The Insurgency of Independent Publishing

THE NEW AVANT-GARDE: RETURN TO CHANGE

presented by Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

to the

College Art Association, New York, New York

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A hundred and forty years ago, the art world in Paris faced a self-imposed crisis—or to be more precise—refused to face the crisis. Like most crises, this one had been brewing for years—symptoms had been noted—but had been misdiagnosed as problems to be solved. [1] At issue was the centuries-old system [2] of training artists—-judging and evaluating their efforts—exhibiting their art. [3] It was impossible to imagine that such a venerated process could possibly go wrong. After all, the quality of the French education was superb; the quality of the art from the Academy was unsurpassed. The French Academy was envied and emulated throughout the Western world. The academic system had produced eminent artists and the art was justly celebrated. [4]

Given all this quality work, it was hard to imagine how anyone could be dissatisfied with continuing excellence. [5] Even the most vocal critics demanded to be included. Even the most unlikely candidates were given a fair hearing. [6] The jury system gave all comers and opportunity to be accepted and to shine, achieve fame, acquire wealth. [7] What could possibly be wrong? [8]

To those outside the system of quality, [9] the Academy, its elaborate apparatus of rules built level by level over hundreds of years, for the sole purpose of preserving the classical ideal and the methodologies of the Renaissance, in order to maintain the power of those in charge—-to the outsiders—to those not in the in crowd, [10] the Academy was training students to uphold an outdated status quo, all in the service of a repressive government, intent on controlling the visual culture of France. These outsiders—-mostly a motley crew of indifferently trained painters—-confronted—not a jury of their peers—but a group of old men, who were hostile to interlopers. From the standpoint of the outsiders, [11] the judgment of the aging academicians, long past their prime, seemed implausible, inexplicable, implacable, improbable, unrelentingly ruthless and capricious.

The Academy and the exhibitions it controlled, the Salons, was, in fact, a bastion of unassailable power that ran a rigged game, [12] designed to generate losers, [13] not winners, created to guarantee, not quality, [14] as was claimed, but a great prize, [15] available only to a very small number of aspirants, who obediently [16] responded appropriately to all the prerequisites—-genuflection to authority, [17] acceptance of submission to tradition, [18] willingness to forego rebellion against the paternal figures.

By making the prizes so difficult to achieve, the number of winners so small, the Academy made the ultimate rewards—such as they were—-seem intensely desirable worthy of being won. [19] Many were called but only a few succeeded. Perversely, the young artists, instead of recognizing that the roulette wheel was tilted, that the system was structured for failure, [20] only increased their desire and intensified their efforts to succeed against the odds—not understanding that the ruthless winnowing indicated, not that their art was less worthy, but that the system [21] simply could not handle the growing number of supplicants.

For hundreds of years, the Salon system had built a mindset of acceptance of the rules of this game—a victim mentality that was as unassailable as the castle of the Academy itself. Some artists, it seems, did recognize that the Academy was in crisis—was ossified and inflexible—that the Salon was eating its young—and that the selection system was unfair. [22] These artists refused to play the game, refused to resign themselves to rejection by the Salon juries.

Instead they formed their own alternative [23] to the massive salon exhibitions and the willful and antiquated whims of the jurors. [24] These painters—acting as independent entrepreneurs—as enterprising business people—started their own self-generated alternative art exhibitions. Rather than challenging the paradigm of the Salon, they simply created another paradigm—exhibit your own art, in your own way, on your own terms.

We are speaking, of course, of the Impressionists. [25]

True, there had been earlier attempts by previous artists to free themselves of the constraints of the Salon—David, Courbet, Manet, [26] Whistler [27]—but the psychological grip of the Academic system was so powerful that, rather than being impressed by the efforts of those artists, the art audience was mostly bemused and puzzled. These independent exhibitions were significant cracks in the fortress wall, but the most famous alarm bell had to be what became the historically significant Salon des Refusés (1863), [28] ten years before the Impressionists’ first exhibition in 1874. [29]

The anger of rejected artists [30] against an unusually punitive jury signaled a genuine crisis: there were too many artists for too few places [31] to satisfy the demand for inclusion. [32] Indeed, one mollifying exhibition would not suffice to ease the growing tension between the guardians of the watchtower and the armies of talented young people [33] assembling at the portcullis—battering at the gates. [34]

It is important to pause and consider the courage of the Impressionists. They would be laughed at—they knew that—the establishment would feel threatened, if it noticed the artists at all, the critics who accepted the system would be unkind, and call them names, established artists invested in academia would reject them—the Impressionists knew all that—-and all of these indignities came to pass. [35] True, the Impressionists yearned [36] for validation and acceptance in the Salon but the painters headed for open territory, [37] the unguarded terrain of the independent exhibition, building upon the nascent artist-dealer system. [38] The Impressionists initiated today’s art world.

Although the myth of the Impressionists posits them as the shock troops of the avant-garde of the Third Republic, the painters were reacting to real financial needs. [39] The Salon system acted as a barrier to economic success. [40] The gatekeepers prevented an entire class of creative thinkers from earning an honest living at the trade [41] of their choice and the casualties were not just the renegade rebels. Academic artists suffered as well. [42] The system of enforced failure [43] guaranteed that they too must be sacrificed. They too must fail. Undoubtedly, the defenders of the Salon system had their explanations, their reasons for ensuring failure—-those who were rejected by the juries were simply bad artists who deserved to fail. Really? Paul Cézanne—a bad artist?

