The Women of Impressionism

The Immense Gaze

The women of Impressionism.


Whether or not Paris was the “capital of the 19th century,” as it has sometimes been called, it really was the capital of 19th-century art. That’s something to ponder, because at the start of the century, its preeminence might not have been easily predicted. Just before the Revolution, the one figure we still recognize as belonging among the great masters is Chardin, essentially an outlier: a largely self-taught artist who gained the esteem of the French Academy with paintings that ignored its promotion of a narrative and literary art focused on heroic public action over the depiction of everyday domestic life and its mute objects. We also still remember the florid talents of his contemporaries Fragonard, Boucher, and Greuze, but they offer little hint of art’s future. The postrevolutionary scene was dominated by David, a massive force, to be sure, but one whose neoclassical pictorial rhetoric mainly served to initiate an academic rigor that would soon almost strangle French painting. What subsequently made Paris a lightning rod for artistic energy was, in fact, a sequence of rebellions against David’s neoclassical strictures—first Romantic, then Realist, and finally Impressionist.

The traveling exhibition “Women Artists in Paris, 1850–1900,” curated by Laurence Madeline, helps recover much of this rebellious energy, and it does even more to redress the still-ongoing undervaluation of the work of women artists in this period of incredible richness and dynamism. On view at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, through September 3—concluding a national tour, organized by the American Federation of Arts, that also included the Denver Art Museum and the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky—it also offers a fresh look at an artistic situation of 19th-century Paris, a look that does not presuppose that all the judgments that have been handed down over the intervening century or so must be taken at face value.

Imagine an exhibition simply titled “Art in Paris, 1850–1900.” Its structure, centering on Impressionism, seems already predetermined. It would start with the Realism, so-called, of Courbet, follow with the great transitional figures of Manet and Degas, encompass all the major and secondary protagonists of Impressionism (Pissarro, Renoir, and the rest), and then set off all the brilliant sparks that uneasily coexist under the label Post-Impressionism (Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat) before concluding, not with the art of a new generation, but with at least a foreshadowing of the astonishing late achievements of Cézanne and Monet as they lived on into the 20th century. Perhaps all this would be accompanied by a sort of counterpoint of academic resistance (Cabanel? Gérôme?—but would there be any aesthetic basis for the choice?) and Symbolism (Redon), but the main line of development would be a foregone conclusion.

I expected nothing less than to see a sort of distaff version of this story in “Women Artists in Paris.” After all, today the best-known of the women artists active in Paris in the second half of the 19th century are both central figures in Impressionism: Berthe Morisot and her American colleague Mary Cassatt—artists who still have not received their due as the major talents they were. And both are well represented here, as are the less-engaging talents of Marie Bracquemond, who participated, like Morisot and Cassatt, in the Impressionist exhibitions, and Eva Gonzalès, a student of Manet’s who did not exhibit with the group but is nonetheless usually considered an Impressionist herself. Instead, what I found was a depiction of these female Impressionists as part of a much more varied ecosystem of artists attempting to find a way forward amid shifting and often contradictory currents.

Straight academic classicism is little in evidence in this exhibition, but many shades of realism and naturalism are here, as well as various types of Symbolism. Even more striking than the stylistic heterogeneity of the exhibition, though perhaps partly accounting for it, is the fact that this exhibition of art in Paris is not primarily an exhibition of French art. For that matter, although all of the artists included here spent some time in Paris, many of the works were painted elsewhere, showing the influence of a stay in the City of Light on artists who eventually went elsewhere—usually the country of their birth. The exhibition includes more artists from the Nordic countries than from France; all in all, and thanks to the numerous US contingent as well as a sprinkling of Germans, Austrians, Russians, Ukrainians, and Brits, the foreigners outnumbered the French by more than two and a half to one. A few of them, like Cassatt, settled in Paris permanently, but many eventually brought what they found there home to Philadelphia, San Francisco, Helsinki, Christiania (today’s Oslo), or wherever else they’d come from, thereby contributing to the worldwide influence of Paris as an art center. Like New York from the time of the Abstract Expressionists until now, or London since the 1990s (though we’ll have to wait and see what changes Brexit may bring), 19th-century Paris thrived as a place where artists from all over could find a niche.

