Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Private Lives of the Impressionists

I'm very happy to recommend a book by Sue Roe called The Private Lives of the Impressionists. I've still not got to the end of it but I'm really enjoying this book which really rounds out one's understanding of the group called the Impressionists.

My paperback version (RRP £9.99) is my current bedtime reading and you might be surprised to know that I'm recommending it despite the fact I've not yet quite got to the end of it! I'm opting for the 'draw it out and make it last' option rather than racing to finish it - but thought I'd highlight it now in case people are starting to provide suggestions to people about what they'd like for Christmas. The paperback price definitely puts it in the stocking filler category.

UK Paperback Book Cover (Vintage House)
detail from Self Portrait in his Atelier
by Claude Monet

Actually, another important reason I'm only three-quareters of the way through is that it's my current bedtime reading and I tend to fall asleep fairly fast so I'm only managing a couple of pages each night! I have however known this book was going to get a book review from me after only a very few pages of starting to read this book.

So why do I want to recommend it?

This is what the book does:
  • 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 an interesting chapter towards the end of the book which i've already peeked at which tells the story of how Duran Ruel opened up the market for Impressionist paintings in New York.
  • The book more or less finishes in 1883 around about the time of the death of Manet. Its focus is therefore much more about the birth of Impressionism than about everything that happened to the Impressionist Painters - however 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
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!

1 comment:

janabouc said...

Thanks. It sounds great and I've added it to my books to read list. I'm enjoying a book that has a similar style (includes much info about his life, times and relationships with other artists and art-world people) about post-Impressionist Charles Sheeler.

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