Realism, Impressionism and 19th Century France

Humanities in Dialogue Series Explores Social Change Through Art in Professor Young’s Recent Book

The latest installment of the Humanities in Dialogue series—discussions between faculty members with different areas of expertise, presented by the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Honors Program at Yeshiva College—offered a lively interview of Dr. Marnin Young about his recent book, Realism in the Age of Impressionism: Painting and the Politics of Time. The interview was conducted by Dr. Rachel Mesch. Young is an associate professor of art history at Stern College for Women, and Mesch is an associate professor of French and English and chair of the department of foreign languages and cultures at Yeshiva College.

In his book, Young explBook_Coverores how the economic and social changes cascading through French society of the late 1870s and early 1880s affected the shift from mid-19th century realistic painting, with its focus on order and “slow time,” to the “instantaneity” of impressionism, with its quick brush strokes and lighter touch. Impressionism was trying to capture the same one-tenth of a second that the newly invented technology of instantaneous photography was also trying to capture.

He focuses in detail on how Realist painting tried to hold on as a legitimate mode of expression as contemporary society became more attuned to clocks and moved away from the circadian rhythms and social quiescence of an earlier time.

Under Mesch’s questioning, Young explained how and why he structured his book around five emblematic realistic paintings: Haymaking (Jules Bastien-Lapage), Decorative Triptych (Gustave Caillebotte), The Strike of the Miners (Alfred-Philippe Roll), The Absinthe Drinkers (Jean-François Raffaëlli) and Russian Music (James Ensor.)

Dr. Marnin Young

Dr. Marnin Young

Each of these painters, infused by the values of their society, tried to “grapple with the puzzling and often frightening acceleration of the advanced urban life they called their own.”  For example, in each of his selected pictures, while the people may appear to be inactive—a rural worker gazes off into the middle distance in Haymaking, or two hobos just pass aimless time in The Absinthe Drinkers—Young argues that they are in fact resisting the pull of the clock and the train schedule and the industrial system.

Rachel Mesch

Dr. Rachel Mesch

This tension mirrors many of the discussions within French society about that society’s future. A city population still only a generation or two away from being peasants on the land contended with new velocities of change that threatened to do away with rural life and the nostalgia for it, what Young called “the ideology of the countryside.”

Many other topics were covered in both the interview between Young and Mesch and in the Q&A afterwards, ranging over photographic technologies, Emile Zola versus Victor Hugo (with Balzac and Flaubert thrown in), the “ideology of romance” that enthralls Emma Bovary and the coming of Karl Marx’s work to France in the late 19th century.

Young’s next project is, appropriately enough, focusing on post-Impressionism along with a history of changes in exhibition strategies as galleries and museums moved away from crowding artworks together to the more modern practice of single pictures hung on a wall and spaced apart from each other.


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