Edited by Caroline Shields

Delmonico Books/Prestel. 243 pages. £39.99. ISBN 978-3-7913-5845-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

In her introduction to this book Caroline Shields refers to “the popular present-day understanding of a movement chiefly concerned with sunny landscapes, bourgeois leisure, and recreation”. And it’s true that calendars, postcards, prints, and posters often tend to focus primarily on haystacks, fields, gardens, gently-flowing rivers, and generally non-urban scenes. Life is seen as pleasant and unhurried. I often think that Renoir’s wonderful Luncheon of the Boating Party looms large in many people’s imaginations regarding activities among the Impressionists. All those attractive and talented men and women gathered together in a congenial bohemian setting with the sun shining and plenty of food and wine on hand. Who wouldn’t want to be part of it?

Life, we know, isn’t like that, on the whole. There is a world out there in which most of us have to earn a living, sometimes in not very pleasant situations. And our environment is more often than not one of urban hustle and bustle than of rural relaxation and ease. So, do we blame the artists for selectively portraying a world we’d like to live in but can’t, and in doing so ignoring what was really all around them? Shouldn’t they have painted pictures of factories and steam trains instead of fields and horse-drawn carriages?

The fact is, of course, that they did turn their attention to the changes that were taking place in towns and cities as industrialisation rolled in. Monet may have produced many paintings which emphasised the countryside, but he also found the steam in the railway sheds fascinating. And Pissarro may have pictured workers on the land, but he also incorporated factory chimneys into his canvases. The artists would have had to be perversely blind to their surroundings to be unaware of the obvious alterations to the appearance of the places where they lived, and the ways in which even rural areas were affected.

Shields, setting out her arguments in favour of Impressionist painters being aware of their rapidly changing circumstances, rightly points to the ways in which French society quickly modernised in the late-nineteenth century. It was especially noticeable in Paris, where Baron Haussman’s developments had transformed how the city functioned and how parts of it looked. The Paris we know today has its basis in what Haussman did. There were other advances, such as the increased spread of the railway system, as the country recovered from the shock of defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and the savage repression of the Paris Commune in 1871.

It seems amazing that just twenty years after these events Paris was becoming known as the City of Light, full of artists and writers and with a vibrant café culture. Life seemed good for the bourgeoisie, and the painters caught it on canvas. It wasn’t the whole story, and beneath the glittering surface poverty and prostitution flourished. There were artists who attempted to portray the other side of the picture that showed pretty ladies and top-hatted men strolling along the boulevards. I doubt that they were often noticed then in bourgeois circles, and it’s unusual even now for their work to attract attention. People like their Impressionist canvases to be full of light, not social darkness.

This is not the place to provide yet another account of the birth of Impressionism, but it is useful to stress that, as Shields says, “Industrial themes featured in the art of this nascent group from the start”. Monet’s 1875, The Coalmen, “tackles industrial themes more directly than any other Impressionist painting”, according to Shields, and it is certainly striking in the way that it captures the repetitive and back-breaking work required to unload coal from a barge. The general industrial setting can be seen in the factory chimneys in the background of this picture.

The full title of the exhibition that this book accompanied was Impressionism in the Age of Industry: Monet, Pissarro and more, and in some ways the artists grouped under “more” raise interesting questions about the definition of “Impressionism”. It often strikes me that it has become almost a catch-all term that can be used to include any number of late-nineteenth century painters working outside the official guide-lines of the Salon. In some cases they often kept one foot in the Salon.

The changes in the production and marketing of art had led to the rise of dealers who opened their own galleries and promoted the work of new artists. The Salon still had importance in term of official acknowledgement and possible sales, which is why painters continued to submit their work to it, even if they had claims to be attempting to break new ground. Manet was viewed as a key influence on the Impressionists, but never exhibited with them and was to be seen regularly in the surroundings of the Salon. Monet submitted paintings for consideration by its committee.

I mention these points because, leaving aside Monet and Pissarro, it’s often the lesser-known artists who offer an opportunity to see how modern Paris had impinged on their imaginations. Whether or not they were, strictly speaking, Impressionists, I’ll leave to the pedants to decide. I’m just happy to be able to see and read about reproductions of paintings by people whose work I admire. I’m thinking of James Tissot, Jean Béraud, and Jean François-Raffaëlli, among others. Tissot and Béraud tended to paint pictures that some would say represented the sunny side of life in Paris. Elegant women, fashionable shops and cafés, and suggestions of consumerism.  Raffaëlli did also paint pictures of ragpickers, though they were not products of industrialisation and had been around for years. Daumier had earlier drawn them and Baudelaire written about them.

To be fair, there are meanings that can be read into, for example, Tissot’s The Shop Girl which, Shields suggests, “portrays a world in which everything – and everyone – can be bought and sold”. It was a fact that young women in certain occupations – millinery, shop work, laundering – were sometimes driven to prostitution in order to supplement their low wages. It’s implied that the man looking in the window of the shop shown in the painting is weighing up the girls as much as any of the goods on display.

As for laundresses, the nature of their work, hot and repetitious, frequently caused them to discard certain items of clothing. Their bare arms and shoulders could then be seen by male passers-by who were presumably stimulated into thinking that the women might be easily available. Edgar Degas painted more than one picture of laundresses in a state of partial-undress. His The Laundress is a good example of what can be taken as evidence of the erotic nature of his portrayal of working-class women. There is an intriguing excerpt from a letter Degas wrote from New Orleans to Tissot: “Everything is beautiful in this world of people. But one Parisian laundry girl, with bare arms, is worth it all for such a pronounced Parisian as I”. Was he just expressing a longing to be back on familiar ground, or was there an undercurrent of sexuality in the fact that he specifically referred to a “laundry girl, with bare arms?”                

