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

By Norma Broude | Go to book overview

draw over ninety of the series paintings from their hiding places on four continents over the last four years." 104

The persistent anxiety over the unstable gendering of Impressionism that underlies such scholarly projects and critical statements is clearly pertinent to our inquiry. For they simultaneously reveal and attempt to counter deeply ingrained cultural fears. And they draw, no doubt unconsciously, upon what we may now clearly recognize as an ancient and influential system of signification that has gendered a passive natural world as female and an active, experimental science as male -- a hierarchical language that has been used extensively in the twentieth century to regender Impressionism.


CHAPTER 10
Impressionism and Modernism

In women are incarnated the disturbing mysteries of nature, and man escapes her hold when he frees himself from nature. -- Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949

This book began by asking why Impressionism, an art that was based on the subjectivity of vision and that emphasized the expression of feeling and emotion generated by contact with nature, came to be seen in the twentieth century as an art of optical realism devoid of human values. In order to answer the question, we recast it to ask why Impressionism, an art gendered as female both by its conservative critics and its avant-garde competitors at the turn of the century, was effectively regendered in the art history and criticism of the twentieth century and endowed with the stereotypical attributes of masculinity? In these terms, we have already suggested the usefulness of Impressionism as a symbol for the French Republic and its not unrelated value as a symbol of entrepreneurial power and creative individualism for wealthy patrons and corporate collectors. The gradual cooption of Impressionist painting for these social and political purposes, already begun in the late nineteenth century, only intensified and escalated throughout the twentieth century, as Impressionism, on a worldwide basis, came to be one of the most beloved and highly valued art styles of the modern era. Its usefulness, moreover, as a pedigree for modernist abstraction has led, ironically, to its close and, as I will now argue, erroneous association with that modernist tradition, a tradition that has aggressively gendered itself as male.

The narrative of mainstream modernism has been described by the art historian Carol Duncan as a progression in which art "gradually emancipates itself from the imperative to represent convincingly or coherently a natural, presumably objective world." Duncan has pointed to the prevalence of images of

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