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Impressionism: Paint and Politics
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. 256 pp.; 63 color ills., 117 b/w. $50.00
Pioneering Modern Painting: Cezanne and Pissarro, 1865-1885
New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2005. 256 pp.; 163 color ills. 29 b/w. $60.00
A number of features make a comparison between these two beautifully designed and ambitious books enlightening. One is that Joachim Pissarro, recently appointed curator of paintings at the Museum of Modern Art, has generously acknowledged John House as his teacher, even though most of us in North America think of Pissarro as the former student of Richard Shiff (University of Texas, Austin). House, who is professor at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, very much fulfills his role as teacher, mounting the podium particularly in the last chapter of his book to pass judgment on previous Impressionist scholarship. Another feature of the comparison is that both books are related to exhibitions. House's originated at least partly in an exhibition he organized in 1995, Landscapes of France/Impressions of France (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Hayward Gallery, London), although this current book goes well beyond it. (The exhibition had its own catalog.) Pissarro's book served as the catalog to last summer's exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I want to make clear that the present comparison does not consider either exhibition itself in any detail, both of which have been extensively reviewed. I approach the books as independent publications, because underlying the connections I have cited is something more profound. Both studies claim as their basis close looking and visual analysis of the works of art themselves, an exercise fundamental to art history and yet one that has sometimes been lost in the stratosphere of theoretical and contextual studies. House's book has far greater pretensions, claiming that it will finally make coherent sense of Impressionism after so many recent studies have, as he asserts, fragmented it. Although Pissarro's essay does not aim so high--indeed, focusing on just a piece of Impressionist history--it is nonetheless fraught with consequences for interpretation that are every bit the measure of his erstwhile teacher. After reading these two books, in fact, one might argue that Impressionist art history has come full circle. How useful the results are is a question I shall keep in mind.
The thesis of Impressionism: Paint and Politics is that Impressionism's development can be explained only by the changing politics of the 1870s: "it is no coincidence that their most experimental and controversial work coincided with the social and political repression of Marshal MacMahon's 'moral order' regime of the mid-1870s, or that the group effectively broke up with the installation of the 'opportunistic Republic' of the early 1880s" (p. 2). This thesis provides the framework for House's chapters, which otherwise rehearse familiar topics in Impressionism studies, such as "Sketch and Finished Painting"; "Modernising the Landscape:
The Environs of Paris"; "The Viewer of Modern Life"; "Making a Mark: The Impressionist Brushstroke." Disappointingly, they do not cohere.
It is certainly correct that in the late 1860s, a relaxation of the Salon criteria that paralleled an upsurge of liberal Republican sentiment under the Second Republic gave hope and a modest degree of access to the young painters who would become the Impressionists. These hopes were dashed when, two years after the Paris Commune (1871), Patrice, comte de Mac-Mahon came to power. Under his leadership, the director of fine arts, Philippe de Chennevieres, called for landscape paintings that would represent the eternal values of "la France profonde" as an antidote to a genre that had become contaminated by Realism. The regime lasted until 1877. The first Impressionist exhibition occurred in the middle of it. House's aim is to show that, given their diverging interests, the Impressionists remained united mainly because of Mac-Mahon's repressive policies.
The thesis aroused my skepticism from the start. For one thing, the vicissitudes of those four years of the Third Republic are a blip on …