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Neo-Impressionism and the Search for Solid Ground: Art, Science, and Anarchism in Fin-De-Siecle France / Pissarro, Neo-Impressionism, and the Spaces of the Avant-Garde

By Brettell, Richard R. | The Art Bulletin, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Neo-Impressionism and the Search for Solid Ground: Art, Science, and Anarchism in Fin-De-Siecle France / Pissarro, Neo-Impressionism, and the Spaces of the Avant-Garde


Brettell, Richard R., The Art Bulletin


JOHN G. HUTTON

Neo-Impressionism and the Search for Solid Ground: Art, Science, and Anarchism in Fin-de-siecle France Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994, 276 pp.; 67 b/w ills.

MARTHA WARD

Pissarro, Neo-Impressionism, and the Spaces of the Avant-Garde Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, 353 pp.; 6 color ills., 95 b/w.

This is a tale of two superb dissertations-one on Camille Pissarro in the 1880s and the other on Neo-Impressionist science and politicsand their eventual publication. Martha Ward completed a lucid and closely argued dissertation entitled "Camille Pissarro in the 1880s" for Michael Fried at the Johns Hopkins University in 1983. She had already become known as a scrupulously careful and brilliant researcher and had been asked to contribute the virtually definitive bibliography to the catalogue of the 1980-81 Pissarro retrospective for the Hayward Gallery in London, Camille Pissarro, 1830-1903, when she was still a graduate student. Since that time, she has published two important articles that have tantalized everyone closely involved with l9thcentury studies as they awaited the published version of her dissertation.' It has-after more than a decade of work and rework-appeared in a much expanded version as a handsome monograph with a rather grander title, Pissarro, Neo-Impressionism and the Spaces of the Avant-Garde. With a gathering of six colorplates, extensive footnotes, and well-positioned black-and-white comparative plates, it is the most important scholarly book dealing with Camille Pissarro to be published since my own dissertation-cum-book in 1990 and one of remarkably few critically sophisticated books about a major Impressionist artist to appear within this generation. As such it deserves careful analysis.

John Hutton's dissertation of 1987, written under the direction of Hollis Clayson for Northwestern University, had a wonderful title, "A Blow of the Pick: Science, Anarchism, and the Neo-Impressionist Movement." Esidently, Hutton was easier on himself than Ward (or his readers were easier on him), for his dissertation appeared in book form with a new title but in substantially similar form somewhat more than seven years after it was accepted by Northwestern University. Perhaps for that reason, his book is relatively unified and easy to read, in spite of the fact that it is packed with references and detailed bibliographical information. Its new title makes it clear that Hutton's book falls comfortably within what might be called the "traditional" social history of art.

Each of the two books deals with the larger history of the Neo-Impressionist movement in fundamentally new, but remarkably different ways, and, for that reason, I will consider them separately. Ward takes on the movement through the lens of its oldest and, in some senses, least studied participant, Camille Pissarro.2 Interestingly, Ward's dissertation of 1983 is only the third on Pissarro to have been written at an American university, after Richard Fargo Brown's Harvard dissertation of 1952, "The Colour Technique of Camille Pissarro," and my own for Yale of 1977, "Pissarro and Pontoise: The Painter in a Landscape." Ward's study attempted to make sense of the "bridge" decade in Pissarro's career, the 1880s. During those years, Pissarro transformed himself from an active and experimental member of the loosely defined coalition of Impressionists to a doctrinaire member of the smaller-and much better organized-movement that Felix Fe neon called Neo-Impressionism. At the end of the 1880s, Pissarro began a gradual retreat from Neo-Impressionist practice and seemed to many (but not to the artist himself) to have reentered the Impressionist fold. Whereas Brown had covered much of that territory in his dissertation of 1952, his concerns were almost completely formal, and he had little access to the immense body of Pissarro letters and other critical material that have come to light since that time.

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