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

By Norma Broude | Go to book overview

this period in dualistic terms, as a narrative of conflict in which the Symbolists' scorn for science implied -- and eventually, in the literature, "proved" -- the Impressionists' abiding attachment to it.

During the twentieth century, a period when "objectivity" has not generally been valued as a criterion for avant-garde art, the presumption of an alliance between Impressionism and positivist science has been stubbornly maintained in the critical literature, even though the effect of such an alliance on Impressionism as art has often been judged in negative rather than positive terms. And when the subjective and expressive elements of Impressionism have been recognized at all -- as in George Heard Hamilton's 1959 essay on Monet's Cathedrals 3 -- they have been associated exclusively with the 1890s Symbolist ethos and kept rigidly isolated not only from the orbit of "true" (i.e., impassive and objective) Impressionism but also from its presumed opposite, Romanticism.

Although this critical position is not justifiable historically, its persistence becomes comprehensible when the intersecting relationships between art and science, art and nature, and science and nature are understood in their larger historical framework as gendered relationships, and when the status that has been accorded or denied to artistic subjectivity in the modern era is further analyzed as a function of those gendered relationships.


CHAPTER 7
The Gendering of Art, Science, and Nature in the Nineteenth Century

That "Nature is to Culture as Female is to Male" has been a recognizable formulation in Western thought for many centuries. 4 The ancient and hierarchic oppositions on which this construct is based have been the subject of many recent studies in the fields of cultural history and anthropology, and they are acknowledged, both within the orbit of feminist scholarship and outside of it, to have exerted a long and powerful influence on the shaping of Western society and thought. 5

In the Western philosophical tradition, the gendering of nature as female can be traced back to the writings of Plato (the Timaeus) and Aristotle ( On the Generation of Animals). It was Aristotle who divided the cosmos into the heavens, presumed to be immutable and perfect, gendered as male, and the earth, subject to generation and decay, gendered as female. To explain human procreation, Aristotle made a further, qualitative distinction in the terrestrial realm between passive, inert, female "matter" and active, shaping, male "form." 6 These dualisms have had an ongoing and profound impact on every aspect of Western culture. For nature, gendered as female and regarded as passive but also as mysterious and secretive, has served as the primary object of scrutiny and investigation not only for the sciences -- characterized as "active" and "objective" and thus gendered as male -- but also for art, whose gendered identity in relation both to female nature and male science has been less secure and has undergone constant

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