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

By Norma Broude | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
Impressionism and Symbolism

" Monet is only an eye; but good God what an eye!" 47 This often repeated description of Monet attributed to Cèzanne by later biographers cannot, we now know, be taken uncritically as a reflection of Cèzanne's independent concerns and opinions. For like other equally famous and misleading sayings (such as the injunction to "redo Poussin after nature") that have entered the literature either from Cèzanne's letters written in response to his young admirers or from the latter's often unreliable recollections of conversations with the Master of Aix in the years just prior to his death in 1906, such statements are often far less a reflection of Cèzanne's own views and interests than those of his interlocutors. 48 These disciples included painters and writers such as Emile Bernard, Maurice Denis, and Joachim Gasquet, younger men who were politically conservative and who had been imbued in the 1890s both with the rhetoric of Symbolism and with a resurgent taste for neoclassicism and neo-Catholicism. In their contacts with Cèzanne, they were often intent upon "redoing" him after their own aesthetic program, a program based on the rejection of nature and, not coincidentally, the denigration of Impressionism. But what is in fact remarkable and striking from a reading of Cèzanne's letters is not the extent to which his admirers succeeded in winning Cèzanne over to their own views but the extent to which he resisted and countered the program they placed before him -- by asserting over and over again his attachment to and dependence upon nature. Writing to Emile Bernard, for example, he explained one of the reasons why he valued their correspondence:

I am able to describe to you again, rather too much I am afraid, the obstinacy with which I pursue the realization of that part of nature, which, coming into our line of vision, gives the picture. Now the theme to develop is that -- whatever our temperament or power in the presence of nature may be -- we must render the image of what we see, forgetting everything that existed before us. Which, I believe, must permit the artist to give his entire personality whether great or small. 49

When Cèzanne called Monet"only an eye," we may safely conjecture that he was not expressing an independent opinion but was responding to the opinion of others. In the first part of his statement -- " Monet is only an eye" -- he seems to have been repeating a typical, Symbolist-inspired assessment of Monet, while in the second -- "but good God what an eye" -- he was answering and qualifying that assessment, reversing the terms of the argument and turning the Symbolist criticism of Monet into what, in Impressionist terms and according to Impressionist values, can only be seen as a homage. Although the Symbolists may have attempted to absorb Cèzanne into their own discourse, their rejection of Impressionism was not his.

According to Richard Shiff, however, "symbolism and impressionism, as understood around 1890, were not antithetical."50 Shiff has in fact charted and analyzed in great depth the very real and significant affinities and continuities in

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