Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 3, 2010
Susan Alyson Stein and Asher Ethan Miller, eds. Masterpieces of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: The Annenberg Collection New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010. 352 pp.; 100 color ills.; 185 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300124026)
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As a measure of the critical changes in scholarship in the field of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism over the last two decades, the revised edition of the catalogue of the Annenberg Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that first appeared in 1989 is disappointing. If consulted in order to check the recent bibliography on one of the paintings, or to get a decent catalogue entry with revised dating and, in some cases, revised attribution and/or scientific examination, accompanied by an excellent color reproduction, the volume is satisfactory. Fifty-five entries on works by some eighteen artists is not a bad deal. With a few exceptions, however, newer scholarly analyses found in sources mentioned in the updated bibliographies rarely find their way into the texts of the catalogue entries themselves. The revising of footnotes is typically factual, with most updates referring to mentions of a given work in newer exhibition catalogues rather than to larger questions of interpretation.

No general introduction frames the collection within historiographies of American collecting or donations to the Met. It would be fascinating in light of the Met’s other major collection of Impressionist art to examine, for example, how Louisine Elder Havemeyer (suffragist, friend of Mary Cassatt) and Leonore Annenberg (briefly Ronald Reagan’s chief of protocol), two significant American women collectors with quite dissimilar political ideologies, could, under very different historical circumstances, nevertheless wind up with similarly blue-chip tastes in late nineteenth-century French art. Instead, immediately following the “Director’s Forward” and the “Preface and Acknowledgments,” the catalogue entries begin.

As is true in the older edition, the organization of the entries is roughly, though not strictly, chronological, as well as monographic, by artist. There is a comprehensive index at the back, but the addition of a short alphabetized list of artists with page numbers would facilitate repeated consultations. One definite improvement over the former edition is that the comparative illustrations are moved from endnotes at the back of the book to the texts of the essays themselves, which now have more conveniently placed notes at the end of each entry. As the editors point out in the “Preface and Acknowledgments,” the Annenberg Galleries “occupy a pivotal place within the New Galleries for Nineteenth-Century European Paintings and Sculpture” at the Met (xi). Hence the importance of this revised edition. Yet when they say that in bringing the original entries up to date they “have endeavored to hew as closely as possible to the original texts, while holding them up to the closest scrutiny” (xi), this reader wondered about the unexplained rationale of the first premise.

By my rough calculations, there are around eleven entries with virtually no updating. Approximately twenty are barely updated, with, say, a new note or two, but nothing else revised aside from the occasional minor tweak of rewording. One telling example, cat. 13 on Claude Monet’s Camille Monet on a Garden Bench (1873), states in the previous edition that a "lucid and sensitive appraisal has recently described the painting” in a particular way, footnoting a source from 1983. The revised edition incorporates exactly the same text, but excises “recently” (66). About fifteen entries are what I would call somewhat revised, including in the vicinity of three or more updated notes, although the texts and comparative images usually stay pretty much the same. There also are two substantially revised entries, which offer excellent examples of what the majority of the others might have been, and six entirely new ones.

In more than a few instances, fresher interpretive research could have been brought to bear in either texts or notes. Even when the individual picture being catalogued is not specifically mentioned in a recent source, the broader implications of new readings should be acknowledged more than they are. For example, the entry about one of Edouard Manet’s portraits of his wife, Suzanne Léenhoff, cat. 5 (1880), asserts that it is “generally accepted” that Léon Koëlla Léenhoff was Manet’s son (20), citing a source from 1983, but not taking into consideration more recent documentation and debates (Nancy Locke, Beth Archer Brombert) as to whether Léon may have in fact been the son of Manet’s father, Auguste. The same entry discusses Manet’s deployment of a veil over the face of his wife without consulting Marni Kessler’s recent book on the meanings of veils in the work of Manet and his contemporaries.

Cat. 8, on a pastel (1881) that is the first of Edgar Degas’s milliner series, includes in its bibliography key works by Hollis Clayson, Ruth Iskin, and Aruna D’Souza that have changed the way we think about this series in the years since the earlier Annenberg edition came out. Frustratingly, none of their arguments is mentioned in either the text (unchanged since 1989) or notes. As in the old edition, n. 4 cites “much of the new information presented in this entry” as coming from a source dating to 1988 (40).

Cat. 13, on Monet’s portrait of his wife on a garden bench (1873), sets forth a fine discussion of the enigmatic “inarticulateness that is at the very core of this composition” (60), as well as the artist’s engagement with fashion plates. Yet in touching upon issues of marital tension, there is no mention of Patricia Mainardi’s book on this topic in nineteenth-century French art. In the argument that Monet subsequently resolved the issue of illegible narrative by suppressing figures and shifting toward landscape, there is no reference to Anne Wagner’s influential article on precisely this issue. The comparison with Degas’s resistance to narrative in his Interior (1868–69, Philadelphia Museum of Art) could be updated with Susan Sidlauskas’s article on the latter.

Cat. 19, on Berthe Morisot’s Pink Dress (ca. 1870), which includes very good archival work on the sitter, could stand some revision so as to avoid the implication that this work by the only woman artist in the catalogue is derivative of related works by Manet and Alfred Stevens.

Both cat. 20, on Auguste Renoir’s Nini in the Garden (Nini Lopez) (1876), and cat. 23, on his Reclining Nude (1882), cry out for acknowledgment of, never mind engagement with, Tarmar Garb’s classic article on “Renoir and the Natural Woman,” which was published before the first edition of the Annenberg catalogue. The first note of the latter entry asserts that the “best discussion” of Renoir and the nude is “still” Julius Meier-Graefe’s of 1912, as though Garb’s essay, John House’s article on the Large Bathers, or Linda Nochlin’s chapter on Renoir in her recent book on bathers never existed.

