Impressionism

Impressionism is more than an approach; it is the celebration of modern life--everyday things from quiet visits to leisure activity; from horse racing to the ballet, from gardens to oceans. Small in size, approachable in content, yet radically different in technique, Impressionism is now recognized as a critical engagement with the modern world.

This is an example of academic painting in the modern period that was categorized as Juste Milieu--that's French for middle ground. or the middling way. Subject matter was modern--this appears to be a father vising his son in a hospital ward. The painting style is academic with careful attention to perspective, naturalistic lighting, figures, clothing, objects, textures and surfaces. Experimenting with anatural colors or abstraction or skewed perspective would have been counterproductive to the narrative. Juste Milieu paintings often sentimentalized the subject or moralized about them. That was part of the allure. To do that effectively, artists had to pay attention to specific details that would appeal to audiences. The pallor of the boy's face, the line of identical beds with their young patients and the shabby clothing of the man establish the figures as part of the working class and the tender demonstrations of affection (notice the patient being embraced by a relative, the small group of visitors in the background, and the bright peeled orange on the table--citrus was expensive and a treat) were all reminders of the inherent nobility and essential goodness of the working class.
Degas encouraged Cassatt to paint pictures of mothers and children which she did. He thought they were an appropriate subject for a woman. She is best known for that and her tender interpretation of maternal love and care although she never married or had children of her own.
The audience would have understood this was a painting of a servant washing a child. The woman is bending over easily, so not wearing a corset. The wallpaper, decorated chest of drawers, patterned carpet and china pitcher with gilded trim were all visual signifiers of bourgeois class. That made sense both for Cassatt and her peers since bourgeois women were far more likely to have nannies and servants to bathe their children rather then do that themselves. Also notice how the artist firmly structures the figures and the objects. Cassatt was considered to have a more "masculine" brushstroke than her contemporary, Berthe Morisot.
Painted just a year before she died, the subject matter--two working class women--indicates the risks that the artist took and her own interest is moving beyond paintings of her class and family. She admitted to being less comfortable with working class models. The figures are depicted as pensive--they don't interact with each other. One looks past the view; the other seems lost in reverie, fingering her skirt and oblivious to our gaze. I am interpreting that distance as deliberate, perhaps a reflection of the artist's lack of familiarity with working class women beyond those of her own servants. It's interesting to wonder if the very lack of detail (patterns on the china or clothing or upholstery) or presence of decorative objects was also an indication of her ignorance of how working class people furnished their domestic spaces.
Manet's representations of the modern female ranged from his iconic interpretation of the modern nude with Olympia to thoughtful and lovely paintings of his relatives, and genre scenes that showed both bourgeois and working class women. In Plum Brandy he depicts a working class woman, perhaps a shop girl (there were lots of employment opportunities in Paris), but certainly not a lady. She is smoking (new and very modern but a bit risque), slouching at the table with hair that appears a bit unkempt and...she is alone. Ladies did not sit in bars or restaurants alone. Ladies were always accompanied. Manet painted women so often that it seems appropriate to wonder if he was a bit at odds with the role of the modern female and wondered at the consequences.
Renoir liked painting women; he was quite outspoken about that and equally outspoken about their sexual intrigue for him. This is one of his most engaging genre scenes, a literal song in blues and white with dappled sunshine mottling the figures and the ground. It is one of those paintings that we look at now and wonder why anyone could have found fault with Impressionism.
This watercolor was made the year that Monet showed The Haystacks which catapulted him into the proverbial fame and fortune. Watercolor demands a different technique than oil but one that an artist like Renoir would have mastered given his training and practice of plein air painting. What I fine most interesting about this painting...clearly it is small, more of a sketch, not intended as a finished work, is the way he has used brushstrokes and color to structure the composition. This strikes me as being influenced by Post-Impressionism and he certainly was familiar with those artists and their concerns. Today scholars have the advantage of looking over most, if not all, of an artist's work. Often it is in sketches never intended for the public that we see them experiment. It seems quite probable that he would have done that.
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