Walter Sickert, Murder, War and the Gentleman Artist, Part Two

Walter Richard Sickert (1860-1942)
Part Two
In 1911, Walter Sickert was the leader of a small but hopeful group of young male artists in London, including August John, Lucien Pissarro, Henry Lamb, who wanted to make art outside of the confines of the Royal Academy. Although the middle aged painter seemed an odd choice as a Pied Piper, he had spent much of his career in France and would be assumed to know the most recent trends in Paris. But the proposition was a good one: Sickert, a failed actor who had become a painter, was backed by James Abbot McNeill Whistler and knew Edgar Degas, so his artistic ancestry was impeachable. In the early twentieth-century, Fauvism had come and gone and Cubism was a very new movement, lacking any clear direction, while in London itself, the city was still reeling from the shock of encountering Roger Fry’s seminal exhibition Manet and Post-Impressionism at the Grafton Galleries in 1910. So when Walter Sickert’s very Degas-esque paintings of female nudes were exhibited at the Carfax Gallery in 1911 and 1912, the viewers would have seen a new Post-Impressionistic version of the modern “problem” picture, as pioneered by the Pre-Raphaelites. The focal point of these exhibitions was Sickert’s rendering of or response to a notorious killing, later known as the “Camden Town Murder,” in a house close to his own neighborhood. The trio of roughly painted scumbled canvases were crude and seem to have been hastily painted or painted under the influence of strong emotions. As if the artist was caught up in an obsessive repetition, all works showed a woman lying still on a skimpy bed presided over by a male companion or onlooker or observer. The paintings were ambiguous in content, and the curator and critic, Roger Fry, taking a page from the formalist book of Emile Zola, reviewed the paintings from a distance–as works of art, not as works of reportage, much in the same way the French novelist had viewed Manet’s Olympia (Salon des Refusées 1863). The Great War broke out a few years later, extinguishing the brief sensation of the murder; and for almost a hundred years, the Camden Town paintings which may or may not have been about an obscure murder, fell into obscurity.
Walter Richard Sickert
The Camden Town Murder or What Shall We Do about the Rent? (c.1908)
But in the beginning of the twentieth century, the nearly forgotten artist, Walter Sickert, a painter who was too old for the new century, was suddenly resurrected. This new fame for a forgotten painter exploded when, to the astonishment of the world of British art, crime writer Patricia Cornwell published a book in 2002, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper–Case Closed. Using art by Sickert as evidence of his crime, she announced that Jack the Ripper was none other than the artist. The idea that Walter Sickert was a murderer never gained any credence beyond the strange world of Ripperologists. The venerable art critic for The Guardian, Jonathan Jones, was more amused than impressed with Cornwell’s devotion to the case.
Crime novelist Patricia Cornwell has bought no fewer than 32 of Sickert’s paintings in her quest to prove he was the serial killer who terrorised late 19th-century Whitechapel. Cornwell claims she now has crucial evidence, including watermarks on letters, that puts Sickert in the frame as London’s most notorious murderer. She’s not the first Ripperologist to take an interest in him: Sickert also appears in Alan Moore’s graphic novel about the case, From Hell. But no one else has bought up a load of his paintings, taking them out of the public eye to use as “scientific” evidence, or spent more than a decade trying to put him, posthumously, in the noose. A noose it is, for Cornwell’s accusation burns out Sickert’s real achievements and irradiates him as an artist. Here is a bold painter who was not afraid to put sex and sleaze into his art at a time when most British artists were timid and repressed. He dares the radical urban danger that artists in Paris were so alive to. Why does that make him a likely serial killer? Ripperologists are the last Victorian prudes, associating sex and evil.
Walter Sickert. L’Affaire de Camden Town (1909)
Cornwell herself stated that it was only years after Sickert painted his three paintings, which may or may not have been in response to the Camden Town murder, that a vital clue emerged. In 1937, it was reported that Sickert was allowed inside the room where the woman was murdered and was permitted to sketch the body. Cornwell wrote,
So he just happened to show up at the crime scene before the body was removed and innocently asked if he might have a look inside and do a few sketches. Sickert was the local artist, a charming fellow I doubt the police would have refused him his request. They probably told him all about the crime.
She also noted that his visit to the crime scene would have provided an explanation of why his fingerprints appeared at the crime scene and came to the conclusion that he had deliberately inserted himself into the crime scene. Assuming that the revelation that the artist was present at the murder scene is correct, then the topic of the three Camden Town paintings seems to be that of the artist himself viewing the body of the murdered woman in preparation for the later paintings. If the hypothesis of Cornwell is true, then Sickert was a remarkably calm murderer. In 1934, he casually shrugged off the role of murder in his art:
It is said that we are a great literary nation but we really don’t care about literature, we like films and we like a good murder. If there is not a murder about every day they put one in. They have put in every murder which has occurred during the past ten years again, even the Camden Town murder. Not that I am against that because I once painted a whole series about the Camden Town murder, and after all murder is as good a subject as any other.
Cornell was not the first writer to link Sickert to the Jack the Ripper murders. Amazingly there were two earlier books, each insisting upon a connection. In 1976 Stephen Knight claimed the Sickert had been forced to be an accomplice to the murders. This dubious theory, appearing in his book, Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, came from a man who claimed to be the artist’s illegitimate son, who later confessed to lying. This in-credible source was followed almost twenty years later by still another book by Jean Overton Fuller, Sickert and the Ripper Crimes, came to the conclusion in 1990 that Sickert himself was the killer. Fuller believed, based on gossip passed from her grandmother to her mother, that Sickert’s paintings of Camden Town and it’s murder contained clues concerning Jack the Ripper. While both books are purely speculative and rehash a century’s old stew of sensationalism, Knight’s book is remembered best, because it became the basis for the Johnny Depp film, From Hell (2001), which presented a complicate conspiracy involving the royal family and Masons, mad murders, plural, and helpless victims, also plural.
Writing a decade after Cornwell’s sensational book, Lisa Tickner’s well researched essay, “Walter Sickert: The Camden Town Murder and Tabloid Crime,” for the Tate museum puts the artist’s paintings in the context of the art world at the time and locates them in the site of the public lingering fascination with lustmord and with all things Ripper. As Sickert’s painting, recording the dark and brooding bedroom of Jack the Ripper attests, the artist was as interested in the notorious murders as the general public. He had been told by his landlady that he was living in the Jack the Ripper bedroom and may have believed her, but the story, true or not, provided him with a sensationalized painting.
Walter Sickert. Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom (1909)
Most of the many articles on Sickert’s obsession with nude women, models or prostitutes, alive or dead, do not draw a connection between the social events of the era, but those years at the turn of the century were those of the Suffragette movement. In 1906 the leaders moved their headquarters to London, which became the launching pad for a political crusade that was remarkable for the violence that broke out between the genders. The Women’s Social and Political Union was a militant group that believed in deeds over words, and a year before SIckert painted the Camden Town works, three hundred thousand people, men and women, marched through the streets of London in the Women’s Sunday Procession in June 1908. The years before the Great War witnessed women going to prison for their rights as citizens and being treated brutally. Once incarcerated, the women continued their protests against arbitrary male authority and refused to eat. Faced with women willing to die for the vote, the jailers tortured the women with force feeding. Not all survived the ordeal.
It is absurd to take seriously the notion that an overweight, middle-aged artist would slash a woman’s throat and then sketch his own bloody deed. But the male attitude towards women, whether played out on canvas or in political violence on public streets or in prisons, was proprietary and contemptuous. Although Sickert was a man of his own time, he was hardly unique in his patronizing attitude towards women. One can note a correlation between a public fascination for depictions of lustmord, the crime of passion, a man stabbing a woman, that emerge when women begin to demand their civil rights and to take control of their own lives and their own bodies. The lustmord paintings reappeared in Berlin, after the Great War, when women were emancipated from the antiquated customs of the nineteenth century. In our own time, popular culture, from films to television, portrays women as being murdered by so many serial killers so often that, at a time when women are running for and winning political office, it is a wonder that any adult woman is left alive. Clearly something like fear of change and a dread of losing dominance plays out in the culture and is expressed through violence against women, whether depicted in art or enacted in real life.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

The Cult of Images and Celebrity


Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820-1910)

The poet and art critic, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), who never met a camera he didn’t pose for, wrote a famous diatribe against photography and its narcissistic pleasures. After a long preamble addressed to M****, Baudelaire launched into what was nothing short of a screed against photography. Comparing photography to pornography, Baudelaire complained in the Salon of 1859,

A revengeful God has given ear to the prayers of this multitude. Daguerre was his Messiah. And now the faithful says to himself: “Since photography gives us every guarantee of exactitude that we could desire (they really believe that, the mad fools!), then photography and Art are the same thing:’ From that moment our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal. A mad­ness, an extraordinary fanaticism took possession of all these new sun-worshippers. Strange abominations took form. By bringing together a group of male and female clowns, got up like butchers and laundry-maids in a car­nival, and by begging these heroes to be so kind as to hold their chance grimaces for the time necessary for the per­formance, the operator flattered himself that he was re­producing tragic or elegant scenes from ancient history. Some democratic writer ought to have seen here a cheap method of disseminating a loathing for history and for painting among the people, thus committing a double sacrilege and insulting at one and the same time the di­vine art of painting and the noble art of the actor. A little later a thousand hungry eyes were bending over the peepholes of the stereoscope, as though they were the attic-windows of the infinite.

In this section of the Salon, “The Modern Public and Photography,” Baudelaire thought that photography–he was referring to portrait photography–was about the love of oneself and self-satisfaction in one’s position in society, but he was also concerned that photography–the machine–would invade the world of painting, fine art. Photography was all very well and good in the world of scientific recording and documentation but, Baudelaire gave neither the medium nor its operators any credit for artistic development. He concluded with a warning,

Could you find an honest observer to declare that the invasion of photography and the great industrial mad­ness of our times have no part at all in this deplorable result? Are we to suppose that a people whose eyes are growing used to considering the results of a material sci­ence as though they were the products of the beautiful, will not in the course of time have singularly diminished its faculties of judging and of feeling what are among the most ethereal and immaterial aspects of creation?