The upholders of the status quo [44] would argue that their system was responsible for artistic leaders, such as, Jean-Léon Gérôme. [45] But, in reality, the system had no room for new ideas, could not accommodate artistic innovation, and could not tolerate artistic freedom or new innovations. [46] If the Impressionists had not found their way around the artificial barriers and created new opportunities [47] for themselves, then it would not have been possible for artists in the twentieth century to exist—-even thrive—and find success—entirely outside [48] the Salon system. [49] Pablo Picasso could have been the failed son of an obscure Spanish artist.

Impossible you say? Everyone knows that talent will always be discovered; true art will shine through. Really? The eventual success of long dead avant-garde artists rested upon fragile foundations of arbitrary chance. Vincent van Gogh had a brother, Théo, was an art dealer who financed his difficult younger brother, and Théo’s widow was inclined to preserve the paintings of her unstable brother-in-law who had sold one painting in his lifetime. [50] Other people simply threw his art in the dustbin. [51]

To say that the Impressionists challenge [52] to the bulwark that was the Salon system made it possible for the art of some of the most valued artists of the modern avant-garde to be recognized [53] is to state the obvious but sometimes emphasizing the already known is necessary. Even in the year of our Lord 2011, or especially in our own time, it is necessary to recall the revolution of the Impressionists, for we are facing a similar crisis in art history. Like the crisis of the nineteenth century avant-garde, [54] our crisis is demographic also, an expansion of an aspiring educated middle class exemplified by an increasing number of freshly minted PhDs who are pumped out of graduate programs—but for what future? Reeling from yet another economic downturn, our own academia is downsizing, and to add to this perfect storm of too few jobs and too many job hunters, the entire publishing industry is shrinking. [55]

Are those who are outside the magic circle of the privileged and the published any less intelligent, any less gifted, any less capable, do they have less to offer the profession of art history? Surely the academic system of producing art historians works, doesn’t it? The academic stars are not lucky stars, well situated in the northeast corridor, enjoying unrecognized advantages in publication. [56] These (privileged) people are truly deserving of their success, no argument. Just as it would be wrong to insist that Bouguereau was technically deficient, or that Gérome lacked imagination, [57] there can be no argument that the academic stars have not earned their rewards, their books, their articles, and their reputation for excellence. Therefore, I am not concerned with them. I am concerned about everyone else—those art historians who are intelligent and capable, who have a lot to offer, but have no outlets for publication, that all-important stepping stone to a job, to tenure. [58]

The chances of getting published today are less that of wining on a slot machine in Vegas. [59] There are those who would argue that the current system of publication works perfectly well. [60] But we cannot argue today in good faith that our process of publishing is allowing talent to be developed for the same reason as those who in the nineteenth century could not—in good faith—maintain that the Salon system of exhibiting art was efficient. [61] Likewise, we cannot state that our system allows the cream to come to the top, that only the worthy are rewarded and that those who never rise deserved to fail. [62]

Just as it was illegitimate to make those claims in the nineteenth century, we cannot make them today, because we simply don’t know if we are correct. There is no way of knowing. There is no way of measuring the loss, the lack, the silence of new voices never heard, new words never written, new insights never illuminated, years of training never coming to fruition, scholarship wasted, careers never realized…all because there are not enough outlets for publication. Surely the loss of art historical talent must outweigh any gains. [63] Such a limited field for publication is not efficient. Any system that wastes its best and brightest, allows them to disappear, and fail to thrive, consigned to invisibility, is a system that values status quo over change, supports vested interests over innovation. [64]

Let us imagine—if the Impressionists had never tried—and remember that many of these artists died long before Impressionism was accepted. Imagine—if their courage had faltered—there would be no Claude Monet, no Pierre Renoir, no Mary Cassatt, no Vincent van Gogh, no Paul Gauguin, no Georges Seurat. These artists would have lived, painted futilely, and died in obscurity. [65] Instead the impressionists changed the avant-garde, from the presence of a few outliers to a genuine movement, inspiring large venues for Independent art shows, the Salon des Indépendants–jury-less, the Salon d’Automne–radical–jumpstarting a new way for artists to sell their art outside the Salon system. [66]

Challenge and change are equally difficult but out of crisis comes—-not opportunity—but the willed creation of opportunity. [67] Today the will exists, the technology is available, allowing art professionals, art historians, art critics, theorists to take their careers in their own hands—like the Impressionists—to make themselves heard and read and seen. [68] It is possible to open a new field [69] of cultural production, [70] to run a new game, played by new rules, to establish a new paradigm, to build an alternative system that allows the players to win. [71] And all that is necessary is to forego voluntary psychological handicaps, to give up a constricting mindset [72] and take advantage of the first real game change [73] in the art world since the establishment of the artist-dealer-gallery system for artists.

