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

By Norma Broude | Go to book overview

remained dependent upon the base "matter" of "detestable nature," as Aurier termed it. The Symbolists, on the other hand, claimed to give form to ideas and feelings that were generated from within; and while not dependent for inspiration upon external reality, they nevertheless believed themselves capable of revealing and fixing its very essence. Thus, Symbolism regendered art as male in relation to female nature, rejecting Impressionism's feminized role, but also rejecting science and asserting its own superiority over a science that still depended for its raison d'être upon the material world.

In terms of the gender metaphor, then, Symbolism's scorn for science may be interpreted as an attempt to reverse the hierarchic positions that had been assigned by positivism to science and art in nineteenth-century France. The Symbolists' simultaneous rejection both of science and of Impressionism was based ostensibly on what the latter two shared -- i.e., a dependence (albeit of a very different sort) upon nature. But at heart, this dual rejection grew out of Symbolism's desire to claim for itself what science possessed and what Impressionism most conspicuously lacked -- a masculinized position of dominance over the natural world, one that might in turn endow the artist and art in general with a position of cultural superiority in relation to science.


CHAPTER 9
The Republican Defense of Science and
The Regendering of Impressionism

Symbolism's critique of science and of Impressionism must be situated in the context of a series of broader philosophical and political challenges that were being posed to the cultural hegemony of positivist science in France during the 1890s, challenges to which Symbolism contributed and from which it received essential support. During the first decades of the liberal and anticlerical Third Republic -- a period when many of France's most influential political leaders had professional training in the sciences -- reason and scientific determinism became enshrined as central values in French political and cultural life and were considered to be the keys to progress in the modern world. But even this period was not unmarked by conflict between traditional faith and the new cult of science. Catholic scientists in particular had long chafed against the positivist view of the of science and traditional religious faith as well as the positivists assertion that science, the new religion, could solve all problems in the modern world, including those in the realm of morality.

In 1889 the publication of Paul Bourget novel Le Disciple made apparent how deep the cleavage of opinion in France on these issues had become and opened the floodgates to a decade of heated debate over the social and ethical position of science in the modern world. Bourget's novel was read as an attack upon science and an indictment of its moral irresponsibility; its appearance signaled a major defection from the positivist fold by a writer who had formerly aligned himself

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