American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915


The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

October 12, 2009 – January 24, 2010

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles

February 28, 2010 – May 23, 2010

American Stories is a beautiful exhibition, worth every penny of its exorbitant $20 admission fee. One walks into the room at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and is immediately greeted by long-lost friends, usually seen only on the pages of art history books—Paul Revere (1768) and Watson and the Shark (1778) both by John Singleton Copley, Mary Cassatt’s The Cup of Tea (1880- 81)—with the rest of the excellent paintings spread out in, beckoning in rooms beyond. The Paintings of Everyday Life span a remarkable period in American history, the time when we were becoming American. The exhibition tells more than stories, it tells who and what we were. But these works are not history, for the artists interpreting or narrating life as they understood it. The last paintings done for the show were completed one hundred years ago and we view them with the eyes of those who know what we have become.


John Singleton Copley. Watson and the Shark (1778)

The first rooms focus on the transition from the early American painters, one step beyond the charming limners of the past. Clearly these artists lack the rigorous training of their European counterparts. There is no Jacques Louis David in the making. Perhaps because early American artists of the Eighteenth Century could make a living only as portraitists, we meet the Early Americans as specific individuals who are affluent enough to pay to have their aristocratic self-fashioning recorded for the ages. As elegant and as wealthy as they look, our ancestors are also endearing, due to the artists’ somewhat awkward grasp of anatomy. The heads of their subjects are slightly enlarged and seem to rest unsteadily on the well-clad bodies, as in Copley’s Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (1773). Proportions of the body are slightly off but all the details are carefully outlined and proffered as attributes of the successful upwardly mobile and aristocratically inclined upper classes. The wall text explains that the by-play between the married couple of Charles Wilson Peale’s Portrait of Benjamin and Eleanor Ridgely Laming (1788) is delightfully sexual (despite the big heads). Benjamin is holding a long hose-like walking stick that points towards Eleanor who is wearing a virtuously white dress. The phallic stick points to her crotch, and a pile of carefully cradled fruit in her lap reinforces the prediction of future fecundity.

By the next century, such innocent Freudian slips are rare. American artists are better trained and even folksy artists, such as Lily Martin Spencer and George Caleb Bingham, are producing handsome and well-painted works. Winslow Homer and his successors of the Ash Can School can hold their own with European trained artists, William Merritt Chase and Thomas Eakins. But for sheer virtuosity, few can equal the dazzling brushwork of European trained artists, such as Mary Cassatt or John Singer Sargent at the end of the century. But the formal accomplishments of the American artists are less interesting than the story of America recounted in the paintings. The young country was absorbed in defining itself as a new world of new people who are creating a new way of life offered the artists a wide range of stories to tell. The exhibition is centered upon genre paintings and leaves out landscape paintings, unless they contained a narrative. Even though their original social matrix has vanished, these paintings still act out theatrical tales that lend themselves to interpretation. The wall text provided by the museum is fanciful but seems to be possible within the historical context. The reader is not informed whether the statements come from scholarship or from the curator’s reading of the art, but, ultimately, the paintings themselves tell the most interesting stories.

The artists of the nineteenth century were more open minded or more observant of the great variety of Americans compared to today’s contemporary popular culture, which is ubiquitously white and middle class. Perhaps because the artists of the past were literally present at the creation of a new nation, they avidly recorded everything “American,” as “America” came into being. These painters would have been only a generation or two from immigrants, and, indeed, many of the artists were recent arrivals from the Old World themselves. They were white and male, although a few females dared, here and there, to make art. They or their parents were of European origin and the sheer novelty of “America” was still very real. Today, we are more settled into our American identity. We have become very set in our definition(s) of what it means to tell an “American story.” In comparison to today’s selective gazes, focused on niche sites, the painters in American Stories were eclectic collectors of the sights of the American scene. Because American history had yet to be written and the judgment of our collective deeds had yet to be passed, our national sins were recorded with the same openness as our national virtues were depicted.

