Renoir: Rococo Revival

The recently closed exhibition Renoir: Rococo Revival (Städel Museum, Frankfurt, 2 March-19 June 2022), relied on the excellent collection of both Rococo and Impressionist art to present Renoir and Impressionists as heirs to Eighteenth Century French painting. Rococo was the decorative style of late Baroque art in period 1715-1780, that originated in the court art of France, but which spread to Southern Germany, Italy and Austro-Hungary. It is characterised by the emphasis on curling natural forms, especially shells, lightness of tone, with an aim to titillate, amuse, arouse or instruct the viewer. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

Director of the museum, Philipp Demandt, sets out the thesis of the exhibition. “Unlike his colleagues Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and others, Renoir concentrated not on landscape but portraits and figural compositions in which he could easily pick up the thread of the Rococo’s genre scenes. And his depictions can indeed be read as new interpretations of Watteau’s fêtes galantes, Boucher’s pastorals and Fragonard’s elegant companies in fantastical gardens – now, however, freed of the moralistic undercurrent that had been a constitutive element of such works during the Ancien Régime. Instead, it was Renoir’s painterly representations of the lustre of skin, the iridescent sheen of glass and porcelain and the ever-magnificent and fashionable clothing of his female protagonists that forged links to the painting of that past age.”

During his lifetime, Renoir saw himself as a descendent of the Rococo painters. He supposedly said, “I am of the eighteenth century. I humbly consider not only that my art descends from Watteau, Fragonard, Hubert Robert, but even that I am one of them.” As curator Alexander Eiling points out, Rococo was a touchstone for discussion of Renoir’s art in the Nineteenth Century but that it became invisible in the following century, when referents became Dutch, Spanish and English painting, japonisme, Barbizon School and the realism of Courbet. Indeed, one might posit that Renoir’s occlusion in the later Twentieth Century is not just a matter of taste, but precisely because the emphasis on social realism, realism and foreign genre painting in Impressionist studies does not fit Renoir’s oeuvre. Rococo was an art of diversion and indulgence, a perfect grounding for Renoir, peintre du bonheur.   

From 1854 to c. 1858, Renoir had a job as a decorator of ceramics, working in the rococo tradition. He never rejected the decorative and pretty aspects of art. It seems that the humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War sparked a patriotic revival of support for Rococo as a national style, shorn of the connotations of decadent Ancien Régime. This does seem to push directly counter to interpretations of Impressionism as a fusion of realism, social critique and application of optical science. Add to this the “socially progressive” attitudes of some of the Impressionists (primarily Pissarro), and we find ourselves facing conflicting interpretations. Naturally, every movement (and in every complex artist) we see a confluence of influences that are to some degree contradictory. So, rather than seeing two opposite trends – “retrograde” Rococo and “progressive” social realism – struggling for the soul of Impressionism (or the credibility of historians of Impressionism), we would do better to consider the trends as co-existing sentimental attachments rather than considered conceptual positions.

Eiling points out that the Goncourt brothers and Théophile Thoré both “rediscovered” the Rococo as a distinctly French art form. The Louis La Caze donation to the Louvre, which went on display in 1870, making additional works by Fragonard and Watteau available to Parisians. Diderot considered Boucher a painter of (and for) women, characterising Boucher (and, by extension, Rococo painting) as feminine art, art that would be supplanted by the masculinity of David and Neo-Classicism. Certainly, this was how Neo-Classicism was regarded in its day and largely so since: the necessary cleansing of an era of decadent soft art with a purgative wave of moralistic hard art.

The fête galante is an ideal comparator for Renoir’s scenes of lower-class and lower-middle-class summer revelry. In Renoir’s early scenes set around Paris, on the café terraces of Montmartre and on the banks of the Seine, we get updated versions of Watteau’s scenes of nobility in cultivated pastoral settings engaging in flirtation and intrigue. The class levels have changed and the timelessness has been pinned down to explicitly the modern day (the latest bonnet, the current awning, the common matchbook), but the atmosphere and personal dynamics are carried over. Perhaps, we could say that revelry, flirtation, merriment and body language are nearly an unchanging constant in human relations.

In his catalogue essay, Guillaume Faroult investigates what Rococo art was on public display during the Nineteenth Century and consequently what the Impressionists would have seen. The reception of Rococo art via French museums was muted in the early half of the century, no doubt a lingering coolness to art associated with the French court and the dominance of Neo-Classical works acquired during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. In the 1820s Rococo paintings were sold for a pittance and the circle of knowledgeable collectors for the style small and not especially well-heeled. Only slowly – and by way of donation – did good Rococo paintings enter the Louvre from the 1840s to the 1870s.

Renoir’s taste for the art of courtly France is described as reactionary. The fact that he appreciated Fragonard, Boucher and Watteau as upholders of an older order – and not as paragons of proto-modernity – does tend to reinforce this view. Perhaps it is discernment of the connection between Boucher and Renoir that led to Renoir being so excoriated by critics. Both artists worked in ceramics and Renoir had copied Boucher on vases while working at the factory in his youth.

