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July 2024

Vol. 166 / No. 1456

Paris 1874: Inventing Impressionism

Reviewed by Allison Deutsch

Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 26th March–14th July

Organised to celebrate the 150th anniversary of what became known as the First Impressionist Exhibition, mounted by the Société Anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc. on 15th April 1874, this exhibition is eye-opening for the challenge it presents to the received narrative about Impressionism and its effect on art. Divided into eleven thematic sections and including 157 works and archival documents, the show questions the distinction between Impressionist and establishment art as well as the way these should be defined. Thanks to curatorial detective work, many of the paintings on display at the First Impressionist Exhibition as well as the Salon of the same year have been identified and located. The results are presented in a list at the end of the catalogue.[1] 

The exhibition opens with two lithographs from 1871 by Edouard Manet (National Gallery of Art, Washington; and Fig.12), depicting scenes of the Bloody Week (21st–28th May 1871) that followed the Paris Commune. This historical context frames and haunts the exhibition, which pays admirable attention to the repercussions of the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (July 1870–May 1871) and the rise and fall of the revolutionary Commune (March–May 1871).[2] Later, Salon works representing the Prussian victory are shown, including Dead in line! (1873; Musée de la Princerie, Verdun) by the ex-Communard Auguste Lançon, with its moving depiction of soldiers fallen in assembly-line uniformity. The curators highlight that the status of Impressionism as a ‘revolutionary’ art cannot be understood without reference to the political Revolution that had so recently rocked the nation – a point also made in the catalogue, which contains a number of essays on the period from 1870–71. 

After the introductory section, the first room considers the venue of the 1874 Impressionist Exhibition: the former studio of the photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known as Nadar (1820–1910). A video reimagines what it might have looked like; this recreation of everyday life in the nineteenth century is extended in an excellent virtual reality experience, ‘A Night with the Impressionists’, located outside of the exhibition, which will engage new audiences. The following two rooms bring together works included in the 1874 Impressionist Exhibition. The brainchild of a group that included Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley, the exhibition included thirty-one artists. Their work was diverse in style and media but they were united by a desire to exhibit to the public without intervention from the restrictive Salon jury. During its thirty-day run more than 3500 visitors attended. Among the works here are familiar paintings, such as Claude Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines (1873–74; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City), as well as works that even specialists will be forgiven for not recognising, for example a marble portrait bust of Jean-Auguste- Dominique Ingres by Auguste Louis Marie Ottin (1867–68; Musée Ingres, Montauban) and Alfred Meyer’s Renaissance inspired enamel Portrait of a man (after Antonello da Messina) (1867; Musée des Arts décoratifs, Paris). Both are far removed from what might be considered Impressionist art – if taken to mean depictions of modern life in a loose, experimental, sketch-like style – and defy the idea of the 1874 exhibition as one which marked a seismic change to art. 

The next section focuses on the Salon, which was held each year on 1st May at the Palais de l’Industrie and was intended to showcase the best of contemporary French art. On display are forty-five works that were included in 1874. One might expect to see the kind of massive, dark, cracked, bitumen-heavy machines that Émile Zola and Louis Edmond Duranty described and despised or examples of academic egomania, which these authors bemoaned. In fact, for example, Camille Cabaillot-Lassalle’s The Salon of 1874 (Fig.13) provides fascinating insight into the crowded hang preferred at the Salon and is an impressive collaborative work: each of the miniature depictions of the works on display that year were painted by the artists who created the originals, making this a seven-handed piece. Also worth mentioning is Jules Bastien-Lepage’s popular portrait of his grandfather (1874; Musée d’Orsay), a sensitive depiction in which the detailed treatment of the sitter’s wrinkled face and hands stands in stark contrast to the flat planes of colour that make up the forest background, which is as ‘unfinished’, in then-current terms, as anything by Manet. 

Subthemes of race and imperialism emerge for today’s visitors. On display are Orientalist works by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912) and Henriette Brown (1829–1901), which reflect colonial histories and stereotypes; the racist treatment of Black figures is represented in such works as Alfred Dehodencq’s Dance scene in a Tangiers street (c.1853–74; Musée d’Orsay). They are juxtaposed with representations of glowing, idealised white bodies, whether in Salon works such as Jean Jules Antoine Lecomte Du Noüy’s Eros, Cupido (1873; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tours) or in works from the Impressionist Exhibition, such as Renoir’s La Parisienne (Parisian girl; 1874; Amgueddfa Cymru, Cardiff ). There is much recent scholarship on the invention of race, the impact of colonialism and migration on Paris and the effect of empire on the circulation of Impressionism as a transnational style, but such issues are only briefly addressed in one of Nicole Georgopulos’s catalogue essays.[3] The following section features artists such as Manet and Eva Gonzalès, who were on the fringes of Impressionism. In general, the show is strong on emphasising the presence of women artists and sculptors, who, despite a range of social and institutional impediments, were nevertheless consistent participants in the Salons and the Impressionist shows. 