The uniqueness of America is its diversity. The nation was forged from a disparate group of people, who were locked in a life and death struggles for dominance and survival. From the very beginning, Europeans were driven by their lust for land and wealth. Land had to be seized from the Native Americans at gunpoint. The vast lands the Europeans grabbed were too large for a single family to manage. The colonials needed agricultural workers and the cheapest laborers were those captured in Africa and sold to plantation owners and businessmen. If America was a second Eden, the sins of theft, genocide, and slavery were present from the start. American Paintings records the uneasy and unspoken bargain with God, who, it was hoped, was white. With all apologies, God, we were despoiling Eden in your name. It is important to remember that the audience of the time for these works was white and middle class, upwardly mobile and ambitious. What we see today as revealing of an ideology of racism and imperialism would have been viewed in the nineteenth century as simply “American stories.”

For the first half of the exhibition, slavery was legal in many states in America, and by mid-nineteenth century, only in the South. Legal or not, the second-class, subservient position of African-Americans was taken for granted from the Constitutional founding of the nation to the end of the Civil War in 1865. The marginal role of the blacks in a democracy, founded upon the principle of “all men are created free and equal” appears over and over in the art. The inclusion of African-Americans in what Alfred Boime called “The Art of Exclusion” changes after the Civil War. After 1865, African-Americans are more likely to be shown in all black groups, segregated from whites. Whites are portrayed as the upper class in opulent interiors or as recent immigrants, urban poor, in tenements. Then by the beginning of the twentieth century, questions of race are replaced with issues of immigration and urban life among the lower classes. The exhibition, intentionally or not, traces the inclusion followed by the exclusion, followed by the disappearance of blacks from American painting.

What we see in these paintings are generations of Americans who were aware of what they were doing but were unwilling to confront the meaning and the consequences of their actions. The races live together but the gaze of the white painters is oblique and ambiguous. What are they trying to record? What stories are left behind for us to read? In 1813, John Lewis Drimmel painted the folk work, The Quilting Frolic (1831), which creates a horizontal display of early American life stretched out in infinite detail. Although the catalogue describes the painting as “democratic,” it is, in fact, an examination of an already solidifying class system.


On the left is a family preparing for the party: the quilt is being stretched on its frame and a little boy helps himself to the prepared food before the party begins. Two white servants seem to be caught off guard, in the act of getting ready for the party. A black child, who carries a tray with a blue and white tea service, assists the staff. An elderly white man and his dog, staying warm by the blazing fire, complete the group. On the right, the upper class white guests arrive, well-dressed in spring attire and self-assured in their casual attitudes. They don’t look much like they would be interested in quilting. Indeed most of the arriving guests are top-hatted men and carefree young women. It is unclear whether they are accompanied by or are greeted by a black servant fiddling at the front door. Whoever the guests are, they are obviously of a higher class that the staff depicted on the right.

These two black servants, a little girl and an adult male, are depicted with bulging eyes, gleaming in the whites, and full red lips, parting to display large white teeth. Their African heritage is fully on display: they are the Other, dehumanized and kept carefully in their visual place. The little girl is burdened and fixed in place by her heavy tray. The man is wearing tattered clothes, handed down from a white man. Like all of African Americans, he is musically inclined, or so the whites thought. William Sidney Mount painted a young black man in The Power of Music (1847) who is also entranced by music, reinforcing the white belief that African Americans were “naturally” musical. The man in this painting has features that are far more human and much less a caricature, but he is a mere eavesdropper on the white men who are the ones allowed to make music. A year later, Richard Caton Woodville featured the same marginality of African-Americans in War News from Mexico. The first declared war of American imperialism was waged on another power, Mexico, only recently released from their Spanish colonial masters. African-Americans were excluded from service in this war, but the black man at the far right of the all-white group listens to the reports from the front as avidly as the other men. After all, he is an American, too. Indeed, the rapt little girl, who is standing next to him, wearing the rags of servitude, will live to see the end of slavery.

America was already occupied by a people the Europeans called “Indians,” when the whites arrived. At first there were thoughts of sharing the vast wilderness and the bounty of the new land, but these thoughts were fleeting and soon dissolved into hostile encounters. The First Contact ended in death and disease and by the early nineteenth century, the Native Americans were the Vanishing Americans, living on borrowed time, somewhere west of the Mississippi. Only when whites venture into the West, do they again encounter that other American race, the Native Americans, who once again stand in the way of Manifest Destiny and its remorseless expansion. Racial issues and racial competition are everywhere. George Caleb Bingham, as early as 1845, noted the frequent fact of interracial mixing in his Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. This peaceful scene showed a French fur trader and his son by a Native American woman and their bear cub, gliding impassively along the mirror like river. Once they set foot on land, the boy becomes a “half-breed.” The father and son are more at home on the fringes of the frontier.

