Sunday, November 30, 2014

Nov Book Club - The Private Lives of the Impressionists

the private lives of the impressionists by Sue Roe
Blue Twig Studio's November's book club is the private lives of the impressionists by Sue Roe.

Sue Roe created a colorful, lively, poignant and well-researched biography about the lives of the first group of impressionists. It follows an extraordinary group of artists into their Paris studios, down rural lanes, into Montmartre, and into the rowdy riverside bars of a city undergoing enormous change. Roe casts a vivid, unforgettable, brilliant light on this society of genius colleagues who lived and worked together for 20 years and transformed the art world forever with their new, breathtaking paintings of ordinary life. 

The book started slow for me, but quickly built to a fast pace, so that I didn't want to put the book down. I've read much on the individual lives of the impressionists, but I've never read a book that talks about the individuals as a group. I didn't realize that Manet, Bazille, Monet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Callebotte, Morisot and Cassatt were contemporaries or how well they knew each other and were involved in each other's lives. 

Manet grumbled about his confusion with a new painter - Monet. I was amused that people confused Manet and Monet, but it was definitely not amusing to them.  Cézanne wandered in and out of the group, angry and paranoid. Monet is chased by creditors and has difficulties with his parents over his mistress, a problem that several of the other male impressionists also had. Berthe Morisot is alternately courted and rejected by Manet and eventually marries Manet's brother. Pissarro rants about his socialist ideals. But the group works together, gets angry at each other, fights for recognition and daily food, and have romances. Roe depicts these geniuses as real people with real problems. 

The group all struggled to build their reputations, support themselves financially and create meaningful personal lives, from the first meeting of Monet and Pissarro in 1860 to the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel's influential 1886 Impressionist exhibition in New York City. Often the artists from wealthier backgrounds like Bazille, and Callebotte helped support the ones often struggling in poverty, especially Monet. 

Roe believes that the artists' drive for success was the strongest unifying factor among this diverse group, which included the antisocial, celibate Degas, the socialist Pissarro, and the chronically depressed Sisley, who resented the Impressionists' meager public appreciation. I enjoyed the personal details that Roe includes in her portraits of the artists, like Mary Cassett's booming voice and atrocious French accent, to Manet's illegitimate son and his upper-middle-class family's elaborate efforts to conceal the child's existence, to Monet's affair with another man's wife, with both husband and wife living with Monet even before Monet's wife died of cancer.  Renoir and Manet were the most successful during their lifetimes.

The group exhibited in Paris several times, but were ridiculed, and caterwauled and jeered at. They were criticized for their "purple-coloured landscapes, red flowers, black streams, yellow or green women and blue children. This style of painting, both coarse and ill-defined, strikes us as an affirmation of ignorance and a negation of beauty and truth...It is all too easy to attract attention by producing trashier works than anyone else dares."  Several almost gave up painting, but it was essential to who they were. They had to paint.

Mary Cassatt, an American painter, was critical to helping Paul Durand-Ruel open an exhibit in New York City where the impressionists' art was accepted and appreciated. 

Mostly ridiculed or ignored by their contemporaries, today amazing sums are paid for their paintings. Their stunning works are familiar to even the most casual art lovers. I wonder what they would think if they could see today how well known they are and how much their paintings, sculptures, and sketchings are desired by collectors. 

Some of the quotes that I found interesting in the book include:

    "The big classic compositions are finished, an ordinary view of daily life would be much more interesting." - Bazille to Renoir

     "I have seen the light: truth, life, nature - everything that moves me - clearly does not exist for Gleyre." - Monet to Bazille and Renoir (Gleyre's studio is where many of the impressionists started out and met each other.)

     "the sharp and irritating colours attack the eye like a steel saw." - Jules Claretie in his review of the first exhibit by some of the impressionists at the Salon des Refuses in 1863.

     "A good woman. A few children of my own. Would that be excessive?" - Edgar Degas

     Berthe Morisot was regarded as a "willful eccentric." (some just called her a lunatic)

     "Paint the truth, let them talk." - Edouard Manet

     "Everything is gaiety, clarity, spring festivals, golden evenings, or apple trees in blossom." - critic Armand Silvestre on the first Impressionist exhibition.

     "achieving with their palettes what the poets of their time express, but with an entirely new emphasis; the intensity of the summer sky, the poplar leaves transformed into golden coins by the first hoarfrosts; the long shadows cast on the fields by the trees in winter; the Seine at Bougival, or the seal along the coast, quivering in the morning breeze; . . . like small fragments of the mirror of universal life." - critic Philippe Burty

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I learned much about the Impressionists that I have never known before. Definitely a book I can read again. I found hope in the artists' sticking to their ideals and continuing to paint, in spite of all the negative review. Monet was told he was a lousy painter!! There's hope for me and other artists starting out - to keep going, painting, experimenting, finding one's voice and passions. 

Next month's book is Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L'Amour. 

Keep creating.


  1. Great review of the book. I loved getting to know the characters better and finding out how they were connected to each other.

    1. I did, too. Even though I had read a lot about the individuals, I never realized that they were such close friends, painting together and exhibiting as a group (except for Manet). Glad this book was chosen to read and review!