Realism in the Characterization of the Impressionist Painters: Its Manifestations and Causes
Below you will find the final essay I wrote for my art history class on Impressionist art. In it, I respond to a novel written and set during the heyday of Impressionism, discussing the realism (or lack thereof) portrayed by prominent writer Emile Zola.
One of the prominent features of the Masterpiece by Emile Zola is its temporality. The novel’s content is inextricable from a specific time period. For this reason, it is not only a novel but also a historical artifact, as it offers insight into the Impressionist art movement. The fictional nature of the work, on the other hand, calls the validity of this historical insight into question. There is truth in all fiction, but how much truth and of what nature is a debate worthy of consideration.
I propose that Zola’s protagonist, Claude, captures in some ways a highly realistic characterization of a “generic” Impressionist painter. However, the fact that Claude’s thought processes, dialogue, and interests parallel Pissarro’s private letters more than those of Cezanne (who Claude was ostensibly based on) implicates a blind spot in Zola’s portrayal. For this reason, Zola’s realism may be attributable to an intuitive understanding of the social environment around him that, despite serving his writing well, could be limited in other ways by personality differences between Zola and Cezanne.
Zola’s realism is most apparent in his portrayal of the Impressionist social environment. This is evident when comparing Claude’s dialogues to the private letters of Camille Pissarro (which are written to his son, Lucien). When Claude reacts to the paintings of various other characters, Zola’s writing is often structurally very similar to Pissarro’s. For example, Pissarro remarks that “As for Sisley, I just can’t enjoy his work, it is commonplace, forced, disordered; Sisley has a good eye, and his work will certainly charm all those whose artistic sense is not very refined” (Pissaro 10). This distilled evaluation of the skill in Sisley’s works mirrors Claude’s own engagements with the works of other artists. Of Fagerolles, he remarks that “you take a modern subject, use light colours, but stick to the correct and commonplace drawing, the pleasant, standardized composition, the formula, in short, guaranteed by the Beaux-Arts to give satisfaction to people with plenty of money and no taste” (Zola 178). The structures of these two quotes are highly similar. Each can be broken down into: an assertion about the artistic sensibilities of the “masses”; an assumption about what artistic properties are common and which are unique; and a value judgement that is nuanced in that it addresses both positive and negative attributes of the artworks. This similitude in the way Pissarro and Claude engage with their artistic peers supports the idea that Zola portrayed realistically the way the Impressionist painters related to one another.
These kinds of parallels are numerous. In another instance, Claude remarks of Chaine that “…a clumsy job he made of it, succeeding only in reducing the purest and most vibrant colours to the same oppressive drab. But, for all his lack of skill, his great gift was accuracy… His stove, its perspective completely askew, was precise and lifeless and the colour of mud” (Zola 59-60). This quote echoes Pissarro when he says that “Yesterday I saw a picture by Guillaumin. It is always the same art, although a little less brutal. With all his talent he falls back on dark tones. It is really unfortunate to deliberately blind oneself!” (Pissarro 225). Once again, Pissarro and Claude relate to their fellow painters in remarkably similar ways. In this case, the structure of each of the quotes distills to: an overall condemnation of an artist, spurred by a specific disliked painting; a redeeming compliment amidst an otherwise negative appraisal; and an assumption that a painting style with darker and less vibrant tones is inferior to the “speaker’s” stylistic preferences. Zola clearly captured some basic “truth” about how his artist peers interacted with one another.
What is remarkable about these instances of profound similarity between Zola’s character and Pissarro is that they diverge from Zola’s real goals for the novel. Claude’s career and personality are ostensibly drawn from individuals such as Manet and Cezanne, rather than Pissarro. Perhaps more importantly, Zola focuses primarily on Claude’s relationships and his tragic life trajectory, rather than on the Impressionist movement. Claude’s profession is arguably tangential to the goals of the Masterpiece, and Zola’s depiction of the Impressionist movement even displays factual inaccuracies. When considering these factors, it seems curious that the voice and phrasing Zola selects should still emulate Pissarro’s so closely.
I believe that it is to Zola’s intuition that this realism can be attributed. Intuition is as fascinating as it is obscure; because it is a tool rooted in the subconscious, it is inherently alien to the conscious mind. Its mechanism, however, is at its root very simple: Intuition uses the large volumes of leftover data that we are exposed to all the time but cannot consciously engage with. Intuition is the brain’s way of overcoming the limitations of our conscious processing power. It is like sophisticated data analysis software for human experiences. And much like any process of data analysis, intuition functions at its best with large sample sizes. The more experiences related to a certain subject, and the greater the richness of detail in those experiences, the more active and useful an individual’s intuition for that subject will be.
It is no wonder, then, which environments foster innovation and creativity (two seemingly mysterious processes that rely heavily on intuition). Cities, with their high-stimulation environments and high rates of idea exchange, are bound to stimulate intuition and promote more and greater cognitive leaps. Coffee shops were considered nexuses of innovation for the same reason. The social environment of the Impressionist artists and those who associated with them is an excellent example of one of these hot spots for intuition. There were dynamic political and societal stimuli that fueled, in turn, a rich intellectual and social community that frequently exchanged ideas. In short, Zola worked and socialized in a setting that offered him ample fuel for his intuition in the form of large amounts of stimulating experiential data.
Through an evaluation of the shortcomings of Zola’s realism, more evidence of an intuitive basis emerges. In the same way as any human behavior, intuition is limited by such factors as cognitive biases, limited perceptions, and quirks of evolutionary development. Most importantly, intuition is limited because its interpretation and application is personal, so the outcome of intuition is just as individualized and non-universal as any human behavior. This means that even accurate intuition is biased and explains why, although Zola’s writing so accurately capture’s Pissarro’s written mannerisms, it differs much more from artists like Cezanne, one of the alleged inspirations for Claude’s character design.