The selection of works for the exhibition – and illustrated full-page in the catalogue section of the book – are very good and include many unexpected delights. The fêtes galantes of Henri Baron, Émile Wattier, Jean-Baptiste Pater and Narcisse Diaz de la Peña are less familiar than Watteau’s. There is a full-length portrait of a woman by Ernest Meissonier, master of pompier art. The swathes of lace ruffles at the hem of the subject’s dress dominate the lower third of the canvas. This follows the sensuousness and attention to fabric paid by Boucher and Fragonard. Boucher’s (in)famous portrait of Louise O’Murphy travelled from Cologne to Frankfurt for the exhibition. The Renoirs come from around the world and include some masterpieces. It is nice to see Richard Guino’s bronzes, executed under supervision of the elderly Renoir, included in the display. Sculpture (and especially bas reliefs) were a feature of courtly decorative art, so it is understandable that Renoir was drawn to the field. Renoirs still-lifes are well paired with Chardin’s.

Essays by specialists discuss the drawings of Renoir, journal reproductions of Rococo, Renoir and decoration and Renoir’s portraiture and pastel painting of the Eighteenth Century. One text links Renoir, Charles Joshua Chaplin and Rococo art, looking at the distinction between decorative art and the art of the boudoir. Chaplin was noted for his Rococo brushwork and palette. Chaplin had also etched reproduction prints after Watteau. A fascinating article by Michela Bassu recounts the work done by Lionello Venturi towards a catalogue raisonné of Renoir, which remained unfinished and unpublished. Pages of notes, clipped illustrations and lists show Venturi gathering data and formulating assessments. Venturi (who wrote the first catalogue raisonné of Cézanne) considered Rococo art to be a key influence on Renoir. The footnotes and bibliography are extensive and Hatje Cantz have taken its usual care to ensure high production quality.  

Besides being a pleasurable book on Renoir – enthusiasts will not be disappointed by the illustrations – Renoir: Rococo Revival is a valuable source not only for those studying Renoir and the Impressionists, but also anyone seeking to understand the reception, and revival in fortunes of, Rococo art in Nineteenth Century France.

Alexander Eiling (ed.), Renoir: Rococo Revival, Hatje Cantz, 2022, cloth hardback, 328pp, 350 col./mono illus., €50, ISBN 978 3 7757 5134 6

© 2022 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Publication: Alexander Adams, “Degas” (Prestel)

I am delighted to announce the publication of “Degas”, my first book with Prestel (Penguin RandomHouse). Book data is below.

“Get a glimpse into the life and work of painter, sculptor, and printmaker Edgar Degas, who is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism.

“Best known for his depictions of young dancers on the stage and in the studio, Degas was an accomplished draughtsman and portraitist of superb emotional depth. This book explores the full range of Degas’ work, from his celebrated paintings of dancers and depictions of cafe life to his pencil sketches and wax and bronze sculptures. Stunning reproductions help readers understand many aspects of Degas’ oeuvre, such as his gift for capturing movement, the ways he drew inspiration from Japanese prints and Old Masters, and his experiments with color and form. A biographical text traces Degas’ life from his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts and his early history paintings to his friendships with Cassatt and Manet, his reliance on painting dancers to keep him financially afloat, and his lonely, final days in Paris. Accessible and engaging, this exploration of Degas’ life and art looks beyond his well-known works to reveal a talented and complicated genius.”

Paperback, with flaps, 112 pages, 17,0 x 21,0 cm, 55 color illustrations, £9.99/$14.95

ISBN: 978-3-7913-8736-9

Publisher’s page: https://prestelpublishing.penguinrandomhouse.de/paperback/Degas/Alexander-Adams/Prestel-com/e584205.rhd

Memories of Degas

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Memories of Degas brings together in one affordable, small volume two short memoirs of Edgar Degas (1834-1917).

George Moore (1852-1933) was an Irish writer and well-known figure in the bohemian art circles of Paris, London and Dublin. He met leading artists and artists; he was painted by Manet. Moore’s memoir was published in The Burlington Magazine in 1890. When it was republished after Degas’s death, it included a new introduction, which sadly does not add much. Moore evocatively described Degas’s studio. “There are neither Turkey carpets nor Japanese screens […] Only at the further end, where the artist works, is there daylight. In the perennial gloom and dust the vast canvases of his youth are piled up in formidable barricades. Great wheels belonging to lithographic presses – lithography was for a time one of Degas’s avocations – suggest a printing-office. There is much decaying sculpture – dancing-girls modelled in red wax, some dressed in muslin skirts, strange dolls – dolls if you will, but dolls modelled by a man of genius.”

Degas was angered by Moore’s indiscretion regarding his private life, resulting in him refusing to directly communicate with Moore for the rest of his life. (“I forgot Degas’s warning he would never speak to anyone who wrote about him.”) On the first occasion, Degas was flattered and amused by Moore’s depiction of Degas in his novel Confessions of a Young Man (1888). When Moore’s 1890 article about Degas, the artist was less forgiving. Moore’s comments about his family finances were transgressions upon the artist’s control of his self-image. Only later did Degas admit there was a possibility of them meeting again but by then the friendship had lapsed irreparably.

