Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Book review: Private Lives of the Impressionists

Title: Private Lives of the Impressionists

Synopsis: This is a group biography; it provides a narrative of the story behind the famous paintings. It's a book which covers the lives of the Impressionists - Monet, Manet, Pisarro, Cézanne, Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt before, during and after the creation of their group. It charts the development of Impressionism within the context of contemporaneous development in Paris and the Parisian art world. The focus is very much on the birth of Impressionism and finishes in 1883 with the death of Manet.

Summary review: RECOMMENDED This is a very dense book covering a large number of artists and has lots going on. It's scholarly and knowledgeable but a light read at the same time. I found it took a little getting into until I was clear about all the relationships between the different artists. Charting the overall relationships is also what marks this book out as being different from other biographies of the individual artists. However the author writes well, I enjoyed reading the book, didn't want to finish and would happily read it again. Knowing more about the circumstances in which artists produced their paintings helped me look at both artists and paintings in a new light. I would have liked to have been able to read more about how the artists developed during the rest of their artistic careers after 1883. Maybe that's another book?

  • comprehensive overview of the birth of Impressionism
  • includes all the main artists associated with Impressionism
  • identifies all the various relationships between the different artists
  • a huge amount of detail suggesting lots of meticulous research
  • details the impact on the artists of current events in France - such as the Franco-Prussian war
Think Again?
  • Is Manet an Impressionist? Discuss.........

Who should buy this?:

  • Artists interested in Impressionism
  • Art Historians
  • Teachers of art history - to find out how to make art history come alive!
  • Students of art history

Who should not buy this?

  • People with no interest in art history or Impressionism
Author / (Publisher): Chatto Windus (Hardback)

Technical data: Technical data: Publication Date 2006 (hardback); 2007 (paperback): Hardover - 368 pages Paperback 352 pages; ISBN-10 0099458349: ISBN-13 978-0099458340: I read the paper back version. Covers vary depending on editions.

What the book covers
  • it also highlights the other people who are important to the story of the Impressionists - such as painters Caillebotte and Bazille, the art dealer Durand Ruel (who established the market for Impressionism in the United States as well as in Europe) and the paint merchant Tanguey also get pretty good coverage.
  • it describes the environment of the places where they lived, frequented and painted as they were at the time which has provided for me a whole new perspective of certain of the works.
  • This is also a story of the Paris which had been transformed by Baron Haussman and of the impact of the Franco-Prussian war - which had a major impact on more than one of the painters - the siege of Paris in 1870-71, the establishment of the Paris Commune and the emergence of the Third Republic.
  • it tells the stories of the Salon des Beaux Arts and the first Salon des Refuses in 1863 and exhibitions by the Impressionists (minus Manet) starting in 1874, 1876, 1877, 1879, 1880, 1881, 1882 and 1886 and the relative success of each of the painters in different contexts
  • you gain insight into their familial and fraternal relationships - and the very many difficulties associated with the class system of the time without having to read a detailed biography of individual painters. This highlights some of the oddities such as the fact that both Manet and Cezanne had wives and children who were not known to their families.
  • For Americans, there is an interesting chapter towards the end of the book which tells the story of how Durand Ruel opened up the market for Impressionist paintings in New York.
  • The focus of the book is on the birth of Impressionism rather than about everything that happened to the Impressionist Painters. It more or less finishes in 1883 around about the time of the death of Manet - however this it does leave scope for another book! At the moment, an epilogue provides a very abbreviated summary of what happened next for each if the painters
UK Paperback Book Cover (Vintage House)
detail from Self Portrait in his Atelier by Claude Monet

Why I recommend this book

This book covers a critical period for a number of the different painters who became known as the Impressionists. It's incredibly dense and covers a huge amount of detailed information in a way which speaks of comprehensive and meticulous research.

What makes this book different for me is the articulation of the various relationships between the different painters. So often books about the Impressionists tend to list them as individuals and comment on their works in the same way. This book focuses much more on the connections and the way they supported and influenced once another. It's an invaluable insight also into how a group with common motivations can support one another through different challenges and emotional and financial difficulties - and there were quite a few of those!

It also gives a very good insight into just how long it took some of these painters to become successful and just how financially stretched they were at times.

I am particularly enjoying the way in which Roe provides an insight into the incredibly different characters and personalities of the painters. I am repeatedly left wondering quite how some of them came to be members of the same group.

I like the way the book discusses how specific paintings came into being. The index is good because you can look up a specific painting by title and check out what it says - so it's good if you also want to use it as a reference source. Unusually for a paperback, this book also provides two sections of colour plates of paintings which feature in the text.

It's also a really great index for tracking down particular events. In fact the notes and index - which make up around 20-25% of the pages of my paperback persuade me that this is a very well read, well researched and well organised author! It's brilliant for providing you with references to sources if you want to pursue some particular aspect of one of the painters.

One of the surprising by-products of reading this book is that I now feel I understand far more about what happened in Paris and France in the second half of the 19th century than I ever did
while studying late 19th century European History at school!

Now I know I've succeeded in making it seem incredibly academic - but the reality is that this book is an incredibly easy read. Roe has a gift as storyteller. She has been able to take dry facts and convert them into a narrative which is always interesting - even when it takes you down paths you're not quite expecting.

I also think this book would be a terrific read for anybody currently facing challenges associated with the credit crunch and the recession. Reading about people facing very similar difficulties somehow helped to remind me of the enduring themes and challenges of life.

There really is nothing new under the sun - except when somebody has a bright idea about how to apply paint!

Note (1) A similar post first appeared on Making A Mark on 4th November 2008
Note (2) about the author: Sue Roe is a freelance writer and teacher. A former Lecturer at the University of East Anglia, she is the author of a novel, Estella, Her Expectation, a collection of poems, The Spitfire Factory, and Writing and Gender: Virginia Woolf’s Writing Practice. She is also co-editor of the Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, and her most recent book is the widely praised Gwen John: A Life. She lives in Brighton.

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