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

By Norma Broude | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
The Optical as a Path to the Personal:
The Writings of Duranty, Martelli, and Laforgue

"The eye, which is the window of the soul, is the chief organ whereby the understanding can have the most complete and magnificent view of the infinite works of nature." 42

-- Leonardo do Vinci

In the 1870s Impressionist pictures were often criticized for being unnatural as well as unfinished. Among the standard complaints leveled against them in the press were that they were "discolored," "formless," and untrue to human vision and "reality," as these were understood by eyes accustomed to the drawing and linear perspective of post-Renaissance pictorial representation. Moreover, the Impressionists' heightened use of colors at the blue, indigo, and violet end of the spectrum -- a result of their work outdoors -- was particularly distressing to many critics of the period, who could explain this lapse from the "reality" of studio painting only as a symptom of retinal dysfunction, and therefore accused the Impressionists of suffering en masse from diseases of the eye. 43

An important vein in the early literature written in defense of Impressionism seems to have been designed to counter such criticisms and to do so, moreover, by showing that Impressionism was far truer both to the appearances of nature and to the operations of the human eye than any earlier style of painting had been. To accomplish this, a few of the early defenders of Impressionism invoked in support of their argument what was for the nineteenth century -- and especially for the supporters of Realism -- the sacred authority of science. In the 1870s and early 1880s the writers who advanced a scientific rationale for the style of Impressionism at length and with any seriousness were relatively few, considering the importance that this association was to have for later Impressionist criticism. The principal texts are in fact only three: by Edmond Duranty in 1876, Diego Martelli in 1879, and Jules Laforgue in 1883. All three linked the expressive and individualistic paintings of the Impressionists with a standard of truth to optical reality and conformity to the laws of natural science. And in so doing, all three attempted to create for these paintings a manner of viewing and understanding that might reassure a wider public, which had been understandably distressed by the loose drawing and broken brushwork of the Impressionist style.


Edmond Duranty and Impressionism

The first writer to introduce the authority of science and the standard of "objective truth" into the critical dialogue surrounding Impressionism in the

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