We learn Degas deep respect for (and attachment to) Manet and his adulation of Ingres. (Degas was a fanatical art collector and bought art by Ingres. When his financial situation altered, he had to force himself to slow down his buying.) He also damns Bastien-Lepage as “the Bouguereau of the modern movement”. Moore writes of Degas’s technical flexibility and his changing materials throughout the development of a single picture.

The Munich-born British artist Walter Sickert (1860-1942) is a critical link between Degas and the British art world. Sickert was not only Degas’s closest British supporter and fellow artist, he was – through his highly regarded art criticism – Degas’s leading public advocate in Great Britain. Sickert could explain Degas’s originality and defend him from derision as a painter of decadence or incompetence. Sickert was an extremely gifted painter who instinctively realised how radical Degas’s art was.

In his 1918 article, Sickert explains he met the master in 1883 through a letter of introduction from Whistler. Sickert spoke fluent French and spent a considerable period of his life in France, principally Dieppe and Paris. In 1885, the pair spent time together over a summer in Dieppe. Sickert appeared in a group-portrait pastel, drawn by Degas during that summer. They met again frequently in Paris, with the younger man visiting him in his studio and attending exhibitions together, including the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889. Among the quotes is the famous “On donne l’idée du vrai avec le faux.” (One gives the effect of truth through falsehood.) Both Moore and Sickert remember Degas saying he wanted to present the female nude as if she were seen through a keyhole.

Anna Gruetzner provides a short informative introduction, discussing the relationships between the two writers and their subject. The illustrations are numerous and appropriate, conveniently illustrating the texts, which comprise valuable primary sources on Degas.

George Moore, Walter Sickert, Anna Gruetzner (Introduction), Memories of Degas, Pallas Athene, 2020, paperback, 112pp, fully col. illus., £9.99, ISBN 978 1 843 68 1748 (A version of this is also published by Getty Publications, USA)

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Impressionist Sculpture

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En passant Impressionism in Sculpture von

How does Impressionism – a style that exploited the materiality of oil paint, the optical characteristic of broken brushwork, colour harmony and contrast – translate into sculpture, which is generally monochrome? How can a style so dependent on qualities of flatness be translated into three dimensions? How can art that depends on delicacy of touch and the impression of fleetingness find any sort of analogy in solid objects cast in metal? There has always been an idea that the very heart of Impressionist technique and priorities make it essentially difficult to translate into solid plastic matter. The reliance on spatial ambiguity presented a particular problem to artists working in a concrete medium.

A recent exhibition explored this paradox. En Passant: Impressionism in Sculpture was an exhibition held at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt. The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue. The artists covered in detail are Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Medardo Rosso (1858-1928), Paolo Troubetzkoy (1866-1938) and Rembrandt Bugatti (1884-1916).

The subjects of landscapes, theatre scenes, shops and café interiors lent themselves to descriptions of space as much as of objects. How could these subjects be adapted to solid sculpture modelled in the round. The lighting of sculpture was also – aside from photography sessions and the controlled environment of an exhibition – out of the hands of sculptors. Lighting can reveal the great depth and subtlety of a sculpture; insensitive lighting renders a sculpture illegible.

What is the definition of sculptural Impressionism? Is it defined by the new subjects of art, the style, loose finish, concentration on fleeting motion, a break with tradition (anti-academicism), use of new materials, execution en plein air or in front of the motif, lack of preparation to fix the finished work before it was started or some other measure?

The independent group’s exhibitions at the studio of photographer Nadar, on Boulevard des Capuchines, Paris – which would become known as the Impressionist exhibitions – included sculpture. Seventeen sculptures would be exhibited in the eight Impressionist exhibitions held between 1874 and 1886. The works were by Auguste-Louis-Marie Ottin (1811-1890), whose works were not Impressionist in any meaningful sense, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Degas. Gauguin’s pieces were varied: traditional marble busts, carved wooden reliefs and an adapted wooden statuette with a waxen head. The relief of a child combing her hair and the wood-wax bust of his son Clovis are the most innovative of the pieces. The former could be considered Impressionist due to the handling. Gauguin’s work received some critical praise.

The catalogue for the 1880 announced a statue by Degas, but it did not appear and the case remained empty. It was announced again in 1881 and was late. When it did appear, it caused a furore. Modelled in reddish wax, the statue was a below-life-size representation of a dancer in real clothes: Little Dancer at the age of Fourteen (1878-9/1881), pigmented beeswax, clay, human hair, cotton tutu, silk ribbon, linen slippers, wooden base, 99 cm high. This could be said to be the first Impressionist sculpture: it was a modern subject, created in front of the source; the artist deployed modern materials; the finish was rougher than usual; it had a realist’s engagement with the subject, not an idealistic approach.

