impressionists and Edouard Manet” of 1876. The title alone makes the point, but Mallarmé goes even farther when he alludes to the public attending the Impressionist exhibitions of 1874 and ‘76. “And what found they there?,” he asks rhetorically, then answers: “A collection of pictures of strange aspect, at first view giving the ordinary impression of the motive which made them, but over beyond this, a peculiar quality outside mere Realism. And here occurs one of those unexpected crises which appear in art.”21 The notion of an unexpected crisis will come up later in this essay but for the moment I will note that Mallarmé goes on to remark that Monet, Pissarro, and Sisley “paint wondrously alike; indeed a rather superficial observer at a pure and simple exhibition of Impressionism would take all their works to be those of one man—and that man, Manet.”22 (Mallarmé proceeds to distinguish finely among Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro. I should also note that the painting by Manet featured by Mallarmé in his article, Le Linge [1876], could scarcely be more frank in its acknowledgment of Impressionism, Monet’s in particular.)23

Henri Fantin-Latour, Un atelier aux Batignolles (1870)

My aim, needless to say, is not to assimilate Manet to the Impressionists—it can’t be put too strongly that they belonged to different generations (Manet was born in 1832, Monet in 1840) and that their respective visions of the art of painting differed in crucial respects: Manet’s pursuit of the tableau never wavered, in my understanding of his lifelong endeavor, and of course he painted no landscapes.24 But that a major phase of his career overlapped with that of the Impressionists, that his paintings throughout the late 1860s and 1870s remained controversial, that his art fed directly into theirs with respect to issues such as those just touched on, that his relations with Monet (also, more fraughtly, with Degas) were close and long-standing, and that in fact his work of the 1870s and early ‘80s frankly avowed the influence of the younger painters meant that the differences between Manet and the Impressionists and in particular the shift from a primary commitment to ambitious figure painting to a commitment to landscape seem to have played at most a minor role in the perception of critics and public.25 In this connection the fact that Monet exhibited several figure paintings in the Impressionist exhibitions also tended to mask the momentousness of the shift, as did the presence in those exhibitions of important figure paintings by Degas, Renoir, and Caillebotte. And if one feels in need of further evidence in this regard, one has only to glance at Henri Fantin-Latour’s group portrait Un Atelier aux Batignolles (1870), which depicts Manet painting a portrait of Zacharie Astruc (an exact contemporary of Fantin and Manet, also an art critic, poet, sculptor, and painter, who showed watercolors in the first Impressionist exhibition), in the presence of Monet, Renoir, Zola, Frédéric Bazille (who modelled for two of the male figures in Monet’s unfinished Déjeuner sur l’herbe and who would surely have shown with the Impressionists had he not been killed in the Franco-Prussian War), Otto Schölderer (a German painter, friend of Fantin), and Edmond Maître (a friend).26 (Fantin in my account being a member of the Manet-centered “generation of 1863.”) In other words, Fantin’s painting presents in pictorial terms the virtual elision of distinction between generations that I have been trying to evoke. My point, however, is that despite such elision the shift from figure painting—more precisely, from figure painting with an antitheatrical end in view—to landscape was momentous, in ways that escaped notice at the time and that students of Impressionism appear never to have taken into account.27


This brings me to the question: in what does the momentousness just referred to consist? Probably the best way of approaching an answer is by briefly discussing some of the basic features and concerns of Impressionist paintings that on the one hand contrast sharply with the works of the antitheatrical tradition and on the other went on to prove influential, not to say decisive, for the painting of the future.

Claude Monet, The Bridge at Argenteuil (1874)
Camille Pissarro, The River Oise near Pointoise (1873)

The most obvious of these is the simple matter of picture size. In principle, a figure painting may be large or small: in the French nineteenth century alone, think of Courbet’s Burial at Ornans (twenty-two feet wide) in contrast with Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier’s small-scale, minutely detailed depictions of personages in 18th-century costumes (greatly admired and avidly collected in his own time). But in the tradition I have been alluding to, with David’s history paintings from the Belisarius Receiving Alms (1781) through the Leonidas at Thermopylae (exhibited 1814) establishing an early standard, the decisive works tended strongly to be large, which for the most part they needed to be if they were to attract notice at the Salon, for which almost invariably they were intended. (Monet’s never-completed Déjeuner sur l’herbe would have been enormous.) In contrast, the landscapes of the Impressionists were modest in size; almost none of the best-known Impressionist canvases of the 1870s were more than three feet wide or two and a half feet high.28 (Two representative works: Monet’s The Highway Bridge at Argenteuil [1874] measures 23 5/8 x 31 1/2 inches while Pissarro’s The River Oise Near Pontoise [1873], is only 18 1/8 by 21 15/16 inches; standing before these superb pictures it doesn’t occur to one to wish them larger.) This was more or less consistent with the bulk of the practice of previous landscapists such as Théodore Rousseau, Antoine Chintreuil, and, in his “pure” landscapes, Corot (the outlier Daubigny often favored large panoramic formats, but the choice was personal to him), and it also set the stage for the marketing of Impressionist work by dealers such as Paul Durand-Ruel and Georges Petit, the smaller easel-painting format amounting in effect to a saleable domestic scale. I take it to be obvious that the move to such a scale was basic to the achievements of Monet, Pissarro, Renoir (in his landscapes and cityscapes), Cézanne (except for the late Bathers), Morisot, Gauguin (except for Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?), Van Gogh, Seurat in his beachscapes, the Nabis (other than in their decorative projects), and the Cubists (after Picasso’s short-lived attempt in 1907-08 to revive large-format figure-painting in works like the Demoiselles d’Avignon, Three Women, and The Dryad). Matisse between roughly 1907 and 1916 was another story, but in his case also domestic scale reasserted itself. Significantly, Manet continued to work mainly in larger formats throughout his career, his valedictory masterpiece, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, measuring over three feet high by more than four feet wide—not as large as many of his canvases but still, beyond standard Impressionist scale.29

A second and related feature of Impressionist practice was a new emphasis on pictorial unity. In an important sense, unity had been an active principle throughout the antitheatrical tradition from Greuze and David on. But as a principle it chiefly concerned the treatment of action and expression (and composition, meaning both the spatial and the “actional” relations among the various figures).30 For Diderot in the 1760s, theorizing what was in effect a newly demanding conception of pictorial closure, everything depended on the felt dramatic effect of the painting (the tableau) as a whole. He could not have imagined, though, that the demand for unity could come into conflict with the antitheatrical project, which is what happens in Courbet’s Realist canvases of 1848-55, the drive in them toward quasi-corporeal merging of painter (or painter-beholder) and painting militating against drama and closure, which is to say against composition of a familiar sort. Hence the common charge that Courbet painted mere morceaux, fragments, large though they might be, not true tableaux. As for Manet, the insistence of various critics that his paintings too failed to establish themselves as tableaux amounted to a critique of them on the grounds of failed unity. So in a sense the time was right for the emergence of a new sense of unity, one made possible by the new smaller scale of the Impressionist canvas and relatively intimate mode of viewing it encouraged.

Of all the early writers on Impressionism, the most appreciative of their innovations in this regard was undoubtedly Armand Silvestre (as Kermit Champa long ago observed). Here for example is a short passage from his 1875 essay for a published collection of etchings and engravings of works belonging to the Galerie Durand-Ruel; after introducing the names Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro, and remarking that their only true affiliation, albeit indirect, is with the art of Manet, he writes of their painting: “That which strikes one, first of all, looking at their painting, is the immediate caress that the eye receives—it is harmonious above all. What distinguishes it next is the simplicity of its means of achieving harmony. One soon discovers, in effect, that the secret is entirely in an extremely fine and exact observation of the relations among tones.”31 To which I add the following from Silvestre’s review of the exhibition of 1876:

[The new school] proceeds from a truly new principle of simplification, one whose raison d’être can’t be contested. Uniquely preoccupied with the rightness of relations, it proceeds by elementary harmonies; caring little for form, it is exclusively decorative and colorist. Its idea is, in our view, absolutely incomplete, but assuredly its labors will have a place in the legend of contemporary art.32

Along with the further qualification on his part: “And this is not a panegyric. I am more convinced than anyone that art cannot content itself with a series of impressions, however sincere they may be. Its aim is otherwise elevated, and I see in all this only a very interesting point of departure for new studies. In a fine and vibrant tonality, I see an altogether new palette offered to those who won’t rest content with this first word.”33