For the Native Americans, time is catching up with them. The settlers are on their way, and the 1840s and 1850s are the last decades before the land-hungry whites overwhelmed the native population. It is during these years that George Catlin was painting portraits of a dying civilization, paradoxically at the peak of its glory. The forts he visited were at the edges of the reach of American authority. Here on the frontier, soldiers and warriors of the plains mingled with traders in a brief moment of uneasy peace. But the territory is already a contested one. Charles Deas revels in the violent fantasies of the fight over territory in The Death Struggle (1845) in a painted pulp fiction tale of the Wild West. A trapper and a warrior and their horses plunge over the edge of a cliff to their doom. From our vantage point, we know that both are soon going to be extinct. In a more peaceful vein, Seth Eastman’s Chippewa Indians Playing Checkers (1848) is an indication of how the pastimes of white culture have already impacted leisure time of the “Indians.”

In 1845 William Sidney Mount painted Eel Spearing at Setauket. In 1855 Charles Felix Blauvel painted A German Immigrant Inquiring His Way. Even though we know that Mount had to re-gender the black spear fisherman to a black woman to make the adult less threatening to whites, both paintings show an easy co-existence between Americans of African extraction and white people of European ancestry. “Easy” coexistence does not mean necessarily “equal” in this newly forming country. Ideology informs the brushstrokes which glaze over the conflicting dialectics of democracy and servitude. The subtext of all of the paintings is the assumed superiority of the white race—even children—over the black or red races. The coexistence can continue—-however tenuously—-only if the status quo is unchallenged. The Civil War disrupts the separate existence of the races and upends the previous balance of power. The art made after the Civil War shows the whites living in their world and the blacks living in their world. The interracial interactions seen before the war ceased to be depicted.

Eastman Johnson painted what would be the last of Negro Life in the South in 1859. He provided his curious white audience with a rare glimpse into the private quarters of the slaves on a plantation. It is unlikely that white women would venture into this alien territory, which would have been supervised by the slaves themselves and, possibly, the plantation overseers. But from the growing number of children of mixed race, we understand that white men, probably the master of the plantation and his sons would have been very familiar with the slave quarters. The great secret of these plantations was the unspoken fatherhood of many of the slaves. White women were expected to close their eyes to their husband and son’s mixed race children sired outside marriage. White men were socialized to accept that fact that their children and grandchildren would be consigned to a lifetime of servitude. There are several shades of skin tones in Johnson’s painting: on the left a very light-skinned young woman is being courted by a darker skinned young man. Accompanied by a young black woman, a young white woman enters stage right. We have no idea why she is there. She looks too young to be the mistress of the plantation, but the museum wall text suggested that she is seeking her black kin. It is highly unlikely any white woman would know of much less acknowledge her brothers and sisters of color. We are left to wonder what Johnson was hinting at in his theatrical setting. Thomas Le Clear’s Young America (1863) is a transition work of art, painted during the Civil War, probably in the North. Carefree white youngsters of middle school age are playing outdoors, while a slightly older African-American teenager watches on the fringes.

These paintings draw the lines between the racial groups: the young white girl is sneaking into a place she does not belong; the black teenager is not allowed to play with the white children. Not until the Civil War are the races brought together. According to the catalogue, the artist, Theodor Kaufmann served with the Union army when the war moved into the South. As the federal troops marched from one Confederate capital after another, the slaves ran, literally for their lives, toward freedom and their only protectors, the Union army. The military was overwhelmed by the presence of the runaway slaves, men, who wanted to serve and fight for their country, women and children who had no where else to go. On to Liberty (1867) shows a group of women, dressed in simple working clothes, light weight and light colored dresses, leading their children in the direction of the Union army. When the painting was completed, the war was over, and the South was occupied by the victorious federal troops. But by the time Winslow Homer painted The Cotton Pickers in 1876, Reconstruction was over, the occupying army had withdrawn leaving the former slaves to their fate at the hands of a South determined to regain control over the errant black population.