The debut of the Little Dancer provoked a powerful reaction in 1881 – most of it negative. Critics found the piece shocking. It was too lifelike; in its glass case, it was more of a carnival sideshow waxwork than a sculpture fit for a display of fine art; it was ugly; it violated so many rules of decorum that it was nothing more than a provocation. Parisians were used to seeing ballet dancers at a distance in theatrical lighting, not close up. The reality (as refracted through Degas’s sculpture) was coarse and ungainly. There was palpable class snobbery about the responses. In an age when phrenology and physiognomy were treated as quasi-science, it was thought that one could tell a person’s character from the shape of their skull and their appearance. Everything about the subject shouted to the urbane Parisian that she was part of the underclass and that her presence in the gallery was an unwelcome intrusion of a sordid reality.

There were kind words from some critics. Huysmans wrote, the Little Dancer was “the only truly modern attempt at sculpture.” However, Degas never exhibited sculpture again.

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[Image: Edgar Degas, Grand Arabesque, Third Time (First Version), c. 1885-1890. Photo © Ken Adlard]

The piece was not a one off. He made sculptures from the 1860s onwards, though it seems the early pieces no longer exist. Degas would build armatures of wire and wood then model statuettes of nudes (dancers and bathers) and horses using unconventional combinations of material: pastiline, clay, plaster, corks, coloured beeswax and other materials. The figurines were often fairly roughly finished; limbs would crack and fall off. When the estate assessed the contents of Degas’s house following his death in 1917, around 150 statuettes were found, many crumbled to dust and fragments. About half were rescued and repaired, with 72 being editioned in bronze.

Whether or not Degas’s decision not to exhibit other sculptures was due to the public mauling his debut had instigated, we cannot know. The artist had an ambivalent attitude towards his sculpture. He spent a lot of time on the art form over decades, he made certain pieces more permanent by casting them in plaster and displayed some in his dining room. At the same time, he never cast anything in bronze, never exhibited anything after the Little Dancer and (according to memoirs of acquaintances) he claimed he was glad that the pieces would crumble.

By the summer of 1886 a new name was added to the Impressionist group: Italian sculptor, Medardo Rosso, who exhibited his work at the Paris Salon. Medardo Rosso was an Italian sculptor from Milan. He specialised in busts and heads, though he sometimes added backgrounds – something he developed from his work on grave monuments. In the absence of public access to Degas’s sculptural work – aside from one piece – Rosso came to be seen as the Impressionist sculptor even though he never exhibited at the Impressionist displays. Rosso’s output was original and influential. A radical departure was use of wax as a finished medium. Wax is very delicate and subject to damage in high temperatures. It is commonly used in the modelling and casting processes but it had been considered too fragile to be a permanent medium. (Rosso cast a coloured wax outer layer around a plaster core.) Rosso also cast work in bronze, mainly of statuettes. Rosso’s sculpture found echoes in the art of Antoine Bourdelle and Bourdelle’s student Alberto Giacometti. Rosso was close to Eugène Carrière, who worked in a tenebrist style in print and paint. Carrière was later the neighbour of Bourdelle. Carrière was also in regular communication with Rodin. Rosso developed a rivalry with Rodin; as Rodin became ever more famous, so Rosso accused him of stealing his ideas.

Rosso’s output was very limited, confined to about 50 original works in 20 years is meagre. For the last 20 years he made no original work, only casting making new casts of old works. Rosso lived in Paris for 1889 but failed to capitalise on his art’s brilliance until 1902. He then achieved some acclaim but once the Cubist craze took over Paris in 1910, Rosso’s minor star was eclipsed except in Italy, where he moved during World War I. Regrettably, Rosso secrecy and mistrust means we do not have much written material by or about him during his heyday.

Rosso used photography very effectively to control the viewing experience of his art, favouring electric light. His use of coloured wax to mimic qualities of stone, flesh and wood gives the same design different implications. Rosso is considered an Impressionist for several reasons. Firstly, his subjects are modern and taken from everyday life, including street scenes. Secondly, his surfaces imitate the effect of veils, shadow, blurring, movement and speckled highlights. Thirdly, the quality of the finish is deliberately rough – very rough in places – that defies the standards of academic sculpture. From a distance, Rosso’s pieces seem to be hunks of unworked material. Only when approached closer and examined do they reveal their figurative forms. Thus Rosso’s sculptures are the optical inversions of Impressionist paintings. Impressionist paintings appear realistic from a distance and become increasingly abstract close up; Rosso’s sculptures appear abstract from a distance and become increasingly realistic close up. Finally, his use of the mise en scene or tableau introduces a sensation of space and indicates a context for the figure. Some of his pieces verge on the abstract. (For further discussion of Rosso see my review here.)

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[Image: Auguste Rodin, The Head of John the Baptist, 1877/78. Photo © Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe]

Rodin is often seen in connection with the older sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, collaborator Camille Claudel or viewed as a founder of Modernist sculptor – particularly in the light of his sawing up of plaster casts of his pieces. So realistic was the early Age of Bronze figure (1875-7) that Rodin was accused of passing off a life-cast as a modelled sculpture – a very modern tactic, but one which Rodin vigorously disputed. Rodin’s work sometimes remained unfinished, which gave it an affinity with Impressionist practice. The case for Rodin as an Impressionist is more tangential than with the others. Rodin’s radical approach to the Burghers of Calais (1884-9) was compared to that of Monet, whom he exhibited beside once in 1889.

