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Art & artists

Impressionism, photography and the idea of France

— July 2014

Article read level: Art lover

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Cover of Impressionist France

How do early photographs of France relate to Impressionist painting? And how important were they all in creating a new identity for France as a nation?

Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet by Simon Kelly and April Watson

The exhibition catalogue Impressionist France is subtitled Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet. It deals with the representation of landscape in France between 1850 and 1880. Bracketing Le Gray and Monet in the subtitle indicates a postmodern inclination to create a long front of visual culture from painting to photography. Such a move is attractive as it allows for ‘the first major presentation of [Nelson-Atkins Museum’s] nineteenth-century French photographs’, as the catalogue notes. The catalogue draws on significant discoveries about early photographers such as Le Gray, Cuvelier, Baldus, Nègre and Le Secq, made over the last few decades. There have been some previous inclusions of early photography alongside paintings in shows focusing on particular areas of France such as Normandy and Barbizon, but this exhibition is the first to cover the whole of France in both painting and photography.

Simon Kelly and April Watson are committed to ‘ascribing to photography an importance equal to that of painting’. There are of course some issues involved in treating painted and photographic images as comparable, since in anthropological terms they were different symbolic goods operating in different value systems. Even so, it is certainly the case that many of the early photographs are absolutely wonderful. The exquisite and varied tonalities of Cuvelier’s photographs taken in the Forest of Fontainebleau, the detail and luminosity of Le Gray’s Channel photographs, or the deep voids of Le Secq’s images of old buildings are breathtaking, one reason that serious students of photographic history will want this catalogue. Another is the fact that it reproduces 143 photographs recording the complete albums produced by the Bisson brothers of Mont-Blanc and Its Glaciers (1860), and by Edouard Baldus’s team for the Northern Railway (1855) and for the Paris-Mediterranean railway (1861).

One idea tucked away in the catalogue is that photographers got to railway and factory imagery first and hence must have ‘influenced’ Impressionism. April Watson has such photographs ‘lingering in the memory, as a valuable precursor to what would become the Impressionist revolution’, even though ‘no direct correlations can be drawn between these photographs and the Impressionists’. Here, against the postmodern conflation of photograph and painting as representation, we need to remember the mediation of the tradition of landscape painting and its conventions, as well as the extent to which certain photographers drew on these. Not all the photographs we now have available for comparison in a volume such as this one were publicly available at the time. For instance, Baldus commissioned railway photographic albums that stayed with the companies and their backers or were presented by them to dignitaries.

One of the bases for an exhibition such as this is the sheer number of French mid-19th century landscapes in American collections, itself of course a reflection of the triumph of American capitalism, the profits of which bought the works in the first place. All but three of the 119 landscapes in this exhibition come from American collections, and, despite the marketing exhibition-title, only 23 can really be dubbed ‘impressionist’. Nonetheless, this beautifully produced volume is an excellent corpus of more academic landscape paintings (as well as photographs) from American collections that give a context to the achievements of Impressionism. It also contains four academic essays on landscape and nation (by Simon Kelly and April Watson), representing the region (Neil McWilliam), and a very stimulating discussion by Maura Coughlin of Breton imagery criticizing the current methodology used for discussing primitivism.

The exhibition images are grouped into categories of cityscape, monuments, forests and rivers, rural life, railroads and factories, mountains, and marine views, images both of a rural anti-modern France and of a modern industrialized one. This is where the ‘big idea’ of the exhibition comes in, articulated in the catalogue’s lead-in essay, ‘Landscape as “National Art”’. Simon Kelly, curator at the St Louis Art Museum, takes the literature on the construction of national identity and connects it to French landscape painting as the context for a re-evaluation of Impressionism. ‘Emerging ideas of nation represented an important factor in both the production and consumption of [landscape] imagery of France’, he tells us. The period 1851–80 is characterized as involving ‘a broad-ranging campaign to construct a new sense of nation in France’, involving language, national history and memory. Print media’s role is particularly emphasized.

State patronage of landscape painting and its commitment to creating a sense of French cultural history is emphasized. Neil McWilliams points out that the sort of instrumentalist use of landscape to create national identity that one finds in American ‘manifest destiny’ or German post-unification imagery is lacking, and there is little evidence that landscape was read first in terms of the cultural associations of sites portrayed. There are also other ways of explaining the preoccupation with landscape imagery in an increasingly urbanized, consumerist and industrialized society.

Kelly’s recreation of the ideological agendas behind the Second Empire’s promotion of a sense of French landscape, history, and identity is unimpeachable, but whether an understanding of Impressionism is particularly advanced is at the very least open to question. Impressionism’s coverage of the range of French landscape is highly delimited. Monet never represented the Alps (or indeed most of France), and if his coverage of the Midi is evidence of an ambition to represent his nation, what are we to make of his decisions to paint in Norway, London and Venice? Kelly has to construct a notion of ‘independent artistic visions of nation’ for Impressionism and its likes, but what exactly might have caused this practice (the art market, radical republican counter-ideology, or self-motivation) is left uncertain. In the case of Monet’s late Water Lilies painted for the Orangerie in Paris, it is difficult to agree with Kelly that they are associated with a ‘strong’ nationalism. Monet, after all, refused to paint a ruined Rheims Cathedral for the State and was offering as his own legacy and statement an image of his own private garden completely unassociated with national identity: the vision of a universe of constant change as perceived by a self-possessive artist.

Impressionist France: Visions of Nation from Le Gray to Monet by Simon Kelly and April Watson (with Maura Coughlin and Neil McWilliam) is published by St Louis Art Museum, St Louis, and Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, 2013. 312 pp., 359 colour illus, £25, ISBN 978-0-300-19695-5.


Adrian Lewis
Art historian and artist

Editor's notes

The exhibition for which this catalogue was produced is on at the St Louis Art Museum   until 14 July 2014.

St Louis Art Museum
One Fine Arts Drive
Forest Park
St Louis
MO 63110-1380
See our Art News item on this exhibition for more information

Unfortunately no images were available to illustrate this review. Blame copyright laws!

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