Group portrait of the French artists linked by shifting alliances who emerged in the 1860s, endured parody and ridicule before triumphing at their first New York City exhibition in 1886 and enjoy towering reputations (and prices) today.
In his late 70s, near death but still painting, Renoir reportedly said of his profession, “I think I am beginning to understand something about it.” His words could serve as an epigraph for this fine synthesis of a remarkable movement and its principals. It took decades for professional art critics and the public to accept the work of Manet, Monet, Degas, Cézanne and the other astonishingly talented artists who, for survival’s sake, first formed a loose coalition, then actually wrote and signed a (short-lived) charter. Poet and novelist Roe has written about the art world before (Gwen John: A Painter’s Life, 2001) and here shows evidence of having read the significant biographies of both major and minor players (many quotations are tertiary) and of walking the ground the notables once trod. The title suggests titillation and does not disappoint, with its frank account of the subjects’ financial and personal struggles, loves and losses. But she also deals with the era’s political, economic and military developments. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 had a particularly powerful impact on the artists; a number of them ran toward the fray, and one of their number, Bazille, died in battle. Roe has plucked from her subjects’ lives many engaging and poignant stories: Renoir’s escape from a firing squad, Manet’s fascination with feet (and his death from syphilis), the savage reviews the group endured from critic Albert Wolff, Degas’s struggles with his sculpture of a young dancer. The author properly emphasizes the pivotal role played by art-dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who believed in the Impressionists from the start and dedicated his life to their cause—and financial solvency.
Intelligent and well-crafted portraits of some of history’s most intriguing geniuses.