PRINT May 1985


The Real World of the Impressionists: Paintings and Photographs 1848–1918

Yann Le Pichon’s intention to “recreate the intimate milieus” that shaped painting in France from 1848 to 1918 is unnecessary, given the number of extensive and well-documented studies of the Paris of early Modernism. This poorly researched and spare effort is organized into six chronological chapters, each covering a quartier of Paris (or a country site) that was significant to the avant-garde. In the foreword, Maurice Rheims of the French Academy echoes Le Pichon’s bankrupt thesis: “The vision of happiness . . . celebrated in these canvases is . . . a kind of salvation wrested from the work of art that offered the artist some compensation for the painful dramas in his life.” (The book was originally published in France as Les Peintres du Bonheur). The text merely rehearses the myth of Impressionism as a charming, genteel interlude in the history of Modernism. Le Pichon reduces the importance of the Revolution of 1848, for example, to a few platitudinous sentences. A section on “Art and Society” strings together quaint vignettes (“Rising well before dawn, Mrs. Ganne, her dog Ronflot at her heels, prepared the artists’ picnics”). Extended captions for the numerous vintage photographs reproduced are sophomoric (“Corot was a witness [at Louise Ganne’s wedding] and the life of the party”).

Besides being blind to ideology, Le Pichon’s discussion also includes Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, the radical papiers collés of the Cubists and a dark and introspective painting by de Chirico, works that exist outside the historical context of Impressionism. Although these later works are not unrelated to the problems of Impressionism, Le Pichon simply obscures the innovations of Cubism and of the Scuola metafisica in his sweeping historical gloss. In his introduction, Le Pichon states that “the task of this book” is to “create bridges that lead us back to the geographical, sociological, historical, and deeply emotional origins of Impressionism.” His enterprise, in fact, accomplishes the opposite: bridges to real insight are burned, stranding the issues of Impressionism in a space of distortions and misreadings.

Maurice Berger


Yann Le Pichon, The Real World of the Impressionists: Paintings and Photographs 1848–1918, trans. Dianne Cullinane (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1984), 288 pages, over 435 black and white illustrations, 244 color plates.