Revised and updated ending:

Today it is possible to open a closed field [74], the contained field of art historical publication, with independent petit revues or hybrid e-journals, that are open and inclusive, democratic, professional, and dedicated [75] to the intellectual growth and development of art historical colleagues [76] who have a great deal to say and no place to publish it. My website, Art History Unstuffed, and my recent book New Artwriting (2014), are examples of a professional taking charge of a career, publishing on her own terms and on her own timetable and in her own style. While others follow the rules of the Academy and frequent the Salons, it is possible to establish outposts on the frontiers beyond the borders and become part of the small group of forward observers.

You deserve to be heard.

 

 

 

[1] Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, p. 179

[2] Ross King, The Judgment of Paris. The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism, p.31.

[3] King, ibid, p. 32.

[4] Bourdieu, RA, p. 119.

[5] Bourdieu, ibid. p. 260-1.

[6] King, op. cit, p.82.

[7] Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, p. 241.

[8] Bourdieu, ibid. p. 251.

[9] Bourdieu, ibid, p. 83.

[10] Bourdieu, ibid. p. 83.

[11] Bourdieu, The Rules of Art, p. 225.

[12] Ibid., p.167.

[13] Ibid., p. 243.

[14] Ibid. p. 169.

[15] Ibid. p. 230.

[16] Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production, p. 133.

[17] King, p. 67.

[18] Bourdieu, RA, p. 148

[19] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 164.

[20] Ibid. p. 164.

[21] Ibid, p. 251-2.

[22] King, p. 34

[23] King, p. 57.

[24] Ibid. p. 57.

[25] Ibid., p. 354

[26] Moscovici, Romanticism and Post-Romanticism, p. 65

[27] King, p. 72

[28] Philip G. Nord, Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century, p. 6 and 7.

[29] King, p. 357.

[30] Ibid., p. 171.

[31] King, p. 52 and 59

[32] Ibid., p. 337.

[33] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 60.

[34] Ibid., p. 231.

[35] Wynford Dewhurst, Impressionist Painting: Its Genesis and Development, p. 35-36.

[36] King, p. 197.

[37] Robert Herbert, “Impressionism, Originality, and Laissez-faire,” p. 25.

[38] King, p. 48

[39] Ibid. p. 26.

[40] Ibid, p. 27.

[41] Dewhurst, p. 33.

[42] Jon Whitely, in Transformations in Personhood After Theory. The Languages of History, Aesthetics, and Ethics, p. 37.

[43] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 79 and 83.

[44] Ibid., p. 252

[45] Bourdieu, RA, p. 157

[46] Ibid., p. 105.

[47] Nancy Austin, “Naming the Landscape,” in Transformations in Personhood After Theory. The Languages of History, Aesthetics, and Ethics, p. 51-55.

[48] Bourdieu, RA, p. 236

[49] ibid., p. 125

[50] See Kendell, Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

[51] Paul Barlow in Denis, Rafael Carsoso, Art and the Academy in the Nineteenth Century, 20-26

[52] Swinth, Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern America, p. 39.

[53] King, p. 371

[54] Bourdieu, RA, p. 122

[55] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 84

[56] Cown, In Praise of Commercial Culture, p. 112

[57] ibid., p. 127

[58] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 84

[59] King, p. 75

[60] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 41

[61] Bourdieu, RA, p. 132-133

[62] King, p. 201

[63] Schneider, Creating the Musée d’Orsay: The Politics of Culture in France, p. 45, 53, 63

[64] ibid., p. 75

[65] Ibid., p. 197

[66] Cowen, p. 112

[67] Bourdieu, RA, p. 215

[68] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 183

[69] Ibid., p. 95

[70] Cowen, p. 163

[71] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 58

[72] King, p. 372

[73] Bourdieu, RA, p. 249

[74] Ibid., p. 253

[75] Ibid., p. 267

[76] Bourdieu, FCP, p. 106

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bourdieu, Pierre, The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia University Press) 1993

The Rules of Art. Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (Stanford: University of California Press) 1995

Chadwick, Whitney, Women, Art and Society (London: Thames and Hudson) 1990

Cown, Tyler, In Praise of Commercial Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 2000

Denis, Rafael Carsoso, Art and the Academy in the Nineteenth Century (Manchester University Press) 2000

Dewhurst, Wynford, Impressionist Painting: Its Genesis and Development (G. Newnes, Limited) 1904

Herbert, Robert, “Impressionism, Originality, and Laissez-faire,” from Critical Readings in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: An Anthology by Mark Tompkins Lewis (University of California Press) 2007

Kendell, Richard, et al. Van Gogh’s Van Goghs: Masterpieces from the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) 1998

King, Ross, The Judgment of Paris. The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism (New York: Walker and Company) 2006

McDonald, Christie and Gary Wihl, editors, Transformations in Personhood After Theory. The Languages of History, Aesthetics, and Ethics (Pennsylvania State University Press) 1994

Moscovici, Claudia, Romanticism and Post-Romanticism (Lexington Books) 2007

Nord, Philip G., Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century (Routledge) 2000

Schneider, Andrea Kupfer, Creating the Musée d’Orsay: The Politics of Culture in France (Pennsylvania State University Press) 1998

Swinth, Kristen, Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern America (University of North Carolina Press) 2007

 

