Hello everyone! I hope you all have been having a great summer week filled with ice cream, sunshine, and lots of free time for reading. I’m back home from vacation in Wisconsin now, but one of the best things about taking a break in the countryside (besides seeing family) was undoubtedly being able to sit in the sun and just lose myself in a book. In this case, that book was The Private Lives of the Impressionists, by Sue Roe.
I read Roe’s book In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and the Birth of Modernist Art a few months ago, and immediately wanted to read her earlier work on the Impressionist movement and its makers, an art period that I’m especially fond of (by which I mean that I love it to pieces). I fell in love with Claude Monet’s waterlily paintings at a young age, as well as the works of Renoir and Mary Cassatt, and the chance to learn more about these artists and the world they worked in was just too good to pass up.
The book begins in the year 1860, before the Franco-Prussian War, before the formation of the Impressionists, before Paris was anything close to the city it is today. It follows each of the original group of Impressionists–Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Alfred Sisley, Frédéric Bazille, Berthe Morisot, and Edouard Manet–as they develop their own styles and cope with their own struggles (many of which, unsurprisingly, were financial). Roe seeks to inform the reader not only about her subjects’ art and the role it played in the late-19th century, but also about who they really were—from their personalities to their relationships to their smallest idiosyncrasies. What results is an extraordinarily researched, masterfully written overview of how both the Impressionists and their work changed in the years leading up to the 1900s, and I absolutely loved diving into it.
Arguably what I enjoyed most about Private Lives was how real and vibrant each of its players felt. Through the use of letters and journal entries, Roe is able to present these men and women in all their complexity, and she does it wonderfully. The reader learns that Edouard Manet was a ladies’ man on top of being a ladies’ painter, and that while Claude Monet created some of the most beautiful, amazing works of his time, he wasn’t exactly a responsible husband or father (shattering all of my seven-year-old self’s illusions—Linnea in Monet’s Garden taught me none of this). I loved reading about Renoir and his devotion to the poor children of Montmartre, as well as about Pissarro and his mentoring of other artists, including Cézanne and, later, the young Paul Gauguin. I particularly relished the chance to learn more about Berthe Morisot, the only woman in the original, principal group of Impressionists (eventually to be joined by the amazing Mary Cassatt). (Seriously, if you haven’t heard of her, look her up.) Roe’s research and writing made me feel as if I truly knew some of these artists and their personalities, and it only made it harder to put the book down.
However, I was also captivated by Roe’s descriptions of the world of the Impressionists itself, especially of the places in which they lived. Her language portrays each place in just such a way that it isn’t hard to see what attracted the artists in the first place, and each new description made me want to visit them more. From Poissy to Giverny to Paris itself, each one feels as real as the paintings themselves, and it made it all too easy to get lost in the pages.
But The Private Lives is a far cry from focusing solely on the artists themselves, as if they existed in a vacuum. One of the best things about the book is that it gives more than enough context regarding the times the artists lived in, from their conflicts with the Académie des Beaux-Arts to what they did during the Franco-Prussian War. I’ll admit that I was somewhat less interested in the complex ins and outs of French politics (some sections of which were a little confusing), but these passages are important to understanding the Impressionists’ time period, and did not really negate from my enjoyment of the book overall. And besides, some of the less art-focused passages are just as interesting as the lives of the artists themselves (the Ernest Hoschedé bankruptcy and subsequent merging of the Monet-Hoschedé families comes to mind—to me, that was just wild).
As someone who already loves learning about art history, particularly when that history involves Impressionism, it certainly isn’t surprising that I loved The Private Lives as much as I did. But I would argue that the thoroughness and intimacy of the work makes it a great read for anyone who is interested in art, and maybe even for those who aren’t. While the lives of the artists are the main focus of the book, there is also ample room for the actual beauty of their works to shine through. Many of them were often penniless, ridiculed, and almost always at odds with the artistic establishment, but their work stands apart—waterlilies and all.
That’s it for me today. Hope you all have a wonderful rest of your weekend, and stay hydrated!