Art historians’ approach to French Impressionism has changed significantly in recent years. While a decade ago Rewald’s History of Impressionism, which emphasizes Impressionist painters’ stylistic innovations, was unchallenged, the literature on Impressionism has now become a kind of ideological battlefield, in which more attention is paid to the subject matter of the paintings, and to the social and moral issues raised by it, than to their style. Recently, politically charged discussions that address the Impressionists’ unequal treatment of men and women and the exclusion of modern industry and labor from their pictures have tended to crowd out the stylistic analysis favored by Rewald and his followers. In a new work illustrating this trend, Robert L. Herbert dissociates himself from formalists whose preoccupation with the stylistic features of Impressionist painting has, in Herbert’s view, left the history out of art history; his aim is to restore Impressionist paintings “to their sociocultural context.”However, his arguments are not, finally, persuasive.
In attempting to place Impressionist painting in its proper historical context, Herbert has redrawn the traditional boundaries of Impressionism. Limiting himself to the two decades between 1860 and 1880, he assembles under the Impressionist banner what can only be described as a somewhat eccentric grouping of painters. Cezanne, Pisarro, and Sisley are almost entirely ignored, largely because their paintings do not suit Herbert’s emphasis on themes of urban life and suburban leisure, while Manet, Degas, and Caillebotte—who paint scenes of urban life but whom many would hardly characterize as Impressionists—dominate the first half of the book. Although this new description of Impressionist painting provides a more unified conception of nineteenth-century French painting by grouping quite disparate modernist painters together and emphasizing their common concerns rather than their stylistic differences, it also forces Herbert to overlook some of the most important genres of Impressionist painting—portraiture, pure landscape, and still-life painting.
Moreover, the rationale for Herbert’s emphasis on the social and political realities that Impressionist paintings can be said to communicate rather than on their style is finally undermined by what even Herbert concedes was the failure of Impressionist painters to serve as particularly conscientious illustrators of their social milieu. They left much ordinary experience—work and poverty, for example—out of their paintings, and what they did put in was transformed by a style that had only an indirect relationship to the social realities of the world they depicted. Not only were their pictures inventions rather than photographs, they were inventions in which style to some degree disrupted description. Their paintings in effect have two levels of “subject”: what is represented and how it is represented, and no art historian can afford to emphasize one at the expense of the other.