Notes from The Heart House

Brainy single-payer blog testing the waters on business, media, art and culture with the occasional critical theory slant.

The Emergence of Capitalism in Impressionist Painting

The general understanding of subjects in Impressionist painting is often linked to a new representation of a newfound modernized society. Beyond modernization in the nineteenth century, however, Impressionist painting also aptly discloses the newer economic and social state of the time: capitalism. By the mid-1800s the old aristocracy had dissolved into a different class divide between the upper class bourgeoisie and the working class proletariat, and industrialization increased the lust for commodities, which in turn overburdened the proletariat.

These capitalist underpinnings were unavoidable as politics of economy and modes of production particularly influenced social and class status. “…The [bourgeois] served no productive function; it was supported entirely by the… activity of the [proletariat]. Obviously, works of art originating in this… society… could not fail to be influenced by this situation” (Plekhenov, 163). While intentions of Impressionist painters and some of their contemporary literary artists can never truly be known, and despite possible assumptions that many major painters did not perceive an increasingly prevalent new lifestyle as an effect of capitalism, the postmodern viewer is still able to see images of capitalism in Impressionist paintings at work.

Some of the symptoms of capitalism that appeared during the new modernized period include an increase in commerce and entertainment industries, as seen in Impressionist-era works of artists such as Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas. Specifically in their paintings of cafés, one of the many new contrivances for the modern lifestyle, Manet and Degas were not only painting images of modern society, but they were also painting scenes of social stratification, specifically the working class. Put plainly, as they were painting the urban scenes they saw before their eyes, they were also capturing features of capitalism at hand.

Furthermore, their theories of painting were not impartial. If Impressionist painters used light as one of the major incentives for a technical realism, “it must be recognized that their realism was quite superficial, penetrating only the surface…” (Plekhenov, 56). Moreover, “the Impressionists see real living lines, without geometrical form, built from thousands of irregular touches, which, at a distance, give the thing life” (Clark, 16). The dramatic use of color and light is the Impressionist’s version of realism, in which they tried to put down onto the canvas what their eyes saw. Realism at the time corresponded with the idea of naturalism, which more or less was designated as another name for “objectivity.”

Ultimately, however, Manet and Degas’ paintings should not be misconstrued as paintings done with an objective, “Impressionist” eye. Rather, each painting suggests the perspective of a distinctly upper class member of bourgeois society. A premiere art critic and lyrical poet during the Impressionist era, Charles Baudelaire trumped the image of the flâneur, whom he fundamentally describes as a “man of the world.” The flâneur is an empowered bourgeois male, who “rather consciously emulated the British aristocrat and gentleman” (Herbert, 24). This “man of the world” is the presupposed man of exemplary genius entrusted to convey the “moral and aesthetic feeling of their time;” it is the “flâneur, the passionate spectator…a prince,” who is the artist (Baudelaire, 2,7).

In essence, the flâneur is a stroller, a man free to roam and observe with a keen eye his world around him. In other words, the flâneur assumes a privileged place in society, one in which he needs not work for livelihood, unlike his working class compatriots. Instead, “he is the painter of the passing moment… [A chronicler] of poverty and the humble life” (Baudelaire, 5). Subject to his own constructed social identity, Baudelaire substantiates the concept of the flâneur as limited to the privilege of only men of prominent social status, such as his own contemporaries Manet and Degas. Correspondingly, the subjectivity of their upper class vision is pervasive in their resulting paintings, and exaggerated as objective.

For instance, Degas’ painting, titled Absinthe, is a strategically organized café scene centered upon a lower class woman sitting alone in front of her drink. She is identified as such because of the modest apparel she wears as well as her drink of choice, absinthe. A popular drink of the working class, it is distinguished in the painting by its well-known greenish hue. During Absinthe’s production, the temperance movement in France was largely focused on absinthe and women’s drinking, largely “a hypocritical attempt to control working-class cabarets, while leaving untouched the drinking that went on in high-class places” (Herbert, 74). But despite Absinthe’s correlation with these contemporary concerns, Degas was attempting to maintain an “apparent detachment,” a popular feature of the current artistic movement of the time, naturalism.

However, in doing so he has no less than objectified this woman for a spectator’s gratification. By filling up the lower left corner of the canvas with the edge of a table, Degas has created a composition that pulls the viewer into the painting as though they were part of the scene. In this way, we are compelled to realize that we are looking at this woman from a distanced, yet actively involved voyeuristic position. Most importantly, however, the eyes we are looking through are, of course, specifically the privileged flâneur’s eyes. Accordingly with Baudelaire’s idea of the “man of the world,” as a flâneur Degas has managed to capture a fleeting moment of the “humble life.”

Another indication of the separation between classes in nineteenth century French is in Walter Benjamin’s description of two very different types of “observation posts:” the “man of leisure,” the flâneur, and the “anonymous consumer” (Benjamin, 49).