Why so many of the women artists who made their way to Paris in the late 19th century came from Scandinavia is an interesting question that an exhibition like this can’t answer; but it’s worth pointing out that this was a period when Nordic culture suddenly went from being somewhat peripheral to Europe as a whole to a position of centrality. Just consider that the great triumvirate of late-19th-century theater—Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov—consists of a Norwegian and a Swedish playwright alongside the Russian. Given that these names include the authors of A Doll’s House and Miss Julie, one might conclude that an unsettling of traditional relations between men and women was essential to what the critic Georg Brandes called the “modern breakthrough” in Nordic culture. Brandes himself, a towering intellectual of the time, translated John Stuart Mill’s essay “The Subjection of Women” into Danish in 1869, the very year it was published in English, playing his own role in this breakthrough. So, too, did his female contemporaries—Anna Ancher, Harriet Backer, Hanna Pauli, Helene Schjerfbeck, and Ellen Thesleff—who began arriving in Paris in the 1870s. All took from Paris in terms of aesthetic theory or pictorial technique, but one suspects that, like Brandes, they also offered just as much in return by way of challenging stereotypes that were still more readily accepted in Paris, perhaps, than in the Scandinavian capitals. As Vibeke Waallann Hansen suggests in the catalog, the bonds between artists from the various Nordic countries were more likely to be forged “in foreign art metropoles such as Munich, Berlin, and Paris” than at home; it’s unlikely that those art centers were unmarked in turn by their presence.

Not that French artists were overshadowed by their foreign colleagues. No female painter made a bigger mark in her day than the Frenchwoman Rosa Bonheur, whose most famous painting, The Horse Fair (1852–55), will be familiar to visitors to New York’s Metropolitan Museum, where it hangs alongside works by Courbet. Given her renown, it’s peculiar that in Williamstown she is represented by a single work, albeit an impressive (and impressively large) one, Plowing in Nivernais. Painted in 1850—a remake of an earlier version now in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris—it represents the show’s chronological starting point, though because the exhibition is thematically organized with sections on topics like “The Lives of Women,” “Fashioning an Image,” “Picturing Childhood,” and so on, we only encounter it about halfway through.

Bonheur was one of the notable characters of her day. Her father was a painter as well as a follower of Saint-Simonian socialism, and he encouraged her love of art. Her astonishingly vivid and monumental depictions of animals brought her great success while she was still in her 20s. She hobnobbed with royalty, bought herself a château, and was the first woman artist to be awarded the grand-croix of the Légion d’Honneur. An open nonconformist, Bonheur wore men’s clothing and lived with a female partner. (Her later life partner and eventual heir, Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, an American painter, is also in the exhibition.) Bonheur inverted gender stereotypes without quite contesting them, personifying an ideal of masculine genius in ways that other women painters would not. Likewise, the realism of her paintings lacks the critical edge of Courbet’s. Her depiction of peasant life in Plowing in Nivernais lends her workaday subject the drama and monumentality of grand-scale history painting, not unlike what Courbet did with a country funeral in A Burial at Ornans (1849–50). But by making the animals into exemplars of heroic force and vitality, Bonheur smuggles a kind of idealization into the painting that defuses its surface realism. And by shrouding the cattle drivers and plowman in shadow, turning them into mere staffage, she asserts what Courbet contested: that ordinary people are inappropriate protagonists for great painting.

Bonheur was not the only one to use a surface realism for essentially conservative ends, though none could match her for energy and technique. The Swiss-born Englishwoman Lady Elizabeth Butler, represented here by two paintings from the 1870s, was a specialist in military scenes. What she lacked in experience of the battlefield she made up for by a valiant effort in research. One painting, we read, involved “studying the anatomy of horses at the circus, purchasing a field to serve as the setting, requesting the British army to organize military exercises so she could observe smoke patterns, and even going so far as to ask specific troops to charge her on horseback.” At a time before photography took on the journalistic role it would soon play, Butler’s conscientious efforts had considerable value. But the backstory of her preparation is more inspiring than the paintings themselves, and her soldiers are mere stereotypes in a costume drama. Today, when documentary modes have once again come into favor in art—though no longer typically in the form of painting—works like Butler’s should serve as a reminder that accuracy of detail may not compensate for banality of form.

Having the means to buy a piece of land to serve as a setting for a painting is extreme, but it points to something I wish the catalog writers had explored. Reading through the biographies of the artists, one gets the impression that an unusual proportion of these women came from wealthy, even aristocratic families—more than would be the case for a similar sample of their male colleagues, who mostly emerged from more modest backgrounds. Many of these women artists were able to use their class privileges to offset the gender inequities they faced. But it was probably never very clear in advance what chance they had of persisting. A family with a name to protect could present more formidable challenges than an obscure one. The teacher of the well-to-do Berthe Morisot and her older sister Edma warned their mother that she might find their potential success as artists a problem: “In your upper bourgeois milieu, that will be a revolution, almost, I should say, a catastrophe.” In fact, the Morisot parents did not stand in their daughters’ way, but Edma’s marriage signaled the end of her artistic career. Cassatt’s father, apprised of his daughter’s plan to paint in Paris, told her, “I would almost rather see you dead.” In the end, he and the whole family followed her there.

