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

By Norma Broude | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
Thematic Continuities

In his book Monet at Argenteuil ( 1982), Paul Hayes Tucker describes the rapid encroachment of industry and urban blight in the 1870s that finally impelled Claude Monet to leave the once charming suburban town of Argenteuil, where he had made his home from 1871 to 1878, and to take refuge in the more isolated and still idyllic town of Vétheuil. He describes, too, how in the pictures painted during Monet's years in Argenteuil, the artist consistently turned his back on the uglier and more unpleasant aspects of the changing environment there. 5 But Tucker does not infer what we might be tempted to call "Romantic escapism" from these actions; in fact, he concludes that for most of the six years that he spent in Argenteuil, Monet's pattern of activity showed him to have been an artist who was committed to the principles of modernity and progress, an artist whose work was "celebrating progress, the new religion." 6

The assumption of an unbridgeable gulf between Impressionism and Romanticism is thus as pervasive in the recent sociohistoric literature on Impressionism as it was in the older formalist canon. It was also perpetuated, ironically, in the work of Robert Rosenblum, whose 1975 book Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko presented a new and daring alternative reading for the history of modern art, a reading based upon a vision of the centrality of the northern Romantic tradition. Rosenblum persuasively charted a vital and continuous current of Romantic feeling in the art of northern Europe and the United States from Friedrich to Rothko -- virtually down to the present day. He saw this continuity, however, only in art that is overtly transcendental or symbolic in its structure or in its imagery and content. And in order to define the character of this art, he depended heavily on the conventional view of Impressionism -- and in particular the art of Monet -- to provide a contrasting foil. Of a typical Impressionist landscape, Monet's The Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil of 1872 (fig. 1), he therefore wrote:

The picture includes almost every motif from which Friedrich extracted such portentous symbols -- figures standing quietly on the edge of a body of water; boats that move across the horizon; a distant vista of a building's Gothic silhouette, enframed by almost a nave of trees; and even a rather abrupt jump from the extremities of near and far. Yet, somehow, though the painting conveys a gentle, contemplative mood, it also insists on the casual record of particular facts at a particular time and place. The clouds will shift, the figures will move, the trees will rustle in the breeze, the boats will pass. That quality of the momentary, of the random, of the specifically observed, thoroughly counters Friedrich's solemn and emblematic interpretation of the same motifs. 7

As Rosenblum observed, "almost every motif" that is familiar to us in Friedrich's art recurs here. This is what should give us pause when we consider the differences between these two artists. It should encourage us to reexamine our emphases and to ask if we may not have been overstating those differences in

-18-

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