Provincialising Impressionism

Samuel Raybone, Aberystwyth University,

Nineteenth-century art history is finally becoming as global as the 19th century itself. Yet, the future of Impressionism in this globalising field is far from certain. Quintessentially French, Impressionism was central to the Eurocentric meta-narratives of 20th-century art history. If the impetus to provincialise Europe means decentring its historicist meta-narratives, are we not obliged therefore to decentre Impressionism?

This session invites papers that rise to this post-colonial challenge and attempt to write what Dipesh Chakrabarty might call ‘a history that does not yet exist’, a provincialising history of Impressionism. To provincialise Impressionism is to attend to Impressionism’s ‘other histories’ as sites of ‘plenitude’ and ‘creativity’, and to rethink the history of Impressionism as one of conjunction with its ‘others’ (Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000], p. 42, 35).

Certainly, attention is now being paid to the influence of Impressionism around the world. From Australia to Argentina, Turkey to the USA, and Canada to the Caribbean, we now recognise many Impressionisms. Further, recent scholarship has unveiled the French Impressionists’ myriad global connections and the globality of the modernity they painted, problematising the epithet ‘French’ Impressionism. Yet, a pitfall common to both this former paradigm of ‘influence’ and this latter practice of ‘provincialising’ is a continued implication of ‘original’ and ‘centre’: the disguise rather than deconstruction of European hegemony.

Responding to the potential and pitfalls of provincialising Impressionism, papers might explore such other histories as the distinct meanings assumed by Impressionist artworks upon their dissemination into diverse, global collections, as well as the strategic and creative appropriation of Impressionism’s tenets in local or hyper-local contexts.

Speakers & Abstracts

Pluralities of Experience: Impressionisms as constellations of mobility

Emily C. Burns (Auburn University/University of Oxford)
Alice M. Rudy Price (Temple University)

Transnational circuits of artists experimented with plein-air painting and the markers of Impressionism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The existing literature on Impressionism has not yet adequately analysed the circulation of this plurality of Impressionisms. In tandem with a forthcoming edited volume, Mapping Impressionist Painting in Transnational Contexts (2021, Routledge), we present our methodological framework drawing from circulation studies, and offer two exemplary case studies that frame Impressionism not as modernist approach, but as dynamic discourse. We argue that a history of pluralistic Impressionisms exemplifies what mobility studies scholar Tim Cresswell has called ‘constellations of mobility’. These terms underscore the adaptability of a shared aesthetic in a variety of contexts with contingent and complex resonances for artists and viewers.

The mobile discourse of the subjectivity of vision and the recognition of its limited frame perhaps inadvertently democratised the authority of perception. The acknowledgement of a plurality of human experience legitimated perspectives beyond that of white male artists. Black US painter Henry Ossawa Tanner and the Danish artist Susette C. Holten født Skovgaard adopted select elements from Impressionism among other movements – thick impasto, evident facture and a cool colour palette dominated by blues, greens and violets. However, each interpreted aspects of Impressionism based on their own mobilities and contexts. In echoing their own peripatetic movements, these artists used moderated Impressionisms: in the case of Tanner, to construct new racial and religious contexts in the US and France, and in the case of Holten, to frame the female body’s presence in and claim to the polar landscape. Both show that Impressionism is a flexible cultural language that many artists adapted to more local concerns.

Provincialising Impressionism in the 19th Century

Allison Deutsch (Birkbeck, University of London)

In the 20th century, Impressionism came to be understood as a standard bearer of Frenchness, modernity and more recently, whiteness. This paper shifts our attention from the well-known 19th-century critics who predicted and participated in the construction of those alliances, to those who felt that Impressionism represented neither Frenchness nor modernity nor whiteness – that it even threatened them. It aims to uncover a colonial imaginary in the critical reception of Impressionism that was one register through which writers expressed and deflected anxiety about the art. The issues at stake for critics – of colour and legibility, training and tradition, centres and margins – were framed in the context of colonialism, population shifts and immigration. Their writing bears its mark. One strategy for complaining about Impressionist colouration and subject choice was to suggest that the race of figures was ambiguous. One way of mocking the illegibility of works that threatened the French tradition was to suggest that hidden in their materiality lay colonial disease or resistance. One mode of characterising the intensity of the responses that Impressionism provoked was to designate the artists as ‘savages’ whose work carried a seed of degeneration that was contagious to viewing publics.

These were just a few strategies among others that argued that Impressionist colour was unrealistic, that it offended French sensibilities, and that it depended on principles outside of modernity. But they offer a richer picture of the contemporary reception of Impressionism which ensures that concepts such as Frenchness, modernity and whiteness are fractured and contested.

Whistler, the Chincha Islands War and the International Battle for Guano

Alexis Clark (Duke University)

In early 1866, Whistler sailed to Valparaíso Bay, where the Chincha Islands War (1864–1866) then pitted Spain against its erstwhile colonies: Ecuador, Peru, Chile. The war was fought for control of Peruvian islands heaped high with guano or seabird excrement. Mined by migrant forced labour and then shipped to and spread across the parched fields of the United States and Europe, this nutrient-rich fertiliser produced yields needed to sustain urban, industrial workforces. So robust was demand for this natural resource, that an international, imperialist race ensued to claim the Guano Islands dotting the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Looking through the lens of critical white studies at Whistler’s Valparaíso paintings, his sketches during his tour with the US Geodetic Survey, and his engravings of the Thames docks, this paper insists that these works present the dark side of the artist’s cosmopolitanism. Previous research into the Valparaíso paintings has explored the artist’s smuggling of torpedoes into Chile, but the line connecting these works, the transoceanic trade in and battle for bird excrement, and the use of slave or forced labour throughout the Americas has yet to be traced. In his paintings of Valparaíso Bay, Whistler turned his easel away from war and guano-mining operations to present what on first impression may seem to be apolitical impressions of ships calmly gliding across the Pacific. This paper interprets these paintings through Whistler’s personal and familial history in relation to the trade in guano and the trafficking of enslaved people.

An Arctic Impressionism: Anna Boberg and the Lofoten landscape

Isabelle Gapp (University of York)

Looking at the Swedish painter Anna Boberg (1864–1935), I argue that her work represents a synthesis of the traits commonly associated with Impressionism – notably painting en plein air – alongside the ecological complexities and environmental aesthetics of the Lofoten landscape. Working periodically in the Lofoten Islands, Norway over the course of a thirty-year period, Boberg’s paintings are preoccupied with the local topography, light and fishing communities. Framing my analysis around Boberg’s plein-air practice – painting aboard moving fishing vessels and outfitting herself for painting within a frozen landscape – her Arctic landscapes broaden the scope of traditional plein-air practices, demonstrating the possibilities of an ecological Impressionism. My analysis focuses on Boberg’s intimate and prevalent studies of the fishing vessels and harbours situated within the fjordal Lofoten landscape; across a range of seasons, weather and times of day. Not only does this reflect a persistent interest in the local industry and community, but it also positions her work as an extension of 19th-century Impressionism and provides an ecocritical alternative to a 19th-century imperialised and ‘white’ Arctic landscape. While Boberg’s transnational work represents a significant female voice within an often male-orientated study of landscape painting and stylistic influence, it further signifies a move beyond a national framework of both Nordic landscape painting and French Impressionism, considering a far northern periphery to a global Impressionism.





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