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Part Two

JEAN-LÉON GÉRÔME: History Painter

Part Two

The Artist and Gender

In painting after painting, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904) clearly demonstrated his discomfort with women. Before his very profitable marriage to the daughter of Europe’s biggest art dealer, Gérôme lived a rather Bohemian life in a homosocial environment. Like most men of his time, he would have had little contact with women of his own class, and he would not have considered a woman to be his equal. His female nudes are far removed from actual women, and, as if their nakedness made him so uneasy, he had to use “the nude” as a mask for their disconcerting naturalness. But he is equally uncomfortable with male bodies. Both the gladiator in the celebrated Ave Caesar (1859) and the belly dancer in Dance of the Almeh (1863) are pudgy: the gladiator sports man boobs and the dancer has a large pot. But Gérôme was comfortable with little boys, carefully delineating their backsides in The Serpent Charmer (1880) and his early Michelangelo (in his Studio) (1849). In the former, the backside is bare, in the latter the backside is literally delineated due to a pair of red-striped tights, worn by the child. Many of his paintings are simply unseemly, in today’s terms, in their confirmation of the scopophilia of male desire for conquest through the passive gaze.

Jean-Leon-Gerome-Michelangelo-in-his-Studio-Oil-Painting

Prynne Before the Areopagus (1861) presents one of Gérôme’s repeated themes: men looking at an object of lust. The object, in this case a woman, is isolated and alone and, most of all, naked, totally exposed to the male gaze. The artist tried to have his specious content both ways—men gaze upon women but the beauty of women’s bodies subdue them, stun them into silence and submission. But the male is always clothed and always retains his power. Young “Prynne” is examined by a group of startled old men, dressed in strong red robes, countering her pale hairless body. Nowhere were women under the command of the male as she was in the mysterious East. The notion of the submissive and speechless woman could have been especially appealing to Frenchmen, alarmed by the propensity of Frenchwomen to rise up during each revolution at home. Thanks to the Code Napoléon (1804), French women had been stripped of any social powers and political disenfranchisement, stripped naked in custom and law.

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The Dance of the Almeh (1863) also empowers the men, who watch the gyrating dancer who writhes for their amusement. The males in the circle are equipped with long straight phallic instruments, guns, spears, violin bows and even a pipe, as though they are protecting themselves. The same excess of protection and phallic display can be seen in The Snake Charmer (1870). The old man at the center of the group has a long sword suggestively rising above his upper thigh as he watches the naked little boy playing with a long snake. The rest of the men are well equipped with erect spears, raising the unanswerable question of whether or not Gérôme was aware of the sexual subtext.

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Gérôme. The Snake Charmer (1870)

For Sale (The Slave Market) of 1866 is the ultimate expression of the stripped and speechless woman being exchanged among men (according to Engels). The slave market in the Middle East has replaced the European concept of marriage as a financial exchange and, as the catalogue essay on this painting reports that the French public “hardly batted an eye.” The idea that the “public” was unphased by this painting implies that the painting was intended for men, which it surely was, and that the art was not viewed by women, which it surely was. Although women of the Second Empire were apparently not expected to see art or to be the audience, but, when they went to the Salons, women were embarrassed by the painterly display of helpless female flesh. One can imagine that some of these ladies imagined the slave woman biting the fingers of the man who was examining her teeth.

gerome_the_slave_market_1860s

Gérôme. For Sale (The Slave Market) (1866)

In other paintings, the (male) audience itself is outside the scene, looking it or looking at the imagined world of the harem. The external spectator was metaphorically internalized as a red robe reclining on a wooden chair in King Candaules (1859), watching the exchange of male looks. The King’s guard, Gyes, lurking in the dark, off to the right, is watching the queen Nyssia. The queen is caught in a triangulated gaze among men, but as Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) pointed out, she would not have been the “dull puppet,” depicted by Gérôme. As was typical for the artist, the woman is pale and naked and helpless with her back turned to the audience in a gesture of modesty thrown in by the painter. One could ask if showing a woman’s naked body from the rear is more or less discrete. The Moorish Bath (1872) is noteworthy for the carefully drawn Islamic tiles and for the inherent racism that exposed the naked breasts of the African slave and allowed the white woman to turn modestly away from the viewer.

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Gérôme. The Moorish Bath (1872)

Echoing European and American notions of racial hierarchy, The Grand Bath at Bursa (1885) is yet another Imaginary Orient, complete with white women (presumably captured by swarthy Arab chieftains) who are sexual slaves and black women who take care of the needs of the concubines. At least in the harem, the women are together and have each other’s company. In many of Gérôme’s paintings, the women are alone, with no friend and no one to defend or take care of them, reflecting the Western version of marriage, the isolated woman, entirely dependent upon her husband.