It would be hard to exaggerate the difference in emphasis or say focus between remarks such as these and the discussion in Salons of the same period of figure paintings by Manet. (Or the terms in which Duranty in “La Nouvelle peinture” discusses Degas and Caillebotte; or for that matter the treatment, both positive and negative, in the criticism of the 1850s and after of Millet’s peasant pictures.) Notice, in the first place, the redefinition of unity in terms of harmony, and then harmony in terms of exact relations among tones. (“Tone” meaning not just color in the sense of hue but also with regard to considerations of value. Basically, the early Impressionists operated in the upper, brighter range of colors but with a heightened sensitivity to close value relations within that range.) The notion of “caressing the eye” is also of interest, in the first place because of its invocation of sheerly optical experience, and in the second because it contrasts strongly, as Silvestre may well have recognized, with the emphasis on strikingness associated with Manet. Then there is the stress on simplicity of means, which I take to be a reference to a certain directness of attack as regards paint-handling as such (i.e. as regards considerations of touch), followed by the statement that Impressionist painting minimizes a concern with form in favor of a decorative ideal, decoration in this context indicating a painting imagined as a modest-sized, worked, and, most important, flat colored surface facing the viewer but not aggressively, not with Manet-like pointedness. Such an ideal is incomplete, Silvestre insists, without explaining what would be required to complete it; in short, their work amounts to an extremely interesting new departure, not yet a fully mature achievement. But that such an account of their collective enterprise could in 1874-75 have been formulated with such boldness and lucidity goes a long way toward supporting the idea that Impressionism, or at least the landscapes of Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Renoir, and Cézanne represented something new under the sun. (Another aspect of Impressionist unity, unmentioned by Silvestre perhaps because it seemed to him to involve considerations of form, has to do with the relation of the contents of a painting to its enclosing shape—in other words, its frame—an issue that will come to the fore in Cézanne’s paintings of the 1880s and after. This is a topic that deserves far more attention than I can give it here.)34

A third feature of Impressionist painting that was to matter greatly both to its subsequent evolution and to the efforts of its successors is one already mentioned in passing—the issue of facture, touch, brushwork. In a sense, this had been a serious consideration for a long time, as in the glaring opposition between the “licked” surfaces of academic painting versus the brushy and impastoed ones of Géricault, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet. (Corot and Daubigny, too, for that matter.) But Impressionism raised the issue of touch, along with that of finish, to a new degree of perspicuousness, in part owing to the way in which the reduced dimensions of the Impressionist picture encouraged the viewer to approach it closely and examine the surface with a specificity of attention as to how the painting was made that would not have been elicited even by, for example, the Burial at Ornans or the Déjeuner sur l’herbe. (This, however, is not to say that the Impressionist touch, especially during the 1870s, does not amount to a kind of formalization of Manet’s autograph facingness, a development most evident, perhaps, in early Pissarro. More broadly, Impressionism remained faithful to the classical conception of pictorial space as a system of parallel planes going back to Poussin and the seventeenth century generally.)35 As Andrew Forge writes of the viewer’s relation to Monet’s practice in the 1870s, “to unravel [a characteristic painting’s] meaning is in a sense to enter into its making. The layering of crisp brushstrokes is sequential, each accent a note in time, the painter’s present, to be read by a kind of archaeology,” producing a sense of “the connection between swift motif [a rapidly changing scene] and swift execution.”36 Not that swiftness as such would remain a lasting desideratum for Monet: on the contrary, Forge’s larger point is that despite the fact that for Monet it remains the case that “the fleeting moment is everything…he [nevertheless] arrives at a point where he is no longer trying to capture that fleeting moment so much as meditating on its passage: anticipating it, remembering it, contemplating its embodiment in a dense color structure.”37 (Forge is alluding to Monet’s practice from the 1880s on, in particular the series works of the 1890s.)

In effect I have got ahead of myself by introducing the theme of Impressionism’s evolution following its initial flourishing in the 1870s. But the topic is inescapable from a surprisingly early date, as is suggested by a discernible shift in critical rhetoric in 1877. In the words of a critic writing under the name Argus: “A self-respecting impressionist…doesn’t take half-measures: he proceeds by the brusque opposition of colors. He takes a paintbrush and vigorously daubs his canvas; what emerges from this operation is something clashing, which certainly astonishes the beholder and which our imagination is charged with completing.”38 At greater length, Frédéric Chevalier complains in L’Artiste the same year:

The young painters, without medals, unknown until now, reveal themselves by an effervescence of color, a fantasmagoria of effects, a bacchanalia of lines, a fury of brushstrokes, a débauche of impasto, an explosion of light, audacities of composition, unheard of dissonances and insolent harmonies which together form the most unexpected, unbridled and dithyrambic painting that can be imagined. A ferocious, irreverent, unregulated, heretical art. They have invented apart from all method, and have shot out unexpectedly rockets into the eyes of peaceful passers-by.39

Similarly, E. Lepelletier refers to “those crazy landscapes, extravagant portraits, incoherent impastos, beneath which the thought of the artist is as invisible as that of a writer on a page fallen in paste.”40

Granted, the passages just quoted are not distinguished art criticism. But the important point is that characterizations such as these would have made no sense in 1874 or even 1876, and in fact (with a few exceptions, such as the unserious Bertall) writers unenthusiastic about Impressionism during those years stopped well short of that kind of abuse. By 1877, though, at least some of the paintings on view made it impossible to claim, for example, that they offered tonal harmonies that caressed the eye or that a concern with the “justesse” of color relations was central to the artists’ efforts.

Claude Monet, Parc Monceau (1876)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Seine à Champrosay (1876)

And there were critical responses to specific works that are worth taking seriously. For example, here is Paul Mantz’s brief discussion of some of Monet’s contributions to the third exhibition: “[Previously] the painting of Monet appeared singular: along with some brutal qualities, it had some savor and intensity. L’esprit de système has changed everything. There is still something in his Intérieures de gare [eight paintings of the Gare Saint-Lazare], a picturesque subject for which Monet has given us many variations, but the sense of reality is completely lacking in the Tuileries, The Park Monceau, and the other landscapes by this artist. The distances are muddled, the values become mixed together and everything is lost in an anarchic mess.”41 This is doubtless too severe but considering the Park Monceau, is it obvious that Mantz, an intelligent critic, was not on to something? (Compare that painting with the light-and-air-filled The Highway Bridge at Argenteuil [1874]. Already by 1877 the pellucid triumphs of the earlier years are at an end, the genius of the Gare Saint-Lazare paintings being that Monet found a subject that appeared to demand that forms dissolve in smoke and steam.42 ) Or consider the pseudonymous Jacques’s brief remarks about Renoir’s The Seine at Champrosay: “I will be more reserved in my praise of the Seine at Champrosay, whose touch is quite brutal despite its impression of truthfulness. It is the high grass of the bank that ruins the river for me.”43 Jacques doesn’t say why, but is he altogether wrong in feeling that there is something like a conflict between the treatment of the river and that of the grass, that is, between the relatively smooth horizontal brushstrokes of the first and the more nearly vertical, rightward bending, almost bristling brushstrokes of the second? Here it might be countered that the difference is meant to evoke the sensations of a windy autumn day, as Georges Rivière, Impressionism’s constant champion, comes close to saying in one of his articles on the exhibition.44 Fair enough, but does the evocation of wind come at no cost at all to the overall unity of the canvas?45

Camille Pissarro, The Côte des Boeufs at L’Hermitage (1877)
Camile Pissarro, Red Roofs, Corner of a Village, Winter (1877)

Finally, two dense, close-valued, thickly impastoed not to say overworked landscapes by Pissarro, The Côte des boeufs (1877) and Red Roofs (Les Toits rouges) (1877), the first vertical and the second horizontal in format, appear even more open to criticism on the grounds of muddling of distances and values than the Monet just referred to. It is as if Pissarro had come to experience a loss of confidence in imagining each touch or tache as an articulation of the frontal plane of the painting, which of course was basic to facingness as such. (Such an articulation returns with a vengeance in Cézanne’s paintings of the 1880s, with decisive consequences for the future.) Interestingly, both canvases escape detailed comment in the 1877 reviews, almost as if they were simply too refractory to deal with, though Charles Bigot, perhaps with them in mind, remarks of Pissarro’s work, “His painting, despite its crude colors, has a sad and glacial aspect that causes pain. He has an unhappy taste for violet tones. No life in his trunks of trees, in his branches, in his leaves and his lawns. All that is dead and only demands to be buried.”46 And Léon de Lora, more offhand in manner, says of Cézanne and Pissarro: “One cannot grasp the Impressions after nature of M. Césanne (sic); I took them for palettes that haven’t been scraped. But the landscapes of M. Pissarro are nothing more and are not less prodigious. Viewed up close, they are incomprehensible and frightful; from further back, they are frightful and incomprehensible. They have the effect of rebuses which have no word [i.e. no solution].”47

Needless to say, modern scholars who have written about the exhibition of 1877 have struck a very different note. But Richard Brettell in an essay on that exhibition in The New Painting does refer to the first of the Pissarros just mentioned as “[a] great vertical landscape . . . with its scumbled, even tortured surface, its inaccessible jumble of vegetation, and its haunted peasant figures staring out at the viewer from the protection of the forest”48 (these last easy to miss), remarks not meant negatively but which nevertheless leave the question of The Côte des Boeufs‘s ultimate success as a painting open to question. Again, the contrast between the two later Pissarros on the one hand and the spatially lucid, frontally oriented, touch by touch patiently constructed River Oise near Pontoise in the exhibition of 1874 on the other could not be more palpable.


