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Description: The Art of Impressionism: Painting Technique and the Making of Modernity
Grounded in close study of the original art objects, my main focus in this book is on Impressionist oil painting techniques and materials, their history and development. Inevitably, plein air landscape painting methods are a primary interest, as is the influence of plein air painting aesthetics. The book addresses the complex relationship between plein air landscape theory and...
PublisherYale University Press
Related print edition pages: pp.ix-x
https://doi.org/10.37862/aaeportal.00125.003
Preface
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Description: Self-portrait by Bazille, Frédéric
1. Frédéric Bazille, Self-portrait, 1865. 99 × 71.8 [vertical landscape no. 40]. The Art Institute of Chicago.
Grounded in close study of the original art objects, my main focus in this book is on Impressionist oil painting techniques and materials, their history and development. Inevitably, plein air landscape painting methods are a primary interest, as is the influence of plein air painting aesthetics. The book addresses the complex relationship between plein air landscape theory and the techniques actually used or first initiated in work outdoors in front of the motif, and the impact of these on figure painting and studio practice. The book provides me with the opportunity to publish a wealth of material gathered over many years’ research on nineteenth-century French oil paintings techniques, and to elaborate my most recent ideas on their cultural meaning.
Among the group of artists who came to be known as the Impressionists, my book looks particularly at the easel-painted work of Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Cézanne, Cassatt, Morisot, Caillebotte, Sisley and Degas in the period before 1900. The work of Edouard Manet receives considerable attention, since the book argues a formative rôle for his technical example, especially the influence of his uncompromising facture and pictorial rendering of light. Archival sources, historical treatises and debates on method often take the narrative back further, beyond the nineteenth century, and at times documentation of English materials is equally relevant. The techniques of certain earlier and contemporary nineteenth-century painters are also discussed since, as well as identifying the Impressionists’ methods and materials, situating these historically and evaluating their rôle and meanings within the visual formation of urban modernity are central aims of the book.
There will always be more nineteenth-century paintings to look at and examine, hence my coverage is obviously selective rather than inclusive, while my arguments are intended to stimulate rather than foreclose debate in the field. Pigment analyses and other technical studies are, although becoming more common, still limited – and inevitably often unsystematic, unrepresentative and not necessarily historically informed.1 For discussion, see chapter 10. Even the consistent recording of vital data in the form of labels and canvas stamps (many now hidden by canvas lining) was rarely undertaken by museums and galleries, and the surviving evidence is at best haphazard. In many cases it has only recently been recognised that these data are of importance to historians and conservators in providing vital information on the history of artists’ materials and their usage. Such information is important in the very processes of conservation itself. Although in the twenty-five odd years that I have been working in this field, the number of historians interested in technique and of conservators who recognise how art history can inform their practices has grown, the almost inevitable division of labour between the two professions has meant that specialists who span both remain few and far between.
It does not follow that there is a lack of interest in the subject. Enthusiastic public response to exhibitions on painting technique or addressing such issues, organised during the later 1980s by the National Gallery in London, by the Courtauld Institute Galleries, and by museums in the United States, demonstrated the genuine thirst for knowledge of how paintings are made.2 The National Gallery, London, exhibitions included Art in the Making: Impressionism, with an important catalogue (Bomford et al, 1990); Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces: The Courtauld Collection, 1987; cf. the earlier Monet Unveiled, 1977, and Wilson-Bareau 1986. For technical studies associated with major exhibitions on the Impressionists, see Delbourgo and Rioux, Paris, 1974; for studies of individual artists, see Courbet, Paris, 1977; Degas, Paris, 1988, and Seurat, London, 1997. There is arguably an element of hagiography here, too, fostered by populist art history and the explosion of the block-buster exhibition – in which the Impressionists have been among the greatest crowd-pullers. But this tendency is not new. The preoccupation, indeed voyeuristic fascination, of ‘mere mortals’ with the lives (and loves) of great artists in all creative fields dates back at least to Vasari; it has become a literary genre in its own right and the fodder for innumerable film and television scripts. Historical prints and paintings of artists’ studios – again notably from Vasari on – bear witness to an obsessive interest in the secret, erotic lives of (normally male) painters cloistered in their private creative space, an interest that, encouraged by artists themselves, achieved modern mythic status in France with the emergence in the 1830s of the tortured Romantic ‘genius’.3 See Battersby 1989 for a critical analysis. Late 1960s interventions in literary theory, like Barthes’s ‘The Death of the Author’ and Foucault’s ‘What is an Author?’,4 Foucault 1969, ‘What is an Author?’; Barthes 1968, ‘The Death of the Author’. which questioned the discursive centrality of the creative genius, were quickly followed by feminist challenges to the monolithic art-historical canon of ‘great art’ and (male) artists, aiming to overturn this myth.5 Earliest work, in the 1970s, was that of Linda Nochlin, Norma Broude, Ann Sutherland Harris, Elsa Honig Fine, Griselda Pollock, Roszika Parker and Anthea Callen. However, its popularity endures, fuelled by such factors as an investment-led art-market, high-profile collectors like Alan Bond and the Saatchi brothers, and telephone-number auction prices kept artificially buoyant.
