Rachel Cohen

Boudin

Les Débâcles, first

Les Deacutebacirccles first

Claude Monet, Le Débâcle, 1880, Palais des Beaux Arts, Lille


débâcle: the violent flood that follows when the river ice melts in spring


In the winter of 1879-1880 the weather was unusually stormy and cold.  All along the Seine there were record quantities of snow and ice.  That winter, Claude Monet was at Vétheuil, a village near Argenteuil and to the northwest of Paris.  Monet was living in straitened circumstances with his children; his beloved wife Camille had died earlier that year, in September.  The remaining Monets were sharing a household with Alice Hoschedé and her children.  The winter was so fierce that even at Christmas it was impossible for them to be joined by Alice Hoschedé’s husband, Ernest, who had been one of Monet’s important supporters and collectors.  Ernest Hoschedé was suffering through his own difficult period; he had gone bankrupt two years before, and his entire Impressionist collection had been sold at disastrously low prices.  It is not entirely clear how the merging and transformation of the Hoschedé and Monet households took place, but this grim winter was to prove a turning point both in Monet’s life and in his work as a painter.

I have been reading about that winter, and the paintings Monet made then, for nearly a year.  Reading very slowly, chiefly in one catalogue called Monet at Vétheuil: The Turning Point.  The catalogue caught my attention in a used bookstore here in Cambridge, in part because the show that occasioned it was held at the University of Michigan Art Museum in Ann Arbor, where I am from, and in part because the subject of the paintings is winter.  My father died in Ann Arbor in early February of 2013, during a bitterly snowy fortnight.  This February, two years later, I am again confronted by mourning and by snow. Although I have been thinking about these confluences for many months, I am not making any progress on drawing them together as an essay. So I have decided to try writing a series of broken pieces instead.

During the winter of 1879-1880, Monet painted a series of canvases of the snowbound river and of the eventual catastrophic breakup of the ice.  The series of paintings, called Les Débâcles, take their name from the river floods that followed the thaw in early January of that year.  Until this point, much of Monet’s work had been of urban landscapes. There had also been portraits and still lifes; the work depicted or implied the presence of people.  But this winter, he painted landscape alone, deliberately removing the boats and industry which photographs from the time show to have been part of the landscape at Vétheuil.  Instead, the viewer of the painting is alone in nature; the subject of the pictures is the terrible majesty of winter and its devastations.    


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Monet, Le Débacle, 1880, University of Michigan Art Museum

Delacroix's Palette

Delacroix039s Palette

The Palette of Delacroix, from the Musée Delacroix

The final studio in which Delacroix worked is also, spatially, the last in a series of seclusions.  It’s a wonderful large square, lit by immense skylights, and surrounded by gardens that Delacroix filled with a profusion of flowers, their colors of his own careful choosing.  The studio building is behind, and separate from, the apartment in which Delacroix lived. This apartment is itself on a private courtyard holding quiet entrances for a few buildings.  The courtyard is off a small quiet square, really a slight geometric expansion of a narrow street, the Rue Furstenberg, an untrafficked byway not far from the great church of St. Germain des Pres.
          The studio was recommended to Delacroix by the restorer and color merchant Etienne Haro, who knew that the artist, unwell in his later years, needed to be within walking distance of St.-Sulpice, where he had undertaken a last sequence of great murals.
          When he was young, Delacroix once said to his friend Charles Baudelaire, he could only work if he knew he had somewhere to be that evening, a ball, music, but as he grew older, the discipline of work grew in him and he worked indefatigably.  He had visitors, but not so very many, and he kept his last illness private.  Even a good friend like Baudelaire was shocked by the news of his death and wrote sorrowfully of how they would no longer find him in that grand square space "where reigned, in spite of our rigid climate, an equatorial temperature."1  

*  *  *


A study in hot and cold, Delacroix as a personality and an artist was in continual motion between shade and gleam.  He was revered for his color sense, both daring and precise, and the palettes now on display at the Musée Delacroix make his color sense dramatically visible.    

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          Here you can see, unusually, not a rainbow or color wheel, but hot colors intermingled with cold ones, and dark contrasts grouped together with corresponding brights.  The artist mixed his shades in advance and kept careful notes of each one’s composition.  In Les Palettes de Delacroix (1930), Léon Piot noted that when Delacroix was ill, he would have his palette brought to his bed and spend the day there mixing colors.  Baudelaire wrote, “I have never seen a palette as minutely and delicately prepared as that of Delacroix.  It resembled a bouquet of flowers, knowingly arranged.”2   On its website, the Musée Delacroix points out that as time went on the artist, “fragmented more and more the tones, focusing less and less on real color as opposed to shadows, halftones, and reflections.”  
          Baudelaire evidently felt sympathetic to, and recognized by, the atmosphere created by Delacroix’s color.  “It seems that such color thinks for itself, independently of the object it clothes,” Baudelaire is said to have said, “The effect of the whole is almost musical.”3



*  *  *


This palette

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was said to have been given by Delacroix to Henri Fatin-Latour, a great admirer of Delacroix.  Fatin-Latour, angered by the lack of official commemoration of the master’s death, painted an Hommage à Delacroix.


The group portrait includes Fatin-Latour himself (in white blouse), James McNeill Whistler (standing center,) Edouard Manet (standing immediately to the right of the portrait of Delacroix) and Baudelaire (seated right corner.)  