Section 6 brings together works from the exhibition of the Société Anonyme and Salon of 1874. Particularly successful is the juxtaposition of a sketch by Edgar Degas of a tired woman ironing (Fig.14), which was included in the Impressionist Exhibition, and Jules Émile Saintin’s Blanchisseuse de lin (Washerwoman; 1874; private collection), who seems to flirt with the viewer; it was on show at the Salon of 1874. Between Degas’s and Saintin’s paintings hangs Ernest Duez’s Splendeur (1874; Musée des Arts décoratifs), a portrait of a courtesan and a favourite of the 1874 Salon, which evokes the figure’s perceived seductive and destructive force. Duez’s and Saintin’s paintings display two fantasies of the feminine, in which women are defined by their sexuality and desired and despised accordingly. Meanwhile Degas’s realism provides an unsentimental image of a working woman, bored of repetitive, exhausting and dangerous labour; although the sketch is an object of admiration for us, many contemporaries were perplexed that Degas should present it as a work of art.[4] 

The wall texts explain that ‘at the 1874 Impressionist Exhibition, this work was the only one to represent the world of labour’, and assert that, apart from Degas, Impressionists painted Parisian ‘high life’. This aligns with a well-established narrative according to which Impressionism is considered an art of bourgeois leisure. That narrative has, however, been effectively critiqued by scholars such as Linda Nochlin for neglecting forms of labour disguised as pleasure that were central to bourgeois life and often carried out by women.[5] These include prostitution, dancing, performing and, to a certain extent, serving and bartending. Some of these and other types of paid and unpaid work surround the visitor to Paris 1874, as they did those of the 1874 Impressionist Exhibition; they include not only Degas’s At the races in the countryside (c.1869; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), which focuses on the exposed breast of a wetnurse feeding the baby of a couple that fuss over her, but also others: Pissarro’s Hoarfrost (1873; Musée d’Orsay), showing a farmer who traverses frosted, furrowed fields at daybreak; works by Berthe Morisot that include depictions of childcare; and Cezanne’s sketch of a brothel scene, A modern Olympia (1873–74; Musée d’Orsay). They all act as a powerful reminder that one group’s leisure depends upon another group’s labour. Clearly, Degas was far from alone in depicting the world of work in frank, unidealised ways, even if not all Impressionist paintings of labour were as shocking to bourgeois sensibilities as many of Degas’s. 

The exhibition concludes by jumping ahead to the Third Impressionist Exhibition of 1877. This is an opportunity to display some of the Musée d’Orsay’s best- known paintings and it illustrates the direction that key exhibitors at the 1874 Impressionist Exhibition – along with the important newcomer Gustave Caillebotte – took afterwards. This chronological disjunction is indicative of how destabilising the journey through the exhibition can be. It is necessary to pay close attention to the wall labels to understand where works were shown in 1874. A greater distinction might have been made between the contrasting atmospheres of Nadar’s former studio, with its succession of small domestic rooms, and the massive hall of the Salon in the Palais de l’Industrie. In the sections representing the Salon, the paintings are hung more closely to simulate the Salon hang. In the room representing Nadar’s studio, draped walls and soft furnishings – strategies of display that the Musée d’Orsay has used for exhibitions before – would have helped visitors understand the highly different environments in which contemporary art in nineteenth- century Paris could be encountered.[6] 

The exhibition’s ambiguities are, however, at the heart of its strength. For all the celebratory rhetoric around French Impressionism, those ambiguities highlight common interests among members of the Société Anonyme and those who denigrated it, as well as the range of styles, media and subjects to be seen at Nadar’s studio and the Palais de l’Industrie. It is particularly fascinating to see works that were exhibited in both venues, such as Berthe Morisot’s magnificent pastel portrait of her pregnant sister Madame Edma Pontillon (1871; Musée d’Orsay). Ultimately, the narrative of 1874 as the founding moment of a united avant-garde with shared values, setting out against universal hostility and opposed aesthetics, is put to rest. The history that takes its place is less sensational but more nuanced and above all more accurate.

[1] Catalogue: Paris 1874: Inventer l’impressionnisme. Edited by Sylvie Patry and Anne Robbins. 288 pp. incl. 250 col. + b. & w. ills. (Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 2024), €45. ISBN 978–2–7118–8016–4. English edition: Paris 1874: The Impressionist Moment. Edited by Sylvie Patry and Anne Robbins with Kimberly A. Jones and Mary Morton. 288 pp. incl. 230 col. + b. & w. ills. (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2024), £50. ISBN 978–0–300–27848–4. The exhibition will travel to the National Gallery of Art, Washington (8th September–20th January 2025). 

[2] For the first major study of the relationship between Impressionism and the 1871 Commune, see A. Boime: Art and the French Commune: Imagining Paris after War and Revolution, Princeton 1995. 

[3] See C. Pommereau, ed: exh. cat. Le modèle noir: de Gericault à Matisse, Paris (Musée d’Orsay) 2019; the exhibition was reviewed by David Pullins in this Magazine, 161 (2019), pp.591–94; A. Clark and F. Fowle, eds: Globalizing Impressionism: Reception, Translation, and Transnationalism, New Haven and London 2020; and E.C. Burns and A.M. Rudy Price, eds: Mapping Impressionist Painting in Transnational Contexts, New York 2021. 

[4] See, recently, B. Salsbury, ed.: exh. cat. Degas and the Laundress: Women, Work, and Impressionism, New Haven and London 2023. 

[5] See L. Nochlin: ‘Morisot’s wet nurse: the construction of work and leisure in impressionist painting’, in idem: Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays, New York 1988, pp.37–56. 

[6] See N. Bakker et al., eds: exh. cat. Splendours and Miseries: Pictures of Prostitution, 1850–1910, Paris (Musée d’Orsay) 2016; the exhibition was reviewed by Margaret Garlake in this Magazine, 158 (2016), p.58.