In an unrelated fragment in his autobiography, My Heart Laid Bare (written 1865/published 1887), Baudelaire wrote the phrase, “cult of images,” “Glorifier le culte des images (ma grande, mon unique, ma primitive passion),”which had nothing in this essay to do with photography but was picked up by Beartrice Farwell’s exhibition catalogue, The Cult of Images. Baudelaire and the 19th Century Media Explosion (1977). Farwell’s exhibition of popular lithographs from the nineteenth century was one of the first of its kind, bringing popular culture into the precincts of art history, heretofore a place for the high arts only. Her work referred to the technology of mass production of photographs and prints which exploded during the Second Empire, feeding what Baudelaire was lamenting, a desire for pictures and a taste for easy satisfaction, entertainment and amusement through the virtual reality of what we today would call an “image world.”


Nadar. Charles Baudelaire

At the time Baudelaire was writing the Salon of 1859 he was shopping The Painter of Modern Life to multiple outlets, and when one reads these two essays (one short and one long), it seems as if Baudelaire had created a contradiction. In The Painter of Modern Life he extolled the merits of the flâneur who observed the crowd and received pleasure from the act of controlled scanning or veiled scopophillia, but in his polemic against photography he argued against freezing that same gaze. But there is an important distinction that Baudelaire focused on, a particular element of photography that he disliked (although he participated in it) and that was the self-fashioning present in the photographic empires of Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) and his more industrial counterpart, André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri (1819-1889) who specialized in the carte-de-visites. These (self) portraits of Parisians, obscure and well-known, who created themselves as individual and as celebrities, as consumer objects for an eager public to consume their images. Oddly, because, above all, he admired artifice, the self-assemblage and posing and preening in front of the camera by the newly self-aware Parisians offended Baudelaire.


Nadar. Oscar Wilde

Thanks to the ability of photographers to produce images on a large scale and the willingness of the public to buy photographs, not just of themselves, but of people they did not know, the observers, those who watched the crowd, began to observe themselves and to offer themselves up to the masses. Nadar was probably one of the best photographers for portraiture in France. Indeed his artistry and his sensitivity to his subjects was rare, for he know how to bring out salient characteristics in individuals who cooperated with the photographer in achieving a defining “look.”His understanding of the men and women who flocked to his studio was undoubtedly the result of his apprenticeship in caricature. Nadar knew how to “read” a face.


Panthéon Nadar

Gaspard-Félix Tournachon began his artistic career in caricature and acquired his nickname tourne adard or “bitter sting” for his biting wit. Over time the nickname evolved: he shortened it to “n à dard” then to “Nadar.” In this small but telling act of self-naming Nadar created a niche for himself as an entrepreneur of a variety of imaginative enterprises. In 1854 he presented the “Panthéon Nadar,” a lithographic group portrait of two hundred and fifty notable Parisians, wittily and well-observed as semi-caricatures. Unfortunately this vast panorama of individual portraits did not sell as well as he had hoped and Nadar followed his younger brother Adrien into photography. But he made sure that he kept his name in front of the public and in 1858, he ascended above Paris in a hot air balloon with the basket full of glass plates and his cameras. Once aloft, Nadar became the first person to take an aerial photograph and became the first photographer to show the earth-bound humans what the birds saw as they winged their way over the city of Paris.


Daumier. Nadar Elevated over Paris

In 1863 Nadar constructed a gigantic balloon called “Le Geant” described in R. Ballantyne’s book Up in the Clouds (1869) as

The balloon, which is 90 yards in circumference, and has consumed upwards of 20,000 yards of silk in its manufacture, was held down, while filling, by about 100 men, and the weight of at least 200 sandbags. The car was of wicker-work, comprising an inner surface of about 54 square feet divided into three compartments or small rooms, surmounted by an open terrace, to which the balloon was braced.

Nadar and his fifteen passengers, including a prince and princess rose above the earth of the Champ de Mars by 1500 feet, despite the “37 bottles of wine, rifles, crockery, and a cake and thirteen ices.” But as Ballenyne continued, the descent was more eventful than anyone had anticipated:

Although they met with no rain, their clothes were all dripping wet from the mist which they passed through. The descent was more perilous than at first reported. The car dragged on its side for nearly a mile, and the passengers took refuge in the ropes, to which they clung. Several were considerably bruised–though, as before stated, no one sustained any very serious injury. Everybody behaved well.


Le Geant

In between all this publicity-generating activity, Nadar photographed Parisian notables. The partnership with his younger brother ended in 1857 when, in a court case, Nadar won the exclusive rights to his own nickname. He set up his independent photographic studio at 35 Boulevard des Capucines in 1861 at the cost of over two hundred thousand francs. The elegant place of business attracted the prominent Parisians who were familiar with Nadar from his caricatures and his arial adventures. But the opening of the studio coincided with the decline in quality. In order to furnish his studio, Nadar had gone into debt and even rented his space to other artists to raise money, such as for the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. In order to become more profitable, he entered into direct competition with photographer André- Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri (1819-1889) and began to manufacture the carte-de-visites. These small multiple photographs, measuring nine-by-six centimeters, were made with multiple masks over the glass plate and the ten card size portraits could be visiting cards, unique to each visitor, and these cards could be collected and traded.



During Nadar’s peak years from 1855 to 1860, he produced very fine and very simple and straightforward portraits. Using a chiaroscuro to light the face from one side, Nadar concentrated on the face itself, downplaying the clothing and hands for the men. Women were allowed a bit more latitude, as in the portrait of George Sand (1804-1876), no longer an attractive woman. Sand’s stripped dress gently draws attention away from the aging face to her lovely garment. After being able to see their own faces only in mirrors, the generation after the Daguerreotype had become aware of how she or he “looked” or appeared in the “mirror” of photography to other people. The photographic “appearance” could be controlled and compiled through a combination of active agency on the part of the sitter and a sensitive directorial mode on the part of the experienced Nadar. In other words, the client produced, in collaboration with Nadar, a persona to be looked at.


What is most interesting about the images produced by Nadar and Disdéri is the extent to which women took advantage of the opportunity to create a social identity for themselves as distinct from their social identity as wives, mothers, mistresses, working girls, and whores. Men, like Baudelaire, who in his youth had been the ultimate self-styler, did little to fashion themselves, as though they needed no introduction. As with one of his portraits of Baudelaire (on the right), Nadar hid the hands and the males are often seen with their hand in their opened coat, a standard pose of the day.

felix_et_paul_nadar__portrait_de_charles_baudelaire_au_fauteuil-56-1 nadar-baudelaire-1855

Nadar. Charles Baudelaire Styling Himself

The avant-garde painter Édouard Manet (1832-1883) does not look at the camera and seems diffident and reluctant to present himself, despite his elegant suit and erect carriage.


Nadar. Édouard Manet

Only the illustrator Gustave Doré (1832-1883) seems to have any flair with his jaunty checkered scarf, an artistic gesture rare among Nadar’s male sitters.


Nadar. Gustave Doré

It is no accident that the actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), who knew how to strike a pose, is among the most beautiful and Nadar worked with the light and dark folds of her drapery to frame her face and shoulders.


Nadar. Sarah Bernhardt

Compared to the artful artistry of Nadar, Disdéri’s images are far more utilitarian and pedestrian. Small and cheap and mass produced, Disdéri’s portraits made him so famous that according to legend, Napoléon III had his portrait taken by the photographer on his way to the ill-fated Franco-Prussian War. Disdéri’s clientele ranged from the general public to to nobility and no one minded the cheapness of what was probably considered a disposable object.

Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie of France, c 1865.

Disdéri. Emperor Napoléon III and Empress Eugènie

A mask blocking off all but one exposed area of the plate allowed the camera operator to move the frame quickly from pose to pose, and then the sheet of multiple photographs could then be mounted one by one and sold by the thousands to the public. Today we are used to the circulation of images of celebrities from politicians to movie stars: we know what everyone looks like. But in the nineteenth century, the people did not know the physical appearance of their leaders–tall, imposing, fat, short, unimpressive, heroic–until photographers, such as Nadar and Disdéri, made the prints available for everyone to buy and to mount in photographic albums. These albums were the prototypes of posters of movie stars on the walls of teen age bedrooms or baseball cards lovingly collected over the years. Thanks to the new mass media, the appetite of the public to look and consume other people’s lives and personalities were both whetted and satisfied.


Disdéri. Princess Mathilde Bonaparte

One could collect portraits of the Emperor, the Emperor and the Empress, the Empress’s poodle and the Emperor’s mistress, Cora Pearl. The truly discerning collectors would not rest until they had gathered together the entire set of the Imperial family.


Disdéri. Cora Pearl

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Roland Barthes: Writing Degree Zero

ROLAND BARTHES (1914 – 1980)


Writing Degree Zero (1953)

One of the most interesting facts of the life of Roland Barthes was that he was struck by a laundry van and, after lingering for a month, died of his injuries. “The Painter of Modern Life,” Constantin Guys had also been struck down in a similar fashion: almost a century earlier, he was run over by a cab and his legs were crushed. Guys died more slowly and succumbed ten years later. If being run down by a laundry truck when walking home from lunch with the future President of France, seems an odd way to die, Barthes had always walked an uneven path. He was unfortunate enough to come of age at a time where homosexuality was not a public matter and he spent his life in the closet, living with his only parent, his mother, his entire life. As he got older and became less attractive to the young men he desired, he declined to impose himself upon them. Barthes, who preferred a quiet life in the home he shared with his mother, was so fond of his colleague and intellectual confident, Julia Kristeva, he wished he was a heterosexual.