The Artist as Colonialist

Much has been written about Gérôme as painter to the colonizers, and indeed his many trips to Egypt coincided with France’s desire to master the Middle East and to build an empire. Although their imperial ambitions dated back to Napoléon, the French never caught up with the British who had an empire upon which “the sun never sets.” The Second Empire and the Third Republic, the era of Gérôme, were the high points of French acquisition of territory and artifacts from northern Africa and the Middle East. Gérôme was at his best when he acted as ethnographer, observing the Other. As distasteful as the Imperial gaze was, it did have the virtue of freeing Gérôme from the tropes of classicism and the poncifs of academia. One does not often think of Gérôme the landscape artist, but, as my friend Irina pointed out, his desert paintings are beautiful, dappled with the blue of the sky reflected upon the pale golden buff-colored rocks, just as an Impressionist would (The Lion on Watch, 1890). Here in a desert light that flattens everything, the silhouetted sharp edges of Gérôme’s dry drawing make sense. In Arabs Crossing the Desert (1870), the large scale of the figures is permissible in such open distances. In these paintings of the Middle East, colors are intensified in the light and Gérôme came into his own with his strong colors, unexpectedly pinks (The Black Bard, 1888) and brilliant oranges and blazing yellows (The Marabou, 1888), hot reds vibrating on the surfaces (The Standard Bearer, 1876). The Color Grinder (1891) summarizes the importance of color with a row of large stone mortars lined up in front of a dark shop in the Holy Land. In an age of paint in tubes, Gérôme painted the encircled lips of the large stones, which are glowing with vibrant colors pounded into submission.

Although Gérôme replicated the Middle East and its male inhabitants with apparent exactitude, his paintings are fantasy pastiches. But they are totally convincing and carried a larger truth of white European fantasies of conquest and control of the inferior Other. The people he so carefully studied and observed during his many visits are from another century were devoid of technology beyond the seventeenth century, backwards and in need of French guidance. Heads of the Rebel Beys of the Mosque El Assaneyn (1866) mixed actual events with infidel barbarity, necessitating the civilizing French touch upon a people who favored a public beheading. The irony of such an attitude of superiority may have escaped Gérôme. (The French continued to use the guillotine into the 1940s.) A fascinating and harmless object of curiosity, entertaining the French audience, The Whirling Dervish (1889) needs to be Christianized and Europeanized. Due to the precise accuracy garnered from a photograph, the Salon goers assumed that the artist was educating them with The Carpet Merchant (1887). Each painting of Middle Eastern life can be seen as a contrast to European life–a market instead of a bank, souks, not department stores, fanaticism instead of Catholicism–with the Muslim barbarians being presented as the Other, as Different, as Inferior, as Strange, as Something to be Looked At, as Spectacle, captured by the artist, commanded by the whitened gaze of the spectator.

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The Artist and Orientalism

Gérôme seemed to suffer from a tendency toward a rather Victorian form of clutter and his penchant was to fill in his canvases with overwhelming detail about the Orient. Full of bric-à-brac, the paintings are crowded with information, much of which was gained from the artist’s many visits to the Middle East and documentary photographs recently published in albums. From one perspective, the artist’s work was typical of the a hoarder’s “horror vacui.” From another point of view, the artist was on a mission. The French tactic of conquest through military might and the gathering of facts dated back to Napoléon’s ill-fated foray into Egypt. The history of paintings of the Middle East done by French artists also stems from the early nineteenth-century when the Turks and the Muslims were depicted as brutal and backward. Gérôme nodded to his artistic precursor, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), in his painting of Marcus Botsaris, a hero of the war of Greek Independence who fought with Lord Byron. But the 1874 painting itself, is typical of Gérôme’s approach to the unfamiliar: he delineated a veritable encyclopedia of an Eastern inventory of décor and paraphernalia.

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Gérôme. Marcus Botsaris (1874)

Gérôme’s dedication to accuracy was part of larger tendencies: the rise of modern history writing, the rise of the French Empire, the use of photography to record and preserve the known world, and the period’s fear of empty space. Gérôme’s paintings are packed with these cultural vibrations of foregrounded empiricism. His art owed a great deal to the French delight in the Pre-Raphaelites and their facility for storytelling, which he put in the service of imperialism. It would be anachronistic to accuse the artist of “complicity” on a conscious level in an enterprise that would, a century later, be described by the French as “an accidental empire.” Undoubtedly, Gérôme shared the prejudices and desires of his time and believed in the right for the French to have an Empire and, whatever his motivations, his Middle Eastern subjects exuded Orientalism. His paintings were part of a deeply felt belief system of Western superiority and Eastern inferiority. In his investigation of the pioneering efforts of French artists in picturing the “Orient,” historian Todd Porterfield did not accept that the current French scholarship which insists that the imperialism of France was “haphazard” and “timidly entered into.” According to Porterfield, the French artists portrayed,

…national attributes are posited that pit French science, morality, masculinity, and intellectual rigor against supposedly representative traits of Easterners: fanaticism, cruelty, idleness, vice, irrationality, deviance, and degeneracy.

As was pointed out earlier, this was exactly the dialectical strategy employed decades later by Gérôme in his paintings of the Mysterious East and the Backward Other. It would be safe to assume that the artist believed, in common with most other Europeans, that the culture of the West or the Occident was superior. The discourse of racial and cultural superiority had been in the making among European scholars and writers for decades. The late Palestinian philosopher, Edward Said (1935-2003), revealed the role of discourse in the literary manufacture of “Orientalism” in his 1978 book of the same name. Although the cover of his book featured Gérôme’s The Serpent Charmer, Said did not discuss “Orientalizing” art. Said pointed out that when the Europeans wrote about the East, the scholars were creating, not the truth, but a “representation” of the “Orient.” Using Michel Foucault’s (1926-1984) concept of “discourse” in which serious speech acts from experts shape what becomes received knowledge surrounding a topic, Said stated in his book Orientalism (1978) that the “Orient” was constructed in terms of what the West was not. As Foucault pointed out, representation as constructed by the One would fabricate the Other into a inferior for purposes of discipline and punishment, power and control. Said continued the French philosopher’s thought by pointing out that an “Imaginary Orient” was manufactured for the purpose of defining the Europeans themselves by using the “Orient” as the negative to the Western positive. The Imaginary Orient had little to do with the “real” Middle East, for the Europeans were essentially uninterested in the Other and were concerned with the task of writing themselves into a position of dominance.