Let me sum up the implications of my argument so far. I hope it’s clear that my aim has not been to launch a critique of Impressionism after its first flowering in 1874 and ‘76 (actually, the earliest “Impressionist”-style paintings date from the late 1860s). Rather, I have been trying to establish the following basic points:

1) Impressionism, by which I mean landscape Impressionism, was predicated on the inability of ambitious figure painting, in particular figure painting with an antitheatrical thrust, to find a way past or beyond Manet’s controversial paintings of the 1860s. Monet’s struggles to do so in his unfinished Déjeuner sur l’herbe, the Women in the Garden, and Le Déjeuner show the dimensions of that inability.

2) Not that figure painting as such had no role in the Impressionist exhibitions: one has only to think of well-known works by Renoir, Degas, and Caillebotte, many of which attracted favorable notice from critics during the years in question. (Degas’s dancers, laundresses, and nudes form an exceptional oeuvre of their own.) Moreover, the history of the individual exhibitions is largely the story of tensions between the landscape Impressionists (except the ecumenical Pissarro) and Degas and other figure painters whom he supported, Raffaëlli being the most controversial of these. Interestingly, as Brettell remarks in his essay on the 1877 exhibition, on that occasion the figure painters were much more admired than the landscapists, who tended to be discussed en masse. Nevertheless, it seems fair to say that by 1878, when Duret published “Les Peintres impressionnistes,” it had become clear, or at least strongly arguable, that the heart of Impressionism as a school or movement was the landscape painters: Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, sometimes Cézanne, Renoir, Morisot, and Guillaumin. And of course that is how Impressionism has come popularly to be understood in our own time.

3) But the transition itself, the large-scale abandonment of the ambitious figure painting tradition, was barely noted.49 I have tried to suggest why, emphasizing the association continually drawn by critics between the new school and the art of Manet, and arguing that Manet in the 1870s remained a topic of dispute, not a settled reference point. This meant that from the first the landscape Impressionists were seen as pursuing an “advanced” pictorial agenda with roots mainly in Manet’s painting (rather than in Corot’s or Daubigny’s, to name the two foremost landscape painters of the previous decades), a view of their collective enterprise which rendered all but invisible what I have been calling the momentousness of their shift away from the figure painting project. To this day, that shift has escaped comment by students of Impressionism, even as with time the assumed background to their achievement has gravitated backward toward Corot and to a lesser extent Daubigny—to the antecedent landscape tradition generally.50

4) Here I want to put forward my final claim in this essay, one that would require another essay (at the very least) to begin to make good: the advent of landscape Impressionism amounted to nothing less than the emergence of a new paradigm for ambitious painting, or should one say the first “moment” of what proved to be a new dialectic, keyed not, as was the case with the previous dialectic, to figure painting and antitheatricality as theorized by Diderot but rather to a linked series of “formal” issues and demands that had no single master critic or theoretician. (The vexed question of “formalism” goes back to this “moment”.) I have already suggested that among those issues and demands were considerations of picture size, la peinture claire, tonal harmony and more broadly pictorial unity of a concentrated sort, directness of execution (at the risk of courting the ébauche or esquisse), along with a new notion of decorativeness, a heightened consciousness of the picture surface as a colored entity meant to be taken in as a whole, given special force by the modest dimensions of the canvases. (The “formalist” issue of flatness is already in view.)51 At the outset, of course, there was also a concern with truthfulness to the impression of nature (with special attention to le plein air and the evocation of instantaneousness of sensation), a topic that has received intensive discussion in the secondary literature, but it should be noted that by 1877 even Georges Rivière wrote, “To treat a subject for the colors (tons) and not for the subject itself, that is what distinguishes the Impressionists from other painters.”52 Obviously this strong a “formalist” assertion can’t be taken literally. But neither can it simply be adjudged out of bounds.

And my further suggestion, going on from this, is that very quickly—within a few years—the pictorial “solutions” arrived at by Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, and Renoir in the exhibitions of 1874 and 1876 proved not quite durable or repeatable, which is to say that the situation with respect to the demands and issues just summarized proved radically unstable, continually posing new problems for the painters which needed to be tackled and if possible resolved in and by individual canvases.53 On the one hand, this had much in common with the “dialectical” structure of the antitheatrical problematic, as analyzed in my trio of books mentioned earlier. On the other, the modest scale and “experimental,” non-tableau character of the Impressionist picture, not to mention the internally diverse character of the Impressionist exhibitions themselves, and especially after 1886 the “private” nature of one-person shows in commercial galleries, meant that single works could not impose themselves on the public imagination as had earlier been the case. That the Impressionist exhibitions offered each painter space to show a generous array of pictures also acknowledged this state of affairs, as did Monet’s turn to “series” of closely similar works. So the “dialectic” in question is much more diffuse, individualized, multivalent, in short not always easy to make out.

To some extent, of course, this instability has been recognized by scholars of the subject—certainly all serious studies of the art of Monet and Pissarro (the two key figures, apart from Cézanne) have acknowledged the difference in character that each man’s work assumed from one period to the next, charting, for example, Monet’s shifting “solutions” to the largely intractable issue of “the instant” and, beyond that, the treatment of time in his art (the central theme of Virginia Spate’s exhaustive Claude Monet: The Colour of Time),54 or his various approaches to the question of the decorative (outlined almost fifty years ago by Steven Levine),55 or his struggles starting around 1880 with the very essence of a motif (as laid bare in an extraordinary recent essay by Marc Gotlieb).56 (Gotlieb’s essay truly marks a new departure in Monet studies, in part owing to its frank insistence on the value of “formalist”-inflected analysis as opposed to the long-dominant social art-historical attention to the Impressionists’ depiction of industry, leisure activities, suburbs, railroads, tourist sites, the French recovery after the Franco-Prussian war, etc.)57 As for Pissarro, scholars have noted his decision around 1882 to include figures of peasants in his landscapes, treating both with much the same impastoed brushwork, leading to a notable loss of surface intensity—a kind of overall “cottony” quality—throughout the canvas as a whole.

But beyond question the sharpest indication of a “moment” of crisis in the evolution of Impressionism came about in the mid-1880s, with the arrival on the scene of the young Georges Seurat and Neo-Impressionism. (Significantly, the crisis exploded in the last Impressionist exhibition, that of 1886.) Again, this isn’t the place to more than touch on the topic, which has been magisterially treated, especially with regard to Pissarro’s problems with facture, by Martha Ward in her pathbreaking Pissarro, Neo-Impressionism, and the Spaces of the Avant-Garde (1996).58 But two short quotations from articles by Félix Fénéon, Neo-Impressionism’s stunningly intelligent master critic, are too pertinent to forego. The first, from 1887, concerns what Fénéon saw as the classical Impressionist preoccupation with capturing nature at its most fleeting: “The spectacle of the sky, water, and natural greenery varies from instant to instant, the first impressionists claimed. To imprint one of those fleeting appearances on the canvas was the aim.—This resulted in the need to capture a landscape in a single session, and a propensity to make nature grimace in order to prove that moment was unique and would never be seen again.”59

Georges Seurat, A Sunday on la Grande Jatte (1884)

And a year earlier in his article on the eighth and last Impressionist exhibition, he wrote: “M. Georges Seurat was the first to present a complete and systematic paradigm of the new painting. His tableau La Grande Jatte, whatever portion of it one examines, exhibits, monotone and patient expanse of points, tapestry; here, in effect, personal handwriting is useless, trickery impossible; no place for displays of bravura; let the hand be numb, but let the eye be agile, perspicacious and knowing; on an ostrich, a box of straw, a wave or a rock, the maneuvre of the paintbrush remains the same.”60 What strikes me, it may be imagined, is, first, the notion of nature being made to grimace, an essentially theatrical concept as far back as Diderot (the chief perpetrator of this fault in Fénéon’s view obviously being Monet);61 and second, the claim that La Grande Jatte represents a complete and systematic paradigm of the new painting, the notion of a paradigm in this context representing a decisive “moment” in an ongoing dialectic (La Grande Jatte as the definitive “solution” to a nest of formal and stylistic problems, including ones of execution). It will not escape notice, too, that La Grande Jatte is a large figure-painting, one clearly intended as a tableau, as Ward recognizes and as Fénéon as much as says, in that sense also as critiquing what was still in the mid-1880s the Impressionist norm; indeed it could not have been a plausible candidate for being such a paradigm were it not a figure-painting.62 Ward’s observations on the emphasis on optical as opposed to tactile experience in Neo-Impressionist canvases are also pertinent here (one might see in this a radicalization of the original Impressionist ideal), as is her reading of the pictorial structure of Seurat’s next major figure painting, Les Poseuses (1888), which culminates in the claim that it offers “an abstracted sense of viewpoint, one not specified for the here and now in front of the painting, but generalized and extended across the work, more like the experience of an ongoing frieze than the confrontation with a single scene”—an antitheatrical structure of a particularly sophisticated sort.63 As matters turned out, the Neo-Impressionist “solution” or “moment” was itself relatively short-lived, which is also to say that La Grande-Jatte and Seurat’s other figure paintings fell short of instigating a thoroughgoing transformation of the contemporary situation. But the impact of the entire episode was nonetheless profound.