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Six years later, Fatin-Latour painted a similar group portrait, called A Studio at Batignolles that, with its depictions of Manet, Renoir, Zola, Bazille, and Monet, stands as both manifesto for and document of the Impressionist movement in something like the manner of John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence:

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          The palette that may have belonged to both Delacroix and Fatin-Latour was eventually donated to the Musée Delacroix by the granddaughter of Léon Riesener, and the Riesener family, through its friendship with the Morisot sisters, provided another, personal, conduit by which the palette of Delacroix was transmitted to the Impressionists.

*  *  *


This summer, the Musée Delacroix has an exhibition of works that show the influence of Shakespeare on Delacroix.  Like Berlioz, Delacroix was greatly moved by the force of drama in the works of Shakespeare and there are wonderful etchings of instants of great intensity from Hamlet (Hamlet on the terrace approached by his father’s ghost, the moment before the stabbing of Polonius, the moment “up, sword” of deciding not to kill Claudius at prayer).  There is also an oil sketch of Léon Riesener, a cousin and confidante of the painter, himself a painter, and a legatee of Delacroix’s.

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          This portrait shows a broad and sympathetic face, tones all of brown and white.  In the background and upside down are discernible sketches for another picture, Hamlet and Horatio in the cemetery with the skull of Yorick.

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Bequeathal, and legacy were vexed issues for Delacroix, who, says Baudelaire, was increasingly preoccupied with which of his contributions would endure.
          Walter Benjamin notes the aptness of Léon Daudet’s phrase for Baudelaire.  Daudet writes that Baudelaire had a “trap-door disposition, which is also that of Prince Hamlet.”4  I take this to mean a theatrical, or a magician’s, feeling for circumstances and their manipulation.  Appearances and disappearances, sudden dispersals, going within to get out.  There seems to be something of Delacroix in the phrase, too.

*  *  *


Another inheritor of Delacroix was Berthe Morisot, who, in an early summer of her training as a painter was working side-by-side with her sister in the town of Beuzeval in Normandy. Their father had rented for them a mill belonging to Léon Riesener, and the Morisot sisters were soon close to, and much encouraged by, the whole Riesener family. In her notebook, Berthe Morisot recorded an anecdote they related: “Delacroix composed his palette with such precision that he could have it prepared each morning by Jenny, his maid, while he was painting his Apollo ceiling or rather while he had Andrieux paint it as he remained below.  One day, he called out to him to use a No. 2 pink and Andrieux thought he would catch him out with a No. 3. ‘No, no, exclaimed Delacroix, I said a No.2.’ That is absolutely the sensation of a musician.”5

*  *  *


I see two ways out of this series of reflections: one is to try to see further inside the man, the other to try to see further into the legacy of his works.  These efforts do not amount to the same thing, but perhaps could be displayed immediately next to each other.
          Walter Benjamin, whose interest in Delacroix grew in part from Benjamin’s profound relationship to the works of Baudelaire, notes that Delacroix was interested in photography, and that his paintings “escape the competition with photography, not only because of the impact of their colors, but also (in those days there was no instant photography) because of the stormy agitation of their subject matter. And so a benevolent interest in photography was possible for him.”6  The ever more profound and fragmentary sense of color, and the idea of creating motion through the juxtaposition of contrasting colors, these went on being a significant part of how painting responded to photography through the rest of the 19th century.
          Baudelaire said that his friend Delacroix was a peculiar combination of the “sauvage,” and the “homme du monde.”  He was, writes the poet, “passionately enamored of passion, and coldly determined to seek out the means of expressing passion in the most visible manner.”7  In his austere seclusion he would, Baudelaire wrote, find the colors in which to bathe his scenes so that they had their own life.  “As a dream is placed in the colored atmosphere proper to it, so a conception, become a composition, must moves in a colored milieu particular to it.”8  

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Hamlet and Horatio in the Cemetery, Musée du Louvre



1 Baudelaire, Critque d’art, “Eugene Delacroix, son oeuvre et sa vie,” p421, translations mine.
2 Baudelaire, Critique d’art, p408
3 from Ernest Seillière, Baudelaire, (Paris, 1931) cited in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, edited Tiedemann, translated Eiland and McLaughlin, (Cambridge, 1999) p277.
4 Daudet, Les Pélerins d’Emmaus, Paris, 1928, p101, cited in Benjamin, Arcades Project, p265.
5 Morisot, Notebook, 1885, 1887-8, p12-13, cited in Marianne Delafond and Caroline Genet-Bondeville, Berthe Morisot or Reasoned Audacity, Paris, 2011, p16
6 Benjamin, Arcades Project, p678.
7 Baudelaire, Critique d’art, p418, p406.
8 Baudelaire, p408.

Turner before Monet

Turner before Monet

Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons
16 October 1834, painted 1835.


In Cleveland for the holidays, M. and I walked through the galleries of the art museum, and stumbled upon Turner’s The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, 16 October, 1834.

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If I’d seen it before, I’d entirely forgotten.  A painting of great power and intricacy.

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Turner one of those rare colorists who seems, to me, to have control within the color – especially here of red that really burns at the heart of the painting and of the expanding cloud of yellow and white.

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The color has shape and density, symmetry and modulation.  It is not so much that the painting seems to have a geometry as that the color, within itself, does.

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Monet knew Turner’s paintings and his admiration for them was part of his decision to go to London to do his three late series.  One would like to be sure that he had had adequate time with this particular picture, which seems to have a project related in an important way to his own.  Monet set the Houses of Parliament, the Thames before them, and the air above them in such a way that each could be transmuted into the others.  Turner and those with him along the banks of the Thames that night saw this happen.