The concepts of Foucault and Said was quickly taken up by art historians, resulting in a major investigation into the attitude that European artists had towards the Other. Thanks to post-colonial theory, it is possible to view Gérôme and his art as an expression of French power over a dark-skinned people who refused modernity and Westernization. The art of Gérôme had to overwhelm the viewer with facts, information, detail, as though to compensate for a fundamental Lack of knowledge. Foucault equated seeing/sight with power–voir, savoir, pouvoir: to see is to know is to have power over. For all the privileging of vision in Gérôme’s work, the Other, the “Oriental” remained a slippery character in the French imperial drama. All the knowledge in the world is spread out on his canvases, but it is all from the French point of view and we learn everything and nothing. In the end, all the superiority, all the power in the world could not hold the Empire together, and today, as Porterfield, pointed out, the French seem vaguely embarrassed about their role in colonialism.

Looking at Gérôme’s art in today’s world is an interesting enterprise. The colonized subjects of the French empire have long since come home to the Mother Country, unsure of their identities, as Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) so eloquently stated in Black Skin, White Masks (1952). So thoroughly imbued with the doctrines of colonialism and imperialism, the colonized think that they are partly “French” and came to France to live, but they insist on bringing their “Oriental” culture with them. Suddenly, what seemed exotic in the Middle East caused controversy in Paris: head scarves or not? The fear of the Other continues. Gérôme, like all artists, was engaged in acts of representation; and, as for his attitudes, his biases, his complicity, his patriotism—that is for history to decide.

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Jean-Léon Gérôme, Part One

JEAN-LÉON GÉRÔME: History Painter

Part One

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904) was on the wrong side of history. Many people have been on the wrong side of history, and, like the segregationist Senator, Strom Thurmond, they deserve to stay there. However, art history is more subjective than history-history, which is supposedly based upon verifiable facts. Art falls into the perilous zone of subjectivity and art and artists are subjected to the rise and fall of critical preferences and of aesthetic judgments. Gérôme was art history’s most vile villain, most reliable enemy to all things Modernist. He was the perfect foil to Édouard Manet (1832-1883), Claude Monet (1840-1926), and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), not because he was a popular and successful Salon artist but because he railed against his Impressionist counterparts, often and in public, on the record. But since the 1980s, a “younger” generation of art historians, in search of new material for dissertations, began to revive the dead dinosaurs of “official” French art. And Gérôme was among the Salon artists most in need of revision. Without championing Gérôme, it can be said that it is necessary for him to be re-placed in the history of Nineteenth-century art, if only to better understand the Modernist artists and their accomplishments and their courage. It is important to understand the vast differences between Gérôme and the Impressionists in terms of painting techniques and the subject matter in order to comprehend the reception of the art audience and Salon goers.

When the real art history of the Second Empire and the Third Republic in France was restored by the new art historians, it was revealed that Gérôme was genuinely popular with the art audiences and collectors of his time because his art was immensely innovative, decidedly novel, technically proficient (not outstanding but good enough), and, above all, featured sex and violence. A can’t miss combination. The reason why he fell off the art history pantheon was, as all art historians know, because of the Theory of Modernism. Beginning somewhere around the art critic, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), migrating to the British critic, Roger Fry (1866-1934) and culminating in the American critic, Clement Greenberg (1909-1994), this theory put forward an entity called “Modernism,” both a state of mind and a period of time, that produced an artistic attitude called “art-for-art’s sake,” which led to avant-garde art, a reaction to modernité.

According to the teleology of Modernism, the founding fathers (no mothers allowed) were Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) and Édouard Manet (1832-1883) and their progeny, the Impressionists, the Post-Impressionists and all the “isms” of the twentieth century, climaxing with Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). Any artist, no matter how historically famous and successful, could not be a Modernist unless he (not she: women were not considered) was part of that select group. The artists of the Salon were eliminated, the “official” artists were purged, English and American artists were left out, and only a small group of French male artists were allowed to be part of the club. The result was an art history based upon an evolutionary theory of a progressive march taken by art from representation to abstraction. The Greenberg story of art was an excellent metanarrative, as Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998) would later call it, but it was not a proper history of art. Modernism was a construct, a convenient fiction, complete with heroes and villains.

