Impressionism: A Feminist Reading: the Gendering of Art, Science, and Nature in the Nineteenth Century

By Norma Broude | Go to book overview

PREFACE

In this book I have applied the insights of feminist scholarship to offer a new reading of the history of Impressionism, one that alters our understanding of the Impressionists and their art and that holds implications for many areas of debate in this field. The book is not directly about women or the roles they have played as makers, subjects, or viewers of works of art -- some of the issues conventionally associated with feminist inquiry. Rather, it is about the socially constructed category of gender and the crucial role that gender distinctions have played in shaping not only the reception but also the interpretations and misinterpretations of Impressionist landscape painting that have prevailed over the last one hundred years.

This study represents a fusion of several interrelated facets of my intellectual life. I have been thinking about French Impressionist landscape painting in relation to the Romantic tradition since the 1960s, when Impressionism was being broadly equated with Realism and Naturalism. At that time, my study of the Romantic elements in nineteenth-century Italian painting prompted me to recognize that French Impressionism, too, was a subjective art, an art that emphasized the expression of feeling and emotion generated by contact with nature. How this art came to be seen by the middle of the twentieth century as objective, scientific, and devoid of feeling was the question that took form and intermittently troubled me during the 1970s and the early 1980s, when my increasing identification with the feminist branch of art history led me to think more critically about the canonical myths and misconceptions of the traditional discipline and about the role that gender bias had played in their formulation.

Even then I recognized that Romanticism and Realism had been endowed with culturally gendered attributes and identities in the art history and criticism of the earlier twentieth century, and I suspected that the insistence upon placing Impressionism in one camp rather than the other had something to do with those associations. Then, in the 1980s, an explosion of gender studies not only in art history but in such fields as the history of science, literature, philosophy, linguistics, and cultural anthropology provided insights that helped me to understand the scientific justification for Impressionism developed by critics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a function of the gender-laden values of modern culture. Although I began this book with a series of questions, my project soon shifted from simply trying to answer those questions to tracing a dynamic pattern of cultural myth making, one in which the social construction of gender played a key role.

The gendered relationship between nature, art, and science has a long and complex history that predates the modern period and the particular problem of interpretation on which this book has focused. That older history, which still remains to be told, is the subject of a study currently in progress by my colleague and partner, Mary D. Garrard, to whose work in this area my own is intimately connected and deeply indebted. In application to our separate fields, we have long shared a fascination with the issues that provide the conceptual basis for this book. I am grateful to her for shared insights and creative discussions, and for understanding, more than anyone else could, what the unfolding and real

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