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

By Norma Broude | Go to book overview

PART III
The Gendering of Impressionism

The role played by visual representation in the social production and consolidation of gender difference, has been a major issue in the writings of many recent feminist art historians. They have analyzed the social and psychological systems that produce normative notions of sexuality and gender difference, and they have emphasized the roles these play in generating works of art. 1 My focus in this study is also on the socially constructed category of gender, not as it operates on the processes of artistic production, however, but on those of reception and interpretation -- on the power of gendered cultural discourses to impose meaning not by shaping and determining artistic intentions but by altering subsequent cultural readings of them. The separation of Impressionism from Romanticism in the twentieth-century literature and its strained and artificial attachment to a positivist science have been the result, I will argue, of the movement's feminine gendering in the nineteenth century and the twentieth century's increasingly pressing need to regender this most valued of modern art movements as masculine.

While a few critics in the 1870s and 1880s used the then fashionable language of contemporary science to explain and justify some of the unusual features of the Impressionist style, none, as we have seen, ever characterized Impressionism as an art of impassive optical imitation ruled by scientific objectivity. Instead, each of those critics emphasized the subjective and expressive nature of the Impressionists' goals. Later misconceptions may have been due in part to an oversimplification of what Comtean positivism and the so-called scientific spirit of the nineteenth century actually meant to artists and critics in nineteenth-century France -- a failure on the part of later historians, in other words, to distinguish adequately between the operations of "Romantic" and "normal" science and their continually shifting impact on art and art theory throughout this period. Also, a confusion between Impressionism and its scientifically based offshoot, Neo-Impressionism, took hold fairly early in the general art historical literature of the twentieth century (even though the first critical supporters of Neo-Impressionism in the 1880s and 1890s had used the new movement's selfconscious concern with science to distinguish it from Impressionism and to assert its superiority).

This blurring of distinctions between Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism was supported by the rhetoric of the Symbolists, a competing group of artists and theorists who emerged in France in the 1880s and 1890s. Although the Symbolists vociferously rejected Impressionism's reliance on the material world of nature, it has lately been argued that differences between these two groups are not as clear-cut as was once believed. 2 Nevertheless, the Symbolists' efforts to establish themselves as a recognizable entity distinct from the Impressionist movement -- a process that involved the casting of Impressionism as the inferior "other" -- have reinforced the tendency of later historians to write the history of

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