Although to outsiders, especially dazzled Americans, he seemed to be the chain smoking quintessential French intellectual, he was something of an autodidact whose education was never completed. Barthes had taught himself the prevailing French ideas floating through the post-war decades, but remained mostly an essay writer until his new tendencies were publicly criticized by a Sorbonne professor, Raymond Picard. As one of his biographers Jonathan Culler related, from 1965 on Barthes became the intellectual representative of criticism after Existentialism. However, exalted his public persona, Barthes was both in the center and in the margins and, indeed, Michel Foucault was somewhat disdainful of the self-education of Barthes. Barthes finally achieved a place in the scholarly community he at once chided and aspired to when he was elected to a chair in Sémiologie Littéraire at the Collège de France.

Post-war Paris was in a state of intellectual flux. The scholarly community had been united by two elements during the Occupation: hatred for the Nazis and adherence to Marxism. When the war ended, Existentialism emerged as the prevailing philosophy, but Marxism as a philosophy seemed to be discredited by the brutal Stalinism of the Soviet Union. It was the events of 1968 that finally ended the faith in a practical Marxist theory of class revolution and, in the ruins of the “days of May,” Existentialism seemed too focused on the individualistic “act” of a single person, Marxism seemed too political and too tainted with failure, leaving Structuralism as the comfortably apolitical philosophy of the day.


Paris “Days of May” 1968

Based on the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, Structuralism was established by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his 1955 book Tristes Tropiques, which was followed up by Structuralist Anthropology in 1958. The work of Lévi-Strauss moved away from linguistic signs to social signs, from behavior and costumes, rituals and customs. The work of the Structuralist was to reveal the underlying structure of cultural signifiers which were arranged along binaries. Reflecting the structure of the human mind, paired opposites such as the raw and the cooked should be read as part of a larger sign system and gains meaning within a network of other signs. The raw and the cooked, the inedible and the editable, for example, are part of a larger concept of nature and culture.

It is important to understand that by the time Structuralism was introduced to America, it was already “over” in Paris, challenged by newer versions of Structuralism from those who also repudiated Structuralism, such as Foucault and those who undermined it, such as Jacques Derrida. From the late sixties to the mid eighties, works by French and German writers arrived, via translations, in an unsystematic manner and with alien labels, such as “Post-Structuralism.” In the blank space following the exhaustion of New Criticism and the aging of the Anglo-American tradition, French theory fell on fertile ground and was consumed by eager Americans, few of whom were familiar with the very real differences among the scholars in the very competitive universities and colleges of Paris. Instead, the “French” was all lumped together and were not understood as having distinctive intellectual lineages and very distinctive bodies of work. Compared to the scientific work of Lévi-Strauss, to the historical scope and extended projects of Foucault, to the twisted syntax and ever-evolving re-writings by Lacan, to the dense and circular layered writing of Derrida, the books and essays by Roland Barthes are brief, concise, eclectic and, in the case of Camera Lucida, an extended mourning for his mother, very personal. Not a trained philosopher, as were many of his colleagues, Barthes is best understood as a literary critic who used Structuralism as an analytic tool to better foreground “writing” over “literature” and to understand the system of social signs of ordinary life.

However, Barthes came to Structuralism late in his career. The first twenty years of his development was essentially a learning curve, including numerous essays that led to significant books, one of them being his first extended foray into literary criticism in 1953 when he published Le degré zéro de l’écriture. Early in his career, like all young intellectuals, Barthes digested Existentialism and was very inspired by What is Literature? (1947) by Jean-Paul Sartre. “The empire of signs is prose, poetry is on the side of painting, sculpture and music,” Sartre wrote and the reader of the works of Barthes immediately recognizes a famous phrase that would later become the title of a book by Barthes. “Poets are men who refuse to utilize language..he has chosen the poetic attitude which considers words as things and not as signs.” In both accepting this book by Sartre and in slipping away from Existentialism, Writing Degree Zero is very much a transitional book. A reaction against Existentialism, it combines Marxism in its critique of bourgeois literature and moves beyond a class critique to a critique of what Barthes called “Literature,” seeking a new non ideological way of writing. The roots of the short book go back to the late 1940s and is one of the most obvious of his excursions into semiotics.

In her introduction to Writing Degree Zero, when it was translated into English in 1967, Susan Sontag noted that American writers would have difficulty in understanding the book. Part of what disturbed her in the late sixties–the unfamiliarity with French literary criticism–has since passed and the book does not seem difficult at all, but the entire foundation of the book, an analysis of a tradition of literature that is specifically French, remains alien to many Americans. As Sontag pointed out, not only do American have an Anglo-Ameircan literary heritage but the canonical authors are quite different. When Barthes wrote of “Literature,” without explanation, he was referring to the French tradition of classical and official literature that dated back to the 17th century. Because Literature was designed to provide knowledge, information, and received wisdom, it was considered, not a mode of writing but a “natural” and inevitable form of communication. Due to its effectiveness, Literature remained supreme, even after the French Revolution. Early 19th century writers adopted the official language of power and what had once belonged to the ancien regime was appropriated by the “triumphant” middle class.

As an example of the authority of this form of language, Barthes made note of a form of grammar that does not exist in the English language: the “preterite,” or a verb that “implicitly belongs with a causal chain..set of related and oriented actions.” “The Marchioness went out at five o’clock,” was a famous phrase used by Paul Valéry as a convention used for novels and Barthes notes that the same conventions are used for the recitations of history. Barthes stated that “Behind the preterite there always lurks a demiurge, a God or a reciter..the preterite is the expression of an order.” For the contemporary writer, the preterite is a phasing of authority and can be thought of as director’s establishing shot or the screenwriter’s ellipse–a way of moving the narrative from here to there. The order could hold as long as the class system remained intact and the bases of power seemed secure but after the Revolution of 1848, the social organization broke down due to historical forces, from industrialization and the urbanization of society. With the fracturing of the old society, the language of old France, Literature, lost its authority and writers had to find a new way of writing.

According to Barthes, “Literature” is a modern creation, part of a larger system of ownership and property resulting from capitalism and as such, this cultural concept constituted a new or modern form of writing that was “owned” by the “author” and “owned” by the publisher. By the 19th century, in its new version,“literature” was bought and sold and was no longer communal property as were the epic poems of an oral tradition named “Homer.” Bourgeois literature was an art form in the Kantian sense, in that it had no “useful” purpose. Therefore that which was bourgeois writing was distinguished from forms of writing that were considered versions of the “truth,” such as religion. Marxist theorist György Lukács (1885-1971) asserted that Realist writing of the 19th century was based upon seeing, meaning that the writer was merely describing what was seen or witnessed, no matter how painful. The mediation or the apparently neutral description was in fact a political act in that Realism made the power of the middle class seem to be inevitable. Notice that the supposedly distanced and omnipotent position of the narrator mimics the conventions of Literature. It is no accident that the Realist or Naturalistic novels of George Sand and Honoré Balzac and Gustave Flaubert emerged during a period of rising capitalism, the steady of empowerment of the bourgeoisie and the demise of the proletariat.

In Le Degrè zéro l’écriture, 1953, Barthes understood language to be a historical phenomenon and style as an individual feature. Barthes noted that descriptive or naturalistic writing was not innocent and was bound up in its own historical period. The avant-garde, situated in the Generation of 1848, broke with the horizontally and continuity of realism and liberated words from other words. From the 1850s on, the writer is “without Literature” which is in a “tragic predicament,” and the question becomes what is the mark of “good writing” now that Literature had lost its place? Barthes recounted that the late 19th century writers foregrounded “labor” as a value and stressed their bourgeois origins as workers. The new elevation of the “craft” of writing to an independent aesthetic began with Flaubert and modern authors strove to generate “good writing,” or the ability to use words well. The problem for writing became one of extracting oneself from the precincts of power and to find a way for writing to function as writing within a system of language.

Barthes was suspicious of “realism” in theory and in texts and considered realism not a form of seeing or describing that what existed, but as being based upon a set of practices and signification. The texts of the Realists were founded on a set of conventions that limited the text and, in naturalizing society, became a mediator between the bourgeoisie and the working class. For Barthes, the key moment in his analysis of the history of French literature, was the disjuncture between bourgeois realism and avant-garde realism. For the world of visual art, Literature, which was so transparent it appeared to have no style, would have its counterpart in academic art of the mid to late 19th century. Paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme or Ernst Meissionier were the bourgeois form of Realism as Literature. In contrast, examples of the avant-garde Realism would be the labored working class craft exhibited so proudly by Gustave Courbet or the visible marks of production kept on view by Édouard Manet in their paintings. Understanding the French Classical tradition of Literature which was supposedly invisible to itself but was actually a evidence of power and order allows the art historian to comprehend the cultural anger that met the avant-garde artists who called attention to the “un-naturalism” of “naturalism.”

It would be an exaggeration to see Barthes as a Structuralist in 1953 but he was certainly aware of Saussure and Marx, both of who had built binary models. For Saussure there was langue and parole, or the system of language and the way in which language is used in everyday life. Seeing a conflict with Saussure’s binary system–between the will and the system–Barthes sought a middle term: écriture. Écriture is not translatable into English and is now left in the original French, but in Writing Degree Zero the term is translated as “writing,” a rather colorless term. For Barthes, there is language, the system and style, which is both historical and personal or as he put it “biological.” If the language is social then the style is personal. But in between language and style is writing. As Barthes wrote,

A language and a style are blind forces; a mode of writing (écriture) is an act of historical solidarity. A language and a style are objects; a mode of writing (écriture) is a function; it is the relationship between creation and society, the literary language transformed by its social finality, form considered as a human intention and thus linked to the great crises of History.