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The night of the great fire, October 16, 1834, Turner worked all night, up and down the banks of the Thames sketching rapidly in watercolor, which was his habit.  One of these sketches is reproduced in a beautiful called Turner: Les Carnets de Dessins with text by William Gaunt.  Turner’s watercolors, the most wonderful I have ever seen, were his private work, and were not brought before the public until well into the 20th century.  Thus Monet, hurrying up and down the sides of the Thames desperate to catch his evanescent effects, never knew how close a ghostly colleague he had.


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Monet at Work

Monet at Work

Monet, Houses of Parliament


I hadn’t appreciated what it meant to Monet to work in a series.  I knew the haystacks and the cathedrals and the water lilies showed different times of day – that you could see the morning in the yellow light along one edge of a bridge or doorframe and the evening in the lavender along the other – but I hadn’t really thought through how Monet would then actually have to work on them. I assumed, I think, that he began, say on a morning painting of haystacks, finished that one and then moved on to one of the afternoon. But he was painting actual haystacks and of course the effects he was interested in were only visible for perhaps an hour, or much less on any given day. He had to work on the whole series at once, and he switched from canvas to canvas as the light changed.

This is an extraordinary feat of concentration, like playing simultaneous chess games.  Although the paintings in a series all had cathedrals in them each one was different in cast, in the range of color and emotion. Imagine working simultaneously on ten essays and switching every hour. Watching Monet, surrounded by his canvases, made a vivid impression, and he and his friends left wonderful glimpses of what he was like at work.

Monet apparently began working in series as early as 1885, when he went back to locations where he had painted with Boudin, Jongkind and Courbet.  Guy de Maupassant, who had that year published his second novel, Bel Ami, remembered watching Monet at work at Entretat:

I often followed Claude Monet in search of impressions.  He was no longer a painter, in truth, but a hunter.  He proceeded, followed by children [possibly his own and Mme Hoschedé’s] who carried his canvases, five or six canvases representing the same subject at different times of day and with different effects.  He took them up and put them aside in turn, according to the changes in the sky.  Before his subject, the painter lay in wait for the sun and shadows, capturing in a few brush strokes the ray that fell or the cloud that passed….I have seen him thus seize a glittering shower of light on the white cliff and fix it in a flood of yellow tones which, strangely, rendered the surprising and fugitive effect of that unseizable and dazzling brilliance.  On another occasion he took a downpour beating on the sea in his hands and dashed it on the canvas – and indeed it was the rain that he had thus painted…. (1)

There were some further ways in which Monet conceived of ‘working in a series.’  Although he was wary of talking about studio work, far from the plein air that was the Impressionists’ rallying cry, still the series were finished in the studio. To feel balanced and deep, a picture needed the period of further consideration possible in the studio. There, too, he worked on what might be called their “seriesness,” laboring to distinguish each from the others and to assemble a set of impressions and effects of light that made sense as a group. This meant that none of them were finished until all of them were finished.

The group often referred to as the fundamental series is those of the haystacks, perhaps because the method was there worked out completely, or because Monet intended to show them as a group, and did, with Durand-Ruel, in 1891. He had apparently thought he would have just two canvases – one was to show sunlight and the other gray weather. But, as he worked, the effects he wanted to catch, those that demonstrated what he called “instantaneity,” multiplied, and in the end he showed fifteen pictures. These were a financial success, the dealer was able to sell them for between 3,000 and 4,000 francs.  

Monet was then fifty-one; Impressionism had won its initial battles, but it was still not easy to make a living.  The idea to work in series emerged as Monet was beginning to be a successful artist, and the success of the series themselves helped him to continue working in this unusual way. It required a substantial outlay for him to get the canvas and materials to begin so many pictures at once, and then he continued working on them for years before the group could be ready for sale.  As he wrote to his wife Alice Monet from London, “I have something like sixty-five canvases covered with colors…What a bill I’m going to have at Lechertier!” (2)

The London series (those of Charing Cross Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, and the Houses of Parliament, done between 1899 and 1904) are the culmination of the method. As he matured, Monet chased increasingly fugitive effects. “I adore London,” he told the dealer René Gimpel, “it’s a mass, an ensemble, and it’s so simple. Then in London, above all what I love is the fog.” On another occasion he said, “without the fog London wouldn’t be a beautiful city. It’s the fog that gives it is magnificent breadth.  Those massive, regular blocks become grandiose within that mysterious cloak.” In 1901, he wrote to Alice, “I can’t tell you about this fantastic day.  What marvelous things, but only lasting five minutes, it’s enough to drive you crazy.  No, there’s no land more extraordinary for a painter.” (3)

A lovely exhibition catalog for the show Monet in London with text by Grace Seiberling points out that this adored fog was the result of heavy pollution. Monet sometimes let the industrial browns and greens go, but he saw it all, as he explained to an interviewer, also in 1901:

The fog in London assumes all sorts of colors; there are black, brown, yellow, green, purple fogs, and the interest in painting is to get the objects as seen through all these fogs…. Objects change in appearance in a London fog quicker than in any other atmosphere, and the difficulty is to get every change down on canvas. (4)  

He was beset by difficulties.  His friend Sargent would come to visit him at the Savoy Hotel, where Monet stayed in part because of the balconies directly over the Thames.  There, Sargent said he “found him surrounded by some ninety canvases – each one the record of a momentary effect of light over the Thames.  When the effect was repeated and an opportunity occurred for finishing the picture, the effect had generally passed away before the particular canvas could be found.” The situation was almost ridiculous.  He would sit among his hundred canvases, an elusive effect would appear there before him over the river and he would search, he told the Duc de Trevise, “feverishly,” among the leaning paintings for one that matched the effect.  In the end, he would “choose one of them that didn’t differ too much from what I saw,” and then, “despite everything, I altered it completely.  When my work was finished, I would notice, in moving among my canvases that I had overlooked precisely the one that would have suited me best and which I had at hand.  How stupid!” (5)