The Artist and the Public

Art Historian Gerald Ackerman (1928-), whom I met while I was in graduate school, began the revival of Gérôme’s art if not his reputation. At the time, Ackerman told me he had been working on Gérôme for twenty years and it is his pioneering effort that is the foundation of scholarship for today’s writers. Current scholars point out that, even in his own time, Gérôme was as controversial with the critics as the avant-garde artists. Like the latter, Gérôme had to court and please the bourgeoisie, and the career-minded artist created a juste milieu path between erudite, orthodox, high-minded history painting and low-caste genre scenes of everyday life (“Molière Breakfasting with Louis XIV,” 1862). Taking a page from the playbook employed by Ernst Meissonier (1815-1891), Gérôme rethought history painting and made it accessible and entertaining to the middle class art audience (“The Tulip Folly,” 1862). In place of classical knowledge, understandable to scholars and specialists, the artist inserted carefully researched archaeological and ethnographic detail (“Solomon’s Wall, Jerusalem,” 1876). In place of the relentless ordinariness of Realism and the remorseless observation of Naturalism, Gérôme substituted panoply of information, educating the viewer. Instead of heroes and noble characters, he created a cast for his theater of history and used the actors to tell arresting stories about life in another place and another time.

Gérôme’s art presents the viewer spectacle on two levels, echoing the culture of scopophilia and observation of the Other that was the basis of Second Empire power and Third Republic imperialism and the control of men over women. First, Gérôme’s art provided the kind of sheer spectacle that once held sway during the Roman Empire and moved it to the Salon for the delectation of the art public. Bread, circuses, food and entertainment–if you provide the people with these two necessities, they will tolerate any amount of tyranny. Whether or not this conscious policy is smart or despicable depends upon one’s political point of view. To the middle-class French people, survivors of multiple revolutions and uprisings among the disempowered, a firm hand on the wheel may have seemed a good idea. Second, there is no reason to assume that Gérôme was trying to anything more than present interesting subject matter to his audience. There was probably not much sub-text in his work. Indebted to his imperial patrons, Gérôme was a conservative who would be unwilling to offend his collectors. All he asked of the viewer was to look and enjoy. Clearly he had worked out a formula: sex and violence sells; and the exercise of imperialism in the direction of helpless people comforting to a second-class power.

Gérôme’s paintings of the Roman Empire enshrine the pleasure of looking, of seeing violence that happens to others and not to you, a pleasure called by philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the “sublime.” That heightened and intense emotion that Edmund Burke wrote of was, not incidentally, in relation to the excitement of the French Revolution. For excitement, beheadings notwithstanding, sheer terror and scenes of violence, nothing has out-classed the Roman Empire in its ruthless suppression of any and all acts of dissent or disturbance. No Empire has ever been more blatant in its faithful provision of circuses for its well-fed citizens, even in the provinces. The site of a panoply of horrors was the arena, a word meaning “sand,” which covered the floor in order to absorb the inevitable blood. In the Roman arena, there are no victors, only victims of a system of witnessing what was an imperial display of the Emperor’s power over life and death, preferably death.

Gerome-1859

The gladiators, who were slaves, saluted the Emperor before they died in Ave Caesar, Morituri, Te Salutant (1859) and the Christians, who in actuality were prosecuted in very small numbers, provided the fledgling religion with its first martyrs, were favorite characters for the artist. It should be pointed out, that while Christians were expendable, gladiators were not. Expensive to train and to house, the fighters were investments on the part of their owners and it was rare that any of them died in what was usually staged combat. Indeed, Maxime de Camp (1822-1894), photographer of the Middle East, complained that Gérôme was inaccurate, and the artist did, indeed, take liberties for dramatic effect. His painting of Christian martyrs showed human beings used as torches but the scene is set in daytime, while the Emperor Nero put on such a show only at night. In The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayers (1863 – 1883), the lion approaches the huddling worshipers.

christian_martyrs_last_prayer

Much has been written of Gérôme’s prediction of film and his use of the long pause in a narrative and, indeed, the viewer can see the emerging head of other felines coming into the sand surface of the Coliseum. Like the martyrs, we wait. As opposed to Gathering up the Lions in the Circus (1902), in real life, animals had no interest in attacking humans and had to be taught, even forced to pounce. During these centuries of arena entertainment, wild animals, entire species were either wiped out or put in danger, due to the overindulgence of the Romans who did love their spectacles. The Roman audience in Pollice Verso (1872) came to the arena to be entertained. Some commentators and historians have since suggested that the blood lust acted as a kind of drug, dulling the senses, reducing human carnage to a mere theatrical exercise. There was an endless supply of slaves and criminals to put to death in an exercise of punishment and control.

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Although Gérôme could not have imagined modern film, his paintings of the Roman Empire became sources of inspiration for Hollywood film directors, from movie directors C. B. De Mille (1881-1959) to Ridley Scott (1937-). But that observation raises a rather interesting question: why are we still so fascinated with an imperial power, which used human beings as stage lights, crucified even the most insignificant dissidents, rewarded the few and persecuted the many, keeping everything in balance through constant spectacles of blood and violence? Why does Hollywood not make movies about the Greeks, unless they are fighting the Persians in tiny leather uniforms? Do we conclude that we are superior to the Romans in the arena because we are addicted only to movie violence?

In a world where schools have long since sidelined history, most of us learn of the past from the History Channel and Oliver Stone (1946-). Today we could call Gérôme a “popularizer.” If he were a history professor today, he would be complimented for helping the students identify with the events of the past. However, history painting in nineteenth-century France was not necessarily supposed to be popular, only revered and respected. Unlike Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), who dis-respected the Salon system by portraying unattractive uninteresting modern types on a large scale, reserved for history painting, Gérôme kept most of his works small or medium sized. He was, in effect, using the rules to create a new space for what the system had already approved. In the end, he slipped past his many detractors and found fame, fortune, and many honors. As Scott Allan pointed out in his “Introduction” to Reconsidering Gérôme, the artist was “appointed professor at the newly reorganized École des Beaux-Arts in 1863…. (was given) a seat in the Institut de France in 1865…(and was) nominated grand officier of the Legion of Honor in 1898.” Son-in-law to the grand impresario of art reproduction, Adolph Goupil, Gérôme was one of the most reproduced and widely distributed artists of the nineteenth-century. But was he a “good” artist?

