Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 14, 2011
Stephen Bann, Dean MacCannell, Sylvie Aubenas, and Dominique de Font-Réaulx The Lens of Impressionism: Photography and Painting Along the Normandy Coast, 1850–1874 Ed Carole McNamara Exh. cat. Manchester, VT and Ann Arbor: Hudson Hills Press in association with University of Michigan Museum of Art, 2009. 208 pp.; many color ills. Cloth $50.00 (9781555953256 )
Exhibition schedule: University of Michigan Museum of Art, October 10-2009–January 3, 2010; Dallas Museum of Art, February 21–May 23, 2010

This beautifully illustrated catalogue, companion to the 2009–10 exhibition curated by Carole McNamara at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (Ann Arbor), brings together several eminent scholars of nineteenth-century art and photography to consider questions of influence. We have often heard about the Dutch and English sources that helped spur the nineteenth-century French vogue for painting seascapes, but what about the influence of photography? The Lens of Impressionism explores the idea that photography presented new pictorial modes for representing the Normandy view. Its five authors pursue implications and explications of how painters were inspired to adopt some of those modes for their own purposes: McNamara’s introductory essay establishes the exhibition’s premise; Stephen Bann contributes an essay exploring the specificities of prints, paintings, and photographs as distinct pictorial modes; Dean MacCannell provides a social history of the intertwined interests of art and tourism in Normandy; Sylvie Aubenas has written a history of the principal photographers active in the region; and Dominique Font-Réaulx considers the development of an art culture in Normandy that led to new relationships between viewers and the views.

In her comparison of paintings, prints, and photographs of Normandy, McNamara has assembled an impressive checklist of works. Readers will probably be familiar with many of the painters represented, such as Bonington, Boudin, Courbet, Isabey, Manet and Monet, and may know the most celebrated photographers Gustave Le Gray and Henri Le Secq, but it is a pleasant surprise to encounter the works of lesser-known photographers like Alphonse Davanne, Eugène Colliau, and the brothers Hippolyte and Cyrus Macaire. While the essays pivot on the reciprocal sallies between photography, printmaking, and painting, the emphasis here is on photography.

McNamara begins the first essay with the familiar narrative of photography as it was conscripted into service in the studio—by the 1860s, photographs were widely used by painters as aides memoire, though few painters were willing to admit this was part of their work practice. Beyond this conspicuous utilitarian role, McNamara submits that photographs were an inspiration to painters in that they “imbued a fugitive experience with aesthetic significance” (20). Yet this came as a challenge as well, for painters realized that if they were to "continue to create works that had relevance to modern audiences, then the expression of “‘momentaneity’ would become an increasingly important consideration of their own work” (20). In the case of the Impressionists in Normandy, McNamara notes that their practice of plein air painting already cultivated spontaneity, but photography was an “alternate vision” that further encouraged painters like Monet to “embark on their individual and particularized way of seeing and portraying the land and sea around them” (29).

One thing makes this exhibition and book plausible: Le Gray’s magnificent seascapes, photographed between 1855 and 1858. Without them, one would be hard-pressed to claim that photography in Normandy deserves much special attention. Never mind that some of Le Gray’s images feature only Normandy skies, with the sea half of the exposure having been made on the Mediterranean, thanks to one of the photographer’s brilliant printing innovations. Facing the limited spectral sensitivity of early photography, he arrived at the novel solution of combining separately exposed negatives of sea and sky to create a light-corrected—if not strictly true—image. While the small world of art photography was never entirely comfortable with the implications of this “combination printing,” as it gave the lie to photography’s supposed “truthfulness,” Le Gray’s seascapes were greeted internationally as revelations of the artfulness possible in photography. He sold them by the hundreds, and they still have the power to astonish, so it is fitting that McNamara and her other authors make the most of them. No one can be sure how well painters knew Le Gray’s photographs, but McNamara, Aubenas, and Font-Réaulx are comfortable with the claim that it was Le Gray who established the pure, non-narrative form of seascape that would become a favorite subject for Courbet and Monet.

Bann works against the grain of the other essays in stopping short of privileging photography as the influence on avant-garde painting of the 1860s and 1870s. His interest is in the ways in which specific media—watercolor, oils, steel engraving, lithography, and, yes, photography—could intersect with the specific conditions of the Normandy coast, which is to say he is concerned with the triangulated relationship of artist, medium, and the representation of land, sea, sky, light, space, and horizon. And while his essay tracks the compelling ways in which painting, printmaking, and photography could shape one another, Bann warns against seeing any pictorial mode as having developed within “a single vector of influence” (58). Like his co-authors, Bann pays ample respect to Le Gray, but he ultimately insists upon “a threshold beyond which the art of both Monet and Courbet transcends any source in printmaking and popular imagery” (58).

MacCannell, a historian of environmental design and landscape architecture, provides some social-historical context for the nineteenth-century transformation of Normandy into a destination for artists and tourists. He notes that the Impressionists’ imagery of tourists portrays them as a surprisingly preoccupied lot, until one considers that they were at the seashore for the sake of health, and, furthermore, that these touristic forebears were most likely seeking tranquil solace from the recent upheavals of the Commune and the Franco-Prussian war.

Aubenas contributes a nicely straightforward essay on the history of photography in Normandy, to which she brings a characteristically high level of scholarship. Here the reader will find all the reliable information about the principal photographers working in Normandy: the Macaire brothers, a handful of amateur calotypists, LeSecq, Colliau, Davanne, and, of course, Le Gray.

It is more difficult to pin down Font-Réaulx’s charge, though in certain ways her essay picks up where MacCannell leaves off, providing some social history of the art world as it developed in Normandy’s major cities and towns. To MacCannell’s reading of the brooding beachgoers, Font-Réaulx counters with the simple fact that as modern travel turned villages into resorts the sea became domesticated—a backdrop for the fashion imperative of seeing and being seen. Still, that awe-inspiring distance between the raging ocean and the modern bourgeois could yet be recuperated through painting—and photography, if mostly in the outstanding case of Le Gray.

For all of its admirable qualities, one could nevertheless fault The Lens of Impressionism for being a little behind the curve. McNamara writes in her introduction that although there is no shortage of scholarship on Impressionism, “it may be necessary to challenge our assumptions about the roots of the style” (15). Perhaps so, but her contention here—that the Impressionist painters in Normandy adopted motifs and pictorial strategies from photography—has been a commonplace of the literature for years, having been raised by scholars over fifty years ago, notably by Aaron Scharf and Van Deren Coke (Aaron Scharf, Art and Photography, London: Allen Lane, 1968; and Van Deren Coke, The Painter and the Photograph, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1964). Indeed, that argument is old enough to have children and grandchildren—here one notes that Kirk Varnedoe’s pair of influential Art in America articles, “The Artifice of Candor: Impressionism and Photography Revisited” and “The Ideology of Time: Degas and Photography,” turned thirty this year (Kirk Varnedoe, “The Artifice of Candor: Impressionism and Photography Revisited,” Art in America 68, no. 1 [January 1980]: 66–78; and “The Ideology of Time: Degas and Photography” Art in America 68, no. 6 [Summer 1980]: 96–110). Varnedoe’s position was a spirited and persuasive rebuttal to the entire assumption—virtually an article of faith by 1980—that the Impressionists found their inspiration for blur, fragmented croppings, and instantaneity in the photography of the 1860s and 1870s. Whatever you may think of Varnedoe’s argument, The Lens of Impressionism might have benefited from some reflection on the history of this discussion, if only to provide more specificity for its own aims and conclusions.

Some of this criticism might be deflected by noting that museums do the crucial work of bringing ideas to audiences unfamiliar with the scholarly discourse—not every reader wants a recitation of the history of an idea, and some might even thank the authors for this omission. More bothersome is the redundancy that occurs within the book itself, with Font-Réaulx, McNamara, and Aubenas’s essays going over some of the same ground. But for those interested in these striking images and their histories, or curious about the points of contact between photography, painting, and prints in nineteenth-century France, The Lens of Impressionism has much in store.

Laurie Dahlberg
Associate Professor, Program in Art History, Bard College