To all intents and purposes, this essay has reached if not a conclusion at least a stopping-point, but before breaking off I want to call attention to what I can’t help regarding as the perennial strength of Clement Greenberg’s “formalist” account of Cézanne’s enterprise; I say this despite the fact that I have spent much of my critical and art-historical career trying to distinguish my views from Greenberg’s on various topics. But certain of his essays on 19th- and early 20th-century topics—on Cézanne, Monet, and Collage (more broadly, Cubism)—are, as the French would have it, incontournable. A few sentences from the Cézanne essay will be all I need: “He was making the first pondered and conscious attempt to save the key principle of Western painting—its concern for an ample and literal rendition of stereoscopic space—from the effect of Impressionist color. He had noted the Impressionists’ inadvertent silting up of pictorial depth; and it was because he tried so hard to reexcavate that space without abandoning Impressionist color, and because this effort, while vain, was so profoundly conceived, that his art became the discovery and turning point it did.”64 And beyond Cézanne, largely owing to his “solution,” lay Cubism and much of the best art of the first decades of the twentieth century.

All this without recognition of the true radicalness of Impressionism’s break with the past.65


1.  Théodore Duret, Les Peintres Impressionistes. Claude Monet, Sisley, C. Pissarro, Renoir, Berthe Morisot (Paris 1878); rept. in Denys Riout, ed., Les écrivains devant l’impressionnisme (Paris: Macula, 1989), 213-14. [Les impressionnistes ne se sont pas faits tout seuls, ils n’ont pas poussé comme des champignons. Ils sont le produit d’une évolution régulière de l’école moderne française. Natura non facit saltus pas plus en peinture qu’en autre chose. Les impressionnistes descendent des peintres naturalistes, ils ont pour pères Corot, Courbet et Manet. C’est à ces trois maîtres que l’art de peindre doit les procédés de facture les plus simples et cette touche primesautière, procédant par grands traits et par masse, qui seule brave le temps. C’est à eux qu’on doit la peinture claire, définitivement débarrassée de la litharge, du bitume, du chocolat, du jus de chique, du graillon et du gratin. C’est à eux que nous devions l’étude du plein air; la sensation non plus seulement des couleurs, mais des moindres nuances des couleurs, les tons, et encore la recherche des rapports entre l’état de l’atmosphère qui éclaire le tableau, et la tonalité générale des objects qui s’y trouvent peints. A ce que les impressionniste tenaient de leurs devanciers, est venue s’ajouter l’influence de l’art japonais.] Translation mine, as in almost all the citations to follow.
2.  Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (1980; Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988).
3.  The dramatic conception in question was accompanied by an alternative, “pastoral” strategy keyed to genres that minimized the depiction of figures in action, such as landscape and the painting of ruins, according to which the beholder was to be led to imagine actually entering the picture, which of course would have removed him from in front of it. See Fried, Absorption and Theatricality, 118-45.
4.  Michael Fried, Courbet’s Realism (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1990); Manet’s Modernism, or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996); Another Light: From Jacques-Louis David to Thomas Demand (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014). In the last of these see especially the essays “David/Manet: The ‘Anacreonic’ Paintings” and “Géricault’s Romanticism.” A third essay in that volume, “Caillebotte’s Impressionism,” also bears on the argument of the present essay.
5.  Monet’s inability to resolve the problem of ambitious figure painting is briefly discussed by me in Manet’s Modernism (172, 525-26), where I also discuss an article on the topic by Anne Wagner, “Why Monet Gave Up Figure Painting,” Art Bulletin 76, no. 4 (Dec. 1994): 613-29. I return to the topic in “David/Manet: The ‘Anacreonic’ Paintings” in Fried, Another Light, 30-32.
6.  See e.g. Joel Isaacson, Monet: Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Art in Context (New York: Viking, 1972); and Mary Dailey Desmarais, “Hunting for Light: Luncheon on the Grass,” in George T. M. Shackleford, ed., Monet: The Early Years, exh. cat. (Fort Worth, TX and San Francisco, CA, 2016-17), 20-33.
7.  See in this connection the extremely useful catalogue, The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, ed. Charles S. Moffett, exh. cat. (Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, CA, 1986), with essays by Stephen F. Eisenman, Richard Shiff, Paul Tucker, Hollis Clayson, Richard R. Brettell, Ronald Pickvance, Charles S. Moffett, Fronia F. Wissman, Joel Isaacson, and Martha Ward. See also the invaluable exhibition-by-exhibition compilation of contemporaneous art criticism, The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, “Documentation,” Vol. 1. Reviews, ed. Ruth Berson (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1996). References to articles in this compilation will be to “Berson,” followed by the page number. On the name “Impressionists” and alternatives see Eisenman’s essay “The Intransigent Artist or How Impressionism Got its Name,” The New Painting, 51-59.
8.  Duranty’s essay is conveniently reprinted in The New Painting, 37-49 (English translation) and 477-84 (French original). “La Nouvelle peinture” is briefly discussed in Manet’s Modernism, 259-61.
9.  It is important, though, not to underestimate the prestige of landscape painting before Impressionism. Here is Castagnary in his “Salon de 1869”:
There are older men who don’t like landscape and who relegate it to the second rank. Why are they so severe, when a tree can be studied with as much care as a figure? We others, who came later, we are more compassionate, and we have for that genre a certain predilection. This comes perhaps from the time in which we live. Landscape was the folie of generations before us; it is still ours. How can one think ill of a genre in which our school triumphs, and which has become our glory? Our soul in a sense anticipates it. Each time the chance of reading or conversation brings to our eye or ear one of those simple and gentle words—morning, evening, breeze, plain, wood, valley, source—immediately an image arises in our minds, and we see in vision, with its usual accompaniment of forms and aspect, a fragment of the nation entirely charged with delicious sensations. [Il y a des anciens gens qui n’aiment pas le paysage et qi le relèguent volontiers au second rang. Pourquoi cette sévérité, quand un arbre peut être étudié avec autant de soin qu’une figure? Nous autres, plus tard venus, nous sommes plus compatissants, et nous avons pour ce genre une certaine prédilection. Cela tient peut-être a temps où nous vivons. Le paysage a été la folie des générations venues avant nous; il est encore la notre. Comment pour rions-nous mal juger d’un genre où notre école triomphe, et qui est devenu notre gloriole? Notre âme en quelque sorte va au-devant de lui. Chaque fois que le hasard de la lecture ou de la conversation apporte à notre oeil ou à notre oreille l’un de ces mots simples et doux, matin, soir, brise, plaine, bois, vallée, source, aussitôt une image se lève dans notre esprit, et nous montre en vision, avec son appareil accoutumé des formes et d’aspect, un fragment de nation tout chargé des sensations délicieuses.]
10.  Cf. Anthea Callen, “Taking Shape: Monet’s Compositional Techniques,” in Monet: The Early Years: “In the end, it was landscape that offered Manet the greatest aesthetic freedom to experiment with new compositional strategies as well as new modes of paint-handling. Despite the radical advances made by Courbet and Manet in the 1850s and ’60s, figure painting still carried a far greater burden of traditional historic values and academic conventions that constrained painting’s modernizing potential. On the other hand, landscape was a relatively recent genre in France, less hampered by tradition but still highly desirable as a commodity on the art market. As such, it held out the promise of new opportunities for the modern artist to develop a radical, personal vision in painting: to make a name as a modern master” (57). I find this bland and unconvincing—in particular the notion of “traditional historic values and academic conventions that constrained painting’s modernizing potential” seems to me a kind of academic langue de bois.