The Artist and Technique

Technically speaking, Gérôme was an odd mixture. On one hand, he could handle paint only in a limited manner, for he was essentially a drawer who painted and colored in the lines. On the other hand, he never won the Rome Prize for good reason–he was almost blind when it came to the classical approach to the human figure. Only when he removed himself from the Beaux-Arts tradition did he become at ease with the people he painted. His nude women are borrowed entirely from other artists, especially from Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) and Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856) (Character Study for a Greek Interior, 1850), and are boneless and airbrushed to a peculiar blank flatness. But when Gérôme clothed his females, he was completely at ease. His portrait of the daughter of Betty de Rothschild, who was painted by Ingres in 1848, Portrait of Madame la Baronne Nathaniel de Rothschild (1866) is not as stunning as an Ingres portrait, but Gérôme held his own with the master. His Portrait of M. Édouard Delessert (1864) with the subject nattily dressed in blue argyle socks is a genuine character study.

Gerome-CharlotteRothschild

Gérôme. Portrait of Madame la Baronne Nathaniel de Rothschild (1866)

Despite these near-great portraits, Gérôme seemed to have had a hard time integrating actual sites with imaginary people. For example, there is a wonderful trio, featuring Napoléon in Egypt. Napoléon and his General Staff in Egypt (1867) imagines a very large General on a very dainty camel, but it is not the size disparity, it is the startled expression on Napoléon’s face that makes today’s viewer smile. Oedipus (1863 – 86) also plays havoc with scale: Napoléon is on a tiny horse, standing in front of a shrunken Sphinx. But most interesting is Napoléon in Cairo (1867 – 68), a simple little painting with the General standing in full uniform with Islamic mosques in the background. In real life, Napoléon was short and rounded, but here he is tall and slim. The viewer is given a level of information that Meissonier would envy–the details of the uniform are exquisitely rendered and one learns, thanks to the deep shadows of selective folds of his trousers, that the future Emperor “dressed” left. There are probably several reasons for the disparity of scale and proportion in Gérôme’s paintings. One would certainly be his academic training, which taught students to think in pastiche and collage and to “paste,” as it were, standard studio poses into grand backgrounds. Another cause would have been the artist’s use of photography as his source. Photography tended to make minute details available to the human eye, and when Gérôme copied these details, the effect was to flatten the surface with non-hierarchal information that overwhelmed the displaced figures and threw off the scale.

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Gérôme emerged onto the Parisian art scene as the leader of the “Neo-Grec” school (according to the critics of his day) with The Cock Fight in the Salon of 1847. The genre painting tells a story of cocks, both seen and unseen, as a young boy orchestrates a contest between two roosters while a young girl shrinks away, as well she might. However, Gérôme did not confine himself to antiquity and the choice of his subjects says a great deal about what was going on in France during his career. Just as his mentor Paul Delaroche (1797-1856) spoke obliquely about the French Revolution (matricide and patricide) with The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833), Gérôme saluted the Second Empire by celebrating the current Emperor’s uncle, Napoléon I, in a number of paintings, some direct references, some indirect. The rather marvelous The Reception of the Siamese Ambassadors at Fountainebleau (1864) was a direct steal of Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoléon (1807). Two other wonderful paintings, The Grey Cardinal (1873) and the Reception of the Duc de Condé at Versailles (1878) were painted after the fall of the Second Empire and could be interpreted as a warning against secret power (the Cardinal and by extension the late Empire) and a plea for reconciliation (Duc de Condé) after rebellion, but, given the inherent political and painterly conservatism of Gérôme, the works could be more comfortably read in relation to the nostalgic Bonapartism and a desire for a monarchy, which marked the unsteady early decades of the ill-fated Third Republic.

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Impressionism: Class and Gender

THE SUBJECT MATTER OF THE IMPRESSIONISTS

Gender and Class in Impressionism

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

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.

Class

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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Manet and the Impressionists

MANET AND IMPRESSIONISM

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]

Podcast 29 Gustave Courbet, Part Two

THE RISE AND FALL OF GUSTAVE COURBET

Part Two

The early career of Gustave Courbet is discussed within the historical context of class struggles during the middle of the nineteenth century. The Realism in Courbet’s paintings of the 1850s manifested itself not only in politically controversial content but also in aesthetic decisions, which challenged Salon conventions. However, through canny self-promotion and his ability to take advantage of opportunity, Courbet rose to prominence in the Salon system. Never popular with the Academicians, Courbet acquired important critical support and had devoted patrons. But in the 1860s his politically active art changed and he seemed to be in the thrall of wealthy collectors, until the Commune of 1871. After the Franco-Prussian War, Courbet seemed to remember his political passions, but this renewed dedication to causes would bring him down.

 

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

Thank you.
[email protected]

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