Realism in the Age of Impressionism: Painting and the Politics of Time

Realism in the Age of Impressionism: Painting and the Politics of Time

by Marnin Young


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The late 1870s and early 1880s were watershed years in the history of French painting. As outgoing economic and social structures were being replaced by a capitalist, measured time, Impressionist artists sought to create works that could be perceived in an instant, capturing the sensations of rapidly transforming modern life. Yet a generation of artists pushed back against these changes, spearheading a short-lived revival of the Realist practices that had dominated at mid-century and advocating slowness in practice, subject matter, and beholding. In this illuminating book, Marnin Young looks closely at five works by Jules Bastien-Lepage, Gustave Caillebotte, Alfred-Philippe Roll, Jean-François Raffaëlli, and James Ensor, artists who shared a concern with painting and temporality that is all but forgotten today, having been eclipsed by the ideals of Impressionism. Young’s highly original study situates later Realism for the first time within the larger social, political, and economic framework and argues for its centrality in understanding the development of modern art. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300208320
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 08/04/2015
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 10.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Marnin Young is associate professor of art history at Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University. 

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Realism in the Age of Impressionism

Painting and the Politics of Time

By Marnin Young


Copyright © 2015 Mamin Young
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-21285-3


1878 / The Motionless Look of a Painting

Jules Bastien-Lepage, Haymaking

Ainsi vu d'en haut, le paysage tout entier avait l'air immobile comme une peinture. — Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Jules Bastien-Lepage first showed Haymaking (Les Foins) at the Paris Salon of 1878 (fig. 5). An immediate popular success, the representation of a fixedly absorbed peasant woman seated in a field of hay quickly came to mark the emergence of a style of art called Naturalism. For a generation of artists working in Third Republic France and within the larger bourgeois culture of the late nineteenth century, the canvas offered a model for the seemingly exact rendering of the visible world — notably that of the peasant — which combined, as Richard Thomson puts it, "scientific accuracy" with "moral truth." In 1883 a critic could claim that "everyone today paints so much like M. Bastien-Lepage that M. Bastien-Lepage appears to paint like everyone else." At the time of its initial appearance, however, the painting seemed less like a template for future production and more like a revival of midcentury Realism. "Since Courbet," Jules-Antoine Castagnary declared in his enthusiastic review, "no one has hit such a true and striking note."

Although keen to place the painter at the forefront of his own Naturalist school, Emile Zola likewise turned back to Realism in order to orient his understanding of Bastien-Lepage's accomplishment. "Of course, we recognize the grandson of Courbet and of Millet," he wrote in 1879, "but the influence of the Impressionists is also plain to see. More surprising, however, is that Bastien-Lepage comes out of Cabanel's studio." With its academic basis, Les Foins appeared to overcome the perceived weaknesses of Impressionism, which for Zola frequently failed to transform artistic "impressions" or "sensations" into something equal to the ambition and significance of the great art of the past: "His superiority over the impressionists can be summed up in his ability to realize his impressions." Here the novelist calls to mind Castagnary's own definition of the new style — "They are impressionists in the sense that they render not a landscape but the sensation produced by a landscape" — and he shared the conviction that such painting offered only limited possibilities. "While there are subjects," Castagnary declared, "that lend themselves to the condition of the impression, to the appearance of a sketch, there are others, in much greater number, that demand a clear expression, that require a precise execution." Following this very logic, Bastien-Lepage had combined "plein air," "science," and "observation" to produce a "masterpiece." That Zola and Castagnary elected to call this Naturalism rather than Realism results largely from the peculiarities of their own critical vocabulary, but their choice seems nonetheless decisive in the wider understanding of a major shift in French painting after 1878.

Within a few years, as his popularity and influence grew, Bastien-Lepage increasingly came to stand for a certain false usurpation of the values of progressive French art. Joris-Karl Huysmans, still a follower of Zola when he reviewed the Salon of 1880, declared the painter a fraud: "a sly trickster who fakes naturalism in order to please." Josephin Peladan barely gave him that much credit: "Bastien Lepage has neither ideas, nor style, nor a personal point of view; his vision is ordinary and myopic, his vision is banal, he sticks to reality; there's art here but of the smallest kind." For Camille Pissarro "art" did not enter into it; he showed "skill and nothing more." Nevertheless, Pissarro's own determination to paint the peasant, not least the peasant woman at rest, only intensified in response to the perceived Naturalist co-option of the subject, suggesting a complex, dialectical relation between the two that has yet fully to be explained (fig. 6). Following his death in 1884, Bastien-Lepage's standing among progressive artists continued to sink; his popular success, however, was sealed when the French state acquired Les Foins for 25,000 francs at the posthumous auction of his work.