For Barthes écriture had a specific relationship of form to content, embodied in the conventions of writing and operating within ethical and political values as a social fact. Always concerned with writing (écriture) as a moral act as a social fact, Barthes set up a ternary schema–a tripod model that would become his trademark–langue, style, écriture, which intimates or gestures at something beyond–a critique. “Writing,” Barthes asserted, “is always rooted in something beyond language, but develops like a seed, not like a line, it manifests an essence and holds the threat of a secret, it is an anti communication, it is intimidating.” Writing Degree Zero breaks down into three major sections with his discussion of the transition from Literature to avant-garde writing in the middle, as the meat in the sandwich, as it were. Having established écriture as a third element, wedged between language and style, Barthes then ended his slim volume of meditation on the French tradition of writing with another middle term: zero degree writing.

Concerned with getting literature out of trap of bourgeois realism, Barthes had little patience with the “craft of writing (which) does not disturb any order.” He includes in those non-disturbers writers, who think they are disrupting the system or can “exorcise this sacred writing by dislocating it,” the still ascendent Surrealists, such as André Breton. Even the attempts of Stéphane Mallarmé to renounce language were equivocal. The solution Barthes put forward was “a colorless writing, freed from all bondage to a pre-ordined state of language.” His new breaking of the binaries centered upon placing “a neutral term or zero element.” The zero element is an aspect of grammar, a term in the middle of the singular-plural binary. As Barthes explained, “..writing at the zero degree is basically in the indicative mode, or if you like, a modal..a journalist’s writing.”

Barthes was interested in the neutral or what Sartre called, the “white writing” of Albert Camus, purged of the characteristic mark of “literature” (mannerism or style), “achieves a style of absence, which is almost an idea absence of style; writing is then reduced to a sort of negative mood in which the social or mythical characters of a language are abolished in favor of a neutral and inert state of form..neutral writing in fact rediscovers the primary condition of classical art: instrumentality. But this time, form as an instrument is no longer at the service of a triumphant ideology; it is the mode of a new situation of the writer, a way of certain silence has of existing; it deliberately foregoes any elegance or ornament, for these two dimensions would reintroduce Time into writing..” Unlike Marxist literature which is a language of “value-judgments” or “professional language signifying ‘presence,” writing should be linked to the project of revolution by renegotiating its relationship to history.

Barthes comes from the exhausted traditions of Marxism and Existentialism and extends their shared values of a moral writing by an engaged intellectual and looks for an ethical dimension in literature. “White writing” negates the false transparency of the algebraic system of the cause-and-effect writing of Literature, in which one element “naturally” follows another in a “logical” fashion. For Barthes the critic’s job is to construct intelligibility for his/her own time and to develop conceptual frameworks for analysis. In this critical and analytical fashion, the critic exposed the habitual ways of making the world intelligible and worked to modify these meanings that seem “natural.” For Barthes, all writing contains social signs, indicating a social mode of writing. No prose is transparent; the author’s language is inherited, while his/her own style is personal, but writing can be “white” or “zero degree.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Modernism and Postmodernism: Allegory as Theory


The comparison of these two time periods was an inevitable result of the desire of Postmodern theorists to critique Modernist theory. But comparison was an early impulse trapped in the very polarities of Modernism that Postmodernism rejected. Nevertheless, establishing pairs of opposites allowed Postmodern thought to distinguish itself from its the ancestor before the new generation could go forward on its own terms. Regardless of the simplistic Oedipal origins, Ihab Hassen’s 1987 essay “Towards a Concept of Postmodernism” provided a neat model of comparison that was highly influential:


Romanticism/Symbolism Form (conjunctive, closed)/ Purpose/ Design/ Hierarchy Mastery/Logos Art Object/Finished Work/ Distance/ Creation/Totalization/ Synthesis Presence/ Centering Genre/Boundary/ Semantics/ Paradigm/ Hypotaxis/ Metaphor/ Selection Root/Depth/ Interpretation/Reading/ Signified/ Lisible (Readerly)/ Narrative/Grande Histoire/Master Code /Symptom/ Type/ Genital-Phallic Paranoia/ Origin/Cause God the Father Metaphysics/ Determinancy/ Transcendence


Pataphysics/Dadaism/ Antiform (disjunctive, open) Play/ Chance/ Anarchy Exhaustion/Silence Process/Performance/Happening Participation Decreation/Deconstruction/ Antithesis Absence/ Dispersal/ Text/Intertext Rhetoric Syntagm Parataxis /Metonymy/ Combination/ Rhizome/Surface/ Against Interpretation/Misreading Signifier/ Scriptible (Writerly)/ Anti-narrative/Petite Histoire/ Idiolect/Desire /Mutant Polymorphous/Androgynous/Schizophrenia/ Difference-Differance/Trace/ The Holy Ghost Irony/ Indeterminancy/ Immanence

The destruction of Modernism was a slow moving chain reaction, like the 1987 video, The Way Things Go by Peter Fischli and David Weiss–element was pushed and toppled into another element which fell into the the third piece until a major explosion took place at 3.32pm in St Louis, Missouri, on 15 July 1972 when a sprawling housing complex named Pruitt Igoe was dynamited. Destroyed by its inhabitants who pulverized it from within before it was exploded from without, the highly decorated, prize winning celebration of Modernism utopianism imploded under the weight of Modernist entropy. The occasion, an ordinary one in the larger scheme of things was elevated into a historic landmark by Charles Jencks in his 1977 book The Language of Postmodern Architecture and set to music in the brilliant documentary Koyaanisqatsi (1975-1982).


The Demolition of the Pruitt Igoe Complex 1972

One could quibble that the example chosen by Jencks was a convenient but arbitrary one, but history has a grim way of making a prophet even of a mere historian. The architect of Pruitt Igoe was none other than Minoru Yamasaki (1912-1986), who was also the architect for the Twin Towers. When the World Trade Center towers were destroyed on September 11th 2001, it was widely announced that Postmodernism was over. So a somewhat obscure Asian American architect had the honor of being the omega and the omega of Modernism and Postmodernism.

Las Vegas as a Sign System

Wherever Postmodernism ended, it began where all things begin, in Las Vegas. It is perhaps no accident that iconoclasts Tom Wolfe (1930-) and Robert Venturi (1925-) both had Yale connections: Wolfe as a graduate and Venturi as a member of the architecture faculty. Wolfe made his literary mark wrote two seminal essays that defined the growing “counter-culture:” “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy- Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” the famous 1963 article on the Kar Kulture of Los Angeles and “Las Vegas (What?) Las Vegas (Can’t Hear You! Too Noisy) Las Vegas!!!!” of 1964, both for Esquire magazine. As a contemporary of the Pop artists, Wolfe was not only rattling the cages of the ossified Modernist establishment, he was also pointing the way a new appreciation of one of the major taboos of Modernism, the vernacular. Indeed one could argue that Las Vegas, with its ambivalent status as a proper “city,” is a work of folk art, an unconscious counterpart to the less-is-more austerity of Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969). In 1968 the Strip with its riot of lights and pleasure became the destination for Robert Venturi and his new wife and fellow architect, Denise Scott Brown (1931-), their colleague Steven Izenour (1940-2001), with Yale students in two to see Wolfe’s “incredible electric sign gauntlet” for themselves.

In seeking an architectural site where contemporary “life” was organically creating architecture, the architects rejected other “new cities,” such as Los Angeles in favor of Las Vegas, which was “more concentrated and easier to study.” In the late sixties, the famed Strip, lined with casinos and hotels displaying brightly lit signs, was less a place where people lived and more an isolated site servicing improbable fantasies. Four years later, the trio published Learning from Las Vegas and by championing the vital and the vernacular, the book upended the purity of Modernist theory. In advocating for the intersection of art and life, Robert Venturi could be thought of as the architectural equivalent of Robert Rauschenberg as he and his partners called attention to the vernacular landscape and insisted upon the importance of the surrounding environment to architecture. The preference for the ordinary and this attention to the unartistic world surrounding the building stood in stark contrast to the stance of Modernist architecture, also called The International Style, which had come to a sterile and corporate dead end. Not only did Venturi and Scott Brown not turn their backs on architectural history, they used the past to explain and validate their analysis of Vegas. The parking lot the the A & P grocery store is compared to the parterre of the gardens of Versailles: this is contemporary space where the architecture is taken over by the signs that are the façade of the buildings.

The architects have the Baroque tradition in architecture in mind: the long vistas of power are now long vistas of Route 66 which promise pleasure. Las Vegas is the new Rome, centrally planned and precisely laid out for a specific purpose. Like a Roman military camp, Las Vegas is laid out in an orderly grid which keeps in check the blazing lights constantly jumping and jiving to their own internal rhythms. What Venturi and Scott Brown pointed out that Las Vegas is more symbolism than architecture, meaning that meaning had become detached from the form and its function. The result was a landscape of free-floating signifiers. As they write, “Regardless of the front, the back of the building is styleless, because the whole is turned toward the front and no one sees the back..the artistic influence has spread and Las Vegas motels have signs like no others..” The visual contrast between the Weissenhof housing estate built by canonical Modernist architects in Stuttgart in 1927, and the brightly lit and colored pleasure palaces of Las Vegas is striking. The white box absolutism of Walter Gropius and his colleagues favored the general over the specific and the absolute over the particular. Las Vegas is all incoherence and is fixated on detail of the signage. “Detail”, that is, a reference, which would locate the work and place it beyond the realm of transcendence, was to be banished.

As the late Naomi Schor pointed out in her 1987 book, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine, the “detail” had long been relegated to the feminine as being opposed to the General or the Universal. The Detail was the unassailable Other and had to be banished. Detail like decoration is unnecessary within the totality. At the beginning of the 20th century, Viennese architect and theorist Aldof Loos declaring “ornament” to be “crime” in architecture. The stripping of “white architecture”, as architecture critic Mark Wigley termed it in his 1995 book White Walls, Designer Dresses: The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, coincides with the development of abstract art. Abstract art, stripped of representation, needed to ally itself with humanism, spiritualization, and self-actualization—all while excluding the other half of the human race: women. Wigley goes on to point out that Modernist architecture, in its turn, was only fashion, the “structure” of its “erections” betrayed by the white (dress) covering. It would take twenty years for a new generation of architects to develop a Postmodern approach to architecture.

