by Roderick Conway Morris

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Musée des beaux-arts, Pau
A Cotton Office in New Orleans by Edgar Degas, 1873

Catching the fleeting moment

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 19 April 2003


So central was rural and urban landscape to the Impressionist enterprise that it is easier instantly to envision in the mind's eye a 'typical' land or townscape than one of the human physiognomy and figure. Yet in this realm, too, common Impressionist purposes gave rise to shared characteristics among the diverse participants in this loosely associated movement.

To view Impressionism in terms of landscape alone is to underestimate its influence on other genres, even if some exhibition organizers appear to think that if the public is not given water lilies, and plenty of them, it might demand a refund.

Consequently, 'Portraits and Figures: Impressionist Masterpieces,' a thoughtfully selected exhibition of about 80 works by nearly a score of painters, is refreshing. The show is being staged - with piquant irony - inside the Complesso del Vittoriano on Piazza Venezia, itself a monstrous monument to the overblown, state-sponsored 19th-century academicism against which the Impressionists were rebelling. The show's curator is Maria Teresa Benedetti and it continues until July 6.

'My ambition is limited to the desire to catch something fleeting,' declared Morisot, and this credo underlay Impressionist portraiture and figure painting as much as it did the movement's landscape works. Beyond this starting position, the gamut runs from Sisley, the only Impressionist who took no interest in portraiture (and so is absent from this show), to Degas, who was almost completely absorbed by faces and figures (not to mention horses) and exhibited no fewer than 10 portraits at the First Impressionist Exhibition, in 1874.

Renoir was the only one of the group to achieve financial independence through portraiture. His 'Madame Charpentier and Her Children,' shown at the Salon in 1879, consolidated his position as a sought-after portraitist to an ever widening circle of wealthy patrons. The Charpentiers did much to push Renoir in their journal, 'La Vie Moderne,' and sponsored a one-man show at their gallery in the same year as his Salon triumph.

Several other Impressionists painted portraits of patrons as gestures of gratitude for their support, rather than for any direct financial gain: Manet painting his old friend and admirer Antonin Proust, and Degas doing numerous portraits of his friend and promoter Henri Rouart and his family. And Sargent is appropriately represented in this context by a masterly informal oil sketch of his close friend and patron Madame Errazuriz.

Seeing how few outlets most Impressionists had for commercial portraiture - their styles being too outré for most potential clients - almost all poured their impulses in this direction into painting family and friends, often with delightful and memorable results, as witnessed by this show. Cassatt and Morisot achieved wonderful scenes of domestic intimacy, while deftly avoiding sentimentality. Even Cézanne, who was accused of painting people as though they were objects, betrayed the soft center beneath his cultivated rough exterior in a strangely touching study of his illegitimate young son.

Amusingly, Monet found himself producing a portrait despite himself. For his 1866 'Camille' he chose a 19-year-old model (who was later to become his wife), remarking afterward that although 'I had had no intention of doing a portrait of her, but rather of a typical Parisienne figure of the age, the likeness was perfect.' Monet's interest in types stretched back to his juvenile excursions into caricature, a tendency he found impossible to resist when he portrayed his shopkeeper father, whom he gently sends up in a way no doubt invisible to the sitter.

Degas achieved a remarkable feat in bringing together the private and public spheres in portraiture in his celebrated 1873 'Cotton Office, New Orleans.' Here he depicted his uncle and other relatives and their colleagues going about their business in their Louisiana trading house. This became the first of Degas's paintings to be purchased for a French public collection (in Pau, from where it has now been loaned).

The similarity of 'Cotton Office' to a photograph was commented on at the time, but actually predates the artist's regular use of a camera. By a quirk of history, 1874, the year of the First Impressionist Exhibition, was also the one during which a major breakthrough was made in the mass production of photographic plates, bringing the technology within easier reach of the ever-widening circle of amateur practitioners. Exposure speeds became faster and, in 1888, the No. 1 Kodak was launched, the first portable, roll-film camera.

Probably all the Impressionists employed photographs in some way or another, though to what extent they admitted this varied greatly. Degas lauded the camera's ability to offer 'an image of magical instantaneousness,' used the technology openly and enthusiastically and became a distinguished photographer in his own right. Similarly, Cézanne made no bones about how convenient he found photographs, and did portraits and even self-portraits from them. Monet, on the other hand, was practically paranoid about the issue, protesting on one occasion that whether his canvases were 'painted from nature or not is nobody's business and is of no importance.'

In some respects, photography was even more helpful in portraiture and figure painting to catch that fugitive moment than for painting landscapes. And certainly the influence of photography, in angles, the structure of compositions, the frequent 'snapshot' qualities of paintings, is everywhere to be seen here. Nor, for all Monet's coyness on the subject, was there anything intrinsically incompatible between photography and the broader aims of the Impressionist endeavor, which had at its heart the desire to make art more 'scientific,' more true to life. One of the supreme examples of this confluence can be seen in how Degas almost overnight changed the way he depicted moving horses after coming into possession of the revelatory sequences of photographs in Eadweard Muybridge's 'Animal Locomotion,' published in 1887.

Of all the Impressionists, Degas may have been the most consistently committed to portraiture and figure painting, but when he argued that the aim of portraiture should be 'to depict people in familiar and typical poses, above all to give their faces the same expressive possibilities as their bodies,' he surely described what the group aspired to as a whole.

For all their revolutionary concepts about art, politically the Impressionists themselves were for the most part a rather conservative lot. The application of their radical artistic ideas to figure painting, however, by concentrating on the chance gesture and accidental expression, as opposed to the contrived pose and enhanced image, dealt a blow to traditional formal portraiture from which it has never recovered.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023