“The man of leisure sits in his alcove as in a box in the theatre; when he wants to take a closer look… he has opera glasses at hand. On the other hand there is the anonymous consumer who enters a café and will shortly leave it again, attracted by the magnet of the mass which constantly has him in its range” (Benjamin, 49).

What Benjamin refers to as “the magnet of the mass” is the fettered existence the “anonymous consumer,” otherwise known as the lower class, is constrained to living. “The poor are more or less completely excluded from the possibility of making lifestyle choices” because all their time is spent earning his subsistence in a day by day cycle (Harris, 19).

Accordingly, were the painting done from the “objective” point of view of the “anonymous consumer,” certainly a very different image of the café would have appeared in Absinthe. The perspective would most likely have shifted focus away from an apparently leisurely scrutiny of someone who looked like themselves and towards a truly glance-like moment, as though on the way out the door. Or the composition of the painting would not push the viewer to feel so detached from the woman. Were the painting drawn from the perspective of the woman’s peer, perhaps the painting would be closer to providing the viewers with a feeling of identification.

A contemporary painting painted two years after Absinthe, Paris, Au Restaurant le Doyen, by Ernest Ange Duez, demonstrates the extra detachedness of Degas’ painting. By comparison, Duez’s painting also uses a table as a primary prop in the painting, but its placement has a less dynamic effect than that of Absinthe, and furthermore people in the café surround the woman. Their proximity reduces the sensation of the woman’s isolation that viewers get from Absinthe. And finally, the woman looks out towards the viewer, which is a quick way to invite the viewer to identify with the human subject of the painting. Altogether, Degas’ painting is a more powerful painting, albeit produced from the perspective of the flâneur.

Similarly, The Orchestra of the Opera, another painting done by Degas, also extends the notion of a particularly distanced position. Primarily a portrait of his friend Desiré Dihau, Degas places him in the setting of an orchestra pit, creating an ultimate impression for viewership of Dihau and his bassoon as an almost foreign element in our world, accessible only by looking. Again, Degas has created a composition with a barrier obstruction at the bottom quarter of the painting, reminding us that the musicians are separated from us. Moreover, the portraiture is limited more to a depiction of an orchestra than an attempt to capture Dihau’s personality. “It is specific objects of perception which may alter the relation of the viewer of his paintings to the objects represented in them” (Harris, 81).

In this case, the object is the man, Desiré Dihau, and Degas’ rendering of him unquestionably steers viewers in a definite direction, the direction of the flâneur. Noticeably, the emphasis is placed more on his activity and effort of performance than his physical bodily features. His cheeks are drawn in and his lips are wrapped around the reed, and his body is posed in arrangement with his bassoon. The painting focuses on the fact that performance is work, yet from the distancing perspective on the canvas the view appears to be one removed from such work, a view not unsimilar to one that a flâneur might experience.

Edouard Manet’s café paintings convey less of a detached feeling from his human subjects than Degas, but his paintings still undoubtedly reflect a position of the flâneur. Again, the ideal flâneur is a man with “acute powers of observation and could deduce much from external details” (Herbert, 34). “It is in the places of leisure and recreation where [Manet] can most comfortably display the mingling of the classes without thereby sacrificing social hierarchy” (Boime, 113). Correspondingly, Manet’s café paintings, indeed show an uninvolved and sharp eye for social details in modern Paris whilst maintaining the distinguished social status of the flâneur.

In his Corner in a Café-Concert, the main focus of the painting is the juxtaposition of the three figures in the foreground, while the actual performer on the stage is relegated to the background of the painting. This composition indicates that it is the movement and mingling of people in the café that is of most interest to Manet, the flâneur. The chief attraction of the painting is the bright face of the waitress, ever attentive to the patrons, while her proximity to the two men at the bar create a dynamic triangular composition, which help convey a perception of a busy and crowded room.

Like Degas’ focus on the image of work in Orchestra at the Opera, the main feature of the woman in Corner in a Café-Concert is the concentrated look on her face. By making this look her main characteristic, Manet stresses the fact that she is a waitress on duty at the café-concert, a characteristic that can only be appreciated by the detached, leisured and observing flâneur.

Class division is apparent in another element of the painting. The two men at the bar are distinguished from one another by their clothing. The man closer in the foreground is wearing a workman’s wardrobe while the man beside him is evidently of a higher class, as he wears a more fashionable grey hat and is not drinking wine like the man beside him, “the more traditional drink of the Parisian worker” (Herbert, 76).