Paolo Troubetzkoy was born in Italy, son of a Russian diplomat. He approached his portrait busts without using preparatory sketches of modelli. His working methods and aesthetic preferences produced bronze busts that showed evidence of their process of creation, with areas showing lesser worked areas along with highly finished areas – akin to a range of focus. He could be seen as a member of the Cosmopolitan Realist movement/tendency, which encompassed Anders Zorn, John Singer Sargent, Joaquín Sorolla, Giovanni Boldini and others.

Rembrandt Bugatti is now as celebrated as any animalier artist. His small bronze statues of animals (domestic, agricultural and exotic) are justly treasured. The catalogue associates the Italian Bugatti with German Impressionism (Corinth and others). The Nineteenth Century saw the rise of animal art – Landseer, Bonheur, Barye and others – and Bugatti is the end of the classic period. His short working life coincides with the termination of realism and figurative styles as qualities of the avant garde. His bronzes combine naturalism, movement and a lively finish, characterised by a dappled pattern of highlights, giving the impression of movement.

Other sculptors who could be considered potential Impressionist sculptors are listed: Ernesto Bazzaro, Antoine Bourdelle, Ferruccio Crespi, Honoré Daumier, Leonardo Bistolfi and others. (More discussion of Daumier’s sculpture would have been welcome.) There is a section on the display of Impressionist sculpture and another on the way photographs were created and received (with the photographs becoming Pictorialist works of art). The catalogue includes many photographs, drawings and paintings which relate to the sculptures or images related to subjects of sculptures. Often, the sculptural treatment is palpable in the drawings. Rosso’s drawings and photographs will be new to some, though they have been widely published in recent books. Degas’s output is so large that there are always new drawings to encounter. This is an excellent survey of the problems of classification and the shared aesthetics of a set of advanced sculptors working in the 1880-1930 period. Highly recommended.

Alexander Eiling, Eva Mongi-Vollmer (eds.), En Passant: Impressionism in Sculpture, Prestel/Städel Museum (distr. Prestel), 2020, hardback, 360pp, 335 col. illus., $60/£45, ISBN 978 3 7913 5961 8

Video guide of the exhibition installation here.

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Manet and Modern Beauty

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[Image: Édouard Manet (French, 1832 – 1883), Jeanne (Spring) (1881), oil on canvas, 74 × 51.5 cm (29 1/8 × 20 1/4 in.), 2014.62. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles]

The J. Paul Getty Museum is celebrating its 2014 acquisition of a little-seen minor masterpiece by Édouard Manet (1832-1883) with an exhibition and two publications. Manet and Modern Beauty: The Artist’s Last Years is at the Art Institute of Chicago (26 May-8 September 2019) then transfers to the Getty Center, Los Angeles (8 October 2019-12 January 2020). The exhibition is reviewed from the publications. Jeanne (Spring) (1881) was a late painting by Manet, while he was physically limited and often immobilised (suffering from tertiary syphilis). At this this time, Manet was painting many still-lifes of flowers and fruit, as well as portraits of women. It was one of his two submissions to the 1882 Salon, where it was entitled Jeanne. The next time it was exhibited it was called Spring. The subject was Mlle Jeanne Demarsy, a teenage beauty who would later become an actress. She also sat to Renoir at about the same time.

This was part of a proposed series of seasons in the form of half-length portraits of women, commissioned by a famed art critic Antonin Proust. The series seems to have been cut short by Manet’s death because only two paintings from the seasons are known today. (Autumn is included in the exhibition.) The painting was admired at the time but has been rarely seen, residing in a private collection until 2014, when it was auctioned and acquired by the Getty. It was not available for scholars and that – combined with its apparent guileless prettiness – meant that the painting was not discussed much in critical literature. This exhibition covers the years 1876-1883 and comprises 92 items, including paintings, pastels, prints and supplementary material, such as Manet’s illustrated letters and journal illustrations. Oddities include painted fans and a tambourine. The works include some superb pieces, most especially the late still-lifes of fruit and flowers.

Critics portrayed these late painting as soft, lapses in mental fortitude and a retreat from the ground-breaking paintings such as Olympia (1863) and Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863). Were the late still-lifes and portraits of women a search for approval from picture buyers and collectors of middle-brow taste? “These early accounts helped form the now familiar cliché of Manet’s late work as symptomatic of his declining health and his friendship with loose women: a sign, in short, of decadence. In the twentieth century modernist art historians explained the late work’s perceived failings in similar terms.” Thus the subjects of delightful blossoms, delicious fruit and beautiful women were cast as both indicative of epicurean decadence and product of the limitations imposed through disability contracted due to that decadence, in the form of venereal disease.

While Manet was called the leader of the Impressionists, he did participate in the independent exhibitions of the Impressionists, preferring to exhibit at the Salon. He was committed to the Salon, exhibited there until his death and even won a medal. Manet’s attachment to the Salon earned him gibes of being bourgeois by Degas, that despite Degas’s support of, and friendship with, James Tissot and Henri Gervex, two prominent Salon painters markedly less daring than Manet.