Even in 1878 critics were sharply split on the merits of Bastien-Lepage's painting. The controversy has been broadly construed as a contest over the legacy and meaning of Realism — understood as "the representation of objects visible and tangible" as opposed to the latent "idealism" of Impressionism — an issue that in many ways came to determine the critical reaction to the artist's work as a whole. Yet, this argument circled around a very specific aspect of Les Foins: the representation of the central, seated woman. Was she a humble, earthy, hard-working peasant, the critics asked, or was she a repugnant, slack-jawed beast? What was the relation, that is, between her "brutish loutishness," as William James later put it, and her "infinite unawakenedness"? Realism and the representation of the peasant thus related one to the other, but critics had difficulty establishing their connection. What did it mean to paint the peasant under the sign of Realism, to paint the peasant after the deaths of Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet? What was the broader meaning, the "truth," of the peasant at this same moment? These were questions, aesthetically and ideologically dense questions, whose answers came to determine much European artistic production in the years that followed.

The critical division surrounding Les Foins ultimately turned, this chapter argues, on the effectiveness of Bastien-Lepage's mobilization of a key pictorial device inherited from midcentury Realism: the depiction of figures in a state of absorption. The account that follows 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. The peasant woman in the middle of the canvas was indeed understood to be so entranced in her own sensations — "absorbed by some vague thought," as Paul Mantz put it — that she was, as it were, oblivious to the beholder's presence in front of the canvas. As one later account noted, "She is totally unconscious of her surroundings." As much if not more than any detail of rendering or genealogy of production, this was the source of the picture's much-discussed Realism. Those hostile to the painting, however, could only see the motif as staged; the female figure appears merely to be acting. Paul de Saint-Victor thought she showed "pretention" in the pose and "affectation" on the face, terms closely related to this drama critic's negative conception of pictorial "theater." To borrow a closely related charge, it was as if the painting showed a "Parisian worker playing at rustic naturalism."

An equally significant aspect of Bastien-Lepage's attempted revival of the Realist tradition was the implied temporality of Les Foins. Its admirers viewed the picture in 1878 as a scene of slow, enduring, extended time. It offered an obvious depiction of rest or inaction, but more importantly the female figure's absorption is, for the beholder, effectively endless. This pictorial time in turn corresponded closely to the perceived nature of the peasant experience of the time of work, especially as distinguished from other, increasingly dominant, work-times in modernity. For the painting's intended audience, then, the truth of the peasant turned on her motionless look. As the artist's greatest defender, Louis de Fourcaud repeatedly put it, she was "immobilized by some blissful stupor." Absorption and the ideology of time in the representation of the peasant structure the painting's twin ambitions and its mixed reception. What follows is an attempt to bring these strands together in a way that makes sense of the meaning of Les Foins and its foundational status in the transformation of Realism into Naturalism.


Although Bastien-Lepage claimed a rural origin akin to that of Courbet or Millet — he was born in November 1848 in the small town of Damvillers, Meuse, where his father owned and worked substantial land holdings — his full-blown interest in the naturalistic depiction of peasant life sprang into life rather late. Trained in the studio of Alexandre Cabanel before serving in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the painter gained some modest recognition for a portrait of his grandfather at the Salon of 1874. The next year, his Angels Appearing to the Shepherds placed a promising second in the competition for the Prix de Rome and later appeared with Courbet's The Wave at the Exposition Universelle in 1878. Still hoping to establish himself in the classical tradition, Bastien-Lepage offered a version of Priam at the Feet of Achilles for the concours in 1876. Even less compelling than the previous year's submission, the painting failed to establish him in the academy. He fled his Parisian studio in the Impasse du Maine, the biographical accounts tell us, and returned to his home in northeastern France, replacing the classicizing norms in which he had been educated with the study of nature.

Despite this crisp narrative of academic rejection, the origins of Les Foins can, in fact, be located in a large series of sketches the artist produced beginning in about 1875. Dominique Lobstein has divided these various preparatory works into two categories. The earliest version of the composition can be found in a small sketch on paper, signed and dated 1875, in the Musee d'Orsay, now called Woman Seated in the Grass near a Sleeping Man (fig. 7). Here a female figure sits in the foreground, chin resting on hand, looking to her left, turned away from the picture plane; a resting man turns his back to the viewer. In the right foreground sits a double-sided hand-rake, a tool that marks the specific form of agricultural labor called haymaking. A small oil painting of 1876, now in the Museum Mesdag, exemplifies the second set of preparatory works (fig. 8). The whole composition has been reconfigured in this group. The man has been turned around so that his head is now on the left side of the picture; he lies on his back rather than his side, and his right knee is up in the air. A hat clearly covers his face. Although still seated at an angle from the picture plane, the woman now looks not to her side, but straight in front of her, hands folded in her lap.

As the sketches developed, Bastien-Lepage prioritized the close observation of the figures in natural light and their ultimate placement within an observed landscape. The model for the female figure in Les Foins has been identified as Marie-Adele Robert, a cousin of the artist, who was fifteen in 1876 when she sat for him in the family garden in Damvillers. The artist's grandfather modeled the man. A landscape in the Musee Marmottan likewise shows how Bastien-Lepage rendered the background fields, sometime that same summer, "en plein air" (fig. 9). The dimensions of this small oil sketch exactly match the Mesdag painting indicating their parallel creation. The artist's procedure must have consisted then of inserting the posed figures within the directly observed sun-lit fields, of synthesizing and expanding these two pictures. Nothing suggests, however, that the painter ever posed his cousin in a field. For all the emphasis his defenders placed on his adaptation of the new open-air painting, he was very much an academically trained artist, working systematically toward a polished result. For many critics in the years that followed this was more or less obvious.

