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.

The artists he is concerned with are the self-conscious Parisians: Manet, Degas, Morisot, Monet, Caillebotte and Renoir: not Pissarro, Sisley and Cézanne, for whom the city had no appeal. His period is the Sixties and Seventies. His method is to categorise the themes that these artists painted, and then to explore the meaning of these themes in social life. He calls upon contemporary witnesses both native and foreign, on maps and guidebooks, on popular illustrations and official reports. He then takes us back to the pictures themselves, which he examines with extraordinary care, connecting every namable feature with the context from which it is drawn. It goes without saying that this context is a material one, an economic one. He examines the picture in in all its aspects, tipping his hat to formalism. But ‘in all art that is capable of moving us, structure interprets subject.’

In his long inventory of subjects, from the streets to the Normandy beaches, the key is the rebuilding of Paris. Between them, Emperor, Haussmann and their attendant speculators created the modern capital, megalomania, ambition and greed working in concert. Neighbourhoods are broken apart, the dispossessed herded into the working-class suburbs to the north and east of the city. Money takes over. Life proceeds through indirect contact, calculation and enumeration supplant the old social relationships. Meanwhile, among the expanding middle class, leisure increases rapidly. To be seen not working – the democratic equivalent of privilege – engenders appetites that are open to manipulation. It is the policy of the government to entertain. The crowd becomes both spectacle and audience.

This is ground that has been so well-trodden that it is difficult for the common reader to find a fresh patch of grass on it. The heroes of this terrain are those arch-ironists Manet and Degas. Herbert writes interestingly about them both, but the most striking passages in his book are about a painter incapable of irony in any form, Claude Monet.

Manet, Degas and Morisot were high bourgeois. Renoir came from an artisan background. Monet was a provincial, and had all the ambition and ruthless energy of a parvenu. In his chapter on the seaside as an Impressionist subject, Herbert describes the famous picture in the Metropolitan that Monet painted when he was staying with his family in 1867, The Terrace at St Adresse. The family is sitting on the terrace of their summer villa overlooking the entrance to the harbour of Le Havre. The port, we are told, had recently taken the place of Marseilles as the busiest port in France. Monet père had a business in ship’s chandling. The horizon that he is now contemplating from his chair on the terrace is crowded with modern steamers and old-fashioned sailing-ships. There was a thriving colony of English merchants in Le Havre. The railway that connected Normandy with Paris had been constructed by the English. According to a contemporary visitor whom Herbert quotes, a German, the merchants of Le Havre looked towards England for their example: hence ‘their notions respecting free trade; hence their enmity to everything that looks like monopoly and privilege ...’ Monet père is seen literally looking to the north across the crowded horizon. Monet fils, meanwhile, has figuratively turned his back on the South – the Grand Tradition – and is looking as a painter towards the land of Constable and Bonnington. He, too, is claiming his right to free trade, in enmity towards the monopoly of the Salon and the privilege of the Academy. The broad social context, the particulars of his chosen subject, and the painter’s own position both in terms of his career and his stylistic affiliations, all lock together like the pieces of a three-dimensional puzzle.

At the time when he painted the terrace, Monet had been forced to leave his beautiful companion Camille in Paris, where she was having his baby. He was broke and under pressure from his family to abandon her.

The year before she had been his model for his most ambitious picture to date, the Women in the Garden now in the Musée d’Orsay. He started the painting in the open air with Camille and a friend wearing changes of dress to make four figures. The principal figure sits on the grass in the foreground, a magnificently embroidered white dress spread around her, a parasol lifted, her face flattened by the light reflected off her dress. The whole painting supports the figures, surrounding them with flowers, bathing them in light and shade. Everything is described in the broad touches that seem to take their terms from the patterns of stripes and dots that embellish the women’s dresses. The figures are posed like models in a fashion plate, not merely idle but displaying their idleness with meaningless gestures. They are ‘untainted’ by any association with work, embodiments of conspicuous consumption. Fashion stood in the painter’s eye for the present, the tangible vehicle for immediacy and change, and the picture was a dream of a bourgeois prosperity that Monet did not yet enjoy – he was particularly hard up at the time. Again the broad social theme crosses with the personal and painterly. The flat patterning of the dresses opens the way to a decorative vision of flowers and foliage, a patterned unity which was unprecedented in his work, and which he was going to carry forward and transform in years to come.

A few years later, Monet and Camille, now married, were staying during the season at Trouville. Their position was precarious. Monet painted the façade of the grandest hotel on the coast. He also made several pochades of Camille on the beach. Herbert takes up the best known of the group, the National Gallery’s The Beach at Trouville and points out how, in spite of the striking abbreviations in its brush-work and its reduction of the scene to a lively pattern of light, Monet also makes a claim about Camille’s status. She is to the left of the picture, in white. To the right is an older woman in black. Camille, with flowers in her hat, stares proudly out to sea. The older woman looks down into her lap, her hands occupied. Camille’s hands are free to hold her parasol gaily aloft, where its scalloped edge ‘lays claim to large spaces’. The older woman’s parasol, black, is sunk over her head, trapping her in her more humble role. Camille is carefree at the smartest resort in France.

