Articles Feature Issue #33
BY Michael FriedDecember 2, 2020
BY Michael FriedDecember 2, 2020
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
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.
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 , could scarcely be more frank in its acknowledgment of Impressionism, Monet’s in particular.)23
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.
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  measures 23 5/8 x 31 1/2 inches while Pissarro’s The River Oise Near Pontoise , 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.
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 . 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
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
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