Taking a cue from Las Vegas, Postmodern buildings emphasized detail and façade and referential signage over purity. Architects followed the “linguistic turn” of literary theory and were aware of the latest in philosophical trends. One of the most interesting theories that was manifested in art and architecture was that of allegory. Because Postmodernism always attends to history, unlike Modernism, which broke firmly with the past, Postmodernism looks back and accumulates the fragments of the past and recombines the shards, rebuilding out of ruins. Each element re-found by the architect retained its historical meaning even though the element was re-placed in a postmodern structure. A building by Michael Graves or Charles Moore would be a postmodern ode to history, bringing together architectural styles without regard to consistency of period or meaning. The result was not a revival, nor was it eclecticism, nor was this strategy a mere homage to the ghosts of architecture past. Architecture of the Postmodern persuasion was an allegory that constituted a reading of a building which now functioned as a text.


Allegory as Text

The theories that would support Postmodern art preceded the art and were then applied to the works of art in a mix and match fashion. Unlike Modernist theory, Postmodernist theory came from numerous sources, from linguistics to post-Marxism to the critique of Enlightenment philosophy. Because all of the texts upon which Postmodernism would be based were either in French or German, the translators and explicators became significant players in disseminating the unfamiliar theories to the academic and artistic audiences. Borrowing heavily from Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama, which in 1980 was still unfamiliar to American readers, the late art historian Craig Owens (1950-1980) wrote “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism.” The significance of this two part article is its early publication date, meaning that Owens introduced many readers to one of the important aspects of Postmodern theory. Owens begins by locating allegory in its site of origin, which is literature. As the prefiguration for the New Testament, the Old Testament, allegory was the origin of critique because of its role as commentary. Owens explained,

Allegorical imagery is appropriated imagery; the allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them.He lays claim to the culturally significant, poses as its interpreter. And in his hands the image becomes something other (allos =other + agoreuei =to speak). He does not restore an original meaning that may have been lost or obscured; allegory is not hermeneutics. Rather,he adds another meaning to the image. If he adds, however,he does so only to replace: the allegorical meaning supplants an antecedent one; it is a supplement. This is why allegory is condemned, but it is also the source of its theoretical significance

Because Owens was writing his essay before art became “Postmodern,” his choices of art and artists to explain allegory are forced. When he stated that “Allegory concerns itself,then,with the projection-either spatial or temporal or both-of structure as sequence; the result,however,is not dynamic, but It is thus the of for it static, ritualistic,repetitive. epitome counter-narrative, arrests narrative in place, substituting a principle of syntagmatic disjunction for one of diegetic combination. In this way allegory superinduces a vertical or paradigmatic reading of correspondences upon a horizontal or syntagmatic chain of events,”it is hard to understand how Minimal artists Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt–as we analyze them today–could possible have any relationship to allegory. Owens continued by linked appropriation and hybridity to allegory: “Appropriation,site specificity, impermanence,accumulation, discursivity, hybridization these diverse strategies characterize much of the art of the present and distinguish it from its modernist predecessors.” Owens identifies allegory with a kind of writing in the visual arts. Piazza d’Italia by Charles Moore (1925-1993) was completed in 1978 and provides an excellent example of allegory. First, it is a witty reference to Robert Venturi’s comparison of Las Vegas to the piazzas of Rome and second, it is an ode to Las Vegas in its fictionality and in its assertion of the façade, which, indecently, is lit like a sign on the Strip. The Piazza is an assemblage of architectural elements and is a dizzy discourse on the history of the built environment. Therefore, “reading” the Piazza involves Robert Venturi, the Las Vegas strip, and a heavy dose of architectural historian Vincent Scully. In a nod to New Orleans, the façade rises like a fake Hollywood set from its shallow bed of water, the worst enemy of the low lying city.

In explaining how allegory is writing which is a text that must be read, Owens wrote,

If allegory is identified as a supplement, then it is also aligned with writing, insofar as writing is conceived as supplementary to speech.It is of course within the same philosophic tradition which subordinates writing to speech that allegory is subordinated to the symbol. It might demonstrated, perspective, that the suppression of allegory is identical with the suppression of writing. For allegory, whether visual or verbal,is essentially a form of script-this is the basis for Walter Benjamin’s treatment of it in The Origin of German Tragic Drama: “At one stroke the profound vision of allegory transforms things and works into stirring writing.”

In the second part of his essay Owens discussed the art of Édouard Manet as a form of allegory. In his early career Manet made a number of what Michel Foucault would term “museum paintings,” or art that referred to other works of art. As hybrids these early paintings appropriated motifs from other famous works of art which could be recognized, even in their buried state, by viewers familiar with art history. In acting as though he was leafing through the pages of an art history text, Manet performed as a bricoleur that cultural producer highlighted by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009). Writing in The Savage Mind in 1966, Lévi-Strauss stated,

There still exists among ourselves an activity which on the technical plane gives us quite a good understanding of what a science we prefer to call ‘prior’ rather than ‘primitive’, could have been on the plane of speculation. This is what is commonly called ‘bricolage’ in French. In its old sense the verb ‘bricoler’ applied to ball games and billiards, to hunting, shooting and riding. It was however always used with reference to some extraneous movement: a ball rebounding, a dog straying or a horse swerving from its direct course to avoid an obstacle. And in our own time the ‘bricoleur’ is still someone who works with his hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman. The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal. Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual ‘bricolage’ – which explains the relation which can be perceived between the two.

A comment that Lévi-Strauss made was particularly interesting for Postmodern theory: “It might be said that the engineer questions the universe, while the ‘bricoleur’ addresses himself to a collection of oddments left over from human endeavours, that is, only a sub-set of the culture.”In other words, the bricoleur works with”sub-sets” and does not, like the engineer, “question the universe.” Rather than attempt to remake subject matter for painting, Manet played with sub-sets of the already existing elements of culture. Compared to the awkward contemporary examples put forward by Craig Owens in 1980, the paintings of Mark Tansey who was actively involved in creating works of art that one had to “read thorough” to decode are a far superior example of allegory. Like Manet who dueled with the classical Renaissance tradition, Tansey rifled through the history of Modernist painting and piled on references to both Modernist and Postmodernist theories. Painting backwards by lifting paint off the canvas, illustrating in the discarded style of Norman Rockwell, Tansey paid homage to Lévi-Strauss in his 1987 painting, The Bricoleur’s Daughter, in which a young girl stands on a step stool and rifles through a set of cabinets. The cabinets, which are both above and below the counter are stuffed with art supplies and items gone astray from Dutch still life paintings, are a reference to the origin of museums as wunderkammer or cabinets of curiosity. The role of the allegorist is that of a gatherer who piles on references through a collection of emblems found in the ruins of a past culture.

Allegory is always specific to the needs of a culture, meaning that there are periods when the intelligentsia drives “impure” forms of expression,such as allegory, from its boundaries. The intent of Walter Benjamin was to revive the reputation of Baroque allegory. Although he did not state his intention as directly, Robert Venturi’s frequent appeal to Baroque architecture in Learning from Las Vegas suggests a swerve away from the classicism of Modernism. And, in his turn, Craig Owens noted that Modernist literary theory had also rejected allegory. Allegory then is a commentary on a recent past and it is also a rejection of its predecessors, suggesting that allegory should be viewed as symptom of a cultural need to “take stock,” like The Bricoleur’s Daughter of the leftovers of the past.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

“Modernist Painting” by Clement Greenberg


Clement Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting,” originally given as a radio broadcast in 1961 for the Voice of America’s “Forum Lectures,” was printed in 1961 in the Arts Yearbook 4 of the same year, reprinted in 1965, ’66, ‘74, ’78, and 1982. The article achieved a canonical status and served as one of the definitive statements of formalism as a mode of visual analysis and of formalism as a critical stance, and possibly, of formalism as a mode of making art. In his 1961 essay on “Modernist Painting,” Clement Greenberg (1909-1994) defined “Modernism” as the period (in art) roughly from the mid-1850s to his present that displayed a self-critical tendency in the arts.

Greenberg considered Immanuel Kant the first Modernist. The essence of Kant’s thesis was the employment of the characteristic “methods” of the discipline to “criticize the discipline itself.” According to Greenberg, Kant used logic to establish “the limits of logic.” The Modernist goal of self-criticism grows out of the critical spirit of the Enlightenment philosophical system which was based upon the belief in the power of rational thought and human reason. “Critique,” as a method, analyzes from the inside, from within the object being examined and does not judge from the outside, according to external criteria.

Painting must analyze itself to discover its inherent properties. Painting, according to Enlightenment methodology, must be interrogated according to its inherent purposes. The key term here would be “inherent,” for analyzing an object according to its essential definition must preclude bringing forward any non-essential or external criteria. In other words, a painting telling a “good story” is not necessarily a good painting. In this article, Greenberg carries on his attempt to “save” and to define “high art,” and “Modernist Painting” of 1960 can be compared to “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” of 1939. Two decades had passed and Greenberg had progressed from being an up-and-coming art writer to being the arbiter of fine arts in New York, enjoying a truly hegemonic position. His crusade was all the more urgent in 1961, as territory of the avant-garde was being invaded by popular culture and the forces of disrule, exemplified by Neo-Dada and Pop Art and Fluxus. Greenberg had also shifted his political position, from being an intellectual Marxist, to being a Kantian formalist, a far safer situation which removes the critic and art from current cultural considerations.