Scott Allan draws parallels between Manet’s M. Eugène Pertuiset, the Lion Hunter (1881) and the celebrated Hay Making (1877) by Jules Bastien-Lepage. He suggests the large size, near-square format and composition set outdoors were are influenced by the earlier Naturalist painting. The work launched Naturalism as an artistic school.

Scientific analysis of Jeanne show that in some parts five separate layers were applied in different sessions. Despite that, Manet used the primer layer as a counter to the oil paint. There is a pigment analysis which compares the painting to other paintings by Manet. Micro-photography, x-rays and close examination shows how Manet painted the picture.

Manet’s paintings of parisiennes were not only studies of timeless beauty but also studies of temporal beauty. He had a fascination for fashion and closely followed the changing types of clothing and the use of signifiers. He was known to choose clothing for his female sitters, buying it sometimes. He expressed a desire to capture the very precise alterations in dress codes and types for women. The parisienne was an embodiment of both eternal and temporal beauty, in the form of a uniquely French form of civilisation. Observed and recorded with accuracy, lace cuffs, bonnet trimming and seams of gloves could precisely date a painting to a precise year, even an exact season. Illustrations of paintings not in the exhibition show that modern femininity became a central subject for Manet’s late oil paintings destined for the Salon. The painting of Nana – central character of a realist novel by his Manet’s friend Zola – is an example of this approach. Comparison with other portraits and nudes reveals Manet’s attachment to the female face in profile. His male subjects are never shown in profile in the later period.

The exhibition includes other, more cursory portraits of Jeanne. The catalogue is illustrated with photographs (and portraits by Renoir) of her, allowing us to judge the balance between veracity and flattery that the artist struck. Important paintings loaned for this exhibition include Boating (1874-5), Plum Brandy (c. 1877), In The Conservatory (1877-9), The Café-Concert (c. 1878-9), Portrait of Antonin Proust (1880), Eugène Pertuiset and other late works. The pastel portraits are decidedly weaker than the painted ones. A number of these paintings are unfinished, cut short by the artist’s death. Apparently some were finished by other artists at the request of the estate, in order to make these pictures saleable. Manet produced pastels in his last years because they were faster to make and less strenuous than oil painting. Unable to stand for long periods and – towards the end – unable to stand at all, Manet’s scope of subjects and media were restricted.

In the essays, specialist scholars outline the influence of Chardin as the starting point for the still-lifes and the precedents of Boucher, Fragonard and Watteau for Manet’s figure paintings.

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[Image: Édouard Manet (French, 1832 – 1883), Letter Decorated with a Snail on a Leaf (1880), Watercolor over gray wash (design); pen and ink (text) on machine-made laid paper, 15.8 × 11.7 cm (6 1/4 × 4 5/8 in.), 2019.7. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles]

The late letters were illustrated with watercolour motifs of fruit and flowers. They are extensively reproduced and translated. One writer notes that Manet’s correspondence has never been extensively published, a serious oversight. Another essayist examines the late still-lifes. This large, richly illustrated and highly informative catalogue will become an essential addition to the literature on Manet and can be enjoyed by experts and non-specialists alike.

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In Richard R. Brettell’s small book On Modern Beauty examines three masterpieces in the Getty, featuring beauty, both conventional and strange. Manet’s Jeanne is compared to paintings by Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne.

Paul Gauguin’s Arii matamoe (La fin royale) (1892) shows the head of a Tahitian man on a table, like a spectacular and morbid still-life. The head rests on a cushion, with flowers in its hair. In the background there are other figures. The painting is richly coloured and beautiful, despite its subject matter. The title translates as the “royal end”, “the sleeping king” and “king’s end”. It relates to a public beheading the artist witnessed in 1889, rather be made from life. This is a portrait as a still-life, as well as being an ethnographic curiosity. Brettell speculates that when he painted Arii matamoe, Gauguin may have had in mind a painting by Cézanne, which he owned for a time. The still-life featured a skull and unlit candle. Gauguin was greatly depressed by the colonial usurpation of Tahitian culture and his painting depicting the ending of a vital native nobility is a metaphor for the demise of indigenous traditions.

The third painting is Cézanne’s Young Italian Woman at a Table (c. 1895-1900) shows the subject in a voluminous blouse leaning upon an ornate rug over a table. It is a surprisingly attractive subject on a superficial basis. The model is thought to be Italian, a paid model. The artist did not leave many writings that would help us date pictures or identify portrait subjects. Brettell points out the similarity between the position of subject of this painting and that of Dürer’s print Melancolia (1514) and some female portraits by Corot. Cézanne is a difficult artist to write about because so much of the effect of his art is absorbed through perceptual reception of impressions rather than iconography, narrative and other factors more amenable to verbal description.

On Modern Beauty is a well-illustrated and thought-provoking book about different aspects of beauty in French painting of the period.