Cassatt’s and Morisot’s tenacity paid off. For me, the exhibition’s high point is Cassatt’s Portrait of an Elderly Lady in a Bonnet: Red Background (circa 1887). Here, accuracy of observation is keyed to human presence more than to the reconstruction of details, and the seemingly nebulous red background is actually artfully structured as a kind of inconspicuously enveloping and sustaining support for the ramrod-straight figure. The evident informality of Cassatt’s brushwork, its sweeping and suggestive rather than definitive character—leaving the surface seemingly unfinished yet all the more manifest for that in the lower left corner—provides a telling counterpoint to the intelligent formality of the subject’s bearing to give the sense of a person known and encountered on multiple levels. Nearly as remarkable is Cassatt’s Autumn, Portrait of Lydia Cassatt (1880), in which the artist’s sister, sitting with a distant expression on a park bench, is enclosed in a blanket of intricately interwoven abstract marks in fall colors that seem to evoke the pattern of her thought as much as the chill of the season.

Morisot is lyrical where Cassatt is analytical; her color is clearer and less rich. Her paintings tend toward a balancing of color, even a kind of monochromy. One could construct an extensive point-by-point comparison between Cassatt’s Autumn and Morisot’s vernal park-bench portrait Young Girl in a Park (1888–93). But for all the differences, what they share is a systematic use of the painting’s facture—mostly free-flowing in Morisot’s case, more restless and agitated with Cassatt—to articulate the canvas as a space of nearness, to express at once both the distinction and the continuity between a painting’s subject and the surrounding space, the hidden unity of figure and background. Morisot’s Woman at Her Toilette (1875–80) wraps its subject—her back turned, showing a bare shoulder—in a quiet storm of feathery nuances of white and gray tinged with all sorts of pink and blue notes, encompassing both her dress and what is presumably a wallpaper background. Here, every perception seems fleeting and intangible—except for the bright silvery dot of an earring that seems to hold the whole painting together despite its centrifugal undertow.

It makes sense, in the end, that among the artists at the forefront of Impressionism would be two women. To a great extent, the whole effort of Impressionists—their rejection of the blaring rhetoric of historical painting and of the heroism of its mythic protagonists, and their concomitant change of focus to everyday life, the domestic sphere, and the spaces of leisure and entertainment—was, as Chardin’s heirs, to shift the primary subject matter of art toward matters that had previously been looked down upon as trivial and feminine.

Degas, Monet, and the other male Impressionists did so for reasons that might be called ideological; their female counterparts added to these principled motives a different sense of identification. There can be a somewhat voyeuristic bent to the male Impressionists’ observation of daily life that is absent from the women’s, as Griselda Pollock wrote in her groundbreaking 1998 monograph on Cassatt—but the same is true of Morisot: “the represented space within the painting registers the space from which the painting was made, a space that included the artist, looking, painting, thinking, organizing, interacting with her models.” This inclusive space was something new in the history of art.

If the exhibition really came to a close in 1900, as its title says, then the discovery of this new recursive space of “looking, painting, thinking, organizing, interacting” by the Impressionists would really be its climax; the denouement would be the incorporation of this discovery by a number of strong but less radical artists who followed in their footsteps—here, paintings like Ernesta (Child With Nurse) (1894) by the American Cecilia Beaux, with its abrupt cropping, or the Norwegian Harriet Backer’s Evening, Interior (1890), with its strange dialogue between figure and shadow, could be cited. Elizabeth Nourse, another American, seems to quote the famously awkward splayed-leg sprawl of the child in Cassatt’s Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878), which is not in this show, in her own A Mother (1888), albeit enveloped in a more Whistler-esque monotone and with an added dose of sentiment.

However, the show also offers several works from the first decade of the 20th century, including some by an artist who might be designated as the true successor of Cassatt and Morisot: the extraordinary German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. She, too, came from a well-to-do family, but—in contrast to Cassatt and Morisot—you’d never know it from looking at her paintings. She seems to have perceived people in an utterly creaturely way; Rainer Maria Rilke, in the “Requiem for a Friend” he wrote in her memory after her early death, at 31, spoke of a gaze that was “immense” and “unpossessive, of such true poverty.”

The figures in her Nursing Mother in Front of Birch Forest (1905) are massive, reminding us of how such a pair may form, for a moment, a kind of self-enclosed world of their own. Here, everything is raw, ungainly, and seemingly more connected to tactile perceptions than visual ones. Modersohn-Becker cares nothing for the infinitely refined sensations that beguiled Morisot in her Woman at Her Toilette, or the inner distance bordering on ennui that’s conveyed in Cassatt’s Autumn. Yet she is the heir to those two artists—and the progenitor, in turn, of an artist like Alice Neel—in her ability to envision the figure of the nursing mother as expressing its subjective singularity not through a separation from its context as a quasi-sculptural protrusion engaged in heroic action, but as the iterative locus of an expression that pervades the painting as a whole. This is the painted modernity that would never have been experienced with such poignance and pungency had it not been for the women who made their way to Paris in the late 19th century.

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