A Fragile Modernism: Whistler and His Impressionist Followers

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A Fragile Modernism: Whistler and his Impressionist Followers

Anna Gruetzner Robins

Yale University Press, 2008, h/b, 256pp, 40 [pounds sterling], ISBN 978-


A Fragile Modernism is the product of decades of thought, stringent visual analysis and inspiration. No-one has closer knowledge of the early years of the New English Art Club, of the Royal Society of British Artists and of Whistler's disciples during the 1880s, than Dr Robins. She has drawn upon and drawn together her unrivalled familiarity with the art and archives of her chosen field, to write a mature and thought-provoking book. It is not for beginners. Readers need to know the context, and to a certain extent the detail, of painting and the graphic arts in Britain between 1880 and 1892. With that background, the book cannot fail to impress with its insights, its stimulating--if sometimes contentious--ideas and the quantity of hitherto unpublished information.

The book does not unfold as a chronological narrative. Instead, Robins tackles a different aspect of the art of Whistler and his followers in each of six interwoven and densely argued chapters. The first chapter sets the tone. Robins examines how, during the 1880s, Whistler experimented with radical ways of looking at the motif and translating it to paper, panel or canvas. The conventional reading of Whistler as refined aesthete primarily interested in the abstract arrangement of line, form and colour, is subordinated to a more challenging argument about Whistler as interpreter of recent, widely-discussed, scientific theories articulated by the German scientist Hermann yon Helmholtz, in particular those concerning the nature of vision, spatial perception and colour. The second chapter describes how Whistler set about gathering a group of acolytes to act as his studio assistants, fan club and imitators, and how their art developed during his regime as President of the (Royal) Society of British Artists. The third discusses Whistler's female portraits with particular emphasis on his portrayals of the 'New Woman'. The fourth chapter largely bypasses Whistler to centre on the New English Art Club exhibitions of 1888 and 1889 where Walter Sickert showed several of his most provocative music-hall paintings. The fifth takes as its springboard Sickert's preface to the 'London Impressionists' exhibition of December 1889 to deal not only with the style and handling of the many views of London painted and drawn by Whistler and his followers during the 1880s, but also with the sociological implications of this chosen subject-matter. The last chapter proposes a definition of Impressionism in Britain based on brushwork, surface texture and substance of paint as developed by Whistler and his circle. Considering that the titles of all but one of the preceding five chapters include the word Impressionist or Impressionism, it is both refreshing and disarming to read Robins's conclusion that the phrase 'modern painting,' used by George Moore as the title for his collected edition of critical essays published in 1893, was perhaps a more appropriate term to define the kind of painting which her book analyses.

Dr Robins has become unusually adept at describing the physical aspect of paintings and graphic work in terms of brushwork, colour and mark-making. This is just as well, because although the book is generously illustrated throughout and the llustrations are well integrated with the text, their scale often precludes the accurate rendering of texture and colour. Robins's explanation of how and when the word 'handling,' to describe 'the manipulation of pigment for surface effect,' became common currency was of especial interest to me. I have bandied it about for decades without knowing that its popularity can be traced back to its extensive use by RAM Stevenson, one of the leading New Art critics of the 1890s, who had himself borrowed it from Walter Pater. Similarly, Robins pinpoints the radical departure from conventional appreciation of painting implied in the introduction during the 1880s and 1890s of other terms (all essential to writing on art today) such as 'quality' and 'passages of brushwork'. …