Pont de l’Europe, Caillebotte (Kimbell)

Between the years 1850-1870, Napoleon III and his principal architect Baron Haussmann provided one of the greatest transformations that the modern world had ever witnessed; the rebuilding of Paris. This aesthetic project included new boulevards, parks, public buildings and residential living (see my blog post of Pinkney’s Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris).  The artists of this time period, the Impressionists, began to record these changes in their paintings including Parisian vacations, picnics, promenades, boating trips and “spontaneous sociability” (Clark, 4). In his book The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers, T.J. Clark, a Professor of Modern Art at the University of California, Berkeley, examines the criticism of the Impressionist’s painting of modern life. As a new student to painting and fervent follower of Impressionism, I was instantly drawn to this book. Clark’s focus is not on the Impressionist paintings, but also on the modern life they illustrate and the social practices they reveal.

In the first section, Clark examines the connection between the modernization of Paris by Napoleon III and the new painting of the time.  He claims that there is a “myth of modernity”; people were displaced to the banlieues and the Impressionists avoided these areas of modernity, painting country life instead.  They did not begin to paint the new Haussmann Paris until the end of the 1800’s as Pissarro presented a full Haussmannian point de vue from one end of the Avenue de l’Opera to the other (Plate III).  The Impressionists painted the city’s arbitrary and unfinished character as Manet exhibited in 1867 (Plate IV).  Clark argues that this modernization of Paris depicted in Manet’s L’Exposition Universelle shows a mixing of classes, “professions and uniforms” which does represent the reality of Paris during that time.  The working class began to imitate the bourgeois in dress and activity, consequently intermingling socially. The Haussmannization was depicted by the Impressionists in the “outskirts of Paris; the end of the streets, the end of the grass” where Haussmann was accused of building a “second industrial Paris”. This is evident in both Seurat’s Dimanche après-midi à l’île de La Grande Jatte and Van Gogh’s The Outskirts of Paris (25).

Victor Hugo describes this new Parisian countryside in 1861 from a passage in Les Miserables:

     To wander in a kind of reverie, to take a stroll as they call it, is a good way for a                   philosopher to spend his time; particularly in that kind of bastard countryside…which surrounds certain great cities, notably Paris….the beginning of passions, the end of themurmur of things divine, the beginning of the noise of mankind. (Hugo, 2:108)

     In addition, Clark defends the aesthetic practice of speed and immediacy which the Impressionists used: “painting is a limited and limiting activity…it can be wrapped up in the moment’s quiet particularity” (xx). For example, the fact that painting in oil is done very slowly could lend to the Impressionists effects of a more intractable means and overall casual look in their paintings.  Clark illustrates with Manet’s Le Chemin de fer where the woman looks directly at the viewer all the while holding her place in her book with one finger as if to say that she will return in an instant to her “novel’s dream of consciousness”.  In addition, the smoke from the Gare Saint-Lazare behind her hangs in the air for a few seconds before evaporating (ix). Clark explains that modernity is not just in these details of the steam or the outward longing of the young girl staring through the gates, but the pathos of two states coexisting (xx).

Le Chemin de fer Manet
Le Chemin de fer, Manet

The third section examines the issue of modernity in the environs of Paris.  Train travel in the 1850’s made it possible for Parisians to escape from their banal, routine life in the city to the environs on the weekends.  Monet, Seurat, Pissarro, Renoir and Manet show the specific forms of environ life in their paintings of landscapes in Argenteuil, Bougival, Gennevilliers and Giverny. This bucolic retreat, however, is combined with the industrial modernity of factory pipes and “smoke highlighted by colors of grays, blues, yellows and blacks” (186). Clark argues that while Parisians were looking for somewhere to “act naturally, relax and be spontaneous” they still had the constraints and formalities of the city (199).  The leisure in class struggle explains transformations of subject in painting from 1860-1914.

Clark concludes his work by examining the term “popular” which applies to persons, manner or entertainment in relation to the way classes “belonged together and had contact with one another” in cafés, night clubs, and parks (265).  Parisians escaped from their home lives which were boring and inconvenient.  Clark cites an example of this mixing of classes in Seurat’s Dimanche après-midi à de La Grande Jatte arguing that this promenade of people in the Sunday best begs the question of “who belongs to whom” (265)?  He agrees with the critics that this look of nouvelles couches socials tries to unify the attitudes of “’ age, sex, and social class’”; the combination of worker, bourgeois, lady and employé.  Clark lauds Impressionists claiming that they are “makers of history now and painting can no longer quite afford to condescend them” (266).

Renoir’s “Bal au Moulin de la Galette” Musee d’Orsay, Paris

As Clark illustrates both sides of art critics concerning the topic of painting modern life, he concludes with this paradox:  ”Are we to take Impressionism’s repertoire of subjects and devices as merely complicit in the spectacle (of modern Paris) or as somehow disclosing it as farce or tragedy?”  In other words, do these artists represent assumed truths of the changing structure of Paris or do they reveal only the presumed ideology of what is socially and politically accepted in the Haussmannian nineteenth century?

Copyright 2017 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (

Work Cited

Clark, T.J. The Painting of Modern Life.  Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers.  NY:        Knope. 1985.

Hugo, Victor. Les Miserables. Trans. Charles E. Wilbour. New York: Random House                   Modern Library, 1992

Further Reading

Pinkney, David, Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris: