THE SUBJECT MATTER OF THE IMPRESSIONISTS
Gender and Class in Impressionism
The Impressionists were unusual in that they were a group of artists. For artists to function as a group or as a whole, outside the traditional art establishment. was a new phenomenon. Previously, most artists operated alone and created their careers on their own and were then put together by critics who invented categories for their art. Even more remarkable than the group cohesion was the social make-up of the Impressionists: rich and poor, men and women. The unexpected contrasts among the members of the society reflect the growing importance of class mixing during the Third Republic. However, what was most unusual about the Impressionists was the strong presence of the women. Although it was well known that family money greatly facilitated artistic success, even among the so-call socially deprived avant-garde artists, the presence of women in the art world was usually ignored and women who were painters or sculptors were routinely dismissed. For a woman to have any kind of artistic career, she needed support and money, just like her male colleagues; but, unlike her male counterparts, she seldom received family backing. Although there were occasionally tensions within the group, for the most part, the Impressionists supported each other financially and professionally, regardless of class or gender.
The fact that the Impressionists had both men and women in the group resulted in art that showed the different point of view of the two genders. Edgar Degas followed the dubious fortunes of lower class women who worked hard, such as Laundresses (1884) and his many paintings of ballet dancers. His perspective is that of a male voyeur, peering at women presumed to be available. Degas also produced a number of intimate private prints of the women who worked as prostitutes and endured sexual slavery. The prints of nude prostitutes, the lowest in the sex trade food chain, show the interactions between the female sex workers and their well-heeled male clients. Degas’ close friend, Mary Cassatt was a wealthy American who led the life of a respectable female expatriate in Paris. Her paintings were also intimate but the voyeurism disappeared in favor of detached observation. Cup of Tea (1880) shows two well-to-do women and the confinement of their lives. One woman is visiting the other and they sit, barricaded by furniture in an elegant room with wallpaper stripped like bars of a cage.
Like Cassatt, Gustave Caillebotte came from a wealthy background, but what separated him from Manet and Degas was the way in which he depicted the life of a man of that class. He allowed the viewer to peer into the interiors presided over by these privileged males. One of his most surprising paintings shows the back view of a nude male, just out of his bath, scrubbing his back with a towel. The male-on-male voyeurism of Man at His Bath (1884) is unusual and mirrors the feeling of spying on a private activity that is so clear in Degas. Berthe Morisot was also from a family that was comfortably well off and her paintings showed the social confines for women. Once she married Eugène Manet, Morisot’s paintings depicted her life in her suburban home. One of the best known is a painting of a maid in In the Dining Room (1886). Neatly dressed, alert, and ready to serve, the maid is shown within the limitations of her domestic domain. Without over determining the reading of these paintings, it can be said that what characterized the male point of view was a position of control while the female point of view reflected the perspective of confinement. All of these artists, whether male or female, were depicting an upper class way of life. Morisot painted her maid in the dining room, wearing her servant’s apron; Cassatt showed how upper middle class women spent their time; Caillebotte revealed that only the wealthy have access to a private bath.
These very different gazes demonstrate the relative positions of men and women in the Third Republic: men were free and enjoyed unchallenged positions of social and political control and women of a certain class were expected to protect their virtue and contribute to society by getting married, staying home, and having children. It is possible to see indications of class distinctions among the Impressionists in terms of where the artists painted. Edgar Degas and Gustave Caillebotte painted places of privilege, familiar to the wealthy, while Claude Monet and Pierre Renoir showed the pleasures of the lower classes. Degas, as a man of power and privilege, would be allowed to observe the practice sessions of the young women of the ballet troupe of the Opèra. (Dance Class at the Opèra, 1872) These little girls, called “rats,” were working class people with aspirations and a surprising number of middle class young women. A pretty girl could attract the attention of a wealthy male and the artist also shows the bourgeois male, watching the young girls from the edges of the paintings, contemplating his choice of a “companion.” Like Degas, Caillebotte did not stray far from the world of the wealthy, even when he painted the grounds of the family estate in the country, and showed the lives of those who purchased the elegant townhouses built by Haussmann. (Man on a Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann, 1880) The effect of Haussmannization of Paris, recently completed, can be measured by the displacement of the lower classes to the edges of Paris.
Renoir’s most famous paintings are his observations of life in Montmartre where the working class people came together and danced to the music in places like the Moulin de la Galette (1875). The attractive and well-dressed young people, dappled by sunlight, enjoy the new possibilities opened up to their class—mass manufactured prêt-a-porter clothes and popular entertainment. But there are some interesting undertones in Renoir’s paintings of Montmartre, for this was the neighborhood of the Marquis, the Communards, and this was the site of the uprising of the Commune. Monet also preferred the outskirts of Paris and the new suburbs that were spreading along the banks of the Seine. The old moneyed classes tended to stay in Paris while the newly upwardly mobile middle class could create a very nice life in the newly developed outlying areas. Like Renoir, the artist is meticulous in his rendition of the fashionable clothes now available to all. Indeed, Monet shows the almost vacation atmosphere of bathers and sailboats along the sunny banks of the Seine. From 1871 on while he was living in Argenteuil, Monet painted the new iron bridge, destroyed by the French as they retreated from the Prussians, in its various states of reconstruction. As the art historian, Alfred Boime, pointed out, Monet was also making an economic point: the nation had recovered from the reparations imposed upon France by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War. The selection of site was important: the sailboat glides down the river towards the triumphal bridge at the suburban town of Argenteuil. The Parisians who, a few years ago, were eating rats during the Siege of Paris, now owned sailboats. The citizens of Montmartre who had fired the first shots against the French government were now dancing in the sunlight of an open-air café. The class war seemed to be over.
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