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

By Norma Broude | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION
On Impressionism and the Binary Patterns
of Art History

Throughout much of the twentieth century French Impressionism has been regarded as an emotionally impassive art of "optical realism," diametrically opposed in spirit and intention to the Romantic art that preceded it. In the interests of being objectively and even scientifically true to visual reality, the Impressionists were said to have painted exclusively out-of-doors, before the motif in nature. There they worked quickly, spontaneously, and necessarily without reflection, so that they might win the race with changing, fleeting nature and accurately record the scene before them under a single and consistent moment of natural illumination. According to this once canonical view, the Impressionists cared nothing for traditional concepts of composition or meaning in art. The motifs before which they set up their easels were of no intrinsic interest or importance to them, for they were concerned only with recording their optical sensations of light and atmosphere as accurately and as immediately as possible. A major exponent of this popular position in the early twentieth century was the influential formalist critic Roger Fry, who described Claude Monet in 1932 as an artist who "cared only to reproduce on his canvas the actual visual sensation as far as that was possible." Fry continued:

Perhaps if one had objected to him that this was equivalent to abandoning art, which had always been an interpretation of appearances in relation to certain human values, he would have been unmoved, because he aimed almost exclusively at a scientific documentation of appearances. 1

The authority of this critical position, which provided the underpinnings for the mid-twentieth century's formalist view of Impressionism, reverberated in the literature even as late as 1973, when Kermit Champa wrote of Impressionism:

Its iconology is uninteresting, its sociohistorical role unimportant. The greatness and the depth of Impressionist painting lies, so to speak, on its surface -- a surface which year after year expands its importance as an object of purely visual interest. . . . Subject matter seems in most instances to be a pretext rather than an essential factor in determining the final appearance of a given picture. 2

This understanding of Impressionism as a form of optical realism, devoid of significant content or feeling, was thus remarkably stable during the first three quarters of the twentieth century. And to this day, even in the wake of postmodern revisionism, it is a view that has been only partially dismantled and discredited. The clearest inroads to date have been made by a recent generation of social historians of art, whose approach to Impressionism was anticipated in the 1930s by the work of Meyer Schapiro. In an era when the influence of Fry and

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