One of the best models I have ever encountered for conceptualizing the variation in human approaches to life is in Carl Jung’s book Psychological Types. In a poignant description of the vast chasms that exist between the personal life approaches of different individuals, Jung quotes Friedrich Shiller describing:
…an antagonism which, because it is radical and grounded in the innate emotional constitution, is the cause of a sharper division among men than the random conflict of interests could ever bring about; which robs the poet and artist of all hope of making a universal appeal and giving pleasure to every one—although this is his task… in short, an antagonism which is to blame for the fact that no work of the mind and no deed of the heart can have a decisive success with one class of men without incurring the condemnation of the other. This antagonism is, without doubt, as old as the beginning of culture, and to the end it can hardly be otherwise, save in rare individual cases, such as have always existed and, it is to be hoped, will always exist. (Jung 133-134)
Most of Psychological Types is devoted to the development Jung’s own theory of personality classification through analysis of historical, philosophical, and literary sources. One of the essential concepts Jung champions is that of the introvert/extravert dichotomy in human nature. The extravert is concerned with “the object” and values objective reality and the material world, which has inflated importance in his life and behaviors; the introvert, on the other hand, is repelled by “the object” and places much more importance on his subjective inner experiences (“the human factor”).
Zola’s writing style and subject matter reflect an extraverted attitude. This is evident from the first few pages of the book, with Zola’s long, specific, and matter-of-fact descriptions of the world the characters inhabit. He writes:
The minutest details were clearly visible. One could pick out the little closed shutters along the Quai des Ormes and the narrow slits of the Rue de la Masure and the Rue du Paon-Blanc breaking the line of the houses; near the Pont-Marie, where those huge plane-trees provide such a magnificent patch of greenery, one could have counted every single leaf. In the other direction, under the Pont Louis-Philippe, the flat river barges moored four deep along the Mail, piled high with yellow apples, were a blaze of gold. (Zola 5)
These long descriptions seem to be the work of a writer who places a high value on concrete outer phenomena, and are an indication of an extraverted approach to life.
Further evidence lies in the values Zola champions. He uses some of the final words of his writer “avatar,” Sandoz, to lament, “How could he be expected to take a clear, sane, balanced view of anything when his brain was never free of such weird and wonderful notions?…Even with your generation between us and the Romantics, ours is still too clogged up with lyricism to produce anything really sound” (Zola 357). Referring to imagination and symbolism so negatively is an extraverted viewpoint. Jung reminds his readers in Psychological Types that “the normal bias of the extraverted attitude to the nature of the introvert” is prone to “overvaluing our capacity for objective cognition” and “[repressing] the importance of the subjective factor” (Jung 374). Zola espouses the extravert’s overvaluation of the outside world, criticizing what he viewed as less “practical” and “realistic” viewpoints.
If Zola is an extravert, this helps explain the disparities between his characterization of Claude and the writing of Cezanne. Unlike the striking similarities between Pissarro’s letters and Claude’s viewpoints in the Masterpiece, Cezanne’s writing departs from how Zola portrays the Impressionist painters. Cezanne exhibits greater self-reflection and reserve in his writing, indicating an introverted personality. Where Pissarro and Claude spoke habitually of phenomena they observed in the outside world, and Claude emphasized objective ideals and outward measures of success, Cezanne prioritizes the quieter, personal side of art. He writes “You need to find a moral, an intellectual point of support in works, which assuredly will never be surpassed, keeps you constantly on the qui vive, incessantly on the search for the means, only dimly perceived, which will surely lead you, in front of nature, to sense your own means of expression” (Cezanne 309). This emphasis on personal values and inner power differs markedly from Sandoz’ condemnation of fancy and “weirdness.”
Cezanne even expresses a desire to remain anonymous, unlike the fame-driven characters in the Masterpiece, writing “All my life I have worked to be able to earn my living, but I thought that one could do good painting without attracting attention to one’s private life. Certainly, an artist wishes to raise himself intellectually as much as possible, but the man must remain obscure” (Cezanne 245). This kind of desire to stay out of the public eye is an indication of introversion. And in addition to the self-reflective, subjective values espoused in his writing, the fact that Cezanne had a falling out with Zola is further evidence that the one is introverted and the other, extraverted. This fundamental personality difference, although far from an insurmountable barrier, can still exacerbate conflict by making it more difficult for the parties to understand one another.
Ultimately, Zola’s novel is in some ways a brilliant historical snapshot of the Impressionist movement, as is proven by the profound similarities Claude’s thought processes bear to Pissarro’s; but he has captured only a limited slice of reality, as demonstrated by the entirely different character of the writing of Cezanne. Overall, the evidence seems to indicate that Zola’s intuition has helped guide him to very complex, sophisticated realism in some areas, but that the limits of his intuition also place limitations on how realistic his work is, preventing him from capturing a “likeness” of Cezanne, who Claude was more closely based on. In the end, however, no matter how closely analyzed, perhaps the Masterpiece deserves to be thought of as a work of art instead of a historical artifact. After all, there is truth in all fiction—above and beyond its temporal nature and above and beyond its practical nature.
Cezanne, Paul. Paul Cezanne, Letters. Edited by John Rewald, 4th ed., Hacker Art Books, Inc., 1976.
Jung, Carl Gustav. Psychological Types. Princeton University Press, 1976.
Pissarro, Camille. Camille Pissarro, Letters to His Son Lucien. Edited by John Rewald, 3rd ed., Paul P. Appel, 1972.
Zola, Emile. The Masterpiece. Translated by Thomas Walton, Oxford University Press, 2008.