More interesting by far is T. J. Clark on Monet at Argenteuil: The chimneys [of factories in some of his paintings], in other words, are made part of the landscape as Monet imagined it. And landscape, for Monet as for many other painters in the later nineteenth century, was the one genre left. They seemed to believe—the belief was not often stated explicitly, but the drift of practice was unmistakable—that nature possessed consistency now, in a way that nothing else did. It had a presence and a unity which agreed profoundly (this was the crucial point) with the art of painting. The flat unison of a picture like Monet’s was like landscape, like the look of sky and water en plein air; and these were the things on which painting could thrive. No other subject proved to match so well with the actual material of oil and canvas; no other offered painting the right kind of resistance, the kind which had the medium seem more real the harder it was pressed into the service of an illusion. (The Painting of Modern Life. Paris in the Age of Manet and His Followers [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985], 183) Clark goes on to emphasize the importance for Monet of the landscape tradition, from Hobbema and Ruysdael to Daubigny, Corot, and Jongkind. Also: “For Monet and his colleagues, landscape was the guarantee of painting above all; it was the thing that justified their insistence on matter and making, on the artisanal facts of the art. Perhaps that guarantee would not hold, least of all in places like Argenteuil. But painting in a sense had nowhere else to go” (185, emphasis in original). In such an account, however, it is as though the figure painting tradition no longer counted at all, as if it had simply been made beside the point, rendered irrelevant, by recent events. And yet the last chapter of Clark’s book is an intense reading of Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergére, and in its final pages he engages with Seurat’s La Grande Jatte. See also in this connection Marnin Young, Realism in the Age of Impressionism: Painting and the Politics of Time (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015), an important study of five painters of the late 1870s and 1880s (Jules-Bastien Lepage, Caillebotte, Alfred-Philippe Roll, Jean-François Raffaëlli, and James Ensor) who, in the words of the book-jacket, “resisted [Impressionism] and spearheaded a short-lived revival of the [absorptive] Realist practices that had dominated at mid-century.” As Young recognizes, none of these, including Caillebotte, succeeded in producing work capable of imposing itself on other painters or the public in the way that major figure painting of the previous decades had done. (Raffaëlli, a somewhat special case, was among the artists promoted by Degas for inclusion in Impressionist exhibitions, much to the displeasure of the other members of the group.)
11.  Ernest Chesneau, “A côté du Salon: II. Le Plein Air: Exposition du boulevard des Capucines,” Paris-Journal, 7 May 1874, 2, and in Le Soir, 7 May 1874, 32. Berson, 18. [l’école du plein air . . . car c’est là, dans sa poursuite de la réalité, l’objet le plus apparent de ses effort] [Le chef de file est absent, c’est M. Manet. . . . Mais il est incontestable qu’un choix de ses peintures eût apporté à cette manifestation le concours d’une affirmation plus décisive ou tout au moins plus complète.]
12.  Le Sémaphore de Marseille [Emile Zola], “Notes parsiennes: Une Exposition: Les Peintres Impressionnistes,” 19 April 1877, I. Berson, 190-91. [Ce qu’ils ont de commun entre eux, je l’ai dit, c’est une parenté de vision. Ils voient tout la nature claire et gaie, sans le jus de bitume et de terre de Sienne des peintres romantiques. Ils peignent le plein air, révolution dont les conséquences seront immenses. Ils ont des colorations blondes, une harmonie de tons extraordinaire, une originalité d’aspect très grande. D’ailleurs, ils ont chacun un tempérament très différent et très accentué.]
13.  Emile Zola, “Edouard Manet, étude biographique et critique,” in Zola, Ecrits sur l’art, ed. Jean-Pierre Leduc-Adine (Paris: Gallimard, 1991), 151. [Edouard Manet, d’ordinaire, part d’une note plus claire que la note existant dans la nature. Ses peintures sont blondes et lumineuses, d’une pâleur solide. La lumière tombe blonde et large, éclairant les objets d’une façon douce. Il n’y a pas là le moindre effet forcé; les personnages et les paysages baignent dans une sorte de clarté gaie qui emplit la toile entière.] Terms like douce and gaie may seem a bit anodyne in this connection but Zola does go on to remark, “The first impression produced by a painting by Manet is a little hard” (152), which seems exactly right. [L’impression première que produit une toile d’Edouard Manet est un peu dure.]
14.  Théodore Duret, Histoire des peintres impressionnistes (Paris: H. Floury, 1906), 3. [Tout à coup Manet, en 1863, au Salon des refusés avec son Déjeuner sur l’herbe et en 1865 avec son Olympia, présenta des oeuvres venant, par leur dissemblance d’avec les autres, causer une horreur générale. Le fond et la forme rompaient avec ce que l’on considérait comme les règles essentielles de l’art. On avait sous les yeux des nus prise directement dans la vie, qui donnaient les formes même du modèle vivant, mais qui ainsi semblaient grossières et d’un affreux réalisme, en comparaison avec les formes du nu traditionnel, soi-disant idéalisé et épuré. L’ombre appelée à faire opposition perpétuelle à la lumière n’apparaissait plus. Manet peignait clair sur clair. Les parties qui les autres eussent mises dans l’ombre étaient peintes par lui en tons moins vifs, mais toujours en valeur. Tout l’ensemble était coloré. Les différents plans succédaient, en se profilant dans la lumière. Aussi ses oeuvres faisaient-elles disparate, au milieu des autres, sombres et décolorées. Elles heurtaient la vision. Elles offusquaient les regards. Les couleurs claires juxtaposées, qui s’y voyaient, n’étaient tenues pour du “bariolage,” les tons vifs, mis à côté à côté, faisaient l’effet de simples taches.]
15.  Duret, Histoire des peintres impressionnistes, 4 [Manet va donc grouper les jeunes gens,” he writes, “jusqu’ici séparés et inconnus les uns les autres. Ils se lieront par son intermédiaire.”]
16.  [Jules-Antoine] Castagnary, “Exposition du boulevard des Capucines: Les Impressionnistes,” Le Siècle, 29 April 1874, 3. Berson, 17. [Ainsi ce qui les sépare essentiellement de leurs prédécesseurs, c’est un question de plus ou moins dans le fini. L’objet d’art ne change pas, le moyen de traduction seul est modifié, d’autres diraient altéré. . . . Le non fini, après Courbet, après Daubigny, après Corot, on ne peut pas dire que les impressionnistes l’ait inventé. Ils le vantent, ils l’exaltent, ils l’érigent en système, ils en font la clef de voûte de l’art, ils le mettent sur un piédestal et ils l’adorent; voila tout.]
17.  F. de Gantès, “Courrieur artistique: l’Exposition du boulevard,” La Semaine parisienne, 23 April 1874, 63-64. Berson, 22.
18.  Marius Chaumelin, “Actualités; L’Exposition des intransigeants,” La Gazette des étrangers, 8 April 1876, 1-2. Berson, 67. [“l’école des taches”, dont M. Manet fut le fondateur et d’où ils sont tous sortis.]
19.  “He places himself courageously facing a subject, he sees that subject in large patches, in vigorous oppositions, and he paints each thing exactly as he sees it” (Emile Zola, “Mon Salon,” Ecrits sur l’art, 116). [Il se donc mis courageusement en face d’un sujet, il a vu ce sujet par larges taches, par oppositions vigoureuses, et il a peint chaque chose telle qu’il la voyait.]
20.  Charles Bigot, “Causerie artistique: l’Exposition des ‘intransigeants’,” La Revue politique et littéraire, 8 April 1876, 349-52. Berson, 61. [La révolution même que l’on a si brusquement annoncéé n’est pas au fond une révolution. Ces novateurs n’innovent pas. Qu’est-ce, à parler franc, que ces tableaux ‘intransigeants?’ Il y a longtemps qu’on en fait: tout le monde en fait et en fera. Ce sont des esquisses, des ébauches. Il n’y aurait guère que des intransigeants au monde, s’il plaisait aux artistes d’exposer les esquisses. Mais une esquisse pour un artiste n’est pas un tableau; c’est la première impression des choses, où les plans principaux sont indiqués par quelques touches vives, heurtées, brutales souvent. C’est alors vraiment, pour l’artiste, que le travail de la main et de l’oeil commence. . . . L’école nouvelle supprime le tableau, se dispense du travail et offre l’ébauche à l’admiration publique.]
21.  Stéphane Mallarmé, “The Impressionists and Edouard Manet,” originally published in English translation in The Art Monthly Review and Photographic Portfolio, 30 Sept. 1876; conveniently republished in The New Painting, 27-35, 29.
22.  Mallarmé, “The Impressionists and Edouard Manet,” 32.
23.  Cf. Félix Fénéon: “During the heroic period of ‘impressionism,’ the crowd always saw, up front, forcing his entry into the annual Salon, Edouard Manet, enthusiastic, elastic and theatrical; but in truth, the later evolution that made the bituminous painter of le Bon Bock the luminist of Linge and Père Lathuille took place under the influence of Camille Pissarro, Degas, Renoir, and above all Claude Monet; these were the leaders of the revolution of which he was the herald.” (“La VIIIe exposition impressionniste,” Au-delà de l’impressionnisme, ed. Françoise Cachin [Paris: Hermann, 1966], 58. [Durant la période héroïque de l’‘impressionnisme’, la foule vit toujours au premier plan, forçant l’entrée aux Salons annuels, Edouard Manet, enthousiaste, élastique et théâtral; mais au vrai, la mutation dernière qui fit du bitumier du Bon Bock le luministe du Linge et du Père Lathuille s’accomplit sous l’influence de Camille Pissarro, de Degas, de Renoir, et surtout de Claude Monet; ceux-ci furent les chefs de la révolution dont il fut le héraut.] On Manet, Mallarmé, and Le Linge see Fried, Manet’s Modernism, 408-12, note. Fénéon’s characterization of Manet as théâtral marks a recognition of what I have been calling the facingness of his paintings.
24.  In Manet’s Modernism I argue that one of the central themes of Manet’s endeavor in the 1860s was in fact a pursuit of the tableau, at a time and under circumstances (including the exhaustion of the absorptive strategies initially theorized by Diderot) when it was no longer clear exactly what the concept of the tableau meant, pictorially speaking. See in particular the subsection entitled “The Problem of the Tableau,” 267-80.
25.  Just to show how alive and kicking these issues remain, here is Richard Brettell on the topic:
