The Joy of Life: The Idyllic in French Art, circa 1900

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The Joy of Life investigates the significance of the idyllic in French painting from the early 1890s to World War I, considering a fascinating series of pastoral, mythic, and utopian landscapes. Responding to rapid artistic and social shifts in this period, French artists shaped a dreamlike imagery of mythic community, individual fantasy, and sensual joie de vivre in the midst of mass society. This beautifully illustrated study focuses on three exemplary imaginings of idyll: Puvis de Chavannes's decoration for the Paris Hôtel de Ville, L'été, of 1891, Paul Signac's anarchist Au temps d'harmonie of 1895, and Henri Matisse's fauve Bonheur de vivre of 1905-6, each a monumental and ambitious work exhibited publicly in Paris.

Werth weaves together complex analyses of these paintings and others by Manet, Gauguin, Seurat, Cézanne, and less well known artists with a consideration of their critical reception, literary parallels, and the social and cultural milieu. She moves deftly from artistic concerns with tradition and avant-gardism, decoration and social art, composition and figuration to contemporary debates over human origins and social organization, collective consciousness and individual subjectivity, the fragmentation of history and anticipations of the future. Exploring the preoccupation of the turn-of-the-century imagination with time and memory, nationalism and colonialism, and competing constructions of national, racial, and gender identity, Werth analyzes the contributions of writers as diverse as Baudelaire, Durkheim, Bergson, Kropotkin, Morris, Nietzsche, Mallarmé, and Freud.

Successfully integrating art history and close visual analysis with literary and social history and psychoanalytic interpretation, The Joy of Life is a rich interdisciplinary work that makes a remarkable contribution to our understanding of modernism one hundred years ago.

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Editorial Reviews

John Elderfield
The path of modernism, we know, meandered through idyllic fields in the years around 1900. But not until Margaret Werth's innovative study has it been possible to see just how complex and fascinating the scenery was-how it opened onto aesthetic, cultural, social, and psychological themes that are at the very center of the modernist project. This is an important book for all who are interested in the creation of modern art.
Martha Ward
This is a brilliant book with scholarship of the highest quality. Werth manages to cover so much historical ground yet stay in close touch with the specificities of the paintings themselves. Her investigation of the 'idyll, ' a category encompassing a range of ideal, mythic, and fantasize states of individual and collective being, engages problems of narration and temporality, of spectatorship and identification, of figure and ground. Matisse, Signac, and Puvis have never been treated with such originality.
Richard Shiff
There have been many excellent studies of major modernists, such as Matisse, and more recently, numerous studies of their most important contemporaries, such as Puvis de Chavannes. Margaret Werth's Joy of Life links these diverse artists, emphasizing their common interest in notions of idyll and utopia and showing what their careers now teach us about pressing issues of race, gender, and national identity.
John Klein
In a highly original study, Margaret Werth examines the complex and contradictory meanings of idyllic pastoral imagery in modern French art. Were such harmonious visions a form of nostalgia, or prediction of a golden age to come? Timeless fantasy or socially conscious political declaration? In this well-researched and beautifully illustrated book, Werth offers a probing analysis of some of the most intriguing paintings of the fin-de-siècle period, when the dream of a utopian society was matched by the quest of the avant-garde painter for a self-sufficient expression, one of the major pursuits of twentieth-century art.
Patricia Mathews
The Joy of Life is a superb study of the idyllic in fin-de-siècle and prewar French art and culture, vividly conveying the complex and unstable fabric of artistic and social values evident in three images, by Puvis de Chavannes, Paul Signac, and Henri Matisse. By focusing closely on critical responses to each image from a broad range of speakers, Werth explores the dialogical field in which each work is produced and received. Her book contributes significantly to the current rethinking of the art of this period.
John O'Brian
Margaret Werth's impressively argued book is a major contribution to the study of French avant-garde painting. The book investigates the reinvention of the idyll as a subject for ambitious painting in the decades leading up to World War I. Werth demonstrates how the idyllic tradition as renovated by its most accomplished practitioners (she focuses in particular on Puvis de Chavannnes, Paul Signac, and Henri Matisse was accompanied by a cunning for strangeness-and why artists' representations of figures at leisure in the landscape generated deeply contradictory responses from viewers.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520221826
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 11/5/2002
  • Series: Ahmanson Murphy Fine Arts Imprint Series
  • Pages: 361
  • Product dimensions: 8.00 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Margaret Werth is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Delaware.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Modern Idyll

1. Idyll of the Living Dead: Puvis de Chavannes
2. "The Golden Age Is Not in the Past, It Is in the Future"
3. Le Bonheur de vivre

Selected Bibliography


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