This market, with its producers, dealers, viewers and buyers, was consolidated in France in the period addressed by the present book. The expansion and proliferation of easel paintings that went hand in hand with this, and with the concomitant growth of the artists’ colourman’s trade, provide the raw materials that are examined here. However, my aim is not simply to document these materials and their transformation into pictures, but to demonstrate how both materials and paintings are intimately, inseparably constituted by and within the cultural matrices that produced them. While methodologically grounded in a social history of art informed by feminist cultural theory,6 See T. J. Clark, ‘On the Social History of Art’, in Clark 1973, chapter 1. this book privileges the physical pictorial object and the evidence that can be gleaned from it through both visual and scientific scrutiny. Readings that result from examination of the material constituents of oil painting and the complex processes of ‘making’ entailed in all aspects of artistic production are mediated here by analysis of the key cultural determinants of painters’ priorities in the nineteenth century, comparing the practices of academics and of avant-garde painters, the Impressionists in particular. I argue that the actual ‘modernity’ of the Impressionist enterprise lay in these material practices and what they were understood to mean, rather than simply in the subject matter these complement. I show how their materials and methods combined to help constitute the modern as visual.
Theories that date to the 1820s the origins of the primacy of the visual in urban modernity have been developed in histories and critiques of the field in the last decade or so.7 See especially Green 1990 and Foster 1988, Crary 1992, Jay 1994. The reflexive role of pictorial representation in generating the conscious experience of modernity as visual, and of the visual as modern, has not been neglected. Yet there has recently been far greater interest in deconstructing the historical impact of lens technologies (camera obscura, still camera, movie camera, television, and now digital visualisation) – stereotypically ‘boys’ toys’ – and their products, than the more old-fashioned, messy matter of oil painting. I have written elsewhere of the ideological imperatives that associated the physical matter of art with feminine ‘materiality’ – the essentialist blood and gore of female reproductive biology.8 See especially Callen 1992, 1993A, 1995 and 2000. Significantly, this discursive analogy reached hysteria point in parallel with the rise of Impressionist painting, which entailed a subversion of the masculine rules of conventional art practice and the associated monocular perspectivalism that dates back to Descartes.9 On the gendering of art practice specific to this period, see, for example, Higonnet 1989, Garb 1989, and note 8 above; on Cartesian perspectivalism, see Jay 1994. While the present book does not prioritise issues of gender and social difference, the ideas I have articulated elsewhere underpin my analyses here. Since it was feminism and feminist art and theory from the late 1960s that rescued the abject material body from a mute submission to science and medicine on the one hand, and from a schism from the intellect on the other, in a context of so-called ‘post’-feminism it remains vital to underscore the importance of this hard-won consciousness of self, and to recognise the signs of backlash against our rights to mind and body. Indeed, as cyber-feminists are aware, the brave new world of virtual visuality – still a predominantly masculine world – is one in which the material body may again be lost.
The new mass media of visuality (or post-visuality, as is now argued10 In Crary 1992.) represent not simply a global revolution in social and cultural forms of the visual; they have profound and as yet unimaginable implications beyond the visual. Unlike the plastic arts, they are fundamentally clean: in form, I mean, not content. The new digital and optical technologies disembody the human experiences of both visual production and consumption. In terms of production, the academic ‘licked’ surface is taken to its logical extreme: photographic images are infinitely manipulable and 3-D animated graphics are expressly designed to give a convincing illusion. A key aim is to perfect the imitation of ‘real’ space, figuration and movement (ironically, reviving those old, outmoded skills of the art academy, like perspectival and anatomical drawing) – and to disguise their own means of production. Interactive, the virtual permits the consumer a greater illusion of control over the visual world, over the things (and people) in it and, in the virtual game, over life and death. In the process of consumption, the ‘material’ – in any form directly susceptible to the physical senses other than sight – is entirely absent, or at best artificially confected, as, for example, in the ‘vibrations’ or ‘kick-back’ designed to simulate physical sensation in the hand-held (phallic) hardware of arcade and play-station games.