By the summer of 1877, the final composition of Les Foins had taken form. Consistent with the second series of sketches, the peasant woman in the large canvas has been oriented toward the picture plane and looks straight ahead, turned only slightly away from the beholder. Her arms rest limply on her legs, as the man behind her lies on his back, a hat covering his bearded face. The landscape in the background has been filled in with haystacks, trees, and distant hills, and the horizon line on which these details fall has been situated remarkably high in the picture. A similarly high horizon can be found in Gustave Caillebotte's Floor-Scrapers, a work Bastien-Lepage almost certainly saw at the second Impressionist exhibit of 1876 (see fig. 35). At the same time, the picture's horizontal plane of projection — what David Summers would call the "optical plane" — appears not to be consistently perpendicular to the picture plane. A close look at the depiction of space shows a slight but evident slope down toward the right foreground. The man's body and legs most obviously bend along this decline, but the metal pot at his feet continues the slant in that direction. The ground-plane at the feet of the peasant woman is thus lower than that behind her head and perhaps lower still than the horizon, dramatically emphasizing the viewpoint hovering above the scene. At the same time, the painstaking rendering of foreground details — of the nails and dirt on the shoes, of the petals and stems of flowers — positions an alternate position just at the level of the ground. Indeed, the picture can be said to invite two distinctive modes of viewing: at a distance, looking down at the fields; and close up, looking directly at the peasant woman's face and body. As a caricature in Le Journal amusant suggested, it can seem as if the peasant woman is, in fact, balancing the man on her shoulders (fig. 10).

The unusual square format of the large painting serves to dramatize these oscillating pictorial effects. As Anthea Callen has argued, partly in relation to Les Foins, the "symmetry of the square entails a visual insistence on the framing edges, drawing the spectator's attention to the flat surface of the painting," whereas a rectangular canvas would have more readily "dissolved into the imaged scene in the pictorial world behind the picture plane." The painter's decision to expand the initial horizontal format — a seam runs along the upper part of the canvas — in any case places the work outside certain norms of naturalistic peasant painting. The square format seems moreover to have pleased him, as he used it again repeatedly.

The head of the young peasant woman in Les Foins, so important to later critical discussions, has been situated very close to the middle of the canvas, thus accentuating its significance. Bastien-Lepage rendered the surface features of this pivot of the composition with layered paint and finely graded tones, but he also undertook to present the psychological condition of the figure as if frozen in self-absorption: her eyes glazed over, her mouth ajar. The rather apparent tension between her fixed and finished appearance and the plein air rendering of the surrounding landscape seems to have been recognized early on. An 1878 reproduction of Le Foins, for example, simply eliminated the man and the background altogether (fig. 11). A few years later, Octave Mirbeau noted the persistent extractability of figures and the collage-like effects in the artist's work: "it is rare that his characters truly belong in the landscape where he puts them. It seems that they have been cut out and then pasted onto the canvas." This is something repeated in later analyses of Les Foins, which note the peculiar contradiction between the blue sky and the seeming shade in which the figures sit. As an otherwise favourable account puts it, "The conclusion one arrives at is that he must have posed his models in a courtyard where the sun did not reach them, though they are supposed to be in an open field." Indeed, art historians have consistently noted how the painting divides itself between the academically modeled figure of the central woman and the loose brushwork of the man and the landscape. This tension is further played up by the rendering of slim pieces of hay throughout the foreground — most notably in the woman's hair — as single, thin brushstrokes that function as marks acknowledging the technical innovations of recent anti-academic painting. What has only implicitly been understood in this pervasive doubleness is the temporal split between the "labor-intensive and slow" academic procedures and the "spontaneity" of the impressionist techniques that frame and surround them. Where the painting seems in certain parts to embrace the fleeting or passing moment of Impressionism — the "fugitive image" — the peasant figure at its center suggests an unchanging extension of time.


Excerpted from Realism in the Age of Impressionism by Marnin Young. Copyright © 2015 Mamin Young. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, viii,
Introduction, 1,
1 1878 / The Motionless Look of a Painting: Jules Bastien-Lepage, Haymaking, 15,
2 1879 / The Impressionist Moment: Gustave Caillebotte, Decorative Triptych, 53,
3 1880 / The Politics of Time: Alfred-Philippe Roll, The Strike of the Miners, 91,
4 1881 / Heroic Indolence: Jean-François Raffaëlli, The Absinthe Drinkers, 127,
5 1882 / The Revolutionary Foyer: James Ensor, Russian Music, 165,
Conclusion, 205,
Notes, 215,
Index, 255,
Illustration Credits, 259,

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