Cat. 25, on Renoir’s Daughters of Catulle Mendès (1888), like cat. 1, on Camille Corot’s The Curious Little Girl (1860–64), could benefit from recent studies of representations of nineteenth-century childhood and adolescence, most especially in relation to social constructions of gender, including books by Anne Higonnet and Anna Green. In an anthology I edited, Greg Thomas drew arresting comparisons between Renoir’s fashionable girls and contemporary porcelain Jumeau dolls that, despite their pertinence to cat. 25, go unmentioned.

The catalogue entries on works by Paul Cézanne have some wonderful discussions about technique, but never recognize Richard Shiff’s seminal work on that artist’s touch. Even though Nina Athanassaglou-Kallmyer’s book on Cézanne and Provence appears in the bibliography, none of her arguments is acknowledged. Cat. 28 on one of the bathers admits that there is “much speculation” in Cézanne scholarship on the meaning of the series (150), but never remarks upon interpretations by T. J. Clark, Garb, or, most recently, D’Souza. There is likewise no engagement with Carol Armstrong’s or Mathew Simms’s recent arguments about the artist’s still-life watercolors in cat. 31 on one of the same.

Entries on pictures by Paul Gauguin bring up missionary dress and photography, but never address their colonial contexts. Given the scholarship that has appeared since the earlier Annenberg edition by, among others, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Griselda Pollock, and Stephen Eisenman, on colonialism, gender, and race in relation to Gauguin, one wonders why these topics (and authors) find no place in the text and notes of the revised edition. It would make sense, for example, to raise the question of androgyny and possible allusions to the Tahitian mahu in relation to cat. 35. A passing remark in cat. 33 on the “huge foot” of the foreground woman (174) could profit from Elizabeth Childs’s discussion of exactly this type of idiosyncratic sign of Gauguin’s “ethnographic grotesque.”

Other entries in which one misses more recent scholarship include cat. 47, on Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Woman Before a Mirror (1897), which discusses the painting’s prostitutional iconography, but never remarks on the now extensive literature on this larger topic by, among others, Charles Bernheimer, Clayson, Alain Corbin, Jill Harsin, Jann Matlock, and, in the case of Lautrec, Richard Thomson. The essay on one of Matisse’s odalisques from the Nice period, cat. 51, never mentions Orientalism.

On the other hand, there are many catalogue essays that still have excellent things to say or that are beautifully written, despite little or no updating. Cat. 15, for example, on another of Monet’s portraits of his wife in the garden at Argenteuil (1876), provides author Colin B. Bailey’s helpful diagram of the garden in question based on some fourteen paintings (76). It aptly points out, in light of the artist’s bourgeois aspirations, how his fashionably modern garden paintings are less “natural” than they might first appear to be (77). In cat. 30, Joseph J. Rishel eloquently describes Cézanne’s Seated Peasant (ca. 1892–96), with his “huge, ham-fisted hand,” as a “blunt life force, firmly and irrefutably planted in bovine melancholy” (160).

Several of the older entries have undergone admirable revision. Cat. 44, on Georges Seurat’s Gray Weather, Grande Jatte (ca. 1886–88), may retain virtually the same text, but its notes have been generously updated with newer publications, as have those of cat. 53 on Georges Braque’s Boats on the Beach at L’Estaque (1906). Cat. 50 revises the identification of the male figure in Edouard Vuillard’s Jos and Lucie Hessel in the Small Salon, Rue de Rivoli (ca. 1900–5). Rishel’s essay on Vuillard’s The Album (1895), cat. 49, should receive special commendation for its revisions, its nuanced interpretations of the elusiveness of Vuillard’s feminine domestic interiors (including what André Gide later called “the charm of anxiety and doubt”), and its articulate writing. The best of the revised pieces are cats. 41 and 43, on Vincent van Gogh’s Women Picking Olives (1889) and Bouquet of Flowers in a Vase (1890). These provide double entries by Rishel and Susan Alyson Stein, both the old essay and a completely new and expanded one featuring more recent findings.

The most successful essays are, perhaps not surprisingly, those that are completely new, especially cats. 37 and 39, by Stein on Van Gogh’s Shoes (1888) and Wheat Field with Cypresses (1889). The former ends with an exceedingly helpful summary of prevailing views of what the artist’s famous brogans might mean. Even though the celebrated exchange of Martin Heidegger, Meyer Schapiro, and Jacques Derrida could benefit from a more expanded explanation than it gets in a note, this is exactly the kind of synthesis of broader interpretations that would be welcome in other (and especially older) entries. The catalogue ends with a fascinating new entry (no. 55) by Stein on a watercolor of Mont Sainte-Victoire that the old edition attributed to Cézanne (1904). It is now convincingly reinterpreted as a posthumous copy after Cézanne by Emile Bernard (1936), whose son probably later tinkered with inscriptions on the back for monetary gain.

Impressive entries like these serve as a foil, revealing the catalogue as a whole to be a solid and frequently excellent, but often dated, resource, in which the majority of the research does not engage sufficiently with critical debates of the last two decades. Given how central Impressionist and Post-Impressionist studies continue to be in the field of nineteenth-century French art history, this represents a missed opportunity for an overview of recent scholarship.

Marilyn R. Brown
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Colorado at Boulder

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.