What is interesting about these two paintings is the lack of whites. The African-Americans are alone. The interaction with whites is over. The women in Homer’s painting could be the women imagined ten years earlier by Kaufmann. They are still in the South, still working on the very land where their ancestors were enslaved. These women are undoubtedly sharecroppers. They have earned the land they work, but they do no own it. Beautiful and unhappy, they appear stoic and calm, standing among the indifferent cotton plants, silhouetted against the sky. Somehow we place this painting as a pendent to Homer’s earlier, The Veteran in a New Field of 1865. The veteran is white and harvests his own wheat crop. The viewer understands that the African-American women are harvesting, not their own fields, but those of their former (and present) master, or someone very much like him. Farming and endless labor is all the women know.

But a few paintings of African-Americans indicate some measure of progress. Sunday Morning by Thomas Hovenden and A Pastoral Visit by Richard Norris Brooke, both of 1881, show quiet domestic scenes among African-American families. These groups are lower class but not destitute. In fact, their living conditions are positively palatial compared to the actual situation of African-Americans at the time. The simple but well-appointed interiors must have been idealized. Photographs taken by Margaret Bourke-White in the 1930s as she traveled throughout the South, recorded that, forty years later, African Americans were living in shacks. The interior walls, without insulation, were covered with newspapers, illustrated by pictures of consumer goods out of the reach of black people. Having formed their own separate culture and social groups, blacks in the paintings of the 1880s appear to accept their lower class situation with contentment. At least they are slaves no longer.

Clearly, a national ideology was at work in the art world of the nineteenth century. What is unclear is the extent to which the artists were critiquing society or whether they were responding to changing social attitudes. The existence of an artist in America was too tenuous to overtly challenge the collectors and audiences without due cause. After the Civil War, people were tired of war and conflict and we can, perhaps it is best read these paintings as attempts to record and reconcile race relations. It would seem that the only way to acknowledge racial differences was to keep the races separate in these documents of color. The only African-American artist shown in this exhibition, Henry Ossawa Tanner, depicts a grandfather giving his grandson The Banjo Lesson. The year was 1899. The century is nearly done. During the early twentieth century, the people of color disappear from art made by white people.

The stories not told are compelling in their absence. We do not see paintings of the continued genocide in the West, the lynchings and the reign of terror in the South, and the grinding poverty of the poor of all races. Artists of the nineteenth century delineated class and racial differences very carefully. What we are seeing in these racially-based paintings is a social arrangement. The first arrangement is slavery and servitude and the second arrangement is segregation and servitude. Both arrangements are strategies of separation of the races. Both arrangements guarantee white power. Neither arrangement was made with the consent of the oppressed group. Under the brushes of the artists, the non-white races are kept frozen in time, trapped in their social place, caught between historical slavery and current subservience, between the noble savage and the marauding savage. People of color were carefully constructed as compliant with their supposed destiny. “They” accepted their supposed inferiority. Meanwhile, Americans who are white evolve and change, migrate and move and improve their status, leaving Americans of color behind in the historical dust of their Gilded Age.

America has always considered itself “white” and “European” and even today there are those who work hard to repel those who also claim the identity “American.” Those to be denied are those who are neither white nor European. But the whiteness of America is but one political ideology. There is another defining belief in what makes “America,” and that is the belief in American inclusiveness. America is a brave new world because it is the first world to welcome all who come to its shores. For some, it is the European cultural heritage of America that guarantees its “exceptionalism;” for others, it is the diversity, the complexity, the changeability, and the inclusion of the nation that constitutes its “exceptionalism.” The American Story told in this exhibition is one of Difference and Otherness, living side by side, but never coming together to form one America. Perhaps that day will come.

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: Class and Gender


Gender and Class in Impressionism

The Impressionists were unusual in that they were a group of artists. For artists to function as a group or as a whole, outside the traditional art establishment. was a new phenomenon. Previously, most artists operated alone and created their careers on their own and were then put together by critics who invented categories for their art. Even more remarkable than the group cohesion was the social make-up of the Impressionists: rich and poor, men and women. The unexpected contrasts among the members of the society reflect the growing importance of class mixing during the Third Republic. However, what was most unusual about the Impressionists was the strong presence of the women. Although it was well known that family money greatly facilitated artistic success, even among the so-call socially deprived avant-garde artists, the presence of women in the art world was usually ignored and women who were painters or sculptors were routinely dismissed. For a woman to have any kind of artistic career, she needed support and money, just like her male colleagues; but, unlike her male counterparts, she seldom received family backing. Although there were occasionally tensions within the group, for the most part, the Impressionists supported each other financially and professionally, regardless of class or gender.



