Leisure’s Utmost

Andrew Forge

  • Art and Politics of the Second Empire: The Universal Expositions of 1855 and 1867 by Patricia Mainardi
    Yale, 288 pp, £30.00, September 1987, ISBN 0 300 03871 2
  • Impressionism: Art, Leisure and Parisian Society by Robert Herbert
    Yale, 324 pp, £24.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 300 04262 0

Both these books look at aspects of painting during the Second Empire from a sociological point of view. Patricia Mainardi takes the two Universal Expositions of 1855 and 1867 as the markers of a crucial change, the shift of taste that set the stage for modern painting. History painting, the highest form of the art was on the way out. Writers of the left were the first to see what was happening. Religious and heroic painting were dying, Castagnary told the readers of his first Salon review, ‘to the same degree that theocracy and monarchy, the social structures that supported them are dying’. By 1867, conservative critics were saying the same thing: ‘We can see it clearly today,’ Charles Blanc told his readers in a review of the second Universal Exposition: ‘Twelve years have sufficed for us to lose interest in Grand Painting.’ The story that Mainardi tells in fascinating detail is a story of opportunism and manipulation on the part of the court, and of an artistic policy that no longer pretended to deal in ‘noble’ values but rather in entertainment, a version of bread and circuses. Ingres had died not long before the opening of the Exposition of 1867. It was the end of an epoch. ‘His presence among us was a guarantee, his life a safeguard,’ Léon Lagrange declared. ‘His death breaks the last tie of moderation that was holding back anarchy.’

What Ingres had safeguarded during his life was a fiercely exclusive view of painting based upon strict hierarchies, on heroic roles, centred and attached. Meanwhile, the independents, those associated with Manet whose private pavilion stood not far from the grounds of the Exposition on the Place d’ Alma, were already claiming subjects from modern life that were indifferent to hierarchies, told no stories and celebrated no heroes.

What they were doing is generally seen as the beginning of modern art. Until fairly recently, art historians have discussed these artists, the Impressionists, from the perspective of subsequent events. The evolution of Impressionism has been seen in formal and stylistic terms. If the climate has now changed, it is due as much as to anyone to Robert Herbert, whose present book is long overdue. He has been teaching his revised view of Impressionism for a quarter of a century and his influence is widespread. In some ways, this is an old-fashioned book. Herbert steers clear of the machinery of structuralism, semiotics, literary theory and so on. He centres on the pictures, and furthermore, on the pictures about whose quality there would be general agreement. He writes without jargon. The spur of his undertaking would be perfectly familiar to the artists he is writing about, the conviction that, in Renan’s words, ‘a work of art has value only in its framework, and the framework of every work is its époque.’

He quickly turns to describing an attitude that he finds common to all the Impressionist painters: a desire to withhold judgment or parti pris, and to approach their subjects directly without manifest comment. He calls this attitude detachment. This detachment passes to the audience of their pictures. In the absence of clues as to what attitude to adopt to what is described, we must stay open, in a suspended state. ‘Detachment, therefore, has the virtue of complexity ... The psychology of the viewer becomes intertwined with the artist’s because of, not despite, his detachment.’ This, it seems to me, perfectly describes how it has been that the subjects of the Impressionist painters were for so long ignored. It was what was happening on the canvas that mattered, not what was depicted beyond it. Herbert is out to break into this circle.

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