Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 27, 2015
Marianne Mathieu and Dominique Lobstein, eds. Monet's “Impression, Sunrise”: The Biography of a Painting Exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 192 pp.; 85 color ills. Hardcover $50.00 (9780300210880)
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As part of the celebrations attending its eightieth anniversary, the Musée Marmottan Monet organized an exhibition of its namesake’s famous work Impression, soleil levant (Impression: Sunrise, 1872). The painting has long been considered the jewel in the crown of the museum’s collection, and the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue offer an opportunity to present new research on this well-studied picture. Readers familiar with the extensive literature may wonder whether there remains anything left to be said about this painting. In other words, what light can this new research shed on Monet’s Sunrise? What significance does the painting have for understanding both it and the larger histories of Impressionism? Moreover, what does the catalogue reveal about the current direction of Impressionist scholarship?

The abiding metaphor of the catalogue’s title should not be taken lightly in this regard, however strange the notion of a painting’s “biography.” Essays detail the picture’s origins and paternity, the inevitable quarrels over its name, and its eventual coming to rest in the Marmottan. Contributions from a range of predominantly French curators, including the exhibition’s organizers Dominique Lobstein and Marianne Mathieu, have much of interest to say on these matters. The focus is on solving a range of longstanding disputes in the scholarship on the painting, rather than providing a more expansive context in which to understand the picture. Individual chapters explore the influences on Monet’s conception of the painting; examine the port of Le Havre where Monet painted it; recount the reception of the picture when it was first exhibited; and, perhaps inevitably, provide a detailed chronology of the painting’s provenance and the circumstances of its entering into the museum’s collection.

Armed with meteorological and astronomical computations, as well as photographic and topographical records of the port, Donald Olson attempts to resolve the problem of the exact date on which and location from which Monet painted the picture—and thereby to end the dispute over whether the picture shows a sunrise or a sunset. In its time, it was listed and exhibited as both, and Monet himself seems to have had a less than perfect recollection of the events leading to its realization. Olson’s analysis suffers from a rigid scientism that assumes the work is a faithful copy of the scene that presented itself to the artist—an assumption that sits uneasily with the all-too-often ignored other variations Monet made of his motif at the same time, as well as with the broader aims that informed his Impressionism. In a related vein, a chapter by Ann-Marie Bergeret-Gourbin and Laurent Mamoeuvre revisits the question of the competing influence of French and English artists on Monet’s painting: it has long been a matter of dispute whether the Impressionist landscape painting was a specifically French phenomenon in origin, or owed a strong debt to the example of nineteenth-century English landscape painters. Here the French landscapist Eugène Boudin is given predominance over the claims of J. M. W. Turner and John Constable. The narrow scope of such source hunting precludes a wider view of the artistic objectives and reference points that informed Monet’s work. The possibility remains that he may have had a picture in mind, one that he almost certainly saw at the National Gallery while in London in 1870–71: Claude Lorrain’s Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (1648). If so, it seems likely he conceived his painting as a contemporary variation on Lorrain’s more timeless theme, thus taking as his guiding example Édouard Manet’s many contemporary variations on old master paintings in the 1860s.

The question of Monet’s modernity is a point taken up in Géraldine Lefebvre’s essay, which provides much welcome information about the industrialization of Le Havre. In her analysis, though, the specific form of Monet’s engagement with the new economic realities of the port, at once paradoxically both bold and hesitant, remains very much in the background; it forms the context against which the painting is set, rather than serving as an active part of the materials from which the picture was made. Monet’s choice of such a motif was one of the most distinctive features of the painting, and it was ultra-modern motifs such as these that were to take precedence in the formative moment of Monet’s painting in the 1870s. His abandonment toward the end of the decade of these motifs in favor of a “purer” conception of landscape painting purged of the signs of modernity marks a fundamental division within his oeuvre. Impression, soleil levant contains, bound up within itself, characteristic artistic concerns that anticipate the complex array of forms in which modernity manifested itself in his painting during this decade as well as the preoccupations that would eventually supplant and succeed them. The issue of Monet’s motifs goes to the heart of the initial discussions Monet had with colleagues over how the painting should be titled when originally exhibited. Monet’s conception of the motif, and what constituted the painting’s principal example of this, were questions that led to the choice of the vague title to describe a painting in which the ghostly presence of the port’s industry seems precariously poised on the verge of completely disintegrating within the thick, heavy atmosphere of the mist or fog enveloping it—so much so that the signs of the life of the port are often what goes unnoticed by the painting’s contemporary viewers.

However, the inevitable temptation of an exhibition such as this is to transform the painting into an icon and history into myth, and thereby occlude the more problematical aspects of the picture and its time. The catalogue does little to resist this. Lobstein’s account of the critical reception of Monet’s picture when first exhibited in 1874 is a case in point. The painting has come in time to occupy an important place in narratives of the history of modern painting, and is often credited with giving the name to the group of artists who would come to epitomize what Edmond Duranty, in a thirty-eight page pamphlet published during the second of the eight shows now collectively known as the Impressionist exhibitions, called “the new painting.” The critic and illustrator Louis Leroy famously used the phrasing of the work’s title to describe the allusive, loose, painterly treatment of Monet’s painting in a satirical review written for Le Charivari. There, he parodied not only the aspirations of the artists in the exhibition, but also the exasperation of conservative critics who bluntly regarded the work as, in Emile Cardon’s words, “quite simply the negation of the most elemental rules of drawing and painting” (Louis Leroy, “L’Exposition des Impressionnistes,” Le Charivari [April 25, 1874]; Emile Cardon, “Avant le Salon,” La Presse [April 28, 1874]).

But as studies of the reception of Impressionism have extensively shown, Cardon’s criticisms were by no means typical of the reception of Monet’s work, which was far less antagonistic than sometimes portrayed (see, for instance, Paul Tucker, “The First Exhibition in Context,” in Charles S. Moffett, ed., The New Painting: Impressionism 1874–1886, Geneva: Richard Burton SA, Publishers, 1986, 93–144). Lobstein’s focus on the more polemical criticism distorts the actual reception of the Impressionist artists. Despite some critics’ sharp tone, most were responsive, in varying degrees, to the Impressionists’ technical innovations and embrace of contemporary subjects, and were appreciative of Monet’s work. The unorthodox high viewpoint and vibrant suggestion of movement of Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines (1873–74), for example, drew special praise from respected critics like Ernest Chesneau. Despite his reservations about its lack of conventional finish and traditional draughtsmanship, he called the picture “a masterpiece” that “anticipated the painting of the future” (Ernest Chesneau, “A coté du Salon II. Le plein air: Exposition du boulevard des Capucines,” Paris-Journal [May 7, 1874]).

As many art historians since have pointed out, the term “impression” itself was of course not new. It had been used in philosophical investigations into the nature of perception in an attempt to gauge whether knowledge is principally determined by sensory impressions of the material world, or if our ideas instead condition the sensory impressions we have of the world. The term also had a more specific artistic use, referring to the type of freshly worked oil sketch that attracted a burgeoning market of collectors. Both Charles-François Daubigny and Manet had found the term applied to their painting many years before. Monet, in designating his painting un impression, was evidently aiming to attract this connoisseur audience.

While the term “impression” was not entirely new, its application to public exhibition pictures was. But little attention is paid to the question of how Monet’s painting corresponded to a growing acceptance that ambitious painting could be focused around qualities of improvisation, freer handling, and lightness of touch, along with attentiveness to the surface properties of things as given to the eye, or the relationship such artistic qualities might have to the modern motifs that increasingly preoccupied him at the time. Here the question of Impression’s relationship to sketch aesthetics and its broader politics of style still requires much work, with a need to avoid seeing this either simply as an outgrowth of romantic aesthetics or conflating it with academic sketching methods. Rather, it should be situated within the framework of new modes and technologies of visualization and visuality that came to characterize the later nineteenth century, and concomitantly of new forms of bourgeois subjectivity.

The history of Impressionism and, consequently, of Monet’s painting has a complex and crucial relationship to the visual culture of the time and, beyond that, to the broader historical processes of modernity and the ascendant bourgeoisie. What is needed is an understanding of how paintings like Impression, soleil levant, with its picturing of a world where surfaces were all and where ambiguity reigned, came to be such forceful expressions of the bourgeois experience of the period. But that would require mapping the relationship of Impressionist modes of visualization and motifs onto the broader ideological territory of modernity and an art history far less concerned with the narrow scholarly specialism and hagiography present in this catalogue.

Jon Kear
Lecturer, History of Art, School of the Arts, University of Kent

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