Nineteenth Century French Studies 31.3&4 (2003) 352-354
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Brettell, Richard R. Impression: Painting Quickly in France 1860-1890. Yale UP, 2000. Pp. 240, 169 color illustrations. ISBN 0-300-0844-171
Art-historical scholarship on Impressionism over the course of the last thirty or so years has been among the most energetic and ambitious in the field. The vast social changes of the period have received particular attention, especially those wrought or accelerated by Hausmannization. The development of mass leisure, the notion of the flâneur, the prevalence and complexity of prostitution in Paris - these issues and more have been intensively studied in the work of T. J. Clark, Robert L. Herbert, Hollis Clayson, Joel Isaacson, Anthea Callen, and Griselda Pollock, among others. This influential body of scholarship (surveyed in a bibliographic essay in this book) has well and truly complicated any assumption of Impressionist painting as, for example, "scenes of amiable suburban sociability," to quote the Directors' Foreword to this sumptuously illustrated catalog. (The exhibition was conceived of by Brettell who also wrote the lengthy ten-chapter catalog.)
Less easy to point to however, are studies which include as a structural component or specific site of study the Impressionists' famously radical approach to the painted surface; a paucity which is being increasingly addressed. In addition to Brettell's book, a major study by Callen on Impressionist painting technique has recently appeared. Brettell's concerns can be usefully compared to an important earlier study, Herbert's 1979 article "Method and Meaning in Monet." Compiling an inventory of the variety of factural marks Monet amassed on the canvas, Herbert showed that by the 1890s Monet came painstakingly to build up his paintings through cumulative, complicated sessions in the studio as well as in front of the portable easel. Through close examination of paintings and contemporary criticism, Herbert questioned the central perception of Monet's Impressionism as invariably spontaneous, virtually reflexive, and en plein air - the indefatigable painter racing, as it were, to keep up with the light (in Herbert's analysis, Monet's devotion to capturing atmospheric effects was increasingly expressed in a complex layering of paint). But for Brettell, such scholarship by Herbert and others (John House's doctoral thesis also analyzed Monet's techniques in detail) has tended to divest Impressionism of "those very elements of spontaneity, so essential to the earliest idea of Impressionism" (35). Yet Brettell and Herbert emphasize both that the notion of painting quickly is crucial to the perception of Impressionism, and the fact that this central characteristic has not received the attention it deserves. (Pragmatic evidence of this appears in Brettell's admission that the title of the exhibition worried prospective lenders who imagined the notion of rapidity might be construed as a slight upon their works.)
And Herbert was concentrating on later Monet: as he noted, few canvases by the artist from the 1860s and early 1870s display the crusting-up of the surface that Monet increasingly developed. Paintings which look as if they were "painted rapidly, as a direct translation of the artist's sensations" (16) are Brettell's subject: works from the Impressionist period as a whole - Brettell argues for a reconfigured directness in some of Monet's later canvases - as well as before (an early chapter of the book is on [End Page 352] Manet). In addition to Monet, Renoir, Morisot, Pissarro, Caillebotte, and Sisley are discussed. Brettell also examines works by PostImpressionists: the three early works Cézanne submitted to the First Impressionist Exhibition of 1874, and a number of works by Van Gogh - the latter's urgent, inelegant, prolific mode is considered an extension of the earlier generation's forceful gesturalism.
Impressionist painters not usually associated with a penchant for effects of rapid painting also appear: Degas, for example, an artist considered both part of yet separate to Impressionism (exhibiting with the group he never thought of himself as akin to them) proved himself capable of, or rather open to, the painting of an "Impression." Openness and improvisatory flair are key to Brettell's account. In certain works...