The fact that the Impressionists had both men and women in the group resulted in art that showed the different point of view of the two genders. Edgar Degas followed the dubious fortunes of lower class women who worked hard, such as Laundresses (1884) and his many paintings of ballet dancers. His perspective is that of a male voyeur, peering at women presumed to be available. Degas also produced a number of intimate private prints of the women who worked as prostitutes and endured sexual slavery. The prints of nude prostitutes, the lowest in the sex trade food chain, show the interactions between the female sex workers and their well-heeled male clients. Degas’ close friend, Mary Cassatt was a wealthy American who led the life of a respectable female expatriate in Paris. Her paintings were also intimate but the voyeurism disappeared in favor of detached observation. Cup of Tea (1880) shows two well-to-do women and the confinement of their lives. One woman is visiting the other and they sit, barricaded by furniture in an elegant room with wallpaper stripped like bars of a cage.

Like Cassatt, Gustave Caillebotte came from a wealthy background, but what separated him from Manet and Degas was the way in which he depicted the life of a man of that class. He allowed the viewer to peer into the interiors presided over by these privileged males. One of his most surprising paintings shows the back view of a nude male, just out of his bath, scrubbing his back with a towel. The male-on-male voyeurism of Man at His Bath (1884) is unusual and mirrors the feeling of spying on a private activity that is so clear in Degas. Berthe Morisot was also from a family that was comfortably well off and her paintings showed the social confines for women. Once she married Eugène Manet, Morisot’s paintings depicted her life in her suburban home. One of the best known is a painting of a maid in In the Dining Room (1886). Neatly dressed, alert, and ready to serve, the maid is shown within the limitations of her domestic domain. Without over determining the reading of these paintings, it can be said that what characterized the male point of view was a position of control while the female point of view reflected the perspective of confinement. All of these artists, whether male or female, were depicting an upper class way of life. Morisot painted her maid in the dining room, wearing her servant’s apron; Cassatt showed how upper middle class women spent their time; Caillebotte revealed that only the wealthy have access to a private bath.


These very different gazes demonstrate the relative positions of men and women in the Third Republic: men were free and enjoyed unchallenged positions of social and political control and women of a certain class were expected to protect their virtue and contribute to society by getting married, staying home, and having children. It is possible to see indications of class distinctions among the Impressionists in terms of where the artists painted. Edgar Degas and Gustave Caillebotte painted places of privilege, familiar to the wealthy, while Claude Monet and Pierre Renoir showed the pleasures of the lower classes. Degas, as a man of power and privilege, would be allowed to observe the practice sessions of the young women of the ballet troupe of the Opèra. (Dance Class at the Opèra, 1872) These little girls, called “rats,” were working class people with aspirations and a surprising number of middle class young women. A pretty girl could attract the attention of a wealthy male and the artist also shows the bourgeois male, watching the young girls from the edges of the paintings, contemplating his choice of a “companion.” Like Degas, Caillebotte did not stray far from the world of the wealthy, even when he painted the grounds of the family estate in the country, and showed the lives of those who purchased the elegant townhouses built by Haussmann. (Man on a Balcony, Boulevard Haussmann, 1880) The effect of Haussmannization of Paris, recently completed, can be measured by the displacement of the lower classes to the edges of Paris.

