Impressionists Side by Side

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Barbara Ehrlich White’s title does a fine job of summarizing her book’s approach but gives little idea of its sumptuous and revealing content. She considers several pairs of painters—Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet, Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir, as well as others—by examining their fruitful impact upon each other, identifying the factors that made for such creative synergy.

Degas and Manet painted with each other as early as 1861, bringing similar, coolly aristocratic attitudes to bear but surreptitiously denigrating each other’s work. Monet and Renoir established a warmer working relationship beginning in 1866, despite the former’s domineering temperament, as did Paul Cezanne and bohemian Camille Pissarro in 1872. Both these latter pairs frequently painted the same scene side by side in the open air, and often painted each other. White also considers the painters Mary Cassatt (the only American in the group) and Berthe Morisot in relationship to each other and to their male counterparts. Cassatt built her style on Degas’s, for instance, profiting from his talent and advice but ultimately blunting her art.

What these eight individuals had in common was less a style than an intention: to capture the world spontaneously and joyfully in paint. White highlights their similarities and differences in dozens of paired color reproductions, comparing, for instance, Cezanne’s geometrical treatment of the same scene that Pissarro would interpret in softer, freer, but perhaps less compelling terms.

The Impressionists have been interpreted to death during the late twentieth century, but White provides a fresh approach that helps readers see them clearly once again—a crucial requirement for artists for whom seeing was everything.