Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 14, 2017
Marnin Young Realism in the Age of Impressionism: Painting and the Politics of Time New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 272 pp.; 60 color ills.; 75 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300208320)

In Realism in the Age of Impressionism: Painting and the Politics of Time, Marnin Young provides an original, compelling argument about how transformations in the perception of temporality fueled a reengagement with Realist painting in France during the late 1870s and 1880s. He charts a range of ways in which time was newly conceptualized in this period, including the move from pre-modern natural cycles to the measured clock of the modern workday; the invention of photographic technologies that could capture movement; the 1884 Prime Meridian Conference that divided world time into twenty-four zones; and political debates surrounding labor, time, and wages. Put together, Young claims, these developments led a group of artists to explore the relation between representational practices and what he calls the “politics” of time: changes in the understanding of temporality altered the style, content, and spectatorship of painting. In particular, Young explores the “temporal bilingualism” that he believes typified a cultural moment in which “experienced time persist[ed] side-by-side with measured time” (8).

Key to Young’s account of painting and the “politics of time” is his reconfiguration of the relationship between the Realist and Impressionist artistic movements. Whereas most scholars who discuss time relative to this period in French art concentrate on the rapidity implied in Impressionist painting, Young considers how Realist representational modes, characterized by slow time (as exemplified in works by Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet), persisted during these same years. Focusing on a group of artists that he terms “later Realists,” such as Jules Bastien-Lepage, Gustave Caillebotte, Alfred-Philippe Roll, Jean-François Raffaëlli, and James Ensor, Young examines how each of these painters resisted, questioned, or engaged with modernity’s emphasis on speed and immediacy. He argues that the style and content of “later Realist” paintings revived the earlier Realist concern with the durational qualities of painterly techniques, subject matter, and beholding an artwork. Young’s category of “later Realism” is useful as it allows us both to see the paintings he discusses as a related group and to place the artists who made them in a history of French art from which they previously were marginalized.

Young begins and ends his book by analyzing the reception of Courbet’s The Wave (1870). At the Exposition Universelle of 1878, many critics were troubled by Courbet’s radical political identity and his painting’s uncertain pictorial temporality: many thought his rendering was too solid and slow for an image of a wave on the brink of crashing. By contrast, when the work was exhibited at the Courbet retrospective at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1882, it was tied to an aesthetic of instantaneity, and the artist was increasingly distanced from his political roots. The changing reception of Courbet over these four years allows Young to establish a lineage and context for the “later Realists.” He explains that these artists’ works evince various, and often conflicting, strategies for asserting the representational and political values of slow and fast time. In essence, they revived some of Courbet’s Realist principles in an age of increasing speed and immediacy that witnessed the rise of Impressionist painting, a capitalist economy, and instantaneous photography, among other apparently linked phenomena.

Dedicating each chapter to one artist and a specific painting, Young proceeds chronologically through a series of artworks exhibited at the Paris Salon or the Impressionist exhibitions between 1878 and 1882. The first chapter examines Bastien-Lepage’s Haymaking (1878) in relation to cultural debates about rural work-time and wage labor. The second chapter relates the contradictory temporalities of Caillebotte’s Decorative Triptych (1879) to the rise of “instantaneous” photography, Impressionist painting, and private-property ownership (where a flexible commodities market challenged long-term investment in land). Through an analysis of work-time reform and major labor strikes in France, chapter 3 considers Roll’s Strike of the Miners (1880). The fourth chapter offers a thoughtful analysis of Raffaëlli’s The Absinthe Drinkers (1881), exploring the close ties among class identity, alcohol, absorption, and temporality in the Parisian banlieue on the tenth anniversary of the Paris Commune. The fifth chapter focuses on Ensor’s bourgeois interiors, particularly Russian Music (1882), which Young argues exemplifies a “possible synthesis of Realism and Impressionism” while also offering a “profound critique of both Realist nostalgia for duration and the Impressionist illusion of instantaneity” (13).

Young’s chosen examples, and his approach to them, bring two key elements of his argument to the fore: first, his insistence on situating artistic representations of time within their socio-historical context; second, his reliance on theories of absorption, theatricality, and beholding in evaluating the merits and meanings of what he deems “ambitious” paintings. Young’s argument and methodology, that is, fuse T. J. Clark’s and Michael Fried’s approaches to nineteenth-century French painting—methods that, until recently, were often seen as distinct if not incompatible. The integration of both approaches is evident throughout. For example, Young notes that his analysis of Bastien-Lepage’s Haymakers “will necessarily situate the work within a broader understanding of the artist’s antitheatricality, but it also responds directly to the evaluation of the work in its own time” (18). Indeed, one of the most important efforts undertaken by this book is its grappling with the tensions between Clark’s social history of art and Fried’s more formalist approach. It is worth noting that Clark supervised this book during its early stages as a PhD thesis, and that Fried reviewed the manuscript before publication (Young gives his thanks to both scholars in the acknowledgments). Young’s integration of these approaches into his own original argument is impressive, and the work can thus be understood as the product of three voices in dialogue.