Greenberg stated that art can “save” itself from being entertainment by demonstrating that the experience it provides is “unobtainable from any other source.” It is the task of art to demonstrate that which is “unique” and “irreducible”, particular or peculiar to art and that which determines the operation peculiar and exclusive to itself. All effects borrowed from any other medium must be eliminated, rendering the art form pure. “Purity” becomes a guarantee of “quality” and “independence” of avant-garde art. All extrinsic effects should be eliminated from painting.

One could say that it is not the essential to the definition of a painting that it re-create the world realistically. Today, that role can be fulfilled by photography or film. Film and theater are defined by storytelling and narrative, enhanced by illusions of everyday reality. Following Greenberg’s line of reasoning, realism and story telling and illusionism should be eliminated from painting. For Greenberg, art was used to call attention to art. Clement Greenberg logically worked out the limitations and peculiarities of painting, which are a flat surface, the shape of the support and the properties of the pigment. These physical and material limiting conditions became positive factors.

Once suppressed by artists through under-painting and glazing, these material aspects of painting were now acknowledged by Modernist painters. Because he appeared to have considered and taken into account the limitations of painting as the application of paint upon a flat surface, or a stretched canvas, Édouard Manet is designated by Greenberg as the first Modernist artist. Manet “declared the surface;” his follower, Paul Cézanne, fit the drawing and design into the rectangle of the painting. In Modernist painting, the spectator is made aware of the flatness and sees the picture first, before noting the content.

Modernist painting abandoned the principle of representation of Renaissance illusionistic space inhabited by three-dimensional objects, giving the effect of looking through the canvas into a world beyond. Modernist painting resists the sculptural, which is suppressed or expelled. The question is that of a purely optical experience. With Greenberg, flatness alone is unique to painting. For this critic, “art” carries within itself its own teleology. As art seeks self-definition and determines its own uniqueness, it becomes more pure, more reductive in its means. More is eliminated—subject matter, content, figuration, illusionism, narrative—and art becomes independent, detached, and non-objective, that is, abstract. Content becomes completely dissolved into form. Greenberg, in looking back selectively at the history of art, presented a map of progress and evolution of painting, away from representation and toward purity, abstraction, reductiveness; to flatness, to pure color, to simple forms that reflected the shape of the surface.

The essay noted that Modernism “resists sculpture” or three-dimensionality and reminded the reader that this “resistance” was by no mean recent. The critic pointed to Jacques-Louis David as an example of an artist whose work was flat and surface based. Greenberg insisted that the scientific method justified the demand that painting (and art) limit itself to “what is given in visual experience.” Greenberg equated the artist to the scientists, both of whom “test” and experiment. The equation of art with science, replaces his earlier equation of the avant-garde with politics: “…a superior culture is inherently a more critical culture.” One can “only look” at a work of visual art, which is discernible only to the “eye.” Poetry is “literary,” art is not and should not attempt to be, for as Greenberg reminded us, any translation of the literary into the visual “loses” the literary qualities.

Like Avant-garde and Kitsch, Modernist Painting, had a subtext, Enlightenment philosophy, especially that of Kant’s Critique of Judgment. The 1939 article concerned itself with aesthetics but more with the “experience” of the aesthetic. In Avant-garde and Kitsch, it is possible to believe that Greenberg was writing of the experience of the aesthetic in terms of the placement of art in the culture, in other words, it is not so much the “how” of the experience but of the “where” of the aesthetic. In Modernist Painting, the experience of the aesthetic is located in the realm of the how one looks at a work of art.

The proper attitude of the spectator was important to Kant who recommended a posture of detachment from personal desire and indifference to artistic content in search of a universal means of judging the efficacy of art. The Enlightenment philosophy cherished the idea of the universal or the absolute, for some kind of standard had to be erected to replace the all-knowing presence of the now-banished God. Kant was not interested in defining what “art” was but in establishing the ground for the judgment of art. Working in the new philosophical field, aesthetics, Kant attempted to establish the epistemology of art, based, not in individual works but in a method of knowledge.

Greenberg’s understanding of Kant led him to use the methodology of critique but the critic took “critique” in a rather different direction. Writing two centuries after the German philosopher, Greenberg looked backwards in time and implied another favorite Enlightenment idea, that of progress. Modernist art, if one understands the essay correctly, seems to “progress” and move forward in time, away from manifestations of extrinsic properties and towards a purity of means. “Modernist art develops out of the past without gap or break, and wherever it ends up, it will never stop being intelligible in terms of the continuity of art.”

The ground has shifted away from a means of judgment (Kant) to a theory of the evolution of art along telelogical lines with a goal in mind: purity. Even though as Greenberg pointed out, “The first mark made on the canvas destroys its virtual flatness,” purity seems to imply a historical rejection of representation and a validation of abstraction. The point of noting Greenberg’s development of Kantian theory and its application toward Modernist Painting is that, without the notion of progress, the critic’s theory of artistic development would have to include some of the masters of flatness, such as William Bourguereau and some of the masters of the surface such as Thomas Kincaide, both of whom Greenberg would have excluded from the family tree of modernism.

While Kant would at least judge these two artists (and perhaps find them wanting), Greenberg seems to imply a connection between Modernism and the avant-garde and establish ground for exclusion of the unworthy. The oppositions of the dialectic are implied: those who did not follow the path of Modernist reductionism were, like dinosaurs, left behind. If one reads in a connection between Modernism and the avant-garde, even if only through the names of the canonical artists Greenberg mentioned and thought his previous articles, then the conflation between the continuity of art and the avant-garde, which supposedly breaks with the past, becomes rather awkward. Indeed, Greenberg does not mention the avant-garde, he uses the term “authentic art,” instead.

“Nothing could be further from the authentic art of our time than the idea of a rupture of continuity. Art is, among many other things, continuity. Without the past of art, and without the need and compulsion to maintain past standards of excellence, such a thing as modernist art would be impossible,” Greenberg stated.

However, as pointed out in his earlier work, Greenberg refused to connect the avant-garde with a rejection of the past: “…the true and most important function of the avant-garde was not to ‘experiment’ but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving…” (Greenberg’s italics). The underlying continuity of the two articles can be seen in the precursor remark in the 1939 writing on the role of the avant-garde artist: “’Art for art’s sake’ and ‘pure poetry’ appear, and subject matter or content becomes something to be avoided like the plague.” Given the openness of the construction of this essay and the plurality of texts mobilized by Greenberg, it is no wonder that “Modernist Painting” lent itself to so many causes, whether as a rallying point or as a bête noir.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]


Podcast 43 Painting 9: Pop Art

Pop Art and Popular Culture

Pop Art was essentially an American phenomenon that included European responses to the imagery of the post-war consumer culture pioneered in New York ad agencies. Like Neo-Dada, Pop Art exposed the limits of Modernism and the prevailing discourse on the aesthetics of painting. These two movements supported mixed media, mass media, hybrid objects and anti-art gestures, employing sources from popular culture, low art and advertising. Perhaps more interesting than the art was the new attitude of the artists—irreverent and business-minded, they thumbed their collective noses at the high-minded, humanist based Abstract Expressionism. But the biggest change wrought by the post Ab Ex movements was the return of representation, upending the dominance of abstract art.


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad or iPhone

Remember to download the iBooks app to your iPad or iPhone

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

Podcast 36 Painting 2: Manet to Post-Impressionism

The Painters of Modern Life

Although the Pre-Raphaelite artists initiated the artistic interest in contemporary urban life and the problems of modern people, the Parisian artists are given credit for learning how to express modernité in formal terms. The French painters found the seventeenth century Dutch painters important precursors. Inspired by the depiction of ordinary moments of daily life among the middle class in Holland, the emerging avant-garde artists began to rethink, not just how to handle modern content, but also how to use paint itself so that their art could be “of its own time.” The result of this experimentation was an evolution of painting into the twentieth century.


[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Podcast 35 Painting 1: Preface to the Avant-Garde

Advanced Guard before the Avant-Garde

There is some historical disagreement over when and where the avant-garde movement in the visual arts began. But it is clear that that the notion that changes in art come from the margins not the center came into existence and began to impact painting by the middle of the nineteenth century. What were the aesthetic and cultural conditions that made the avant-garde possible?


[email protected]

Important Announcement

The Podcasts from this Website

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available through iTunes and can be listened to on your iPad

Art History Unstuffed: The Podcasts

Also the complete

Art History Timeline Videos

by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

are now available and can be viewed on You Tube

This twenty-seven episode series of five minute videos span Western art history, from the Caves to Romanticism. The videos can be used by students and teachers as introductory, supplementary or review material. Each video is written,narrated and produced by the author of this website, and is reinforced by written text and is richly illustrated by many images. The entire Timeline can be accessed through

this link: Art History Timeline

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Impressionism and the Landscape


Redefining Landscape Painting

The term “landscape” comes from the Dutch term “landskip,” and today when one thinks of landscape painting, an Impressionist work immediately comes to mind: soft and lovely colors, gently brushed surfaces, sites where the always-shining sunlight is captured in shards of broken brush strokes. Like the English artist, John Constable, the Impressionists painted objectively, as observers with a scientific frame of mind. But in contrast to their predecessors, they sought to capture a fleeting moment out in the open air. Today, Impressionism is often still thought of, incorrectly, as an art of landscape, just as it is thought of as only an art of broken brush-work, also incorrectly. There was no single Impressionist subject matter and no single style. There was also no single coherent group of Impressionists, only a group of painters who chose to exhibit independently together as a group. Some of the artists were highly trained, such as Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, and Mary Cassatt. Others, Claude Monet and Pierre Renoir, were outsider artists. The artist of interior scenes, Frederic Bazille, died young, while Pierre Renoir, a figure painter, lived well into the Twentieth century. The wealthy artist, Gustave Caillebotte was, until recently, respected more as a collector than as a painter was largely an artist of the upscale cityscape. Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, and Edgar Degas were well-to-do, while Pierre Renoir was terribly poor. Those three did fewer landscapes than Monet, for example, possibly due to gender and class constraints and preferences.

