Immersed in the Impressionists

I had big plans for April – I was going to focus on Art with a capital A.  I was going to read about art, watch movies about art, go to art museums and galleries, arrange flowers artistically, sketch; I was going to make jewelry, garden art, and of course a few textiles.

I did go to four art museums when I was in San Diego, and a lot of small galleries.  I was very inspired and I’m sure I would have turned out great works of art as soon as I got home, except that I got a little sidetracked.

One of the books I took with me on my trip was Dancing for Degas, by Kathryn Wagner.  It is a fictional account of Degas’ career, told through the eyes of one of his ballerina subjects.   Quotes on the  cover compared it to Girl with a Pearl Earring, so I had high hopes that this book would draw me in and set me down in 1870s Paris.  Maybe with the added bonus of detailed information on the ballet costumes.

The short introduction was wonderful – a glowing description of being on stage, in a way that combined dance, drawing, and the art of language.

And then I read the rest of the book.

I hoped for a book about the creation of art – painting, music, and dance.  What I got was just another book about a girl who is willing to give up everything for the attention of some man who could care less about her.  There was very little character development, just an endless series of observations along the lines of “Today Monsieur Degas looked at me as if he really saw me,” and “Maybe if I wear a green dress, Monsieur Degas will notice me.”  It could have been set anywhere, with any two people, because its theme was just Girl Wants Attention from Guy.

But!  In the middle of all this unrequited love, there was a short section describing the hardships of being besieged in Paris in the winter!  What?

It turns out that there was a Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1871, followed by the Fourth French Revolution in 1871.  This was news to me!

Like most people, I think of the Impressionists as being the Art Movement of light and gaiety and good times –  maybe a little controversial in their time, but nothing really stressful.  Just artists living up to their bohemian stereotypes.

Wouldn’t you just love to jump into this painting?
Renoir: The Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1881, Phillips Collection, Washington


But I should know a little more, because I have an art degree and took three years of art history. I have been a historic re-enactor and I watch all kinds of history shows.  I have been to Paris!  How did I miss a whole war?  I started reaching for more books to find out how this war affected all these artists I thought I knew so much about.

Basically what happened was, the French elected Napoleon’s nephew to be President of the Second Republic (1848), but after a few years he decided to instead make himself Emperor Napoleon III of the Second Empire (1852).  To impress the world with France and its culture, he had huge areas of the old medieval Paris torn down to make way for the new broad avenues we associate with Paris today.  Wanting to boost the reputations of France and of his own ruling family, he spent huge amounts of money on the arts.  Eventually he picked a fight with Prussia (never a good idea).  The Prussians quickly moved into France and besieged Paris (1870).

The siege of Paris was over in January of 1871, but the troubles weren’t.  The disaster of the war caused the citizens to rise up.  Various troop skirmishes and retreats caused a vacuum of power in Paris itself, and its citizens formed the Commune government in March of 1871.  Strife continued for two months, with the regular French army finally controlling all of Paris, and executing tens of thousands of those who were accused of supporting the Commune, many of them without even a trial.  There were 2 million people in Paris at the time, and about 80,000 of them were killed in fighting or executions.

Artists experienced the Franco-Prussian war in different ways.  Manet closed his studio and moved his pictures out of the path of bombardment.  He was a staff officer in the National Guard, where his commanding officer was Ernest Meissonier, a famous artist of the Classicist school that Manet was rejecting.  Manet, already notorious for Le déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia, felt slighted because  Meissonier never even acknowledged him as a painter.  Manet’s military duties were limited, but he did carry dispatches during a battle.¹

Degas was in the National Guard and involved in the defense of Paris.  Another young artist, Bazille, was killed in a battle.  Since his career was cut short, his work is not well-known today.

Cézanne left for the Marseilles area, and was declared a draft dodger, but the war ended before he could get in too much trouble over it.  He had been painting dark scenes, even violent scenes of rape and murder(!), but turned to lighter, more colorful landscapes in Marseilles.

Monet took his family and sat out the war in London, where he painted lots of beautiful pictures of the Thames from his hotel room.  Pissarro had been born in Saint Thomas which was in the Danish West Indies at the time, so he was Danish by citizenship and therefore not eligible to fight, so he also went to London.  (The art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, also in London during the war, met Monet and Pissarro there.)

When Pissarro returned home, he discovered that troops had occupied his home and ruined over 1500 of his paintings!  It was 20 years of work.  I think I would have given up entirely, but he started over and painted for about 30 more years.

Mary Cassatt also left during the period of the war, and returned home to the US.  However, she lost some paintings in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  She returned to Europe in late 1871.

I cannot find any information on what Berthe Morisot did during the war, but I am still looking!

I can’t find out what Renoir did during the war either, but during the Commune, he was out painting by the river Seine. Communards thought he was a spy, and were about to throw him in the river, when he was recognized by someone he had protected earlier.

When I look at the work of these artists, I don’t really see any evidence of their experiences of strife and deprivation.  I don’t know that I need to.  Paul Johnson in his book Art: A New History,  says, “The Impressionists had given up the struggle for realism and retreated into the quest for sensuous beauty, had plunged, as it were, into the lily pond.”²  He says that we have paid too much attention to the Impressionists over the last 50 years, obscuring the work of other talented artists of the time, the Social Realists, who painted the modern world with the hope of improving it.  But later on he says, “But the First World War and its horrors made many [artists] feel that the realities of life were so spectacularly unpleasant that an artist perhaps serves society better by averting his gaze and seeking beauty for consolation.” ³  Which sounds to me like the Impressionists had a good point after all.

It’s something that I think about often, the consolation of art. Art may not be the best way to deal with the shocking realities of our world, but for me, it is a good way.

I didn’t like Dancing with Degas very much as a novel, but I am grateful for the spark of curiosity it set off, and the path it led me down as I learned more about art and artists.

¹ This is from the 1910 book Manet and the French Impressionists by Theodore Duret. Duret knew Manet personally, and this book is pretty interesting, although character recognition problems in the scanned book make some pages unreadable.

²Johnson, Paul, Art: A New History, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003, p. 608

³Ibid., p. 616