How To Read An Impressionist Painting || James H Rubin

I sometimes suspect there may be more books on Impressionism than there are paintings. Certainly, it’s becoming harder and harder to come up with a new approach. There are histories, chronological and regional studies, biographies of individual artists and attempts to subdivide the movement and to extend its sphere of influence. At least it was a movement, and not a later grouping-together of a number of artists who practiced at roughly the same time and place and were maybe subject to vaguely similar influences.

The organisation here is by subject matter, which shuffles the pack more than a little. Different, and differing, artists sit side-by-side and schools-within-schools are ignored. It definitely provides a different perspective to see landscapes by Renoir, Pissarro, Manet and Morisot within pages of each other, as well as a (slight) surprise to find them grouped as “Promenades and Travel”, although the chapter headings, such as “Family and Friends” and “Interiors and Still Life” are generally sensible and do not feel forced. There is, overall, no sense of answers being made to fit questions or a theory justified on scant evidence.

The idea behind the book is to link the artists with the general culture of the times (it says here). Well, yes, I suppose that’s what generally happens when you start writing about Impressionism, but it would be unfair to criticise or diminish the book for that. It’s a brave and generally successful attempt, as long as you like the often serendipitous juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated works. On the other hand, if you find the collection confusing, it wouldn’t be for you. I’m in the positive camp, though.

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