- L’Impressionisme littéraire by Virginie Pouzet-Duzer
L’Impressionisme littéraire belongs to the genre of ekphrastic criticism that is dedicated to dialogues and debates between text and image and, in this [End Page 210] case, dialogues (direct and indirect) between writers and painters. As should be the case for a study of this nature—but rarely is—the book is beautifully illustrated with both black and white and color reproductions of the paintings it discusses.
L’Impressionisme littéraire is peopled with many of the usual nineteenth-century suspects—Manet, Degas, Renoir, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Zola, etc.—and much of the historical and anecdotal material will be familiar to art historians as well as literary dix-neuviémistes. But Virginie Pouzet-Duzer approaches the artists and their work with a particularly compelling set of questions regarding the nature of aesthetic labels in general and the label “impressionist” in particular. As Catulle Mendès insisted in an interview in 1891: “Ne me parlez pas d’écoles, c’est horripilant! Il n’y a rien de misérable, de petit et de déprimant comme ces querelles sur une étiquette.” (p. 316) Whereas Impressionism is one of the most familiar classifications of French painting in the late nineteenth century—arguably outstripping Romanticism, Realism, Symbolism in recognizability—it has never had equivalent currency for French literature or literary criticism. And yet, who has not used the term “impressionist” to describe the poetry of Mallarmé or Verlaine? Virginie Pouzet-Duzer’s book asks the question: what then is literary impressionism? To answer the question, she mobilizes the discourses of art history, literary history, cultural history and stylistic analysis and, in the end, leaves the reader with a rich cultural snapshot of an epoch.
The book is divided into two parts. Part One is built around two of the best-known artists of the latter half of the nineteenth century: Edgar Degas, championed by the critic Edmond Duranty as “l’impressioniste idéal” (p. 29); and Edouard Manet, the exemplary artist in Stéphane Mallarmé’s reflections on Impressionism. Émile Zola looms large in the chapter on Manet, as he does in the famous portrait Manet did of him that Pouzet-Duzer discusses in detail. The pages on Manet’s portrait of Mallarmé are equally suggestive, as is the analysis of Manet and Mallarmé’s collaboration on a translation and edition of Poe’s “The Raven.” Here Pouzet-Duzer touches on a rich French tradition of collaborative work between painters and poets that extends well into the twentieth century.
If the first half of the book is devoted to the intellectual and biographical overlappings of a generation of French artists, the second half looks at questions of impressionist style. Mallarmé, who figures prominently in Chapter One, as subject of an impressionist painting by Manet returns as the impressionist poet par excellence, the poet haunted by silences and white pages that may also be blank canvases. This is where Pouzet-Duzer carefully develops [End Page 211] and posits her argument: if French literature was (and continues to be) taxonomized in oppositional terms like romanticism/realism and symbolism/naturalism, impressionism in literature is that category that is beyond oppositions and defies categorisation. It is marginal, fragmented, and elusive. While this final statement is demonstrated convincingly, I do hesitate about some of Pouzet-Duzer’s premises; for even as she asserts the slipperiness of the term impressionism in the literary context, she seems to retain other “–isms” as stable aesthetic constructs, minimizing the nuance and contradictions that are built into them as well. Such hesitations notwithstanding, L’Impressionisme littéraire is a finely argued book. Pouzet-Duzer’s erudition is impressive and wide-ranging but does not weigh down this very readable and beautifully illustrated book, which I fully expect to become a standard for students and scholars interested in the rich exchanges between authors and painters, texts and images in late nineteenth-century France.