Impressionism and Science
At the heart of the Impressionist enterprise was the Romantic engagement with feeling and subjectivity. In this sense, Impressionist landscape painting was organically connected to what came before it in the nineteenth century, not only in terms of its conceptual framework but even to some extent its iconography, its methods, and its techniques. Yet this continuity with Romanticism and the subjectivity of Impressionism have been consistently denied in later art historical accounts of the movement. How did Impressionism come to be seen by the middle of the twentieth century as an art of "scientific objectivity," devoid of feeling? Why has it been so systematically divorced from its Romantic roots?
Early in the nineteenth century, the Romantic movement in France helped to focus a long-standing uneasiness in Western culture with painterly and coloristic styles in art. 1 This uneasiness in the nineteenth century, I will argue, was fundamentally about gender and about the negative, gender-based stereotypes that were associated not only with color as a "subjective" element in painting but also with what was deemed to be the "passive" and hence feminized attitude taken by the Romantic and Impressionist landscape painters toward their subjects in nature. Out of this uneasiness and out of our own period's need to regender Impressionism has come art history's insistence upon creating a causal link between Impressionism and the positivist science of its period, a science that enshrined the culturally masculinized values of objectivity, materialism, and cerebral detachment.
These rationalizations set in at an early stage in the history of Impressionism's critical reception, concealing the fundamental relationship between Romanticism and Impressionism and the quite normative evolution that had occurred from one to the other. Reestablishing that relationship has necessarily been the starting point and one of the principal foundations for this study. Another part of this process must be a reexamination of the claims that have been made for a historical connection between Impressionism and positivist science, as well as a long overdue reevaluation of the status and influence of positivism itself in the French art world during the second half of the nineteenth century.
Before examining in this new light the contemporary nineteenth-century texts that first posited a relationship between Impressionism and science, we will consider first, as an essential context, the changing faces of science during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and science's shifting relationship with art and with nature during this period.