A painter who is now less well-known than others in and around the Impressionist movement was Armand Guillanmin. His Le Pont-Marie, Quai Sully neatly mixes elements of a period of transition as modern methods took over. Dredging equipment can clearly be seen, but at the same time the line of horses waiting, presumably, to take away the dirt dug out of the river bed, reminds us that age-old modes of transportation were still in use. Shields thinks that Guillanmin’s work, some of which was in the first Impressionist exhibition, “is less recognised today than many of his peers, perhaps because his work was so overwhelmingly devoted to industrial themes during the early years of Impressionism”. She adds that he had “working-class origins”. Thinking back, it occurs to me that I‘ve seen only a limited number of Guillanmin’s paintings during my visits to galleries in France, though I recall an exhibition at the Musee Daubigny in Auvers in 2009 which had him alongside Norbert Goenneutte and Eugène Mürer. A postcard I retained has Guillanmin’s La Seine à Rouen which has a crane in the foreground and a factory chimney in the background. It looks like a rainy day, but the artist has managed to invest the scene with colour.

It is work by Monet and Pissarro that dominates. Monet’s paintings of men unloading coal, and the effects created by clouds of steam In the Gare St Lazarre railway station, are highly relevant in the context of the exhibition, the latter in particular. They are recognisably Impressionist pictures. But  the style of the coalmen canvas may not be familiar to viewers with a notion of Monet as a creator of pleasant pictures of water lilies, haystacks, and fields of flowers. It’s perhaps too stark to be considered for a poster or postcard.

As for Pissarro, I wonder how much of his work is known to viewers in Britain? Again, it may be that his paintings of peasants in fields, or of a woman selling chestnuts,  of Poplars, Grey Weather, Éragny, and another of the river near Pontoise,  may be thought of as typical. But look closely at the latter and notice the factory chimneys. And pay prolonged attention to The Pont Boieldieu, Rouen, and observe the crane and what looks like a small steamer moored alongside the quay, the activity on the bridge, and several factory chimneys in the distance. Pissarro, rather than railing against the spread of industrialisation, appeared to welcome it. His canvases absorbed the factories into the landscapes. They were, possibly, relatively small scale operations and might offer steady jobs to low-paid rural workers who were often affected by the ups and downs of seasonal employment.

There are welcome surprises in the works displayed. Maximilien Luce’s Man Washing shows a sparsely furnished room in a house that clearly lacks a bathroom. His The Steelworks, and a painting of men mending a road in Paris, plus another of a gang of pile-drivers, are direct representations of working-class life. And there’s the striking Factory in the Moonlight, which is evocative of an almost-eerie atmosphere, and nears photography in its overall effect. The same can be said, though even more so, of Henri Riviére’s illustrations of men working on the Eiffel Tower. It looks horribly dangerous and probably was. There would be few concerns about health and safety.

There are photographs, some of railway trains and stations, of crowds clustered around the Eiffel Tower, of Parisian street scenes, and of workers (mainly women) leaving the Lumière Brothers factory. You can see that they’re anxious to get out even before the doorman has managed to open the large doors properly. I was amused and it reminded me of similar scenes almost seventy years ago when I was a young boy in a cotton mill (another female-intensive occupation) and joined in the rush for the doors when the end-of-the-day hooter sounded.

Who bought the pictures which showed factories as well as fields? It’s perhaps difficult to pin down exactly who purchased what unless one spends time exploring the provenances of paintings. Shields names various individual, and goes on to add that “several other major Impressionist collectors acquired work with industrial themes”. She then concludes, “the people who supported the Impressionists were members of the bourgeoisie, wealthy industrialists, entrepeneurs, and professionals”, who had prospered under the Third Republic and had different interests and tastes than the aristocracy. The buying power of the aristocrats had declined as the nouveau riche entered the art market. They “had no reason to avoid scenes of modernity. They took equal interest in scenes of bourgeois leisure and of industry; they were not instinctively resistant to smokestacks poking into their landscapes, or railroad tracks slicing across it”.

I have to say that I have doubts about this. I suspect that the collectors of new work were in a minority and many bourgeois gentlemen and their ladies would prefer a comfortable rural scene, preferably without hungry workers, to one showing barges and smoky chimneys, or stripped-to-the-waist labourers digging up a road. I could be wrong, and perhaps I’m taking Britain as a guide to the tastes of the bourgeoisie. They mostly evinced little interest in Impressionism, at least until much later, and largely favoured Pre-Raphaelite paintings or historical scenes. Galleries in industrial centres such as Birmingham and Manchester have large collections of Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and the like, which were often donated by the wealthy merchants and factory-owners who had originally bought them.

Impressionism in the Age of Industry has much to recommend it and raises some interesting questions about how art captured the changes in French society in the late-nineteenth century. I  don’t think it matters too much that the definition of Impressionism has been stretched a little, and easily takes in Neo-Impressionism and more , because whatever the group relationship, if any, of the artists concerned, their work has been judiciously chosen to represent a theme, not a movement, and is always worthy of attention.  The book was published in conjunction with the exhibition, Impressionism in the Age of Industry: Monet, Pissarro and more at the Art Gallery of Ontario, February 16, 2019, to May 5, 2019.