Yet while Realism in the Age of Impressionism certainly benefits from the influence of, in Young’s words, “the most ambitious historical accounts of modern European painting” (11), it would have been stronger had he more clearly distinguished his approach from those of his mentors. Because the book is so closely indebted to Fried and Clark, moreover, Young ties its fate to readers’ often already cemented attitudes toward those scholars’ work. Those who dispute or dismiss Fried’s categories and terminology—which Young adopts wholesale—may find sections of the book unconvincing, while others may marvel at Young’s seamless integration of his own unique investigations of particular artists into Fried’s longer history of modern art. Similarly, Young’s book may be praised by enthusiasts and disliked by detractors of Clark’s work. Young’s novel contributions could have been highlighted more by clarifying how his approach fits into, or challenges, the various other voices in the rich historiography of nineteenth-century French Realism. How, for example, does Young’s analysis square with the models discussed by Richard Shiff (“Art History and the Nineteenth Century: Realism and Resistance,” The Art Bulletin 70, no.1 (1988), 25–48)?

A great pleasure of Realism in the Age of Impressionism is the in-depth analyses of artworks that are familiar, yet have received little focused attention due to the awkward place many of them occupy in the history of art—not quite clearly Realist or Impressionist or Naturalist. Furthermore, Young’s use of art criticism makes this a pleasurable read. Peppered throughout the text, it gives the book an enjoyable rhythm and pacing. Young’s study of the differing temporal experiences of the bourgeoisie and working classes, and the thorough investigation of work-time legislation, lend the book a political tone (and one that is particularly pertinent given recent debates regarding the lack of regulated work-time in the current Uber era). This book will be especially useful for teaching as it helps explain the complexities of categorization, the importance of art criticism, the opposing temporalities of different classes, and the close ties between Realism, Impressionism, Naturalism, and photography.

Gender politics, however, are only addressed in a cursory way (despite the use of “she” and “he” interspersed throughout when addressing the historical “beholder”). While a study of gender is not necessarily needed in every chapter, the limited engagement with feminist art histories leaves some gaps in the analysis of the female worker in Bastien-Lepage’s Haymakers and the investigations of gendered experiences of time in relation to Caillebotte and Ensor. While Young thoughtfully investigates the different ways the bourgeoisie and working-classes experienced time, he only briefly addresses how gender affected temporality. A more engaged analysis of gender would have strengthened his study of domestic spaces and contributed to his overall argument; an intersectional approach to the specificities of a classed, raced, and gendered temporality would have offered a new contribution to histories of the period.

Young does a commendable job of employing the rich and often contradictory primary sources to form his argument (and his is one of the most convincing regarding Realism in French art), yet perhaps all histories of Realism are plagued to a certain extent by the inherent contradictions of historical understandings. For example, I was not completely satisfied with Young’s conclusion that “late Realism” ended with the 1882 Courbet retrospective and two major scientific feats that challenged human vision (Eadweard Muybridge’s instantaneous photographs from November 1881 and Jules Janssen’s implementation of photography in astronomical study in 1882); it seems too precise. Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s description of realism as a “garden weed” that “stubbornly resist[s] elimination” seems a little more apt (Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Realism Revisted,” in Self and History: A Tribute to Linda Nochlin, ed., Aruna D’Souza, London: Thames and Hudson, 2001, 71). From an interdisciplinary perspective, realism is a messier beast than the one presented here. Vanessa Schwartz’s Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (Berkley: University of California Press, 1998), Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007), Peter Brooks’s Realist Vision (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), and my monograph, The Face of Medicine: Visualising Medical Masculinities in Late Nineteenth-Century Paris (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), for example, provide different approaches to, and understandings of, realism, Realism, and realisms. Yet Young’s argument, firmly positioned within the discipline of art history and its historiographies and methodologies, is smart, engaging, and sound. It is a fantastic book that will make a lasting mark not only on our understandings of Realism in the age of Impressionism, but also on the central role of temporality in the history of modern art.

Mary Hunter
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill University