Time was of the essence: on Impressionism versus Realism

In the battle with tradition, Impressionism’s “triumph” was not a foregone conclusion.

Although Jean-François Raffaëlli’s Absinthe Drinkers (1881) depicted down-and-out alcoholics, when it was put on show in the sixth Impressionist exhibition that same year, critics realised it was no Impressionist depiction of suburban sociability, but add
Although Jean-François Raffaëlli’s Absinthe Drinkers (1881) depicted down-and-out alcoholics, when it was put on show in the sixth Impressionist exhibition that same year, critics realised it was no Impressionist depiction of suburban sociability, but add

Michael Fried observes that Realism in the Western painting tradition has long involved “a tacit or implicit illusion of the passage of time, of sheer duration”. Absorbed in their labours, the peasants of Millet and Courbet seem to exclude the viewer. Indifferent to our presence as spectators, oblivious to the existence of the urban world of art whence we come, they go about the rituals of life with slow, unselfconscious determination. Such paintings “compel conviction”, Marnin Young explains in Realism in the Age of Impressionism, because they appear “uncontrived, natural, real”. In the mid-19th century such images articulated a thrilling new verisimilitude, which it was painting’s special mission to reveal.

Young has taken up Fried’s challenge of sustained critical attention to the Realist tradition. However, he explores artists of a later generation than Millet and Courbet. From Jules Bastien-Lepage to the young James Ensor, he is interested in a moment of crisis in the late 1870s and early 1880s when Realism confronted Manet and Impressionism and the powerful new allure of instantaneity. How to maintain slow time and deep absorption in its minutiae as privileged realms of painting? How to resist the compelling illusion, fostered now by a Monet or Renoir, that what we see on canvas has been captured in a moment, can be understood by the spectator just as quickly, and as quickly evanesces?

Young traces the confrontation between the two modes. Bastien-Lepage’s Hay Making of 1877 shows two peasants, one asleep on the ground, the other slack-jawed and suspended in torpor as she sits up in the minutes before they head back to afternoon toil. It is a moment suspended, and in that way like Impressionism, but at the same time elemental. As Young shows, the veracity of the painting was immediately admired by critics, Zola among them, but they had trouble situating it. Was it truly modern or, borrowing superficial Impressionist attributes, merely a throwback to an earlier, rural Realism now past its prime? Could Realism hold its own against the brash New Painting? It could not. As Young remarks, “Impressionism owned the future.”

The present volume derives from Young’s doctoral dissertation for the University of California, Berkeley, under the supervision of T.J. Clark. Part of its fascination resides in watching the author reconcile or, rather, find the points of contact and mutual illumination, in the examples of two such different scholars as Fried, with his exacting analysis of temporality and the phenomenon of looking, and Clark, a leading social historian of 19th-century French art, with his scrupulous attention to social, political and economic constraints on its production. What wider social forces were at work in the era of industrial and urban expansion, speeding trains, and the synchronisation of time in the interests of capitalist production? The passage of time was a very different thing in 1880 than it had been only 30 years before, Young shows, and it is here he locates a fundamental change in perception, and the moment as well when a still inventive Realism none the less failed to adapt.

His book contributes to a growing literature on the intersection of Impressionism and its avant-garde successors, long the overwhelming focus of art-historical attention, with the perceived “losers” in the battle for critical attention Realism, Naturalism and academicism. Scholars like Richard Thomson, in his Art of the Actual (2012), have addressed similar issues, and the inadequacy of a “triumph of the avant-garde” model for understanding Modern art is by now old news. Young’s considerable achievement is to demonstrate “the extent to which the contested means of representation in the period were largely temporal in nature”. Time was of the essence, and it was political. Thus, impressively, Young allies Fried with Clark.

Young proposes five essay-length case studies of individual Realist paintings shown in Paris between 1878 and 1882. He wants to know how they were perceived by the first audience to which they were addressed. What distinctions were drawn between Realist and Impressionist imagery and strategies of representation? How did shifting notions of time and duration influence their readings? Here, Young brings to bear a remarkable knowledge of the contemporary critical literature. No exhibition review, however slight, is without interest to him in throwing light on these issues. Some authors are well known, others utterly forgotten, but cumulatively they sketch a lively and nuanced debate on the Realist project and its alternatives at a moment when the conclusion was not yet foregone.

He begins with the Bastien-Lepage, a linchpin of later Realism. More surprising is his analysis of Gustave Caillebotte’s Decorative Triptych (1879), three scenes of riparian pleasures that show the artist attempting to wed Impressionism to Realism and bravely failing. Alfred-Philippe Roll’s Strike of the Miners (1880), now destroyed, is the most conventionally political of the images. Young’s discussion of Jean-François Raffaëlli’s Absinthe Drinkers (1881) returns that sinister picture to the prominence it deserves. Finally, he turns to Ensor’s early Russian Music (1881), the very “image of time in a bourgeois interior” but no less provocative for its surface domesticity.

Young’s essays are challenging, often turning on subtle theoretical points, but they introduce a young scholar of rare penetration who has many original things to say about the stakes in painting around 1880.

by Christopher Riopelle

Source: The Art Newspaper

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