The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe

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The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biographical account of the French Impressionist painters and their struggle for acceptance in the face of critical and official hostility between the years 1860 and 1886.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: September 2007
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099458340

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In the early 1860s a group of young Parisian artists were keen to exhibit their work, despite opposition from the official art world. Their protests at being spurned by the Salon, the French equivalent of the Royal Academy, resulted in their paintings being shown at the rather disparagingly-named Salon des Refusés, where crowds and critics came to view - and jeer. When they held the first of their own exhibitions a few years later, one reviewer said that they seem to have declared war on beauty, while another assured his readers that every canvas must have been the work of some practical joker who had dipped his brushes in paint, smeared it onto yards of canvas, and signed the result with several different names.

However, what were initially considered amateurish and vulgar daubs soon found their admirers. At length the group found favour with some of the public, and the 1882 exhibition was a notable success. They also acquired a name, the Impressionists, which was originally bestowed on them rather slightingly by a hostile critic after the title of one of Claude Monet's works, Impression: Sunrise. Yet it was only a matter of time before their paintings were selling for high prices (ironically, long after they had died), while many of the academic artists who ruled the roost in 1860 are now all but forgotten.

This book is not exactly a study of art history. Instead, it is a collective biography of the group during the years when they formed a fairly cohesive group of rebels, taking on the establishment, between 1860 and 1886. The latter was the year when the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, their champion without whose support most of them might have given up in despair, introduced their canvases to a very receptive American public in New York.

Ironically Edouard Manet, who seemed a kind of father figure to them all, never exhibited with them, and some of his most famous paintings seem stylistically to have more in common with the academic work of those against whom they were rebelling than with the sunny landscapes with which the movement is forever associated. As personalities, and with their differing backgrounds, they had almost nothing in common apart from their chosen talents. With a 'group' that included the self-effacing Alfred Sisley, the well-off, almost aristocratic and sadly shortlived Frederic Bazille, the pugnacious anarchist Camille Pissarro, the gentle Berthe Morisot (Manet's sister-in-law), and the ever-argumentative Edgar Degas and Paul Cezanne, it was not surprising that they often argued among themselves. Yet they all looked up to Manet, and his early death in 1883, shortly after having a gangrenous leg amputated, more or less removed the unifying force which had loosely held them together.

The story of their often turbulent kinship, marked by grinding poverty, falling-out with parental authority and with each other, is told against equally momentous changes in French history and society. At the start of the book, Paris is a medieval city, shortly to be transformed by its virtual rebuilding by Baron Haussmann under Emperor Napoleon III, and then to fall prey to the worst consequences of the Franco-Prussian war, the new republic and the horrors of the Commune.

There are one or two interesting anecdotes to be savoured, such as the story of Pierre-Auguste Renoir being attacked by youths while painting in the forest at Fontainebleau, only for a large man with a wooden leg suddenly appearing and driving them away. The man then looks at Renoir's canvas and asks him why he uses so much black. They enter into earnest discussion and the knight in shining armour turns out to be Diaz de la Peña, one of the stalwarts of the Barbizon school of landscape painters who had some similarities with the Impressionists.

In effect the narrative ends at 1886, by which time they were diversifying. By this time they had largely been accepted by the art world, though only Monet really became famous. He was the last survivor and financially the most successful, enjoying a contented old age and dying in 1926. An epilogue ties up the loose ends by telling us what happened to each of the painters. Finally, there is a summary of the Impressionist market, recording some of the remarkable prices pictures have fetched in the last fifty years.

In a book of this format illustrations are naturally restricted, yet the two sections of mainly colour plates are well selected, showing most of the important (and most controversial) works discussed. To anybody with more than a passing interest in French or modern art, this is an essential read.

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