Among the landscapes of the Seventies, two pictures in particular draw Herbert’s attention to what one might call Monet’s geometry – the way he shapes the perspective and organises our movement through the picture. The first is the great painting of the Bridge at Bougival of 1869, now in the Currier Gallery of Art. It is a view across a bridge in the centre of one of the villages that were in the process of turning into pleasure spots for weekending Parisians. At weekends it was swarming with canoeists and bathers, but Monet paints it on a weekday, in its native aspect. Herbert takes us through every aspect of the painting, concluding with a description of the grid of verticals and horizontals with which Monet finally asserts the intervals between trees and lamp-posts, the lines of rooftops, water and riverbank. Monet’s attention to the atmosphere, the close values of near and far, the subtle accords between different patches of colour at different distances, all expressed in unmodulated brush strokes that lie firmly on the surface, allows him to bring the grid to the fore, asserting its alignments frankly. ‘In its complicated network of geometric shapes, his picture expresses his generation’s wish to impose order and regular intervals over nature. It speaks unwittingly for the Second Empire’s diagrams of control.’

The other picture is the Railway Bridge, Argenteuil, painted in 1873 after Monet had come back to France after the war. It was a new bridge made of iron. It crosses the river in a single straight line. ‘Monet’s painting is a homage to the railway not just because it represents a new bridge, but because its composition has the framework of modern engineering.’ A boat sails under the bridge. Above, two trains pass, one heading for Paris, the other for the country. Their smoke, pinkish white in the clear sunshine, mingles with little clouds. It is a benign mingling of engineering and nature, ruled by the straight lines of the bridge, ‘actions that embrace humankind’s ability to surmount nature ... to impose unnatural patterns on her for their own purposes’. Consciously or not, the painting is ‘symptomatic of the mood of post-war reconstruction and the rebuilding of France’s wounded pride’.

Interpretations of this kind run throughout this detailed and marvellously illustrated book. At one point Herbert checks himself. Has he gone too fast for the reader ‘unused to finding social meaning in the structures of art’? Well, ‘one of the benefits of 20th-century formalism has been the demonstration that the forms of ... the visual arts embody fundamental beliefs, varying from attitudes towards nature to struggles between an individual’s subjectivity and concepts of social organisation.’ I am not sure that this really answers all the questions that his spirited interpretations raise. Until we know what he really thinks of 20th-century formalism it is difficult to know what weight to give to his appeal to it. What, in the end, does his approach make of questions of quality, of originality and development? These are tame questions and any Marxist will have fast answers for them. They are merely ways of edging towards the question How far are you prepared to go? Herbert doesn’t allow himself to become enmeshed in theory – his approach is as practical as his clear adagio prose – but I wish that he had allowed more room for a discussion of the boundaries of his interpretations.

There are, of course, two lines of interpretation – one of the historical context, the second of the picture. The idea is that they should intersect, but quite often they merely strike glancing blows, and one is left with the feeling that he has simply changed the title of a picture. This is already to do something: Degas’s Au Café has a different nuance when it is called L’Absinthe, and many of Herbert’s examples will now carry a slightly heavier cargo. But considering the sweep of his investments, the returns in terms of a rediscovery of the picture are, in some instances, modest.

I am bothered by the thought of Monet unwittingly invoking the Second Empire’s diagrams of control. It is too close to spirit-of-the-age superstition. There is something wrong here with how Herbert formulates his conclusion. Would it not have been more just to describe the Bougival picture as a likeness of the historian’s view of the age? But this perhaps would be too subjective, would wrench the painting too violently into the historian’s present.

The area where his interpretations strike the brightest and most worrying fire is in the recurrent theme of leisure. Almost every picture he cites touches in some aspect of its subject upon the extraordinary expansion of leisure during the period. Picnickers, bathers, yachtsmen, strollers, theatregoers, idle wives, seducers, all were the beneficiaries of leisure, a new freedom from work. Middle-class leisure was both a consequence and a cause of industrial and commercial prosperity, creating appetites that are fulfilled by enterprise that in turn creates new appetites.

As with all Impressionist themes, there is a particular reciprocity. Monet’s pictures represent leisure and in a certain sense are formed by it. The attitude that allows the eye to discern an order in the variegated colour of shadows, for example, is only conceivable in a condition of suspended activity. The painter broaches idleness and finds room there for his peculiar kind of work. The contemplative eye claims mastery over focus, over connections given by the workaday world: to this extent it is ‘detached’, to this extent it is leisured.

Here Herbert’s two lines of interpretation betray strain. Much seems to be left unsaid. He sees in 19th-century Paris the seeds of our ills. Something has gone horribly wrong – injustice hypocritically masked, work-pride perverted, responsibility depraved. There is a note of Ruskinian anger, suppressed but unmistakable, that only rises clearly to the surface in his many references to the exploitation of women. If Impressionism is the mirror of this condition, what of Impressionism? What if Monet’s subjects of seaside and garden are after all nothing but displays of hedonistic silliness and evasive boasts? Would the point be that the Impressionist victory over light, and the redefinition of painting that followed from it, had been won at too high a price? It could not be argued that their achievement transcends its time. That would be bourgeois idealism. On the contrary, the present idealisation of Impressionism is itself merely another chapter of false consciousness, myth-making in the interests of capital and comfort. Monet painted a world without beggars and without work. The last line of the book is tinged with contempt: we use Impressionism’s ‘leisure-time subjects and its brilliantly coloured surfaces to construct a desirable history’.