Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 16, 2022
André Dombrowski, ed. A Companion to Impressionism Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2021. 640 pp.; 152 b/w ills. Cloth $185.00 (9781119373896)

Author’s note: This article capitalizes the movement of Impressionism only when transcribing a quotation or with deliberate emphasis in discussing the book’s definition of the movement.

In its goals to transport readers “to the moment in history when Impressionism made beholders alert and uncomfortable” (7) and to offer a springboard for future inquiries, André Dombrowski’s edited volume Companion to Impressionism succeeds. Its thirty-four essays dive into single-object studies, scrutinize critical reception, and integrate transnational examples with a diverse set of methodological tools to analyze impressionism’s imbrications of the objective and subjective, the perceptual and the sensual, in rendering a world filtered through modern, individual temperament. Organized by seven thematic categories—definitions and chronologies; materialities; intermedia links; identity politics; notions of public and private (awkwardly mingled with ecology and economics in a catch-all “themes” section); world impressionism; and criticism, display, and market—the essays twirl a kaleidoscope of contemporary approaches to the study of impressionism.

Many texts underscore the difficulty of defining impressionism contemporaneously and today, affirming what Belinda Thomson described as “always a loosely defined term” and implicitly reinforcing the uneasy categories laid out by Richard Shiff that parse artists’ circles, iconography, style, and agenda (Thomson, Impressionism: Origins, Practice, Reception, Thames & Hudson, 2000, 11; Shiff, “The End of Impressionism,” in The New Painting: Impressionism 1874–1886, University of Washington Press, 1986, 67–70). Across the volume, definitions of impressionism remain as unfixed and textured as its paintings’ little-mixed surfaces. For instance, Dombrowski’s analysis of the société anyonyme, in an essay which might have been more effectively positioned in the volume’s definitions section, points to a financial arrangement among the artists showing work in the eight Parisian exhibitions that incited among critics simultaneously “calls for more unity and more diversity” (407) across participants’ aesthetic practices. Likewise, Neil McWilliam’s examination of conservative vituperative French reception of impressionism on the eve of World War I, Nina L. Dubin’s framing of Renoir’s use of Rococo to situate impressionism into a legacy of French art, and Martha Ward’s study of the ambivalent constructions of impressionism’s history in the Museum of Impressionism at the Jeu de Paume in 1947 evidence longstanding and pervasive historical disagreement about whether impressionism signals repetitive formula evolving from naturalism or strident individualism and radical redirection of earlier practices. If this selection of essays had been foregrounded as definitional (alongside Marnin Young’s important corrective tracing how the historiography has retroactively skewed analyses of critic Louis Leroy’s early comments about impressionism through an avant-garde lens) or alongside transnational case studies, awareness of the very impossibility of a singular impressionism would emerge. Readers might observe instead the coexistence of many fluid impressionisms, wielded by artists, patrons, dealers, critics, and viewers across time for divergent ends.  

The texts employ many methods for interpreting these impressionisms, raising the question: does the period problem Dombrowksi exposes in his essay—a paradoxical critical demand for both diversity and unity—recur within impressionism studies? Threads nodding to the possibilities and limitations of approaches embedded in the essays offer an implicit methodological family tree with nebulous branches and ambitions. Passages by Marc Gotlieb (46), Briony Fer (62), and Nancy Locke (147–48) speak to the historiographic tensions between impressionism’s framing in formalist readings versus interpretations approached sociohistorically. These historians suggest the limitations of false oppositions between the two, which Fer concludes is “impossible to hold in the face of painting itself” (62) and which Locke mingles to “call for a method relying on close formal readings as well as historical analysis” (148).

Quantitative frames, such as Félicie Faizand de Maupeou’s mapping of Claude Monet’s networks, share the stage with visual analysis sprinkled with psychobiography as in Michael Marrinan’s study of early Monet and with ecocritical discussions of Berthe Morisot by Alison Syme. Iconography takes readers in a variety of directions, from postcolonial conclusions in essays by Simon Kelly and Todd Porterfield to imagining the impressionist artists’ intellectual lives through the books they collect and render in paint with Ségolène Le Men. Art historical tools of formal reading and iconographic analysis balance with expansive interdisciplinary studies in Mary Hunter’s reading of gendered touch and expertise in images of pregnancy traversing impressionism and period medical texts.

Still further analyses historicize impressionism’s intersections with identity politics, crossing discursive constructions of national identity, race, gender, and sexuality. Intermedia and time-based studies, such as Marine Kisiel’s incisive dialogue mingling cinematography with Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series and Carol Armstrong’s push for intermedia study “between painting and photography in a less linear, less reductive, and much less art-canonical way than has often been the case” (197), offer another dominant branch of interpretation. Felix Krämer’s observation about the limitations of any singular method and the need for mixed methods required in his case study of interiors (344) might be productively extended to the entire study of impressionism. Dombrowski’s introduction could have moved beyond merely listing this panoply of methodologies (2) by analyzing the implications and stakes of this “plurality of approaches” (5).