Edgar Degas despised the outdoors, but Claude Monet was a painter of the urban landscapes, until he retreated to the peace of suburban town, Giverney. Alfred Sisley was a weaker artist, producing pleasant suburban landscapes of lesser distinction compared to the thoughtful examinations of a changing physical and social landscapes produced by Camille Pissarro, the political radical. Pissarro, himself, lived in Pontoise, located on the river Oise, which was already lined with factories. He was a kind of mentor to Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin and together in the “School of Pontoise,” the three of them painted the hilly suburban villages. Of three, only Pissarro was willing to paint the contemporary city, and his late paintings were from high atop Parisian buildings. By then, Cézanne had retreated to Aix and lived beyond the reach of industrialism, Gauguin had sought the exotic in the South Pacific where he died. Cézanne continued to paint the hot dry landscape of Provence until he died, but Gauguin had long since devoted himself to scenes of the South Pacific.

Impressionist painting is usually defined in terms of the style used by Claude Monet and Pierre Renoir for their landscape paintings, but, however convenient, this identification is too reductive. As was pointed out, not all Impressionists adopted the style of the “pure” landscape painters and even those artists, later in their careers, began to work on the landscapes in the studio. During their ten-year exhibition period, the Impressionists were divided into two camps: the “pure” Impressionists and the Independents, gathering around Monet and Degas, respectively. This is an aesthetic divide only, however, and the Impressionists were united in their iconography of urban life and with their equation of artistic experimentation with modernity. As a group they created a new language and a new understanding of painting technique, treatment of space and composition. These new pictorial structures can be called a “New Painting.”

The new painters have tried to render the walk, movement and hustle and bustle of passersby, just as they have tried to render the trembling of leaves, the shimmer of water, and the vibration of sun-drenched air—just as they have managed to capture the hazy atmosphere of a gray day along with the iridescent play of sunshine….

At last the subject matter of art includes the simple intimacies of everyday life in its repertoire, in addition, to its generally less common interests…

From The New Painting: Concerning the Group of Artists Exhibiting at the Durand Ruel Galleries, by Louis Emile Edmound Duranty, 1876


The New Suburban Landscapes


However “common” and “everyday,” according to the critic Duranty, the subject matter of the first decade of Impressionism is deceptively radical, often submerged under the novelty of the swift execution of the paintings and the change to a sketchy technique. While the landscapes of Impressionism were direct descendents of the Barbizon School, their sites were very different. The Barbizon landscapes were poetic and romantic, and turned away from the urbanization all around the Forest. The Impressionists were possibly the first generation of French artists who grew up with urban living and industrial landscapes and they accepted the modernism and the changes it had brought to the traditional scenery. When Monet and Renoir set up their canvases at La Grenouillère, they were accepting the modern suburban life of leisure, depicting very modern people engaged in activities that were entirely new. Men and women came to a public place of play, bathing and boating, mixing class and gender in a somewhat scandalous fashion. In 1869, the two artists were far from the nostalgic longing of the Barbizon as they swiftly constructed the scene with quick choppy brushstrokes.

The Impressionists painted the lower classes but as newly aspiring members of an urban society, upwardly mobile proletarians enjoying themselves. Impressionist subject matter was quite novel in its ordinariness and newness, not a narrative, but simply a presentational record of the Third Republic. This presentation of subject was quite different from Edouard Manet, who tended to display his subjects like products in a store window and to confront and confuse the viewer. There is something curiously and frankly voyeuristic about Manet’s oeuvre. He is often somewhere where he shouldn’t be; doing something he shouldn’t be doing, at least according to the dictates of decorum. But the Impressionists reject provocation in favor of painting the new Paris and its suburbs. Renoir always preferred the figure and often used the landscape as a backdrop for his fashionable young men and women enjoying themselves in the open air, such as La Promenade (1870). Perhaps more than anyone, Renoir exemplified the “social landscape” of Impressionism. An early work, La Promenade predicts his later works, which redefine landscape as a social site, places which people have altered and transformed for their own uses. Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1881 pushed the very definition of landscape. Here the owners and customers of a restaurant in Chatou, along with Renoir’s friend Caillebotte and his mistress Aline, enjoy a lunch on a balcony, which overlooks the river Seine. The outdoors occupies only a tiny sliver at the top of the painting, glimpsed under the striped awning, but what makes this painting a landscape is the fact that it is flooded with light. When viewed in person the canvas seems to emanate the sun, warming the room.

The New Urban Landscapes

During the formative years of Impressionism, Renoir and Monet painted the city as it was recovering from the Franco-Prussian War, treating the urban vistas as landscapes. The open boulevards created by Haussmann fascinated the artists, who were in search of new subject matter. The uniform height of the rows of townhouses gave the artist the opportunity to work from a high vantage point and record the busy streets teeming with people and carriages below. Renoir’s Pont des arts (1868) painted at the high point of the Second Empire makes the new Paris seem very chic and very fashionable. His perspective of the spectacle, the parade is that of the flâneur, watching the world go by. Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines, 1875) painted at the corner of rue Dallnou was criticized for the “licorice” like strokes of paint, signifying Parisians moving down the street. The soft yellow-orange leaves of the trees nearly obscure the buildings that line the streets and due to the reduction of people to marks, the painting becomes a landscape.

It is often forgotten how much of Impressionist landscape was involved with the modern, for it is not until the 1880s when the group had dispersed that Monet began his series of motifs, haystacks and water lilies, located in the countryside. Although Degas despised the open air, he contributed to the extension of the expected definition of “landscape.” The Place de la Concorde of 1875 continued the Impressionist interest in the interaction between humans and their human made territories. There is nothing green in this now-lost painting, only the buff pavement rising behind the Vicomte Lepic and his daughter and his elegant dog. The three compose a triangle in gray in the center of an open city square. As the figures start to move in three different directions they indicate both the flâneur fascination with the city and the alienation of modernity. Nature has been vanquished completely. None of the friendship and sense of ease seen in The Luncheon of the Boating Party remains, only the hard lines and high walls of an entirely artificial setting, the kind so prized by Degas.

The New Technological Landscape


This new kind of landscape created by modernity can also be found in the series of paintings Camille Pissarro did of his hometown, Pontoise, already altered by the intrusion of factories. Although Pissarro carefully edited the buildings along the riverbanks, he deliberately left in the factory at St. Ouen-L’Aumône and accepted the modernity of what had once been pristine. In contrast to the Barbizon artists who wanted to recreate an Arcadia, the Impressionists both continued and refuted one of the imperatives of “pure” landscape: that the landscape must exist independently of the viewer. Pissarro’s series at Pontoise dates from the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, and from 1872 he accepted the inevitability of progress. But the factory is not necessarily a detriment, for, like the bridge painted by Monet at Argenteuil, it is a sign of recovery and even of celebration of French freedom from the Prussian occupation. Pissarro’s The Banks of the Oise, Pontoise, 1872 is unspoiled nature at the bottom third of the canvas, a country lane on the left and a river bank on the right. In the center is the shining expanse of the slow river, but it leads to the center of the canvas; and here, at the heart, is the factory. The smoke stack, puffing gray clouds towards the blue sky, rises above the suburban dwellings in a confluence of nature and technology.

The presence of artists in these new territories beyond Paris was due to the growth and development of railroads, which bound the nation together. The coming of the railroads changed a fragmented country divided by culture and language into one society, increasingly homogenized and modernized. At the very moment of coming together, the old France was put a risk by an increasingly mobile urban population. Quaint villages and remote regions became tourist destinations and artistic sites.

The periodic mass exodus into the countryside made possible by the train and other inexpensive forms of transportation such as the tram not only allowed the urban dweller to reaffirm his humanity away from the hubbub of the city; the countryside and its inhabitants were also affected by increased building and commercial development.

Scott Schaefer in A Day in the Country, 1984

Monet’s Train in the Countryside of 1870-1 showed the train cutting across green and verdant landscape. Partially hidden by a bank of trees, the open passenger cars can be seen, trailing behind the locomotive, indicated by the index of puffing smoke, rising above the tree tops. Half the canvas is taken up by a stretch of grass, a picnic ground, where the city dwellers can come and enjoy their day in the country. This painting demonstrates the sudden changes that are altering the landscape and how “landscape” was defined. The classical landscape that made Joseph Turner famous was a dead artifact of the past; the desperate effort of the Barbizon artists to keep progress at bay proved to be futile. By the beginning of the 1870s, Impressionism had redefined landscape.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Impressionism and the Art Market


“Great art,” Honoré Balzac wrote, “is impossible without large fortunes, without secure and private means.” Emile Zola also bowed to the power of money, saying, “…money has emancipated the writer; money as created modern letters…One must accept without regret or childishness, one must recognize the dignity, the power and the justice of money….” Although Bohemia is often associated with starving artists, dying in unheated attic garrets, thanks to Henri Murger’s La Bohème, the most successful artists and writers were protected from poverty by money. This fact flies in the face of the myth of the avant-garde, which supposedly insisted on separating art from money. At first the accepting attitude of supposedly avant-garde artists towards money may seem hypocritical, but their stance towards the financing of art making is more nuanced. Money, in fact, makes art free from depending upon the traditional patrons, the church and the state. Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet were eager to sell their art, but both were afforded (pun intended) artistic freedom due to the independent wealth of their families. What the avant-garde artists sought were old-fashioned patrons, such as the enlightened elites of the Renaissance or like those sophisticated aristocrats who vanished with the French Revolution.