“Manet’s career has been read as a series of deliberate moves made with the intelligence of an artistic chess player. If that is true, his major mis-step seems to be that he persistently flirted with the Impressionists, but was mysterious (sic) unable ever to join directly in their cause. Yet virtually every aspect of Impressionist practice, marketing, display, and theory was predicted in his practice. Perhaps his desire to be considered a ‘great’ painter made it impossible for him fully to embrace the casual, improvisatory aesthetic he did so much to define and foster. But his absence from the eight exhibitions of the Impressionists, and his continuing absence from Impressionist exhibitions today, is a real failing: how wrong he was—and we are!” (“Manet and Performative Painting,” in Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860-1890, exh. cat. [London, Amsterdam, Williamstown, MA, 2000-01], 70) Brettell’s contributions to the study of Impressionism have been many, but it is hard to imagine a less historically nuanced view of Manet’s relation to Impressionism (and vice-versa).
26.  On Fantin’s An Atelier in the Batignolles see the detailed discussion by Bridget Alsdorf, Fellow Men: Fantin-Latour and the Problem of the Group in Nineteenth-Century French Painting (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013), 105-44. On Bazille see Dianne Pitman, Bazille: Purity, Pose, and Painting in the 1860s (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1998). As Pitman’s title suggests, Bazille was importantly a figure painter; his tragically truncated oeuvre shows him trying to find a path forward from Courbet and Manet.
27.  Two brief excerpts from Gustave Geffroy’s 1924 monograph on Monet are to the point. Early on Geffroy remarks that Manet did not immediately grasp the novelty of le plein air. He goes on: “That in no way prevented Edouard Manet from being a precursor for the meaning of modern life, the direct vision of beings and things, the frank and unexpected execution that must fatally lead him to la peinture claire after the beautiful works of his first manner, which has been called his Spanish manner, the singular and captivating figures of Lola de Valence, the Fifer, and Olympia” (Monet. Sa vie, son oeuvre [1924; Paris: Macula, 1980], 38). [Cela n’empêche nullement Edouard Manet d’être un précurseur pour le sens de la vie moderne, la vision directe des êtres et des choses, pour l’exécution franche et inattendue qui devait fatalement le conduire à la peinture claire après les belles choses de sa première manière, que l’on a appelé sa manière espagnole, les figures singulières et captivantes de Lola de Valence, du Fifre, et de l’Olympia.] And a few pages later, after highly praising Monet’s unfinished Déjeuner sur l’herbe and his painting of Camille in a green dress, Geffroy remarks: “There were others [figure paintings], before the painter, wholly given over to the painting of landscapes, went on almost to forget human beings in the immense luminous nirvana of nature” (42)—as if for Monet the attractions of nature simply eclipsed the very idea of painting the human figure. [Il y en a eu d’autres, avant que le peintre, donné tout entier à la peinture des paysages, s’en allât presque oublier les êtres dans l’immense nirvana lumineux de la nature.]
28.  See the section on “Canvases and Primings for Impressionist Paintings” in David Bomford, Jo Kirby, John Leighton, and Ashok Roy, Art in the Making: Impressionism, exh. cat. (London, 1990-91), 44-50. The entire catalogue is invaluable for our understanding of technical aspects of the Impressionist project; see in particular the section “The Paint Layers and Surface of Impressionist Paintings,” 91-98.
29.  It might be noted, however, that the core Impressionist commitment to landscape did not extend into the future (except for the short-lived Van Gogh for whom the portrait was also decisive). As Todd Cronan remarks in an exchange after reading a draft of this essay, “For Matisse and Picasso, part of the point was a refusal of landscape for their practices. Their figurative practice was also a way of steering their deity, Cézanne, away from Impressionism. So when Matisse in his ‘Notes of a Painter’ writes, ‘What interests me most is neither still life nor landscape, but the human figure,’ it seems a highly coded statement. (I think it was meant to signal his relation to Van Gogh, who expressed, in a late letter to Theo, his growing commitment to portraiture, and in another the thought that he would like to paint figures as Monet paints landscapes.) Then there is Picasso with his perverse claim: ‘Landscapes? I never saw any. I’ve always lived inside myself. I have such interior landscapes that nature could never offer me ones as beautiful.’ What is even more striking is the fact that Matisse and Picasso both seem to have declared their commitment to Manet at nearly the same moment as they denied their interest in landscape. As in Matisse’s costume pieces of 1903, and Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques of 1905 or for that matter the Demoiselles, with its aggressive form of facingness.” I will add only that Matisse’s two radical masterpieces for Shchukin, Dance (II) and Music (both 1910), may be seen as essentializing (absorptive) closure—the first—and sheerest facingness—the second, while also manifesting an abstract facingness that bears witness to Matisse’s abiding interest in Manet.
30.  A major exception among significant art critics was Baudelaire, whose admiration for Delacroix led him to emphasize coloristic relations over strictly compositional ones. See in this connection his Salon de 1846, among other texts.
31.  Armand Silvestre, “Préface,” Galerie Durand-Ruel, Recueil d’estampes gravées à l’eau-forte (Brussels: Maisons Durand-Ruel, 1873-75). Reprint in Les écrivains devant l’impressionnisme, 36-9, 37. [Ce qui frappe, tout d’abord, en la regardant, c’est la caresse immédiate que l’oeil en recueille—elle est harmonieuse avant tout. C’est que la distingue ensuite, c’est la simplicité des ses moyens d’harmonie. On découvre, en effet, bientôt que le secret en est tout entier dans une observation très fine et très exacte des relations des tons entre eux.]
32.  Armand Silvestre, “Exposition de la rue Le Peletier,” L’Opinion nationale, 2 April 1876, 3. Berson, 109. [procède d’un principe de simplification vraiment nouveau et auquel on ne saurait contester sa raison d’être. Uniquement préoccupée de la justesse, elle procède par harmonies élémentaires; peu soucieuse de la forme, elle est exclusivement décorative et coloriste. Son idéal est, à notre humble avis, absolument incomplet, mais ses travaux auront assurément une place dans la légende de l’art contemporain.]
33.  Silvestre, “Exposition de la rue Le Peletier,” 3. Berman, 109. [Et ceci n’est pas un panégyrique. Je suis plus convaincu que personne que l’art ne saurait se contenter d’une série d’impressions, si sincères que soient celles-ci. Son but est autrement élevé et je ne vois dans tout cela que le point de départ très intéressant d’études nouvelles. Dans une tonalité fine et vibrante, j’y vois une palette tout neuve tendue à celui que ne s’en tiendra pas à ce premier mot.]
34.  Mallarmé in “The Impressionists and Edouard Manet” writes apropos of “a master of the Impressionists” (in the first instance Manet) that “he must find something on which to establish his picture, though it be but for a minute,” and that “[t]he secret of this is found in an absolutely new science, and in the manner of cutting down the pictures, and which gives to the frame all the charm of a merely fanciful boundary, such as that which is embraced at one glance of a scene framed in by the hands, or at least all of it found worthy to preserve. This is the picture, and the function of the frame is to isolate it” (31). Manet and Degas come at once to mind, but so should certain strongly asymmetrical early compositions by Monet, such as The Promenade at Argenteuil (1872) and The Basin at Argenteuil (1872).
35.  My thanks to Ralph Ubl for pressing me to include the observations in parentheses, as well as for productive conversations over fifteen years touching on these issues. Another interlocutor to whom I am grateful for helping me refine my argument is Marc Gotlieb.
36.  Andrew Forge, “Moment and Duration,” in Andrew Forge and Robert Gordon, eds., Monet (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1983), 191. See in this connection the exhibition catalogue Impression: Painting Quickly in France 1860-1890.
37.  Forge, “Moment and Duration,” 191.
38.  Argus, “Chronique,” La Semaine des familles, 21 April 1877, 47. Berson, 123. [Un impressionniste . . . qui se respecte ne fait pas de façons: il procède par la brusque apposition des couleurs. Il prend un pinceau et tamponne vigoureusement sa toile: il sort de cette opération quelque chose de heurté, qui certainement étonne le spectateur et qui notre imagination est chargée de compléter.]
39.  Frédéric Chevalier, “Les Impressionnistes,” L’Artiste, 1 May 1877, 329-33. Berson, 138. [(D)e jeunes peintres, non médaillés, inconnus jusqu’ici, se révèlent par une effervescence de couleur, une fantasmagorie d’effets, une bacchanale de lignes, une furie de coups de brosse, une débauche d’empâtements, une explosion de lumière, des audaces de la composition, des dissonances inouies et des harmonies insolentes dont l’association forme la peinture la plus imprévue, la plus échevelée et la plus dithyrambique qui se puisse imaginer. Un art farouche, irrévérencieux, déréglé, hérétique. Ils l’ont inventé contre toute méthode et en font jaillir inopinément les fusées dans les yeux des passants paisibles.]