Martin Jay stresses the comparably ‘virtual’ nature of the nineteenth-century stereoscopic image; he cites Jean Clair observing that these images thwarted the fetish of the permanent image, with its commercial possibilities, ‘Because it has no material reality, it does not permit symbolic exchange. As a virtual image . . . a totally transparent . . . all-too-perfect delusion of reality, it does not permit one to trade the substance for the shadow, unlike the material document on paper.’11 J. Clair, ‘Opticeries’, October, vol. 5, 1978, p. 103, his emphasis, cited in Jay 1994, p. 132, n. 181. Surely this is precisely what firms like Microsoft do now trade (shadow for shadow?); in so doing, they are dramatically transforming the global economies of the visual, ideological as well as fiscal. No messy bodily effluents here, in either material or representational form. Messianic global cyber-capital is ‘cleaning up’, financially and morally12 See Laxer 1998 (p. 57, also pp. 86–9 and passim) on the moral agenda of mega-rich global capitalists, including Bill Gates. – ‘clean’ software; ‘clean’ money; ‘clean’ death. An immaterial reality, transparent and wholly the product of light, this ‘virtual’ world is sanitised and deodorised. No sticky fingers. This is ‘pure enlightenment’, a visuality purged of any material presence that can be physically touched – the visceral trace of brush in paint, smudgy fingerprints in charcoal, pastel, inks, the marks of bodily intervention, of flesh and blood.
All these would be reasons enough to reclaim the matter of painting, to pursue the knowledge of its histories, its uses and the meanings it embodies – and to question how these have helped form, and inform, contemporary visual politics. But for me it is also an issue of sensual pleasure – in drawing, paint, colour, the smells of the studio, the enriching visual experience, and getting my hands dirty.
Anthea Callen
Leamington Spa
September 2000
All works referred to in the text are in oil on canvas, and sizes are in centimetres, height preceding width, unless otherwise indicated. Standard canvas sizes are indicated where appropriate (for more on this, see chapter 2): all of these fall within 2 cm on each side of the standard sizes given in Lefranc, 1889 (see pl. 24).
All translations from French original texts are by the author, unless cited otherwise in the notes.
 
1      For discussion, see chapter 10. »
2      The National Gallery, London, exhibitions included Art in the Making: Impressionism, with an important catalogue (Bomford et al, 1990); Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces: The Courtauld Collection, 1987; cf. the earlier Monet Unveiled, 1977, and Wilson-Bareau 1986. For technical studies associated with major exhibitions on the Impressionists, see Delbourgo and Rioux, Paris, 1974; for studies of individual artists, see Courbet, Paris, 1977; Degas, Paris, 1988, and Seurat, London, 1997. »
3      See Battersby 1989 for a critical analysis. »
4      Foucault 1969, ‘What is an Author?’; Barthes 1968, ‘The Death of the Author’. »
5      Earliest work, in the 1970s, was that of Linda Nochlin, Norma Broude, Ann Sutherland Harris, Elsa Honig Fine, Griselda Pollock, Roszika Parker and Anthea Callen. »
6      See T. J. Clark, ‘On the Social History of Art’, in Clark 1973, chapter 1. »
7      See especially Green 1990 and Foster 1988, Crary 1992, Jay 1994. »
8      See especially Callen 1992, 1993A, 1995 and 2000. »
9      On the gendering of art practice specific to this period, see, for example, Higonnet 1989, Garb 1989, and note 8 above; on Cartesian perspectivalism, see Jay 1994. »
10      In Crary 1992. »
11      J. Clair, ‘Opticeries’, October, vol. 5, 1978, p. 103, his emphasis, cited in Jay 1994, p. 132, n. 181. »
12      See Laxer 1998 (p. 57, also pp. 86–9 and passim) on the moral agenda of mega-rich global capitalists, including Bill Gates. »