His friends and his wife became familiar with the anxious state of waiting for a longed-for effect to return.  And then, these effects, even the sun itself, moved with time, and might well appear in a different part of the sky.  “Around 4 o’clock,” he wrote in a letter, “the sun finally showed itself from time to time and I was thrilled for the motifs at the hospital, but there I was completely disappointed; a few days without seeing it, the sun, and it appears a kilometer from my motif; there is no longer any hope on that front, and I’m really distressed about it!  It would have been so beautiful to do!” (6)

He hurled himself into work, faulting himself for only having the energy to work eleven hours at a stretch.  He took his canvases home to the Savoy and studied them until he went to sleep.  One couldn’t be an artist, he told an interviewer later, “if one doesn’t have his painting in his head before executing.” (7)

This interview was quoted by Gustave Geffroy in his book about Monet and his work, published in 1922.  Geffroy had himself been to see Monet working in London in February of 1900; he had arrived with Monet’s old friend Georges Clemenceau; they found Monet at work on the balcony:

From time to time, he stopped.  “The sun isn’t there any longer,” he would say….All of a sudden Claude Monet would seize his palette and brushes.  “The sun has come back,” he said.  He was at that moment the only one to know it.  

The others on the balcony looked intently for the change Monet had seen, but could not find it.

We still only saw an expanse of woolly gray, some confused forms, the bridges as if suspended in the void, smoke that quickly disappeared, and some swelling waves of the Thames, visible close to the bank. We applied ourselves to see better, to penetrate this mystery, and, indeed, we ended up by distinguishing we didn’t know what mysterious and distant gleam, which seemed to be trying to penetrate this immobile world.  Little by little, things were illuminated with a gleam, and it was delicious to see, feebly illuminated by an invisible sun, like an ancient star, this grandiose landscape that then delivered its secrets.  (8)  


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(1) Guy de Maupassant, La vie d’un paysagiste, Le Gil Blas, Sept 28, 1886, quoted in Rewald, p517.

(2) Monet’s letters are designated by the numbers given them in Daniel Wildenstein’s catalog raisonné, this one is w.1532]

(3) Quotes from René Gimpel are from Diary of a Picture Dealer, p73 and p129, quoted in Monet in London, exhibition at the High Museum of Art, text by Grace Seiberling, p55. Letter to Alice of 1901 is w. 1593, quoted in Seiberling, p58.

(4) E. Bullet, “MacMonnies, the sculptor, working hard as a painter,” The Eagle (Brooklyn) 8 September 1901, quoted in Seiberling, p62.

(5) Charteris, John Singer Sargent, p126, and Duc de Trévise, “Le Pélerinage de Giverny,” Revue de l’art ancient et modern 51 (1927), quoted in Seiberling, pp68-69.

(6) 24 March, 1900, w. 1537, quoted in Seiberling, p59.

(7) Interview with Marcel Pays, Excelsior, 26 January 1921, quoted Seiberling, p70.

(8) Geffroy, Claude Monet: sa vie, son temps, son oeuvre, 1922, quoted Seiberling, p64-65.

A First Glimpse of Sargent and Monet

A First Glimpse of Sargent and Monet

Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, Reflections on the Thames, 1901


In a book on Monet’s series paintings of London (between 1900 and 1904 he made almost a hundred paintings of three subjects: the Waterloo Bridge, the Charing Cross Bridge, the Houses of Parliament) I read this cursory paragraph:  

The successful portrait painter Sargent, who urged Monet to show in London in the early 1890s, may have encouraged the artist’s professional interest in London.  He was very much in evidence when Monet was in London and assisted him in making arrangements, dined with him, and provided social contacts – some of whom may have been intended as potential patrons. [1]  

They had known each other some time, apparently, and Sargent was good at, and generous about, practical arrangements.  

In a letter from Pissarro to his son Lucien written in 1891, “What you say about Sargent doesn’t surprise me; Monet had told me that he is very kind.”  Monet, though, seems to have had more feeling for Sargent as a compatriot painter than Pissarro did.  In the letter, Pissarro continued, “As for his painting, that, of course, we can’t approve of; he is not an enthusiast, but rather an adroit performer, and it was not for his painting that Mirbeau [the novelist and critic] wanted you to meet him. He is a man who can be very useful…” [2]

There he is -- Sargent -- darting about in the background of Monet's life.  Encouraging, facilitating.  Both men were extremely rigorous, both worked incessantly, both were fastidious in their artistic ideas and tastes.  What did they mean to each other?  




[1] Grace Seiberling, Monet in London, High Museum of Art, distributed by University of Washington Press, 1988, p36.
[2] Camille Pissarro, Letters to His Son Lucien, edited John Rewald and Lucien Pissarro, Da Capo, New York: 1995, letter of October 6, 1891, p183.

At Nadar's (but he was already gone)

At Nadar039s but he was already gone

Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (painted from Nadar's studio), 1873


Possibly it was somewhere in two decades of reading and rereading Susan Sontag’s On Photography that I absorbed a small but suggestive misimpression.  In the midst of a passage on the relationship between photography and painting, she devotes a long footnote to Impressionism.  This footnote begins, unexceptionably, “the large influence that photography exercised upon the Impressionists is a commonplace of art history.”[i]

Rereading the rest of the footnote I see, as is often the case with Sontag, that I have been thinking about what it contains for a long time without even remembering that she wrote it, and that I will probably now spend many more years arguing with myself about the details she’s included in what is for her a brief excursus.