 

Scott Allan, Emily A. Beeny, Gloria Groom (eds.), Manet and Modern Beauty, Getty Publications, 2019, hardback, 400pp, 206 col./97 mono illus., £50/$65, ISBN 978 1 60606 604 1

Richard R. Brettell, On Modern Beauty: Three Paintings by Manet, Gauguin and Cézanne, Getty Publications, 2019, paperback, 108pp, 63 col./4 mono illus., $19.95, IBSN 978 1 60606 606 5

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Impressionism in the Age of Industry

Camille Pissarro - Le pont Boieldieu a Rouen, temps mouille, 1896

[Image: Camille Pissarro, Le pont Boieldieu à Rouen, temps mouillé (1896), oil on canvas, 73.6 x 91.4 cm. Gift of Reuben Wells Leonard Estate, 1937 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario
2415]

Impressionism in the Age of Industry (16 February-5 May 2019, Art Gallery of Ontario) is a wide-ranging, informative and stimulating exhibition of Impressionist art and art produced by other French artists of the period. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The exhibition brings together leading Impressionists Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, Félix Braquemond, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas and Gustave Caillebotte with lesser known associated figures. There is art by many artists who are not generally classed as Impressionists. It needs to be stated up front that there is a degree of separation between the title and the contents of the exhibition. The selection includes many artists who are not Impressionists, such as the Post-Impressionists (Van Gogh, Émile Bernard, Paul Sérusier, Armand Guillaumin), Divisionists (Maximilien Luce, Alfred William Finch, George Seurat, Paul Signac), Social Realists (Jules Dalou, Constantin Meunier), the Nabis (Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard) and others, such as honorary Impressionists Jean-François Raffaëlli, James Tissot, Edouard Manet and Eugène Louis Boudin. This exhibition should really be entitled “Late Nineteenth French Artists Respond to Modernity”. However, we can forgive AGO for choosing a title more accessible and appealing to the general public.

This exhibition is centred on the Impressionists’ painting of modernity, especially a modern Paris and its environs (with a handful of exceptions). The art was redolent of the anxiety of new social fluidity, centring on places where the middle class and working class fraternised in delimited spaces such as La Grande Jatte, Asnières, café-concerts and dance halls. Impressionist pictures are full of signs denoting disparities in class, occupation and status. Parts of the social disruption were the impact of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. The rebuilding of the Vendome Column (toppled during the Commune uprising) and the erection of Sacré Coeur (seen by many Parisians, especially of Montmartre, as punitive demonstration of the state’s definitive erasure of the Commune) were Parisians consciously reshaping of their city’s material structure to reflect its cultural values. The encroachment of factories (and their ever-visible smoke) and the Eiffel Tower were incontrovertible presentations of Paris’s future as a modern metropolis.

The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were forever including subjects at their places of work: Degas’s laundresses, dancers, prostitutes and cabaret singers, Van Gogh weavers and sowers, Pissarro’s peasants and market traders, Caillebotte’s builders and Luce’s foundry workers. The oeuvre of Meunier – a Social Realist rather than an Impressionist – was dominated by the image of the working man at manual labour. It was Meunier who went on to become the most influential sculptor of the Twentieth Century, held up as the ideal of the socially committed sculptor by Socialist artistic bodies and social-realist artists. Every realist statue dedicated to ennobling the working man owes something to Meunier’s example, whether or not creator or spectator realise it.

The catalogue essays discuss the approaches of artists to the modern city of Paris, including the ways in which artists depicted workers, construction and transport. The transport they found most captivating was trains. The bridges and stations were unapologetically up to date. Monet made a group of paintings of Gare Saint-Lazare, where train smoke was contained and illuminated by glazed skylights. Caillebotte painted a boldly modern railway bridge at Argenteuil in the 1880s – the very bridge which made this outlying settlement accessible to Parisian day-trippers and painters. Newly accessible Argenteuil was a favoured riverside spot for Parisians to relax on clement holidays, where they could row, dine and dance. It was frequented by many Impressionists, who frequently portrayed the landscape, setting and visitors there. Asnières was a location on the Seine which was site for new factories, which can be seen in the background of Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières (1884). La Grande Jatte – an island which featured in another landmark painting of Seurat – is a leisure space (at the time) on the outskirts of Paris, where families, courting couples, prostitutes, shop girls, factory workers, nannies and children and others from the middle and working classes mingled in a space that provided opportunities for cross-class interaction. It was a liminal space and locus for concerned discussion by clergy, politicians, journalists and other commentators celebrating and decrying social blending. The social communication of Impressionist art was a focal point of New Criticism from the 1960s onwards and one of the most fruitful areas that social historiography has addressed in the fine-art field. The research by Caroline Shields proves that there was commercial demand for Monet’s paintings of industrial subjects in the 1870s, which indicates that not only painters but collectors of art considered the changing face of the city an acceptable subject for fine art.

Photography by Craig Boyko

[Image: James Tissot, La Demoiselle de magasin (c. 1883-1885), oil on canvas, 146.1 x 101.6. Gift from Corporations’ Subscriptions Fund, 1968 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario 67/55]

The project of boulevardisation of central Paris by Baron Haussmann (over the period 1853-70), the expansion of the railways, the construction of the Eiffel Tower and the Basilica of Sacré Coeur all provided numerous instances of construction work for artists to study. The inclusion of photographs of Paris, and the subjects that Impressionists portrayed, acts as context and also art in its own right. Also projected at the exhibition (and included in the catalogue as stills) are Thomas Edison’s 1900 film of Paris and footage of workers leaving a factory filmed by the Lumiere Brothers.

