Sunday, September 19, 2010

An 'Impression' of Impressionism

Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878

We've spent the last two weeks in my Modern class discussing the Impressionists. We read Richard Shiff's essay "Defining 'Impressionism' and the 'Impression'" and have thoroughly discussed (read: beat to death) the idea of the artist's impression of the world, their vision, and their subsequent translation of that vision to the viewer.

One of the things I (and everyone else) love about Mary Cassatt is her ability to capture a moment. Whether it's a moment of tenderness, of intimacy, or even of sheer boredom, her vision of the world was such that it allowed her to translate and give to the viewer these glimpses into the smallest instance of true expression.

When I saw this image of my new niece, Natalie, I immediately thought of the Cassatt painting above. I was, again, struck by the kind of truthfulness that she captures in her paintings. And the idea of "truthfulness" took me back to Shiff, who identifies the "impression" as the theoretical means by which the late-19th century artist arrived at a sense of "truth" or "knowledge." According to Shiff, developments in positivistic thinking, optics, and psychology led to a greater recognition that the idea of "absolute truth," or the ability to completely know a subject, was gradually replaced by an emphasis on individual experience and perceptions that rendered "truth" a more relative experience. Hence, the Impressionists presented their experiences or "impressions" of their own truth, that spoke not just of the world around them, but of how they understood the world around them. Or, as Shiff states: "Whatever truth or reality is represented must relate to the artist himself [or herself] as well as to nature. Indeed, one might say that the artist paints a 'self' on the pretext of painting 'nature.'"

I wonder, then, if it's not this balance of the natural world and the self that makes us value the Impressionists the way that we do. Inundated by commercial reprints, innumerable blockbuster exhibitions, and countless commercial products, Impressionist works remain some of the most recognized and enjoyed examples of Western art. Perhaps it's because Impressionism represents a specific moment in time, before more esoteric versions of Modernism, when art maintained a delicate balance between a connection to the natural world, innovative techniques, and a dedication to the "self." But when I look at Cassatt's Little Girl in a Blue Armchair next to the photo of Natalie, I can't help but think that it's not only the artist's "self" that is on display here. I see the "truth" of knowing and loving a precocious 3-year-old girl and that has given me a renewed interest and a greater appreciation of the Cassatt painting. As a spectator, I see something of my own world and, in the end, it's my own "self" that Cassatt has captured in the painting.


Earl Grey said...

Hi Jamie, what a stunning comparison between those images! The personal view that Impressionism offers is compelling. One of the things that interests me is how Impressionism *has* to become fractured, by its end, along with the dissolution of the group of Impressionists. In other words, the demise of the movement, to me, was part of its "process", if you will. Could it have been possible for the independent artists to be aligned and/or forge alliances any longer, post 1886? I don't believe so.

Mexifem said...

We will actually be talking about today as we debate the usefulness of the term "post-impressionism."