Impressionist Exhibitions: Revolution in the Art Market

During the period of Realism, the Salon still dominated and controlled access to success. The inability of this system to accommodate the ever-larger number of candidates can be measured by the growth and development of an independent artist-dealer system. The more money the avant-garde artist possessed, the more this artist could explore alternatives to a Salon jury, dedicated to maintaining the status quo. Both Courbet and Manet attempted one person shows during their careers on the occasion of the two Expositions Universelles in 1855 and 1867. Both artists financed their entrepreneurial ventures privately, but the time wasn’t right for the artist to attempt to show outside of the Salons. Even though the public could not grasp the radical gestures or the radical art, Manet’s followers could. And in 1874 the “Impressionists” held their first group exhibition. Like Courbet and Manet, this younger generation was seeking the open-minded vanguard collector and the dealer who was willing to take a chance on contemporary art and new artists.

Those individuals had already emerged, Louis Martinet’s gallery daringly showed Manet’s radical works for public viewing before the Salon of 1863 and a decade later, Paul Durand-Ruel, made two separate trips to Manet’s studio and purchased a large number of works. It was to this dealer that the Impressionists turned. But the group followed in the footsteps of Courbet and Manet and organized their own exhibitions. But there are significant differences between Manet and his followers. First, Manet never wanted to break free of the Salon. It was there, he contended, that the real battles took place. If he was referring to the argument between the ancients and the moderns in the Salon, Manet was correct. But the Impressionists found that when they attempted to assault this citadel, they were constantly pushed back, rejected by the juries. Unlike Manet and Courbet, the Impressionists could not find an opportunity to get publicity or notoriety—-no Salon of 1849, juried by artists, no Salon des Refusés, only invisibility. The other difference was that the Impressionists were not wealthy. Although Cassatt and Morisot were financially secure, as was Caillebotte, the rest were working class (Renoir) or lower middle class (Monet, Pissarro) or middle class (Sisley) or dependent upon an unwilling parent (Cézanne). Quite simply they needed to make money, and because they had traveled too far from official art to please the art pubic, they had to appeal to the mythical collector who was willing to buy avant-garde art.

Some historians place the beginning of the avant-garde at this point in time with the conscious attempt on the part of the Impressionists to exhibit independently and to enter into the emerging art market under the protection of dealers. The avant-garde artists, from this time on, were considered to be ahead of their time and ahead of the public who were incapable of understanding advanced and experimental art. During the Nineteenth century, these avant-garde French artists challenged several hierarchies. To begin with the Salon’s ruling power was undermined, if only by the appearance of new opportunities of exhibition in the art galleries. The rise of the dealer system meant the end of the power of the Academic jury, for the artist could go elsewhere and appeal directly to the public. The Academy and its supporters were fighting a loosing battle by the end of the end of the century, but this “death” was long in being realized. By the Twentieth century, the traditional academic Salon system had splintered into three separate exhibition entities.

Impressionist Exhibitions: Revolution in Display

It was the Exposition artistique des oeuvres refusées, May 15, 1873, which convinced the Impressionists that they had to find another way to show their art. The alternative to the official salon was due to numerous protests at jury rejections. It was history repeating itself, a decade later and the Impressionists were convinced that the Salon jury would never liberalize. Led by Edgar Degas, an arch trouble-maker, the various and sundry followers of Manet came together thanks to a suggestion by Pissarro, as an independent exhibiting group, a joint stock company of artists. Their founding charter originally named the Impressionists as the Société anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc., as of December 27, 1873. The first attempt to gain public recognition and to capture the attention of adventurous collectors took place on April 15, 1874. Titled the Première exposition de la Société anonymne des artists, peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc., the exhibition included Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas, Morisot, Pissarro, Béliard, Guillaumin, Lepic, Levert, and Rouart. The exhibition opened two weeks before the Salon to avoid association with Salon des Refusés.

The group exhibited in the rooms, which had been recently vacated by the portrait photographer, Nadar, on the Boulevard des Capucines, near the studio of the inventor of the carte-de-visite, Disderi—photography territory. Renoir’s brother painted the walls a dark russet red to replicate the domestic interiors of possible buyers. Degas’ friend, the American artist, James Whistler, had developed a new way of showing paintings—on the eye line, rather than salon style, and the works were arranged in alphabetical order. Working in London, Whistler had revolutionized gallery installation by creating, first, an upscale interior setting, the kind that might be found in the home of an art collector and second, a total work of art. The entire décor was color-coordinated with the paintings on view, from the color of the walls, to the upholstery on the chairs, to the color of the servants’ livery. The artists were, in fact, showing the buyers how to hang their purchases, utilizing the display techniques of the department store: entice and educate.

Another innovation of the exhibition was the refusal of the artists to accept the traditional frames for paintings with their Baroque carving and gaudy gilding. These innovations, which we take for granted today were, in fact, rebukes to the Salon system. First, by showing the paintings on one line, the Impressionists eliminated the hierarchy of judgment where the least favored entries were “skied,” or hung too high to be viewed. Second, the frames were plain, simple and often white, drawing attention to the elements inside the frame and on the canvas itself. In 2006, Leo Carey wrote an interesting article “Frame Game” for the New Yorker Magazine and names Degas and Pissarro as the leaders in frame innovation. Carey pointed out that Pissarro thought the gilt frames “stank of the bourgeois.” According to Carey,

White frames quickly became associated with Impressionism. The Salon, the dominant institution in French art at the time, made conservative stipulations abut how works should be presented and in this context, white frames were a radical departure.

Some Impressionists, searching for an alternative to gold, developed framing styles rooted in the same scientific thinking that inspired their paintings. Many of them were influenced by the notion of “complementary colors” advanced by Michel Eugène Chevreul…Mary Cassatt mounted her pictures in red and green frames, not a single one of which survives…In the third Impressionist exhibition, Pissarro and Degas both put their pictures in plain white frames…although most of the Impressionists used white frames at one time or another, not more than a handful exist today…none of Pissarro’s frames have survived.

Carey described an attempt made at MoMA to replicate one of Pissarro’s frames:

The immediate impression was that of informality. The expanse of wood in the sides of the frame implied something rustic. The bright white strip next to the canvas picked up the color of white-washed houses in the middle distance, and the shallow step in the wooden section drew the eye inward, guiding it through the trees to the roofs beyond.

The Impressionists made no compromises in their art or in the display of their art but did attempt to accommodate the public with the hours the gallery was open, from 10 a. m. to 6 p. m. for those who were free during the day and, for those who were not, from 8 p. m. to 10 p. m. The hours and the availability of the art did little to placate the viewers who were repelled and amused and complained of the lack of “finish.” The artists were rightly perceived to be rebelling against the expected norms, but wrongly accused of being political rebels. The connection between art and politics was to be expected during this period, perhaps explaining why the Impressionists’ content was so carefully apolitical and un-provocative. The artists were aiming for the living room, the drawing room, and the dining room of middle class interiors, as the small to medium sized canvases attest. Despite the openness to the art audience, the Impressionists were not really reaching out to the conservative spectator in search of sensation. Their real audience was the art dealers. The Impressionists continued to exhibit, looking for the art market.

Impressionist Exhibitions: Revolution in Definition of Artist

These exhibitions mark another rupture with the Salon, namely, a concerted attempt to break the power of the Salon as an exhibition venue and to end the importance of the Academy as a place of learning. First, the Impressionists challenged the monopoly of the Salon through the artist-dealer system, then in its infancy. Rather than depend upon Salon juries, the Impressionists depended upon their dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, often begging him for money. When times were good, Durand-Ruel could sell the work; but when times were bad, everyone suffered. Durand-Ruel had little luck with French buyers who remained staunchly opposed to everything avant-garde, but he did quite well with wealthy Americans who wanted to purchase everything “French.” Americans did not distinguish between Bouguereau and Renoir and would feely buy both artists. Although the new system was subject to economic ups and downs of the external market, the idea of the artist being supported by a sympathetic dealer, selling to sensitive and brave collectors would prove to be an attractive one, both to dealers and to artists.

The second bastion to fall was the bastion of education. The Impressionists were, for the most part, untrained. Only Cassatt and Degas possessed the required academic training. Monet studied informally under Eugène Boudin, Renoir spent some time in the atelier of Charles Gleyre. Most of the Impressionists artists had some kind of formal training, but academic rules were of little use to artists who painted colored light or who painted modern life. The Impressionists opened the door for other self-taught artists with their own ideas about how to make art. The rigors and strictures of the academy had limited value and few of the major artists of the 20th century had that kind of training. Matisse, for example, studied in the atelier of a very permissive and experimental master, Gustave Moreau. Picasso studied under his father whom he surpassed when he was still a child. In fact, academic training would not return as a “requirement” to be an artist until the 1950s, almost one hundred years after the Impressionists upended the rulebook.

Impressionist Exhibitions

The Second Exhibition took place in 1876 and by the Third Exhibition of 1877, that artists officially adopted name “Impressionist.” However, this term was pejorative and the Fourth Exhibition of 1879 was called “Independent” on the suggestion of Degas as a more neutral term. Gustave Caillebotte and Mary Cassatt who would be of crucial help to the artists joined the group. Cassatt, who was a wealthy American, knew many others of her kind and she advised her friends to buy the contemporary art of her colleagues. Caillebotte took over from Degas as the prime organizer and also acted as the major funder for subsequent exhibitions.

By the time of the Fifth Exhibition of 1880, Renoir had found patrons and was a successful portraitist and Monet had drifted away. Pissarro’s student, Paul Gauguin, joined Degas and his friends, including Morisot, who showed at every exhibition. But for Sixth Exhibition of 1881, the veterans abstained and many of the exhibitors were newcomers, who were divided from the “pure Impressionists,” such as Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, and Morisot. The Seventh Exhibition of 1882, was noteworthy for the return of the “pure Impressionism,” or pure outdoor painting and color experimentation and broken brush work, in contrast to the Eighth Exhibition of 1886 when Degas and associates returned and were joined by a new generation, Redon, Signac and Seurat. The exhibition of 1886 was to be the last, ending a remarkable run of shows for a group that held together quite well, given that artists’ groups were a new concept.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]