Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 26, 2016
Anthea Callen The Work of Art: Plein-air Painting and Artistic Identity in Nineteenth-Century France London: Reaktion, 2015. 336 pp.; 143 color ills.; 56 b/w ills. Cloth $50.00 (9781780233550)

Anthea Callen, a foremost expert on the materials of French painting, makes one of her core arguments at the end of this important book: “Painting is a craft and a science as well as an art” (266). In addition to craft and science, the book’s emphasis falls—emphatically—upon art as labor (the work of art), and it therefore closely examines the character and connotations of the visible painted mark. She views it as the index of an artist’s working methods and tools, but also the inescapable sign of the painter’s aesthetic, social, and institutional allegiances. The book’s remit thus exceeds the provision of purely factual data about equipment and preparation, and it elucidates the social consequences and valences of outdoor painting practices in the 1800s, correlating making and physicality directly with identity throughout the book’s four chapters.

Callen places plein-air painters at the center of the era’s innovations “in terms of modern artistic identity, truth and integrity, and the new attention to relations between meaning and making” (9). Stressing the priority of early nineteenth-century practice to this phenomenon, she wisely enlists Lawrence Gowing to point out that “the Impressionists ‘were after all the great culminating plein-airistes’ not the method’s inventors” (27). The book’s labor-centric perspective is supported by an abundance of detail about the physical ingredients of, and equipment required to make, plein-air paintings. Callen inventories the logistical dimensions of this kind of outdoor work from the Barbizon through the Post-Impressionist generations. That such painting encompassed the need for muscular strength to tote supplies and the wearing of rugged clothing (not to mention the privilege of unescorted wandering) made plein-air painting an exclusively male preserve. She makes the salient point that the rise of plein-airisme “affirmed the exclusion of women” by enabling “male painters to carve out an almost exclusively masculine territory” (12).

The book is especially good on the multiple connotations of the visible paint stroke. Challenging an orthodoxy that regards the visible stroke as invariably a rebarbative, hard-won emblem of resistance, she notes: “The key to the successful étude was the direct gestural mark with its ability to suggest both the appearance and the immediacy of observed effects” (26). The étude (study) is thus redefined as a bearer of observational and representational success and honesty, and positioned as absolutely fundamental to the period’s shift of aesthetic priorities. This point returns later when she notes that marks left visible in the later 1870s not only “became the ‘signature’ of progressive painters” (201) but also “an overt sign of work” (208; emphasis in original).

Chapter 1, which tracks the origins of plein-air painting up to 1850, accounts for a seismic shift in French art: landscape painting’s rise to supremacy. The fundamental cause according to Callen was “the shift towards close empirical study of nature outdoors” (40), a legacy of Enlightenment fascination with the natural sciences. She tracks the geographic move from Rome, Naples, and the Alps before the 1820s to sites closer to Paris, especially the Forest of Fontainebleau, after that date. As Callen explains, this relocation was not merely or even barely aesthetic: it involved the rise of French nationalism and of less affluent painters. Increasing numbers of plein-airistes in France also begot a “proliferation of images of artists at work on the motif” (52). Her discussion of this documentary turn would have benefited by linking it to the simultaneous rise of genre painting and commercial print culture.

The chapter finishes by studying a range of new optical devices as well as the rise of portable easels and paint boxes. One of her significant discussions concerns tin tube colors. An art-historical bromide holds that the tin tube “begot” outdoor painting. Callen complicates that narrative by showing that hand-ground pigments in pig bladders were preferred by many of the star innovators of the day. Moreover, the tubes were not always cheaper: “the new tubes were not cost neutral until around 1860” (70).

Chapter 2 focuses upon Gustave Courbet’s practice, and shines a bright light upon his extensive use of a knife for painting. Readers are helpfully reminded that “the story of knife painting in nineteenth-century France . . . is primarily a story of landscape painting and its rise to prominence as a genre” (106). Callen goes on to underscore its particular importance to landscape in Courbet’s case: “rarely employed for interior scenes or still-lifes, his knife was the tool par excellence of his landscape” (143). She here raises the issue of the “reflexive relationship” (105) between artistic identity and painters’ materials. Readers familiar with the literature on the contingency of the political valences of Courbet’s canvases for different audiences will be justifiably worried by this asseveration, because a strict alignment between identity and technique in Courbet’s case confines his oeuvre in a Procrustean bed.

