The Private Lives of the Impressionists

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!

Nora

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What I’ve Been Reading Lately (I’m Back!)

Hello everyone!

So, that was quite the long, unofficial hiatus. My senior year of high school is getting closer and closer to being done (I finished a year-long project and I swear, I can’t remember the last time I felt so relieved), and while there is still work to do (AP exams, deciding on a college, etc.), I’ve really been enjoying the little extra bits of free time that have been cropping up.

One of the things I’ve been having a lot of fun getting back into is, of course, reading. Reading books separate from school is something I never get to do as much as I’d like, but it’s been pretty wonderful to have been working through some here and there. So, as a little back-to-blogging update, here are a few of the books I’ve been diving into lately:

1. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

I got this as a Christmas present and was immediately interested by that lovely, old-fashioned cover. Why does the woman look so sad? What about the man through the window?

The woman, as I quickly found out, is naïve Sophia Fairclough, recently married to young painter Charles, to the immense chagrin of everyone in his family. Unfortunately, Sophia’s marriage dreams are soon compromised by poverty, unexpected babies, and a husband who is horrified at the thought of getting a job. She eventually becomes the mistress of an art critic named Peregrine, but finds that that only leads to more problems.

While Sophia is indeed naïve and doesn’t always make the best decisions, I found her unguarded, candid narrative easy to fall into, and I couldn’t help but feel for her as she tried to make a life in a world that seems especially tailored to make it difficult. I seethed at the harsh nature of some of the other characters, and felt relieved whenever something went right for once. All in all, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a book that held my attention from start to finish, and often left me holding my breath in the hope that maybe, just maybe, things would look up.

2. In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse, and the Birth of Modernist Art by Sue Roe

It took quite a long time for me to work my way through this one, but oh, was it worth it. I began taking an AP Art History course this year because I was so interested in the stories behind some of the pieces in museums, and reading Roe’s account of the group of artists and Bohemians that gave rise to cubism and other new artistic techniques only cemented my interest. The book begins with Pablo Picasso’s first visit to Paris in 1900, and ends after the emergence of new, dramatic forms of expression that had already changed the art world in ways few would have expected. It is obvious that everything was meticulously researched, and anecdotes about some of the key figures of the time (Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, etc.) made me laugh multiple times. While some of the more philosophical ideas regarding art took some time to absorb at first, I have always loved reading about the lives of the people behind the masterpieces, and In Montmartre definitely delivered. I think I’d like to the dive into The Private Lives of the Impressionists next.

3. the princess saves herself in this one by Amanda Lovelacethe princess saves herself in this one

This one feels a little bit like cheating since I actually read it at the end of last year, but it was so good that it’s showing up on this list nonetheless. I read this captivating poetry collection in one night and was instantly sucked in. Amanda Lovelace’s poems are fantastic and cutting–they’re about abuse, fat-shaming, love, and learning to value yourself. I loved the blend of feminism and allusions to fairytales, evident even in the four parts that make up the whole book: The princess, the damsel, the queen, and you. By turns angry, hurt, comforting, and full of joy, the princess saves herself in this one is one of those books that I finished quickly and immediately wanted to read all over again.

4. Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World edited by Kelly Jensen

Continuing with the feminism theme, I was overjoyed when my copy of Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World was delivered early back in January (even before the official release date!). Here We Are is an utterly amazing anthology on feminism and all its forms, covering everything from mental illness, to body image, to intersectionality. There are over fifty pieces in all, and they are all just as diverse and wonderful as the contributors themselves. I was constantly struck by just how much is covered by the book, and how many different stories and issues are contained within. They made me angry, they made me rage, they made me feel ready to dismantle the patriarchy piece by piece. They also made me think about my own privilege as a white, straight, cisgender girl, and how my experience varies so much from those of other girls. However, one of the feelings I hadn’t expected to feel as much before I opened the pages was the feeling of being comforted. There is a sheer respect and love for all women and girls, especially young ones, that radiates from every page, and it is hard to describe just how much of a strong connection that creates between the book and the reader. If I ever have a daughter, I cannot wait to give her a copy of Here We Are for her birthday. It is without a doubt one of the best books of the year.

5. The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

I actually just started reading The Star Side of Bird Hill a few days ago, so I haven’t gotten very far, but I am already enjoying it. It focuses on two sisters, sixteen-year-old Dionne and ten-year-old Phaedra, who are spending the summer in Barbados with their grandmother since their mother can no longer care for them back in Brooklyn. Jackson’s writing is lovely, and I am truly loving getting to know each of the characters. Dionne and Phaedra are both different but complex, as is their mother, Agnes, and the ways in which Jackson gives the reader a look into the minds of each of them is wonderful. I can’t wait to finish it, and I hope I have enough time within the next couple of weeks to do just that.

One the things that has been best about finally getting back into reading things outside of school is remembering just how comforting falling into a good book can be, especially when every New York Times alert that pops up on my phone fills me with an unpleasant mix of weariness and dread. Staying informed is so important, now more than ever, but being kind to yourself is important too. I’ve been trying to work on finding that balance, and I’m not always good at it, but reading helps ❤

Take care of yourselves, and hopefully I’ll be back soon (or at least within a reasonable amount of time).

Nora

P.S. If you’re wondering how you can help people in Syria, especially after the chemical attack and military strike this week, here is an article that gives several ways to help out–whether it’s donating money or helping out refugees in your own area. There are also many, many other options if you just google “how to help Syria.”