This cacophony of methods indicates a robust academic conversation on impressionism, yet their tenuous coexistence teeters towards incommensurability in approach and even in what constitutes impressionism studies. The introduction and some texts double-down on canonical Impressionism with a capital I, referring to “the group of artists . . . who constituted the core of those participating in the eight impressionist exhibitions” and their parenthetical “international followers” (2); the nationality of the “core” group as the unnamed and implicit French (though that the exhibitors were not, as scholars have shown, uniformly French) is affirmed by the framing of the “followers” as non-French. That five of the seven definitional essays focus on Monet—an admitted denizen throughout the volume (5)—affirms that hierarchy and suggests that Norma Broude’s call to “stop privileging the French school” through study of “the international movement in all of its depth and variety” remains largely unheeded (Broude, “A World in Light: France and the International Impressionist Movement, 1860–1920,” in World Impressionism: The International Movement, 1860–1920, Abrams, 1990, 11–12). But what Anna Brzyski describes as “contending canons” emerge in essays on the circulations of the style (Brzyski, “Introduction: Canons and Art History,” in Partisan Canons, Duke University Press, 2007, 4). These speak to dispersed lowercase “i” impressionisms framed more loosely in style and chronology that still sit peripherally in oblique relation to Paris. Is this the same I/impressionism? Ordering the essays in the penultimate section on “World Impressionism” from case studies on Degas’s plumage and Renoir’s Algeria to more encyclopedic coverage of Japan, Argentina, Turkey, and to a lesser degree Germany affirms Francocentric privilege. In these subtleties of structure, coverage and selective breadth over depth, the volume exposes a bifurcation partitioning canonical French Impressionism from the uneasy shadow of malleable, dispersed impressionisms. This center-periphery relationship emerges in Laura Malosetti Costa’s use of the phrase “purely impressionistic works” (466) to clarify a lack in the paintings by the Argentinian artists she discusses. Susan Sidlauskas further pinpoints a limiting division of “‘diluted’ Impressionism vs. ‘the real thing’” (169) in her evocative study of a portrait by John Singer Sargent. These tensions suggest that transnationalism in impressionism studies puts pressure on Impressionism’s center, but the field hasn’t yet fully accounted for either its period or historiographic peripheries (Globalizing Impressionism: Reception, Translation, and Transnationalism, Yale University Press, 2020; and Mapping Impressionist Painting in Transnational Contexts, Routledge, 2021).

The volume’s ambivalence to, even skirting of, Impressionism’s ties to empire is a case in point. Dombrowski observes that “Impressionism tended to look away, largely, from the French Empire and its subjects. . . . in general it would be safe to say that these features—the focus on France and on painting—have impeded Impressionism’s continuing centrality in current academic art historical inquiry” (5). This comment seems to lament that Impressionism risks irrelevance in the context of revisionist global nineteenth-century art history because of the movement’s very focus on the metropole. Following this logic, Impressionism’s own canonicity ironically induces parochialism as art history belatedly attends to global concerns that include uncovering histories of power and its counters and social justice initiatives. While several of the essays delve into the nuances of complex alterities, Dombrowksi’s comment reads almost as an apology for Impressionism’s many normativities. Orientalism, imperialism, and empire appear to be non-starters, justifying Ahu Antmen’s critique of continued “internalization of a ‘European present’ as modernity” (495). But is it Impressionism that “tended to look away,” or is it rather the gaze of the many art historians who continue to affirm canonical stories? And does this claim also apply to wider impressionisms?

Do other methods render visible the operations of global impressionisms? Threads of this revision appear in some of the texts, such as Porterfield’s productive anachronisms that read colonial alienations and violence back into Renoir’s Algerian paintings and Mary-Dailey Desmarais’s tracing of an early predatory gaze in Monet’s links with Romanticism and Orientalism. Reframing the latter alongside Porterfield’s and Kelly’s texts, perhaps with Denise Murrell’s excerpt from the identity politics section of Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today (Yale University Press, 2018), and separate from Japanese, Turkish, Argentinian, and German appropriations of impressionisms, would render the specter of imperialism more visible. If grouped together, these approaches would attend to what Elizabeth Heath has defined as the “wider world of production, racialized labor systems, and extractive economies constitutive of nineteenth-century French capitalism” in her recent study of empire read through the objects in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (“If Objects Could Speak: Tales of Race and Empire at Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party,” H-France Salon 14, no. 8: 3, 8).

This power differential manifests on a micro level in the need for more attentive editing to produce a study that omits uncritical use of exclusionary and hierarchical euphemisms, such as “darker” as a trope for the negative or violent (38, 492, 511, 594), and the ableist trope of “blindness” as a metaphorical tool in art historical analysis (47–53, 466), terms which subtly produce an unwelcoming scholarly terrain. These methodological, structural, and semantic challenges will only encourage the volume’s hopes to spur further critical discussion in the future, as the conversation is far from over. 

Emily C. Burns
Director, Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West and Associate Professor of Art History, University of Oklahoma