Here is her summary of what the Impressionists found in photography: “The camera’s translation of reality into highly polarized areas of light and dark, the free or arbitrary cropping of the image in photographs, the indifference of photographers to making space, particularly background space, intelligible…”  This was the “inspiration for the Impressionist painters’ professions of scientific interest in the properties of light, for their experiments in flattened perspective and unfamiliar angles and decentralized forms that are sliced off by the picture’s edge.”  Sontag, magpie, quotationalist, admirer of Benjamin, points out that Stieglitz said of the Impressionists, “they depict life in scraps and fragments.”

And here is what led me astray, though, as I work this through, I’m beginning to think that the clarification of her small error of suggestion might actually affirm the rest of what she’s said.  The footnote comes to the following too-irresistible conclusion: “A historical detail: the very first Impressionist exhibition, in April 1874, was held in Nadar’s photography studio on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris.”  

This information, too, is a commonplace of art history, and if I first saw it in Sontag I’ve since seen it referred to often enough that when I began to think of keeping this notebook I pictured an essay depicting the scene. It was to be an exciting set piece: one after another the soon-to-be-famous painters would enter the studio, so full of potential. There they are, gathering around the far-seeing Nadar, who loves their work, and says 'you must have the show here,' generously taking down his photographs.  They hammer, they arrange curtains, they call out to one another.  I knew that the name of the movement came from this first exhibition.  Perhaps Nadar himself, watching them at work, had said something that suggested the name...

Not so, not quite so, at any rate, and in a way that matters.  A recent, thorough biography of Nadar by the French writer Stéphanie de Saint Marc makes almost no mention of the Impressionists in general.  The only one that Nadar really knew was Manet.  The biographer says Manet inspired Nadar as a model.  She has a heavy description of the famous photograph: Manet’s fine features and “romantically undulating chevelure” made a “counterpoint” with the hand “robust, almost peasantlike” seen in the picture’s foreground, on the back of a chair.[ii]

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Nadar, Édouard Manet, 1863

This friendship, though, doesn’t account for the presence of the Impressionists at Nadar’s studio because, as is well known, Manet resolutely did not show with his friends in the 1874 exhibition; he was still fighting it out with the official salon.  (I’ve often taken a kind of, probably unfair, satisfaction in Manet’s absence from the show. His works seem to be obdurate where those of the other painters are fluid, though I do recognize that this is yet another of my difficulties with seeing Impressionism, as somehow what they saw in him led to what I see in them.)

In any case, I now hurried to John Rewald’s History of Impressionism to read the chapter on the April 1874 show.  The painters formed themselves into a group, not at all impromptu, carefully thought out and argued over, with the financial structure of a joint-stock company (Pissarro’s idea,) and a deliberately un-school-like name: Société anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc. (Renoir’s idea.)  Though the name Impressionism did arise from the show, it did so in a roundabout, emergent way, not because of a stroke of impressarial brilliance on the part of Nadar.

The name came about through an odd mixture of the offhand, the laudatory, and the vituperative.  The catalog of the exhibition was edited by Renoir's brother, Edmond Renoir. Edmond Renoir remembered, in his unpublished recollections, that when he came to the group of pictures Monet had sent he was irritated by, "the monotony of his titles: Entrance of a Village, Leaving the Village, Morning in a Village...."  Edmond Renoir objected and "the painter calmly told him: 'Why don't you just put Impression!'"[iii] A painting of Le Havre was called Impression, Sunrise, and critics, both the rare ones who liked the show, and the much more common ones who vied to outdo one another in piling up ridicule, seized the name “Impressionists,” which the painters themselves accepted as close enough.

They weren’t hanging around Nadar and excitedly studying his photographs; they simply needed a space. According to Rewald: “This presented itself in the form of the studios vacated by Nadar, who, according to Monet, lent them the premises without fee.”[iv] Nadar’s biographer confirms that at this period, though he no longer maintained a studio there, Nadar still sometimes sublet the premises.  He was fairly friendly with the group of painters, whom he saw now and again at the café Guerbois, but, she says, he stayed “hermétique” with regard to their innovations.  He was a fervent admirer of Daumier and Guys – both dear to Baudelaire – but never collected the painters who were to become even more fully the "painters of modern life," as Baudelaire had described Guys in the long essay in which he envisioned a kind of painting.

Baudelaire did write perceptively and admiringly about Manet, a figure with one foot in that earlier generation, and one reluctant foot in the Impressionist camp. But this earlier generation hardly threw themselves into promoting the new way of seeing made explicit in the pictures of Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Cézanne. Nadar may have known that the artists were penniless – if he lent them the studio for no charge that was a helpful generosity in a time when few were helpful to them. What the gesture meant, though, wasn’t that the buoyant, insightful, commercially adept, scientifically inquisitive Nadar saw the future and passed the mantle on to his comrades. The show was in a place left empty by a great, declining photographer of the previous generation.

What I’ve been thinking about today is that it may be that the complicated relationship between Manet and the younger Impressionists, which has a strong bearing on the relationship between the movement of Impressionism and photography, could be expressed by these two now slightly refined facts: Manet was the friend of Nadar’s; the others got themselves named when they had a show in Nadar’s empty studio without Manet.      


[i] All Susan Sontag quotes from On Photography, New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, paperback 1989, p92.
[ii] Stéphanie de Saint Marc, Nadar, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2010, p203.
[iii] John Rewald, The History of French Impressionism, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1973. Rewald is here paraphrasing and citing the unpublished recollections of Edmond Renoir, p318.
[iv] Rewald, p313.