Renoir’s most famous paintings are his observations of life in Montmartre where the working class people came together and danced to the music in places like the Moulin de la Galette (1875). The attractive and well-dressed young people, dappled by sunlight, enjoy the new possibilities opened up to their class—mass manufactured prêt-a-porter clothes and popular entertainment. But there are some interesting undertones in Renoir’s paintings of Montmartre, for this was the neighborhood of the Marquis, the Communards, and this was the site of the uprising of the Commune. Monet also preferred the outskirts of Paris and the new suburbs that were spreading along the banks of the Seine. The old moneyed classes tended to stay in Paris while the newly upwardly mobile middle class could create a very nice life in the newly developed outlying areas. Like Renoir, the artist is meticulous in his rendition of the fashionable clothes now available to all. Indeed, Monet shows the almost vacation atmosphere of bathers and sailboats along the sunny banks of the Seine. From 1871 on while he was living in Argenteuil, Monet painted the new iron bridge, destroyed by the French as they retreated from the Prussians, in its various states of reconstruction. As the art historian, Alfred Boime, pointed out, Monet was also making an economic point: the nation had recovered from the reparations imposed upon France by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War. The selection of site was important: the sailboat glides down the river towards the triumphal bridge at the suburban town of Argenteuil. The Parisians who, a few years ago, were eating rats during the Siege of Paris, now owned sailboats. The citizens of Montmartre who had fired the first shots against the French government were now dancing in the sunlight of an open-air café. The class war seemed to be over.

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

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Manet and the Impressionists


Édouard Manet’s images of Paris were unprecedented in their unsparing modernity, the sights and scenes that delighted the boulevardier. The painter himself, an elegant dandy, lounged congenially at the Café Tortoni, the Café Guerbois, and especially the Café de la Nouvelle Athènes, where his followers would gather around. Although he studied as an apprentice under the Dutch Masters and Spanish Masters, the painter asserted, “The eye should forget all else it has seen…and the hand becomes guided only by the will, oblivious of all previous training.” The ideal of the “innocent eye” appeared in the guise of a small boy depicted in Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio (1854) gazing at the artist working on a natural landscape. One of the main goals of the Realist artist was to see in a manner uncorrupted by learned habits or by the received wisdom of academic training. In other words, in the time of Courbet and Manet, “representation” meant a system of rules and conventions, all or which had to be discarded in favor of simple observation and a passive recording of what one perceived. Whether or not it was Manet’s intention to free painting from its traditional role of representation, he did in fact create a new system of notation, a system of marks of paint, which (semiotically) signed instead of imitated, thus developing a new language of painting, based upon gestures of paint. Manet understood what had escaped Courbet: if painting/representation was a code or a system of signs, then a new semiotic system of mark making could be created. All one had to do was to learn this new language in which strokes (taches) of paint “stood for” something else.

Manet’s rupture with the established way of making art was definitive and final. Once he had pointed out that any kind of mark would do the job, he had sensed the truth that would be iterated by Fernand de Saussure—that the relationship between a word and a thing was arbitrary, bound by a convention based upon a network of relationships among the signifiers. The Academy understood the surface of the canvas to be a window to the world; and, therefore, this “pane” or canvas must be transparent in order to be seen through. The Academy assumed that the marks made by the artist were connected to the object rendered, that the two became one, just like a word acquired the properties of the thing. But Manet created a new language of paint and painting, a system of casual shorthand notation, relying upon the active mind to close the gap between a code and a recreation of that which is rendered. That said, Manet’s followers, the Impressionists, would respond to his method of paining in a variety of ways. Some, like Monet and Renoir, would adopt the broken brushwork to plein air painting; others, such as Berthe Morisot, would apply the sketchiness to an informal modern style. Cézanne would take the idea of mark as “correspondence” and use the stroke to signify a new way of seeing: without the crutch of perspective. All of the Impressionists reacted to the famous “blond” tone of Manet and lightened their grounds and their paint colors, creating a burst of light that shocked the art audience.

It was the English art critic, Roger Fry, who, in his show at the Grafton Gallery in London in 1910, attempted to create a family tree of avant-garde art, starting with Manet. Manet’s younger admirers were nicknamed the “Impressionists” after a now stolen painting by Claude Monet, Impression—Sunrise (1874). The name was not intended as a compliment but as a condemnation, and, like many names of derision to come, this label stuck. The Impressionists were unusual in that they formally joined together as an incorporated association and exhibited together from 1874 to 1886. The Société anonyme des artistes, peintures, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc. also known as the Impressionists, were a varied group. Claude Monet and Pierre Auguste Renoir were lower middle class men, just one step above working class. In contrast, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt and Gustave Caillebotte were wealthy haute bourgeoisie. Camille Pissarro was working class and an anarchist, while the others were generally apolitical. Alfred Sisley was Anglo-French and was overshadowed by the other artists, and, unlike them, did grow over time or create new content. Paul Cézanne was trained as a lawyer and was notoriously confrontational with the jurors of the Salons until he finally subsided into a self-imposed exile in his home territory of Aix.

