Thursday 1 February 2001

Gender and Genre in Impressionist Portraiture

National Gallery, 16th January 2001

In the nineteenth century, the portrait form explored and celebrated the individual as a unique and dynamic identity.

By isolating a person on the canvas, the artist recognized him as a subject with a character and will of his own. Genre, on the other hand, was the painting of social scene, a sketch of the modern metropolis, where characters represent static social ‘types’, rather than unique personalities. Tamar Garr’s lecture gave a fascinating account of how the Impressionist artists used portraiture and genre to construct and comment on the process of constructing individual identity in relation to social expectations.

In the nineteenth century, it was widely held amongst the artistic community, that only certain individuals could be painted in portrait - namely, bourgeois, artistic or aristocratic men - as only they could be understood as dynamic ‘subjects’ with a sense of their own unique identity. Consider Pissaro’s portrait of Cezanne, a rustic character built up through minor detail (the fragment of a radical newspaper in the background, the torn peasant clothes, the size of Cezanne’s body overpowering the canvas). Or portraits of bourgeois factory owners, dressed in expensive suits and assertively facing the viewer head on. These are representations of men able to act and think independently. In comparison are the fragments of social scenes typified in Manet’s ‘Music Hall’ (1862) or ‘The Tuilleries’ (1873-4) where characters fit within a wider social panorama, not examined as individuals in their own right.

Of course, such distinctions between individuals and social types were closely related to gender and the representation of women. At the risk of reciting a cliché, women were beautified ‘objects’ in nineteenth century art, possessing no subjectivity to be understood or explored. Women were often painted indoors, behind net curtains, or as a diminutive part of the painting. Renoir’s ‘Woman at Embroidery Frame’ captures this division between the idealized stasis of women and the social dynamism of men. The woman is properly dressed and seated, concentrating on domestic tasks. Yet in the background are men, stood casually with hands in their pockets, staring at paintings on the walls. They seem to be in a social space (a gallery or the Salon) discussing art with each other, whilst she sits still in the foreground, being a piece of art and nothing more.

However, the Impressionists liked to stir things up and according to Garr, there were constant discussions in the nineteenth century about the irreverent use of portraiture for women. Critics were astounded that men were being represented as diminutive figures behind curtains whilst women were being painted reading newspapers and dominating the canvas space. Contemporaries of Manet attacked his portrait of fellow artist, Eva Gonzales, at the easel because it was considered too realistic a representation of her features. Garr suggests that the painting deliberately overlaps the forms of genre and portrait to attract attention to the way women are constructed as social types. Gonzales is posing as an artist but unsuitably dressed in eveningwear, with a foot raised on the footstool (which was thought to be indecent in the company of men at the time), and she appears to be painting a finished canvas (one of Manet’s, rather than her own). Manet even signs his name on a scroll within the painting, stamping his presence as the real artist, whilst she is only pretending. Is she a social type, created solely by the artist, or is she an individual identity, with a character independent of the artist’s brush? Garr suggests the former.

Garr does not explicitly provide a motive behind this play with gender convention in Impressionist painting though her subtle hint that some of the Impressionists were proto-feminists is unconvincing. It would be interesting to enrich her analysis by widening the net of her study to other ‘unsuitable’ subjects of portraiture at the time (i.e. the Parisian working class) and not be confined strictly within gender. More than viewing these paintings as social commentary and the liberation of women on the canvas, they perhaps say more about the Impressionists’ fascination with the construction of identity and subjectivity more generally during the late nineteenth century.

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