On Photography II

On Photography II

Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, 1874, iphone photo.

[This is the second installment of visual notes on this Pissarro, documented by iphone.]

Stretch of cultivated field down to earth:

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Shape of path as it curves back:

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Shape of hill crest, cypressed, below sky:

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Step back to look at whole again:

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Dark paint, just dashed on, group of trees:

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Really dark, low dark hole, yellow grass across lower right corner:

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Look again at dark paint just dashed on of upper tree:

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Once having looked at these two dark areas, upper tree, lower hole, the whole right side of the picture has beautiful depth:

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Now the interior looks quite different, rougher paint:

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What would Pissarro have made of this fragmentary way of writing down the seeing of his picture?  Would he know right away that, as happened in his own time, our new tools have changed the experience of sight?  He was the great theoretician among the Impressionists, the one who articulated what they were after.  But in all the letters to his son Lucien that are such a full statement of his thought I cannot find a single mention of photography.

He does, though, indicate how important the idea of the series was to his way of thinking.  In a letter from the summer of 1895, he writes that he is sorry that Lucien has been delayed in getting to Paris for now he will miss seeing "the Monets.  This is a great pity, for the Cathedrals are being much talked of, and highly praised, too, by Degas, Renoir, myself and others.  I would have so liked you to see the whole series in a group, for I find in it the superb unity which I have been seeking for a long time."   [June 1, 1895]


Shopping in Style

Shopping in Style

Suzanne De Chillo for the New York Times


The Impressionists were my first painters, as I think they were many peoples'.  They required no explanation.  I liked them.  I came early to painting and at twelve was fervently memorizing schools, dates, palettes, styles, as other children at that age remember scores, teams, clothes, lyrics.  The works of each painter moved in my mind like small rushing galaxies; at museums, I knew a Degas or a Monet across a room.  

As one grows older one comes to like bitter tastes.  The first sweet passions of youth, even if still felt now and again in private, seem soft, insufficient, a little embarrassing.  Coffee, Beckmann – one turns to darker matters.  The Impressionists don’t seem troubled enough; theirs are styles without irony.

One of the difficulties of seeing the Impressionists again is to learn to see the difficulties.  The paintings – reproduced in cheap metal frames in every dorm room and dentist's office – can seem as if they're not really paintings, not really individual canvases labored over by individual artists, at all.  Even the story of them, the way the artists were shunned by the Academy and were hungry and obscure and worked in a manner at the time genuinely radical and offensive, all seems shaded over with a sort of happy satisfaction.  When I try to say what this happy satisfaction is, the one that these paintings can seem to exude, I find myself thinking that it is vaguely akin to the feeling of shopping.  

Shopping – in the sense of ordinary middle class people wandering about in a maze of acquirable but not strictly necessary commodities – came to have certain peculiar characteristics in the 19th century in Paris as the Impressionists were growing up and beginning to paint.

Here is a description of the flâneur and the shopfronts taken from Pierre Larousse’s Grand Dictionnaire universel (Paris 1872) that Walter Benjamin included in his Arcades Project, his vast fragmentary meditation on 19th century shopping arcades.  “First of all, there are the flâneurs of the boulevard, whose entire existence unfolds between the Church of the Madeleine and the Théâtre du Gymnase.  Each day sees them returning to this narrow space, which they never pass beyond, examining the displays of goods, surveying the shoppers seated before the doors of cafés…. They would be able to tell you if Goupil or Deforge have put out a new print or a new painting, and if Barbedienne has repositioned a vase or an arrangement; they know all the photographers’ studios by heart and could recite the sequence of signs without omitting a single one.”  [Arcades Project, p451, translated Eiland, McLaughlin, fragment M18a,3]

Goupil, of whom it is immediately noticed if he has put out a new painting, opened the first retail house for the sale of paintings in 1829.  The Impressionists were among the first French children to see paintings in shops.  A fragment of an Etruscan fresco displayed in a Paris art shop window looks very different than a painting painted after the 1830s does in the same window, and part of the reason for this is deep in the consciousness of the painter, who knows his work is going to be seen this way, and who, as a result, gets unavoidably entangled in questions of style.

Here is what Larousse’s image of the scrutinizing flâneurs suggests to me about an emerging idea of style. Examination, at a distance, of wares behind glass, of the style of shops, and the examination, at a distance, of bodies enveloped in clothes, of the wares walking about, recognizable by their style, a style that is an intricate combination of the style of the designer / manufacturer and the style of the wearer.  Little thin layers of the exterior and the interior, wares of shops to be displayed inside homes and outside bodies; the painter of costumed bodies in decorated interiors reproducing these wares as further wares.          

It was a troubling feature of the Metropolitan Museum's recent "Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity," exhibition that it was harder than usual to tell the difference between the exhibition itself and the gift shop set up at the end.  In the exhibition halls, mannequins in glass cases modeling clothes similar to those in the paintings had the effect of making the paintings seem like fashion plates for a magazine.  Although this was possibly a productive confusion, it made me unhappy.

I came away with an incipient thought that the Impressionists' use of paint texture becomes a means of distinguishing the paintings at a great distance.  A painting, like a dress along a boulevard, now had to be recognizable from afar – commerce adjudicated in the space of the 19th century city with its fashionable women and magazines of fashion.

In a way this might be considered a further step related to that of the late medieval Italian painters who began to paint on portable canvases and to sign their pictures.  The authenticity and saleability of the object, both at once, are established by the signature and, in the later case, by the signature style.

Part of what now makes us, or me anyway, suspicious of the Impressionists is how saleable they are.  The ever higher prices the original works command seems but the top of a pyramid of sales: you can buy reproductions of Monets in good oil paint for many hundreds of dollars, in museum gift shops you can buy silk scarves made in Italy with patterns of Monet’s water lilies on them, online you can order for your baby a onesie made of camouflage fabric printed with a Monet.

All this apparel, for the exterior of the body and the interior of the home seems to make the Impressionists blameworthy.  As if their facility with style and shopping diminishes their work.  But perhaps this is a way of deflecting my own attention from the much more disturbing problem that museums have to a great degree set themselves up as large department stores, in which one acquires “looks” and purchases suitable accoutrements and mementos at the end of the visit.  A Beckmann seems to scorn my commercial desire, have I been mistaken in worrying that the Impressionists comply with it?      

Trying to be Taught

Trying to be Taught

Courbet, Rocks at Mouthier, 1862


Reading about the early years in the lives of the Impressionists – the period in the late 1850s and early 1860s when they began to arrive and to meet one another in Paris – I have been thinking about the necessity and difficulty of finding teachers.  Unlike writing, the craft of painting has always been passed on in ateliers and schools.  Sometimes it seems like every painter in the mid-17th century in the Netherlands spent a productive period in Rembrandt’s studio.  Painting is an apprentice trade.  You watch the hand of a master and your hand becomes knowledgeable.  You practice under a master’s eye and the lines of your drawings lose their clumsiness.

The men and women who became known as the Impressionists were desperate for teachers.  As a young man in Le Havre, Monet was fortunate to stumble on Boudin and Jongkind.  In Aix, Cézanne, arguing with his banker father to be allowed to study art and confined to the study of “dusty plaster casts” and “black and white engravings after paintings,” was, John Rewald estimates, “in dire need of guidance.”[i]

But in Paris there was a surprising paucity of genuine help.  The Ecole des Beaux-Arts, controlled to calcification by the persnickety academicianism of the followers of Ingres, had made a decades-long practice of excluding Delacroix and the fiery energy he would have brought to students in search of more expressive means.  Delacroix himself, though his studio was open to any sincere seekers, was isolated and growing old. Teachers like Gérôme were fiercely critical of what seemed to them the ugly uncouthness that resulted when younger painters attempted to render realistically the world around them.

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Delacroix, Tiger and Snake, 1862


Ingres, Turkish Bath, 1863









At that time, Courbet was the enfant terrible of realism and the Paris art world was shot through with partisanship. At the end of 1861, some students even left the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in protest and petitioned Courbet to teach them.  He tried.  For a few crazy months he rented a large space and everyone went there with great enthusiasm and he had horses and bulls brought in to be painted ‘from life’ and cartoons of this ran in the papers.  But he was haranguing and repetitive, good at the manifesto of his own work but not at helping students discover their own and the experiment was given up in April of 1862, just at the time that Renoir enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and a few months before the arrivals of Sisley, Monet, and Bazille.

They met instead at the school run by affable, old-fashioned, unimpassioned Gleyre.  He looked at a study of a nude that Monet had done and he said, “not bad!... but it is too much in the character of the model – you have before you a short thickset man, you paint him short and thickset – he has enormous feet, you render them as they are.  All that is very ugly.”  The vigorous, impatient Monet remembered this vividly when he was interviewed about it some forty years later.  Gleyre had continued, “I want you to remember, young man, that when one draws a figure, one should always think of the antique.  Nature, my friend, is all right as an element of study, but it offers no interest.  Style, you see, is everything.”[ii]  After that, Monet came to the studio just enough to pacify his family, who were already quite uncertain about letting him pursue painting.

Gleyre’s interaction with Renoir is also illustrative.  Renoir remembered, again decades later, that Gleyre had said to him, “No doubt it’s to amuse yourself that you are dabbling in paint?”  And light-hearted Renoir replied, “of course… if it didn’t amuse me, I beg you to believe that I wouldn’t do it!”  Renoir thought Gleyre was “a second rate schoolmaster but a good man,”[iii] who at least “left them pretty much to their own devices.”[iv]  And Gleyre made a place where they could work.  Determined to learn, Renoir, Bazille, and Sisley went on diligently in that studio, meeting afterward to talk through all their own ideas.

When these just-emerging painters looked around them in 1862, the teacher who seemed just a few steps ahead of them on the path was Manet. In those first heady conversations as they walked out of Gleyre's, Bazille told Renoir "Manet is as important to us as Cimabue or Giotto were to the Italians of the Quattrocento; and as the Renaissance is beginning again, we must be part of it..."[v]

Part of the excitement of studying Impressionism is to watch how this quite large group of people was able to teach one another and themselves.  In the lives of writers, two, three, four friends may have a long effect on one another’s understanding, but in painting, large groups – in this case there are easily twenty figures of great significance, perhaps many more – may teach one another in a very substantial, personal way.

“Each of Renoir’s friend brought him a gift for which he was grateful,” the painter’s son judged later.  “Bibesco [a prince and patron] gave him his first opportunity to see the bare shoulders of women in their beautiful evening gowns; Cézanne revealed to him the precision of Mediterranean thought; Monet opened his eyes to the wild imagination of the people of the north European countries; and Pissarro formulated in theoretical terms his own and his friends’ researches… Sisley’s gift was gentleness.”[vi]


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Manet, Concert in the Tuileries Gardens, 1862








[i] Rewald, The History of Impressionism, p61-62.
[ii] Rewald, p70-71.
[iii] Renoir, Renoir, My Father, p97.
[iv] Rewald, p73.
[v] Renoir, p95.
[vi] Renoir, p107.