Another of Manet’s café-concert paintings, simply titled Café-Concert, shares many similarities with Corner in a Café-Concert. Again, Manet employs a dynamic triangular composition relying on three main figures to lay out the interplay between different social classes. “The Parisian café-concert was such an ideal mixing place. Strangers who would not associate out on the street could here sit side by side” (Herbert, 76). Here the waitress, also the only standing figure, takes a brief moment from patrons to have a beer of her own, reminding viewers again that she is part of the working class, while in the foreground the slack woman is also identified as a member of the lower classes by her unelaborate clothing, cigarette, and the fact that she is unaccompanied at the bar. Beside her, again, sits a man who is a quintessential flâneur with a roving eye, well dressed in his top hat, and looking at ease in the crowded cafés of Paris.

However, Manet is not attempting to convey a sense of unity with these Parisians. Instead, he imparts an impression of division between the social classes. Although the two seated figures are in such close proximity to one another, they do not communicate with each other, and the waitress herself looks appropriately assertive and comfortable in her designated workplace. Furthermore, “the contrasted colors of the larger figures’ clothing—jet black with accents of white in the man’s, greenish brown with touches of yellow in the girl’s—reinforce the distance between them” (Reff, 82). Again, it is the leisurely flâneur that has the spare time to make these noteworthy observations of the society around him, not only the man in the painting but the painter himself: “Manet knew the life of a flâneur through his own experience… The flâneur attempted to decipher the nature and biographies of the kinds of characters who became common in the new city…fashionable [men] on display, ragpickers, women of the…industry” (Frascina 82).

In Manet’s café-concert paintings, he has undoubtedly captured with precision these many types of people coming together in the city, both upper and lower class, although he would never have had this opportunity were he not a member of the leisurely upper classes himself.

By exposing the social nuances of capitalism in the café-concert paintings, the intent is not to accuse flâneurs such as Manet and Degas of insensitivity towards the proletariat or of commodities or to speak out against the bourgeoisie. Rather, it is to be able to look back over a century with an advantaged understanding of the historicity involved that the postmodern viewer can appreciate. “[Present-day viewers] need to be self-conscious about their own position as spectators of art…[they] bring to art [their] own preconceptions and knowledge, and these may be different from those of historical spectators…[as] contexts for viewing change” (Frascina, 31). Baudelaire, Manet, Degas, and their contemporaries were all subject to the ideologies of their period, and although they could not step out of their predetermined space in their capitalistic society—the upper-class flâneur—they responded to capitalist shiftings in their society in the most fitting way they could from their class standing. They responded through art and “the painting of modern life,” in which “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable” (Baudelaire, 13). “For Baudelaire, art was ultimately connected to social experiences… Specifically, in the mid-nineteenth century, this meant the negative transformations wrought by modernization and the economic interests of the [state]” (Frascina, 55). Manet and Degas’ project was to capture these details of contemporary life, otherwise known as modernity, in their paintings: “Manet has often been seen as the first painter to respond seriously to Baudelaire’s ideas” (Frascina, 82). Ultimately, artists of this new modernized period in France found themselves mainly searching for “a rational and historical theory of beauty” (Baudelaire, 3) above all else, including politics and economy. In other words, flâneurs such as Degas, Manet and Baudelaire were simply trying to seek beauty out in an otherwise distilling modern environment among the local streets, what they knew as home.

Texts of Reference

Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life, and Other Essays. Phaidon Press, Ltd. London, 1964.
Benjamin, Walter. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Verso, Great Britain, 1973.
Boggs, Jean, Druick, Douglas, Loyrette Henri, Pantazzi, Michael, Tinterow, Gary. Degas. National Gallery of Canada, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Italy. 1988.
Boime, Albert. Art and the French Commune: Imagining Paris After War and Revolution. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1995.
Cachin, François and Moffett, Charles S. Manet. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Germany, 1983.
Clark, T.J. The Painting of Modern Life. Thames and Hudson, United States, 1984.
Frascina, Francis and Harris, Jonathan, Eds. Art in Modern Culture: an Anthology of Critical Texts. Phaidon Press, Ltd. Hong Kong, 1992.
Frascina Francis, Blake, Nigel, Fer, Briony, Garb, Tamar, Harrison, Charles. Modernity and Modernism: French Painting in the Nineteenth Century. Yale University and The Open University, Hong Kong, 1993.
Herbert, Robert L. Impressionism: Art, Leisure, & Parisian Society. Yale University, Hong Kong, 1988.
Hobbs, Richard, Ed. Impressions of French Modernity. Manchester University Press, Great Britain, 1998.
Moffett, Charles S. Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1985.
Nochlin, Linda. Realism. Penguin Books, Massachusetts, 1971.
Nochlin, Linda. The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society.Harper and Row, New York, 1989.
Plekhanov, George V. Art and Society. Oriole Editions, New York, 1974.
Reff, Theodore. Manet and Modern Paris. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Connecticut, 1982.


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About the Author

Stella Tran graduated in the Liberal Arts with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Grinnell College and developed her professional experience in knowledge discovery and new media technology at Yahoo! Inc. (Read more.)
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