That said, the argument that Courbet’s knife marks are willful indices of independence, radicalism, modernity, and “authenticity” (121) is largely convincing, and tangibly links him to later artists. Callen proposes, for example, that Paul Cézanne’s use of a knife in his figure painting was a departure from and challenge to Courbet’s example. She stresses the unambiguous, cognate link between technique and persona in the case of Courbet (“the coarse ‘worker-painter’”) and Cézanne (“the ‘uncouth’ Provençal”) as well as Camille Pissarro (“the ‘earthy’ Jewish [artist] from rural Pontoise”) (149–50). The knife as a marker of speed (vs. the slower brush) is another central topic of discussion. In making that distinction, Callen rightly notes that art historians unfamiliar with technique (perhaps never having bothered to dirty their own hands) have discussed facture without distinguishing between brushed and knifed applications of oil paint (116). Callen shows herself to be a leading partisan of the recent “material turn.”

Chapter 3 focuses upon Cézanne’s and Pissarro’s knife painting. It builds upon the perspectives that undergird the previous chapter while adducing much more information about the styles and merchandising of painting knives (used as of 1830), thus further supporting the connection she draws between knives and artistic virility. “As against the effete Salon painter, or painter for bourgeois salons, the work of knife painting was for the landscape artist a self-conscious reclamation of the status and masculinity of the skilled artisan painter/decorator” (160). Another key point of the chapter is the alignment between visible material labor and the celebration of artisanal labor in the work of these landscape painters, in the sense of reclaiming “the dignity of craft labor” (194). The account of the balance between seeing and making in Cézanne’s work (195) is among the strongest parts of the book. Also essential reading is the distinction she draws between the tache and the touche in period art-critical discourse (197ff.).

Chapter 4 includes an exceptionally shrewd discussion of the paradox at the center of Impressionist plein-air painting: the notorious tension between the time it takes to paint a desired effect, and the impossibly fleeting duration of the effect itself. The centerpiece of the chapter is a detailed technical analysis of one painting, a landscape by Gustave Caillebotte, Laundry Drying on the Banks of the Seine, Petit Gennevilliers (ca. 1892). Its exhaustive detail calls into question the utility of technical data for the explanation of art works so studied. Does the new information affect interpretation? If so, how? This challenge lies at the very center of such material analyses, on the increase in the discipline. Inasmuch as art-historical interpretation often insists that great art transcends its (shabby, earthbound) materials, placing an emphasis upon the centrality of material analysis to the advancement of a better method of explanation raises new questions, and demands thoughtful answers.

Working with a team of specialists in Cologne, Callen discovered salient details: the poplar bud stuck in the paint, for example, was connected neither to Caillebotte’s painting campaign (based largely in the studio) nor to the trees in his picture. Though interesting, these new facts about the physicality of Caillebotte’s brushy painting did not prove decisive. Readers are offered an enormous amount of information about the painting’s ingredients and ostensible manufacture, but in the end they are used in the service of an analysis one could make iconographically: Callen links the visibility of the paint strokes to the performance of laundry work in public wash houses along the Seine. This chapter does end with a useful discussion of Impressionist palettes, demonstrating that what mattered is understanding what the artists “chose to exclude from their palettes—most of the Barbizon earth colors, especially the dark ones like burnt and raw umber, as well as bitumen, and often black—rather than what they included” (259).

The book contains more than a few jarring propositions that interrupt the flow and the logic of its main arguments. For example, “The ‘City of Light’ as cityscape was a crucible that generated the light and color of modern painting” (21) is not easily understood in view of the book’s emphasis on the practice of plein-airism in the countryside. Callen also briefly touches on “the porous boundaries in the first half of the nineteenth century between fine artists, craftsman, colormen, picture dealing, printmaking, restoration and framing, and indeed the new world of optical technologies” (91). What kind of printmaking is evoked here, and what connection does it have with the plein-air practices analyzed in the book? Finally, in need of further discussion is one of the book’s key points: the claim that plein-airistes whose paint left visible marks were reclaiming the dignity of craft labor. As craft was not gendered exclusively masculine in the nineteenth century, the argument requires elaboration.

A final point: this impressive book, chockablock with technical information, deserves a conclusion. Its intensive, even claustrophobic, discussions of individual practices and pictures needs a synthetic overview to tie up loose ends and an assessment of how meaning changes when new material and production data are gathered and assessed. How does her account change the history of nineteenth-century French painting? Without answers to this essential question, Callen’s otherwise admirable book falls short of making a decisive historiographic intervention.

Hollis Clayson
Bergen Evans Professor in the Humanities, Department of Art History, Northwestern University