The mix of class was not that unusual but the inclusion of women marked the association as different from their all-male predecessors. The mix of class and gender resulted in a variety of content and selection of subject matter among the Impressionists. Largely self-taught artists, like Gustave Courbet, Monet and his painting partner, Renoir, had neither the money nor the inclination to follow Manet and his rich friend, Edgar Degas, into the brothels, the cabaret and to the bals. Likewise, Gustave Callibotte and Alfred Sisley seem to have been too respectable for scandalous subject matter. The American artist, Mary Cassatt and the Parisian artist, Berthe Morisot, were respectable women and were quite restricted in their activities, both social and artistic. Some of the artists produced landscapes, others interiors only, others, like Manet and Cassatt, treated the exterior like an interior.

The followers of the Impressionists were, in turn, an equally motley crew. Although there were no women among them, they were all outsider artists. In comparison, the Impressionist women, Cassatt and Morisot, had impeccable training but rebelled against what they had learned. The new generation, including Gauguin and Cézanne, later called the “Post-Impressionists,” was mentored by Pissarro. Impressionist artist and Manet follower, Paul Cézanne had his convoluted and disturbed male fantasies, but he kept them private and on small canvases and honed his craft painting side by side with Pissarro. A devout Socialist, Pissarro rarely left the suburbs to come to the wicked city of Paris, and together the two painters produced a memorable series of landscapes. A Sunday painter and student of Camille Pissarro, Paul Gauguin, abandoned his wife and family and lived his out desire for artistic freedom but kept his sexual passions to himself until his Tahitian period. Vincent van Gogh left his sympathy for the peasant behind when he left his native country of Holland and came to Paris where he saw Impressionist paintings and his palette burst into bright colors.

The Impressionists emerged in 1874, four years after the fall of the Second Empire. The years that followed the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the uprising of the Commune had left the nation exhausted and eager to heal. The art audiences had lost patience for controversy and provocation. In comparison to the earlier Bohemians, the Impressionists had no desire to starve or to suffer for their art. They wanted financial success and security, something that could not be found by throwing themselves at the unyielding bulwark of the Salon juries. The Impressionists formed an economic organization, designed to sell art directly to adventurous avant-garde collectors. In contrast to Courbet and Manet, who were transitional artists, committed to the Salon system, both the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists were true independents, true avant-garde painters, making and showing art completely outside the Salons.

Respectable and middle class, the Impressionists and their followers did not seek shocking scenes but showed the contented middle class in its new leisure time activities in a world of outdoor entertainment. With an eye to the art market and possible purchase, van Gogh restricted himself to non-controversial portraiture and landscape paintings. Only Georges Seurat followed Manet and Degas by continuing to celebrate the popular culture of Paris and its dark and sleazy demi-monde. Suburbia or the near countryside, just outside of Paris, were the preferred locales for the outdoor artists, in contrast to the sexually charged interiors of Manet and later, of Degas. Impressionist paintings reflected middle class interests and the domestic needs of the aspiring class. The size of their paintings were small, designed for respectable living rooms, were deliberately decorative and inoffensive, with content free of political contention and sexual scandal.

The Impressionists were not satirical or sarcastic, and only Degas deliberately attempted to be provocative. Unlike Manet, the Impressionists did not consult art historical dictionaries for precedents, nor, after their initial attempts at success, did they attempt to cater to or react against the Academy. Certainly, from time to time, some of the group were tempted to try for acceptance in a Salon but all insisted on painting in their own terms. Unlike Courbet or Manet, the group had no strategy to assault the Academy but sought to create positions in an unguarded commercial field and to make their marks in a completely new territory. Their subject matter was wholly new, completely modern, depicting activities, which had, quite simply, not existed before, such as the new English sport of sailing and the new penchant for the scandalous pleasure of public bathing. Equally unprecedented was the intimate view into the cloistered world of the privileged middle class woman revealed by Cassatt and Morisot with their quite intimate interiors, reflecting the enclosed boredom reserved for females. Also new was the male counterpart to Cassatt and Morisot, Caillebotte’s record of the luxurious lifestyle of well-to-do bourgeois men during the Third Republic. Caillebotte would, from time to time, put the nude (upper-class) male on non-erotic but naturalistic display in invasively private paintings. Deliberately severing themselves from the normal channels of artistic recognition, the Impressionists sought the patronage of the newly rich middle classes through a series of independent exhibitions. It can be said that the Impressionists rejected the Romantic conception of the artist as a poet and accepted the entrepreneurial role of the artist as a business-person and upwardly mobile worker.