A selection of pictures features rural workers – part of a conscious rejection of industrialisation by intellectuals in search of authentic peasantry and the back-to-the-soil romanticism of the urban-dwelling elite. Art by Van Gogh, Serusier, Bernard and – most prominently – Pissarro illustrate the utopian idealism of artists who never worked the land themselves but heroised those who did. There is sympathy and empathy, which make up for lack of understanding.

The inclusion of art by lesser known artists (not necessarily French but working in France in the 1860-1900 period) brings us art by Jean Béraud, Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, Giuseppe de Nittis and others. The other material, such as maps, plans and publications will be unfamiliar to visitors.

There is a good selection of graphic art, including colour lithographs by Henry Rivière (particularly on the subject of the Eiffel Tower – perhaps a conscious homage to Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (c. 1830-2)) and the street scenes of Bonnard and Vuillard. A lithograph by Meunier sets a miners head against the ravaged surroundings of a mine, comparing the sturdiness of the working man to the rugged and harsh environment that had formed him. A belle époque poster by Georges Paul Leroux advertises the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, which welcomed the new century with an international display of science, technology and culture. Posters by Toulouse-Lautrec are famous posters for evening entertainments. Stylistically, it is a blend of Art Nouveau dramatic form and sinuous line and beaux arts realism. Three Pissarro prints represent his typical subjects of river views and working women. Braquemond’s etching of Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844) is indicative of the Impressionist veneration for Turner as a precursor to Impressionist technique. Raffaëlli’s drypoint view of railway sidings is compared to a painting by Henri Ottmann.

Edgar Degas - Woman at Her Bath, c. 1895

[Image: Edgar Degas, Woman at Her Bath (c. 1895), oil on canvas, 71.1 × 88.9 cm. Purchase, Frank P. Wood Endowment, 1956 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario 55/49]

Raffaëlli’s famous ragpickers are in two paintings that show the thick impasto surfaces that led to him being admired by some painters of the time (including Van Gogh). Chromatically, the paintings are not sophisticated and leave one wondering if his popularity was anything more than a fad. Paintings by Caillebotte emphasise his brilliance as a painter of reflections. An atypical Monet painting shows colliers unloading barges at a bank of the Seine. This is one of the few Monet paintings to show people at work. The coloration is muted and the contre-jour effect of the repeated dark figures seen against the water and bank makes this a picture of unexpected terseness. There are views of Pontoise and Rouen by Pissarro. There are two excellent Sisley river views, showcasing his dappled brushwork.

The bronzes of figures by Degas, Dalou and Meunier are appealing and well chosen but few in number. There are paintings of laundresses by Degas and one nude bather, all very fine, delicate and adventurous. While Impressionists made sculpture, the most successful producer of Impressionist sculpture was Medardo Rosso. (See here for my review of his art.) Sculpture was a side line for Impressionist painters, with the exception of Degas, who devoted much effort, time and thought to working on his statuettes of dancers and horses.

“Impressionism in the Age of Industry” has art which forms multiple slices of social history as well as being satisfying as art. This exhibition will introduce many to the complicated factors motivating art that is often seen as primarily in pursuit of pleasure and optical fidelity.

 

Caroline Shields (ed.), Impressionism in the Age of Industry, Art Gallery of Ontario/Prestel/Delmonico Books, 2019, hardback, 248pp, 149 col./33 mono illus., £39.99/$50, ISBN 978 3791 358 451

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Medardo Rosso: Sculpture as Impressionism

“Medardo Rosso (1858-1928) is considered Italy’s most important modern sculptor and the most well-known Impressionist sculptor. Three new publications cover the art of Rosso: two exhibition catalogues and one monograph. All were written by Sharon Hecker, with the contributions by others in the catalogues. Of the three titles A Moment’s Monument is the most extensive discussion of Rosso’s art, with the catalogues having better illustrations and offering some different perspectives from writers other than Hecker. In A Moment’s Monument Hecker proposes Rosso as one of the originators of Modernism in sculpture (alongside Auguste Rodin) and that Rosso exemplifies the typical international artist of the following century. All of the books are attractively designed, well-produced and contain original content. Overall, the best single book if one wants to understand the art of Rosso is A Moment’s Monument. This review will cover Rosso’s art using this monograph as a source.

Medardo Rosso photograph of Ecce Puer
Medardo Rosso’s original photograph of his Ecce Puer, 1906
(photo: public domain)

“The Pulitzer Arts Foundation at St. Louis, Missouri gathered about 100 sculptures, drawings and photographs by the artist in an exhibition held between 11 November 2016 and 13 May 2017….”

Read the full review on 3rd Dimension website here: https://3rd-dimensionpmsa.org.uk/reviews/2019-02-06-medardo-rosso-sculpture-as-impressionism