Reading Toward Renoir

Reading Toward Renoir

Monet Painting in his Garden at Argenteuil, 1873, Wadsworth Atheneum


Renoir to me has always been the outlier – the one among the Impressionists without austerity enough to make room for me.  Too sweet, too voluptuous.  All skin, no air. But loved by Leo Stein, Gertrude’s brother, who understood Cézanne’s apples right away. When he and Gertrude split up the household they had for decades shared, both wanted the apples, but were content for her to keep the Picassos, him to take the Renoirs.

---

Stein was a man for whom sensuality was difficult and I’ve wondered if Renoir seemed to offer in an uncomplicated way, enjoyment.  It sounds from the memoir written by the son, Jean Renoir, as if the painter was a rare person, fundamentally tolerant of himself and of other people.  It’s true that his paintings show people taking pleasure in life. Who else does that?  Perhaps some Dutch painters, though there is often a suspicion that Frans Hals is laughing at his revelers.  In Renoir they take a quiet pleasure.  Jean Renoir says the sitters have “serenity.”  They are settled, but they are still full of the activity of being themselves; they look out on their surroundings and see much to interest them.  

---

When the son spoke to the father of different women he had admired and painted, a great variety of women, society ladies and street walkers, the painter was full of appreciation, his greatest commendation, “she posed like an angel.”  In the portraits, the sitter and the painter seem to share a lively and devoted understanding.

---

There is a Renoir of Monet in a garden painting. I wondered when I saw the reproduction recently if it were a Renoir or a Monet. The flowers have a lot of whites reaching upward in a way that I thought might be Monet, but when I checked the back flap I was not really surprised to see that it was a Renoir. The way to tell would have been to look at the figure, the painter in his hat, all his energy turned toward his craft.  Features, soft, almost indistinct, but the impression of the face is of concentration and happiness.  He could be humming.  

---

Apparently Renoir loved all craftsmanship.  He had himself begun by painting porcelain and then window shades.  His father was a very good tailor.  Renoir used to lament the passing of know-how and the replacement of hand industries by machines.  He had felt grateful to grow up in the old Tuileries neighborhood before it was torn down – all the stairways and niches and small corner carvings of the buildings bespoke the loving care of craftspeople.  Women, he told his son, at their daily tasks, know how to live.  “Around them I feel happy.”  

---

In a state of happy engagement people are very close to the surface, much closer then we usually are able to be even with close friends, whose faces barricade them in reserve. Perhaps what I have taken for too much luster, too much skin, is really more unsettling, the close presence of people in a state to which we are no longer accustomed, as we may find the unsanitized smells from earlier eras – a barnyard, a field of clover, dried lavender in sheets – overwhelmingly, almost intolerably, sweet.  

Private Collection II (with Paul Valéry)

Private Collection II with Paul Valeacutery
Some weeks later I remembered that I had read something about Berthe Morisot, long ago, in a book by Paul Valéry, a collection of occasional pieces about painting with the somewhat misleading title Degas, Manet, Morisot. I hurried back to read the passages on Morisot, three really, altogether perhaps ten pages.

The man who wrote the introduction to the volume decided, rather ruefully, that, despite living among the Impressionists and being himself so intelligent, Valéry’s writing about them was only in a limited way perceptive. The poet seems in a way to take the painters and their achievements for granted. But, for me, these few passages, coming as they do from a man who was married to one of Morisot’s nieces, and lived in the house that had been Morisot’s, offer something more than useful about “Tante Berthe.” Morisot’s daughter and her cousins had grown up surrounded by paintings: Morisot’s and also those of their close friends – Renoir, Degas, Monet. Berthe Morisot was Berthe Manet, as she was married to Édouard Manet’s brother, Eugène. I’ve read Morisot’s correspondence with Stephane Mallarmé now, too, and the letters give the impression of life intensively lived among a few choice acquaintances. “Rare and reserved,” Valéry says; the work, too, is private.

Of all the artists he encountered, Valéry weighed it out, Morisot, he thought, was the one:

to live her painting and to paint her life, as if the interchange between seeing and rendering, between the light and her creative will, were to her a natural function, a necessary part of daily life. It is this which gives her works the very particular charm of a close and almost indissoluble relationship between the artist’s ideals and the intimate details of her life. Her sketches and paintings keep closely in step with her development as a girl, wife, and mother. I am tempted to say that her work as a whole is like the diary of a woman who uses color and line as her means of expression. (119)

This might be a subtle way of dismissing a woman’s work – another woman damned with praise for her understanding of the quotidian – but it doesn’t strike my ear that way. Valéry also says of her canvases:

Made up of nothing, they multiply that nothing, a suspicion of mist or of swans, with a supreme tactile art, the skill of a rush that scarcely feathers the surface. But that featheriness conveys all: the time, place, and season, the expertise and swiftness it brings, the great gift for seizing on the essential, for reducing matter to a minimum and thus giving the strongest possible impression of an act of mind…. (121)

The surprising texture of paint in her handling, the odd inward structure of the material, these phrases of Valéry’s, give something to think about.


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Landscape of La Creuse, 1882, Private Collection.


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Woman Hanging Out the Wash, 1881, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek



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Young Woman in a Rowboat, Eventail, 1880, Private Collection.




Citations from: Valéry, Paul, Degas, Manet, Morisot. Translated by David Paul. Edited by Jackson Matthews. With an Introduction by Douglas Cooper. Princeton University Press: 1960.
Paintings: see the Athenaeum.