Like Manet, the Impressionists reveled in modernité described so unforgettably by Charles Baudelaire in The Painter of Modern Life. Every touch or tache of the brush, each casual mark evoked the “fugitive” and the “ephemeral” aspects of an ever-changing urban environment. Stressing the generation break with the older Realists, the Impressionists were uninterested in the country life celebrated by Gustave Courbet and Rosa Bonheur and showed the blunt newness of a post-war industrialized Paris. The Impressionists reached out to the middle class audience by concentrating on the familiar aspects of city life, the newly developed suburban areas, and the accompanying novelties of respectable entertainment. The male artists inherited the attitude of the city-dwellers who enjoyed a “Day in the Country,” a weekend excursion now possible because of the spread of a network of suburban railway lines that took the Parisians away from the City of Light. The female artists developed new content about the “modern woman” who was confined to quarters, living a life of caged privilege. Courbet and Manet had led the way in their use and appropriation of popular imagery, such as the images d’Epinal, and the Impressionists were equally interested in popular posters and contemporary art and attempted to combine popular iconography with experimental style. With the Impressionists, the subject matter or content they selected was as provocative as their revolutionary sketchy style of the plain-air painters, such as Sisley, born of a necessarily hasty execution.

Impressionist paintings also utilized Dutch and/or Japanese compositions combined with careful optical examination of color and light that alienated them from mainstream art. Like their predecessors, the Impressionists admired the ordinary vistas and high horizon lines of Dutch landscape painting. Many art historians have claimed that the arbitrary cropping of amateur photography may have had some impact upon the Impressionists, but a careful review of nineteenth century photography suggests that photographers preferred centered compositions. It is likely that the art historians, many of whom formed their theories in the wake of vernacular photography in the 1960s, are reading Impressionist paintings anachronistically. The combination of the centered subject and the unavoidable slicing off of elements on the edge seen in Impressionism most likely came from Japanese art. The Ukiyo-e prints, imported from Japan, were erroneously called “Chinese” at first by the French who thought of the Japanese, and all Asians as, “primitive.” The Edo period prints, collected by the Impressionist artists who thought the brightly colored scenes of daily life to be master works of a naïve vision, were actually popular prints with little value in Japan. Influenced by their exposure to Western art by the Dutch traders, the Japanese artists interpreted Western perspective as the abstract design it actually was. To the delight of the French artists, the Ukiyo-e prints played with high viewpoints, insistent horizontal banding and spatial ambiguity. It was Degas who exploited Japonisme, the historical back-and-forth between Eastern art and Western art, in his paintings of ballet dancers.

As this general summary of Impressionism indicates, the movement and its art was a complex manifestation of manifold positions and varied influences. With Édouard Manet as their leader, the Impressionists followed his stylistic example but not his journey into the Salon. The Impressionists persuaded Manet to leave his studio and to venture out into the sunlight where he produced a few landscapes. But Manet and the Impressionists came from different generations. Manet was a dandy, a survivor of the Second Empire, while the Impressionists were sons and daughters of the political patchwork called the Third Republic. The result was both an extension of the Master’s painting and a rejection of Manet’s subject matter. Often presented in terms of landscape painting only, as a movement of broken brushwork only, the movement was actually quite varied in both style and content. There are many ways to view Impressionism: as a formal revolution in painting, as a contrast between the lives of men and women, as an early foray into the art market, and a study of how artists mature over the course of long careers.

See Also:

“Impressionism and Technique”

“Impressionism: Class and Gender”

“Impressionism and the Art Market”

“Impressionism and the Landscape”

and the Podcast “Manet and Impressionism”

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

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

[email protected]