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German Impressionism and American Romantic Literature

I don’t generally get excited much about Impressionism.  As I remarked to a friend, there is just such a large volume of it and so many of the landscapes and portraits fail to distinguish themselves, one painting to another.  Undoubtedly the movement’s style is remarkably distinguished from the Romantic or Naturalist paintings of the mid and late 19th century, and yet something is still unsatisfying about knowing that Degas painted so many dancers or that Monet painted so many water lilies.
  Hesitations aside, however, I visited the German Impressionism exhibits- and yes, there are two (sort of)- in Houston right now.  The primary exhibit, “A Variation of Impressionism” German Impressionist Landscape Painting, fulfilled my every expectation.  The works looked like Impressionist paintings in style and content, and they looked indistinguishably like one another.  There are over ninety landscapes painted by three German Impressionist masters- Max Lieberman, Lovis Corinth, and Max Slevogt, but having no real sublime experience I am unlikely, honestly, to recall any particular painting years from now. (Joseph Campana seems to agree.)

Max Lieberman, Stevensift in Leiden, 1889

Max Lieberman, Garden Restaurant on the Havel, 1916

Max Slevogt, Harness Racing

Louis Corinth, Inn Valley Landscape, 1910

                Coincidentally, I was reminded of the late-19th century French obsession with Japanese motifs, japonisme, as the proliferation of ukiyo-e block prints, painted screens, kimonos, and netsuke figurines.  A recent review of Edmund de Waal’s autobiographical book, The Hare With Amber Eyes,  about one particular netsuke collection’s passage through various family hands in the late 19th and 20th century- from Japan to France through the Holocaust back to Japan and finally London contextualizes this one specific collection among a French fad that would impact Impressionism in countless ways.  Indeed, Manet’s portrait of the novelist Zola captures japonisme’s  influence on more than just painters.

                As I viewed these German works of Impressionism, particularly the landscape exhibit I was struck by how they so clearly adopted the basic principles of Impressionism- so explicitly laid out in Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1876 essay:  First, the works must be of the mind, not realistic depictions of what is in front of the eye.  Second, they must be “use simple colour, fresh, or lightly laid on, and their results appear to have been attained at the first stroke…”  Finally, painting in the open air is crucial to capturing the genuine effects of pure light.  (And painting in the open air is a radical liberation from working in a studio under a master’s direction or under the industrial setting of commerce, a point in which Impressionism, as Mallarmé points out, is both radical and democratic.)  I did not however, find traces of japonisme in the German landscapes, and to be fair, examples are few and far between in French Impressionist works as well.
                And yet, Japanese motifs crested in the 1870s and 1880s when Impressionism was already a well established movement.  Perhaps as important, but less likely to be noted by art scholars and curators who wish to emphasize European cultural borrowing from Asia is the profound influence of American Romantic literature on the late 19th century French painters.  Readers of Mallarmé’s essay on Manet  will certainly recognize the traits of the Impressionist movement that Mallarmé championed in 1876, but Mallarmé was a poet and critic, not a painter.  Prior to Impressionism’s explosion in the 1880s Mallarmé translated Edgar Allen Poe’s stories and poems, from the American 1830s and 1840s, into French and the 1875 edition was illustrated by none other than Impressionist front runner, Manet.   These black and white illustrations certainly exhibit some of the Impressionist characteristics such as appearing “attained at the first stroke” but the black and white nature of the images is a far cry from the out of doors lighting captured in the landscapes of Manet, Money, Degas, Renoir, etc.

                This impact of American Romantic literature on the Impressionists was, I thought, a rather singular event in the works of Manet, illustrating the translations of Mallarmé.  The second German Impressionism exhibit Drawing from Nature: Landscapes by Lieberman, Corinth, and Slevogt, however, has caused me to rethink the impact of American Romantic literature on Impressionism.  This exhibit- and I say second only because the Museum bills it as independent of the larger show of painted landscapes by the same three artists- by far more interesting and valuable to me, is a collection of over 40 watercolors, drawings, and lithographs.  These prints and originals are much smaller and almost all of them were commercial pieces for publication.  Striking images of the American West, Native American Indians, and German imaginings of the untamed American wilderness predominate.  Some of the Slevogt images were directly commissioned to illustrate European editions of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels about Natty Bumpo and the Mohicans.  I perceive a lineage here in the same illustrations that Realists of the ashcan school and American regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton brought to their illustrations of muckraker publications as well as American literature, from say 1870 to 1930.  Admittedly I have a professional interest in US literature of the 19th century, so perhaps my appreciation of these German artists working with American texts is more personal, but this smaller exhibit was far more affecting as I thought about the European reception of American culture. 

Max Lieberman, Birches Along the Shore, 1918

Max Lieberman, View of the Terraces, 1920

Louis Corinth, The Large Buddha Statue, 1911

Max Slevogt, 1921

The connections between the American Romantic literature of Cooper and Poe via translations into French and German by Baudelaire, Mallarme, and others with commercial illustrations by Impressionist masters Manet and Slevogt.  There is certainly something worth thinking about here- the appeal of the American wilderness undoubtedly captivated these urbane French and German artists in a different way than the Pacific cultures from Japan to Fiji.


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