40.  E. Lepelletier, “Les Impressionnistes,” Le Radical, 8 April 1877, 2-3. Berson, 158, slightly modified. [ces paysages fous, ces portraits extravagants, ces empâtements incohérentes, sous lesquels la pensée de l’artiste est aussi invisible que celle d’un écrivain sur un pâge tombé en pâte.]
41.  Paul Mantz, “L’Exposition des peintres impressionnistes,” Le Temps, 22 April 1877, 3. Berson, 168. [La peinture de M. Monet parut singulière: elle avait, avec des qualités brutales, de la saveur et de l’accent. L’esprit de système a tout changé. Il y a quelque chose encore dans les Intérieurs du gare, motif pittoresque ont M. Monet nous donne plusieurs variantes; mais le sentiment des réalités manque absolument dans les Tuileries, le Parc Monceau, et les autres paysages de l’auteur. Les plans s’embrouillent, les valeurs se confondent, tut s’efface et se mêle dans un fouillis anarchique.]
42.  Then there is one of the last of the Argenteuil paintings, Argenteuil, the Bank in Flower (1877), in which the pictorial emphasis falls almost entirely on the bushes and flowers in the immediate foreground, with no hint of entrance to a deeper space—a hauntingly beautiful picture but something has gone seriously awry. For a socio-historical reading arguing that, owing to the further development of industry in the town’s environs and the increasing pollution of the Seine, “the meaning Monet once had found in his modern progressive world no longer appeared tenable” see Paul Hayes Tucker, Claude Monet: Life and Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995), 100.
43.  Jacques, “Menus propos: Exposition impressionniste,” L’Homme libre, 12 April 1877, 1-2. Berson, 157. [Je mettrais plus de réserve à louer la Seine à Champrosay, dont les nuances sont bien brutales, quoiqu’avec une impression de vérité: ce sont les hautes herbes de la berge qui me gâtent le fleuve.]
44.  See Georges Rivière, “L’Exposition des impressionnistes,” L’Impressionniste, 6 April 1877, where he writes: ““One has never conveyed so strong a sensation of a windy autumn day” (Berson, 180). [On n’a jamais donné ne sensation aussi saisissante d’une journée de vent en automne.]
45.  Jacques’s remarks amount to an early recognition of what will later emerge as a serious issue for Impressionist landscape, in particular in certain of Monet’s works of the 1880s and after.
46.  Charles Bigot, “Causerie artistique: l’Exposition des ‘impressionnistes’,” La Revue politique et littéraire, 28 April 1877, 1045-48. Berson, 134. [Sa peinture, en dépit des couleurs crues, est d’un aspect triste et glacial qui fait peine. Il a pour les tons violets un goût malheureux. Point de vie dans ses troncs d’arbres, dans ses branches, dans ses feuilles et dans ses gazons. Tout cela est mort et ne demande qu’à être enterré.]
47.  Léon de Lora, “L’Exposition des impressionnistes,” Le Gaulois, 10 April 1877, 1-2. Berson, 163. [On ne se figure pas les Impressions d’après nature de M. Césanne (sic); je les ai prises pour des palettes non raclées. Mais les paysages de M. Pissarro ne se deviennent pas plus et ne sont pas moins prodigieux. Vus de près, ils sont incompréhensibles et affreux; vus de loin, ils sont affreux et incompréhensibles. Ils font l’effet de rébus qui n’auraient pas de mot.]
48.  Richard Brettell, “The First Exhibition of ‘Impressionist’ Painters, “ The New Painting, 195.
49.  Among the critics of the early exhibitions, only the pseudonymous Marc de Montifaud in 1874 expressed regret at seeing “the study of the figure abandoned for landscape.” “Exposition du boulevard des Capucines,” L’Artiste, 1 May 1874, 307-13. Berson, 31. [l’étude de figure abandonnée pour le paysage.]
50.  Not that the Impressionists at the outset were not admirers of Corot; they were, Pissarro going to far as to designate himself as a student of the older master in his early Salon entries (as noted by Gary Tinterow, “Le Pére Corot: The Very Poet of Landscape,” in Corot, exh. cat. [Paris, Ottawa, New York, 1996-7], 260). But the contemporaneous perception of them was mainly as followers of Manet. Decades later the situation changed, at least up to a point. Thus Tucker in Claude Monet: Life and Art reports that Monet’s 1896-97 paintings called Mornings on the Seine led viewers to think of Corot. Tucker writes: “Monet must have appreciated the association as he had long admired Corot, calling him later in life ‘the greatest landscape painter’ of all time. He was not alone in his enthusiasm for the artist, as Corot had been the subject of a huge retrospective in Paris that had run concurrently with Monet’s Cathedral show [1895] and had been greeted with almost unrestrained pleasure” (165). Tucker goes on to suggest that through his evocation of Corot, Monet was seeking to position himself in the larger French landscape tradition, which at this stage in his career there is no reason to doubt. The result, in any case, is that Impressionism tends to be endowed with a double history: as an episode in “advanced” painting it comes after Courbet and Manet; as an episode in the evolution of French landscape painting, after Corot and Daubigny. No one ever seems to have been troubled by this double pedigree.
51.  Leading to the classic formulation by Maurice Denis: “to remember that a painting—before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote—is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” (“Définition du néo-traditionnisme,” 1890; in Denis, Du symbolisme au classicisme. Théories, ed. Olivier Revault d’Allonnnes [Paris: Hermann, 1964], 33) [Se rappeler qu’un tableau—avant d’être un cheval de bataille, une femme nue, ou une quelconque anecdote—est essentiellement une surface plane recouverte de couleurs en un certain ordre assemblées.]
52.  Georges Rivière, “L’Exposition des impressionnistes,” L’Impressionnisme, 6 April 1877, 2-6. Berson, 179. [Traiter un sujet pour les tons et non pour le sujet lui-même, voilà ce qui distingue les impressionnistes des autres peintres.]
53.  It was perhaps a partial awareness of some such turn of events that led the critic Charles Bigot (admittedly no friend of Impressionism) to write in 1877: “The impressionist school makes little progress; it is already beginning to turn on itself, and it is to be feared that it will not do anything else. The original path on which it was engaged has begun to assume the air of an impasse that leads nowhere.” (“Causerie artistique: L’Exposition des ‘impressionnistes,’” La Revue politique et littéraire, 28 April 1877, 1045-48.) Berson, 133. [L’école impressionniste fait peu de progrès; elle en est déjà à tourner sur elle-même, et il est à craindre qu’elle ne fasse plus guère autre chose. La voie originale où elle s’est engagée commence à prendre l’air d’une impasse qui ne mène à rien.]
54.  Virginia Spate, Claude Monet. The Colour of Time (London: Thames and Hudson, 1992).
55.  Steven Levine, “Décor/Decorative/Decoration in Claude Monet’s Art,” Arts Magazine 51 (Feb. 1977): 136-39, and Monet and His Critics (Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1974).
56.  Marc Gotlieb, “Monet in the 1880s; The Motif in Crisis,” in the Wiley Blackwell Companion to Impressionism, ed. André Dombrowski (London: Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming 2022).
57.  In this connection Gotlieb cites approvingly Kermit Swiler Champa’s important Studies in Early Impressionism (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1973) as well as his later The Rise of Landscape Painting in France, exh. cat. (Manchester, NH; New York, NY; Dallas, TX; and Atlanta, GA, 1991-92). In the latter Richard Brettell in his “Introduction” refers to the exhibition’s thesis as the notion that “Impressionist landscape painting developed logically from a well-established tradition,” the central figure in which was Corot. For all my admiration for Champa, the present essay is intended to complicate any such claim, to say the least.
58.  Martha Ward, Pissarro, Neo-Impressionism, and the Spaces of the Avant-Garde (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
59.  Félix Fénéon, “Définition du néo-impressionnisme,” Au-delà de l’impressionnisme, 92. [Le spectacle du ciel, de l’eau, des verdures varie d’instant en instant, professaient les premiers impressionnistes. Empreindre une de ces fugitives apparences sur le subjectile, c’est le but.—De là résultaient la nécessité d’enlever un paysage en une séance et une propension à faire grimacer la nature pour bien prouver que la minute était unique et qu’on ne la reverrait jamais plus.]
60.  Fénéon, Au-delà l’impressionnisme, 66. [M. Georges Seurat, le premier, a présenté un paradigme complete et systématique de cette nouvelle peinture. Son immense tableau, La Grande-Jatte, en quelque partie qu’on l’examine, s’étale, monotone et patiente tavelure, tapisserie: ici, en effet, la patte est inutile, le truquage impossible; nulle place pour les morceaux de bravoure; que la main soit gourde, mais que l’oeil soit agile, perspicace et savant; sur un autruche, une botte de paille, une vague ou un roc, la manoeuvre du pinceau reste la même.]
61.  Other critics too saw Monet in these terms. Thus Ward quotes the critic Gustave Kahn in 1887: “‘M. Claude Monet juggles with all the illusions and lappings of the sea. It unfurls everywhere amid the rocks . . . But the technique of the painter is not unified: the executions of the foreground, of the middle ground, of the sky are different. The impressionism of M. Monet’s paintings is not definitive.’” (Ward, Pissarro, Neo-Impressionism, 93). [M. Claude Monet jongle avec tous les prestiges et les clapotements de la mer. Partout entre les rochers, elle deferle . . . mais la technique du peintre n’est pas une: autre le faire du premier plan, celui du second, celui du ciel. L’impression des tableaux to M. Monet n’est pas définitive.] As for Fénéon: “Except for Pissarro, he wrote, the older painters ‘persist obstinately in the chance exercise of their maniacal bravura, in casting onomatopoeias that will never gel into sentences . . .; but the time has come for complete and decisive works.’” (p. 93). [s’obstinent à exercer au hasard leur bravoure maniaque, à leur lancer des onomatopées qui ne s’agglutineront jamais en phrases . . .; mais le temps est venu des oeuvres complètes et décisives.] Cf. the remarks by the pseudonymous Jacques on Renoir’s La Seine at Champrosay (1877) cited and discussed earlier in this essay.
62.  See in this connection the notorious disparagement of the Impressionists by Zola in “Le Naturalisme au Salon” (1880): “What is truly sad is that not one artist in this group has ever realized powerfully and definitively the new formula that all of them exemplify, sparsely in their works. The formula is there, divided to infinity; but nowhere, in none of them, is it found applied by a master. One sees very well what they want, one agrees that they are right; but one seeks in vain the masterpiece that could impose the formula and force one to bow down before it.” (Ecrits sur l’art, 422) [Le grand malheur, c’est que pas un artiste de ce groupe n’a réalisé puissamment et définitivement la formule nouvelle qu’ils apportent tous, éparse dans leurs oeuvres. La formule est là, divisée à l’infini; mais nulle part, dans aucun d’eux, on ne le trouve appliqué par un maître. Ce tous des précurseurs, l’homme de génie n’est pas né. On voit bien ce qu’ils veulent, on leur donne raison; mais on cherche en vain le chef-d’oeuvre qui doit imposer la formule et fait courber toutes les têtes.]
Zola’s mistake, quite apart from failing to recognize at least two candidates for men of genius among the landscape Impressionists (with one of whom he had gone to high school in Aix!), was to assume that the Impressionist picture, as I have characterized it in this essay, could be “fixed” and made definitive in the terms his diatribe suggests. (A similar dissatisfaction with the Impressionists and indeed Manet is at work in his art-world novel, L’Oeuvre (1886), in which the protagonist, Claude Lantier, is a figure-painter.) See also the remarks by Gustave Kahn in 1887 cited in note 61.
63.  Ward adds: “Indeed, the absence of the artist seems the most profound denial of the problem for realism identified by Fénéon as the “‘model’ who ‘poses.’” (Ward, Pissarro, Neo-Impressionism, 103). Her reference is to Fénéon’s discussion of Degas in his review of the eighth Impressionist exhibition, in the course of which he associates the realism of Degas’s depictions of persons (chiefly women) with the fact that the artist never worked from nature on the grounds that anyone conscious of being observed would lose their “naïve spontaneousness of function” (Au-delà l’impressionnisme, 59). [naïve spontanéité de fonctionnement] Instead Degas would accumulate a mass of studies and work from those; consequently “never have paintings less evoked the painful image of the model who ‘poses’” (59). [jamais tableaux n’ont moins évoqué la pénible image du ‘modèle’ qui ‘pose’.] See also Ward’s discussion in her essay on the exhibition of 1886 in The New Painting of other critical responses to Degas’s depictions of women that emphasized the notion that the women “believed they were alone, absolutely alone” and therefore revealed their female natures with complete naturalness (“The Rhetoric of Independence and Innovation,” 432). Degas’s relation to these issues is the focus of my essay “Degas and Anti-Theatricality,” which eventually will appear in a book to be called French Suite: A Book of Essays.
Significantly, the question of theatricality arises again in Seurat’s Le Chahut (1889-90) and Le Cirque (1890-91), which suggests how disruptive, in the end how unmasterable, a force it remained. As Ward puts it in Pissarro, Neo-Impressionism, and the Spaces of the Avant-Garde: “Neo-Impressionism had initially sought to avoid the virtuoso performance of Impressionism and the apparently market-driven necessity to produce ever more unprecedented moments of authenticity. With the hyperbolic but routinized activities in Le Chahut, however, it is as if the grimace of a performative moment itself now appeared in Seurat’s work . . . .” (139). Before leaving Ward’s book, I should call attention to her cautionary remarks about how the episode of Neo-Impressionism both fits the model of a “modernist (Greenbergian) history composed around artistic problems addressed, solved, and revisited (the most famous of these being the problem of how to acknowledge and overcome simultaneously the literal properties of the medium, especially its flatness)” and complicates such a history in various specific ways (122, with minor revision). I mention this because my summary account of the Impressionist dialectic definitely appeals to such a narrative in its broadest terms, which is also to say that I don’t doubt that, examined closely from a multifactorial perspective like Ward’s, matters may be shown to be more complex than I suggest. But the broad outlines of an acknowledgment-based (so not exactly Greenbergian) problem-solution or “moments”-in-a-dialectic structure are not thereby undone. (“Acknowledgment,” of course, emerges as a crucial theoretical issue in my art-critical essays of 1966-67 and Stanley Cavell’s “Knowing and Acknowledging” and related texts; see in this connection the helpful discussion by Danielle Follett, “The Stakes of Modernist Acknowledgment,” 22 [2017].)
64.  Clement Greenberg, “Cézanne,” Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 50. It’s the phrase “inadvertent silting up of pictorial depth” that I would emphasize, in the first place because of its aptness and in the second because of its judgmental character (whatever else Greenberg was, he was a critic). Nothing could be more striking than the widespread eschewal of value judgments in the copious modern art-historical literature on Monet. See also Greenberg’s essay “The Later Monet,” which includes the remarks: “At times Monet painted as if his chief task were to resolve everything into statements of equilibrium, and too many of his pictures ended up as resolutions of things already resolved: as monotonously woven tissues of dabs of paint distilled from local colors and their atmospheric reflections. The main fault in the effect was a lack of immediacy: the rendered motif looked as though it lay buried in amber, or like a photograph that had been covered with a veil of paint. Image and paint surface seemed to exist on separate levels of perception in a way far more apparent than in the glaze-and-scumble textures of the Old Masters.” (Art and Culture, 43). It takes nothing away from Monet’s monumental achievement, in fact the contrary, to recognize the various difficulties he faced, not always wholly successfully, at different stages in his career. (Again, Marc Gotlieb’s “Monet in the 1880s: The Motif in Crisis” marks a welcome and brilliant contribution to our understanding of one such stage and its aftermath.) Apropos of the basic argument of this essay, however, Greenberg’s article “Manet in Philadelphia” (a review of a major exhibition) includes the remarks: “The question of what you were supposed to paint, and with what intentions, was still wide open when [Manet] came on the scene. He was not the one to settle it—that was left to the Impressionists, who took their cue from Corot more than from anyone else’ (in Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism, volume 4: Modernism with a Vengeance, ed. John O’Brian [Chicago and London, 1993], 241). It seems fair to say that this comes across as more than a little simplistic, under the circumstances. Finally, Greenberg in his six Gauss Seminars in Criticism on modernist painting given at Princeton University during December and January 1958-59 states that modernist painting began with Manet, but that very quickly decisive steps especially with regard to color and luminosity were taken by the Impressionists, whereupon the full “dialectical” development of modernism was under way. (Impressionism in the Seminars emerges as the key movement in modern art, if not, ultimately, in Western painting.) Not a word is said about the transition from figure painting to landscape except with regard to the idea of painting out of doors, in natural light, rather than in the studio, which of course is consistent with Greenberg’s extreme formalist view of the artistic irrelevance of subject matter. For the Gauss Seminars themselves, see the lecture texts and notes in the Clement Greenberg Papers at the Getty Art Institute, soon to be published by a team of German scholars led by Stephanie Marchal and Andreas Degner in a volume entitled Constructing a Genealogy of Mid-Twentieth-Century Styles: Aesthetics and Society in Clement Greenberg’s Lecture Manuscripts, in the series Praktiken der Kritik/Practices of Criticism, by Edition Metzel.
65.  The complex, in part recursive, relationship between the art of Manet and that of the Impressionists is briefly analyzed in the closing pages of Fried, Manet’s Modernism, where several of the key points of this essay are presented for the first time.
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