Harsh Realities Lurk behind Picturesque Impressionist Masterpieces

Alina Cohen
Mar 7, 2019 8:30PM

Vincent van Gogh, Factories at Clichy, 1887. Courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Impressionism has a sunny reputation. From Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884–86) to Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies,” the movement’s most iconic paintings often feature dappled skies, lush plant life, and tranquil communities. Throughout Europe in the late 1800s, artists from Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley to Berthe Morisot and Pierre-Auguste Renoir rose to prominence with their often-lighthearted depictions of leisure.


Despite their brushy daubs and pastel hues, a darker narrative surrounds the Impressionists. A focus on their interest in bourgeois pastimesbeliesthe more complicated realities of these artists’ changing urban surroundings and the politics of the day. Alongside Impressionism, the advent of modernity ushered in international turmoil, concerns over labor conditions, and rampant pollution. The Franco-Prussian War, waged between 1870 and 1871, caused significant uncertainty after the French lost (the unstable conditions resulting from the conflict eventually contributed to the beginnings of World War I). Rapid population growth among the lower classes taxed urban centers, while the Industrial Revolution turned blue skies gray and pumped sewage into once picturesque rivers.

Claude Monet, Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare, 1877. © Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

In an exhibition opening this month at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), curator Dr. Caroline Shields homes in on the Impressionists’ depictions of a rapidly mechanizing world. Instead of visions of beaches and parks, “Impressionism in the Age of Industry: Monet, Pissarro and more” features paintings of bridges and trains, laborers and factories. In the accompanying catalogue, Shields offers a telling anecdote about Monet’s 1873 painting The Railway Bridge at Argenteuil. A bridge runs through the center of the canvas, elevated above a reflective Seine River by white columns. Fluffy clouds and steam-engine smoke blend into each other in the light-blue sky. Two boats sail on the water, while two men look on from the shore. Art historian Paul Tucker once called the painting “Monet’s idyllic view of modern utopia—suburbia.”

Camille Pissarro, Le pont Boieldieu à Rouen, temps mouillé, 1896. © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

But Shields believes that’s just half the story. “One inevitably wonders if this balance is too perfect, if the illusion of utopia might shatter,” she writes. “Indeed, to achieve the impression of such a gorgeous day, Monet must have averted his eyes and held his nose.” Shields notes that sewage from Paris had contributed to a sludge build-up on the riverbank. The filth was so bad that in 1873, the mayor of Argenteuil asked for help to clean it, citing a public health concern.

If Monet elided the troubles of modernity in favor of idealizing nature, one painting, The Coalmen (1875), offers a darker vision of the Industrial Age. In the work, the titular laborers shuffle back and forth between coal barges and the shore. They are dark shadows against the landscape, their individual features obscured. “Here, Monet transforms the dirty, sweaty, robotic grind of his subjects into a rhythmic counterpoint, somewhere between lugubrious and funereal, subsumed into the artifice of art,” writes historian James H. Rubin in his catalogue essay for the AGO show. In contrast to Monet’s light, sublime depictions of waterlilies, The Coalmen depicts a near-Sisyphean task: It’s easy to imagine the men transporting coal all day, up and back across the water, the work never finished.

Gustave Caillebotte, Le Pont de l'Urope, 1876. Photo © Rheinisches Bildarchiv Köln, Michael Albers. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The Impressionists didn’t just focus on men’s labor, either. Edgar Degas was particularly interested in capturing working-class women’s occupations on canvas. Though Degas is most famous for his paintings of ballet dancers (who today seem innocent, but were commonly known to be sex workers), his Women Ironing (begun 1875–76, reworked ca. 1882–86) offers an equally compelling portrait of female labor. In the painting, one woman presses an iron onto a white sheet, while her companion stands next to her, holding a wine bottle and yawning. In her catalogue essay, historian Mary Hunter writes that “the ironer was a quintessential modern type and thus an ideal subject for a new art movement that stressed its modernity.…The physical filth of the occupation was commonly equated with moral filth.” With their thin cotton clothing; work in hot, cramped environments; and reputation for drinking, laundresses were, according to Hunter, “conceived as attractive and repulsive.” The perfect models, then, for a repressed Victorian age. Artists Auguste-Louis Lepère and Giuseppe de Nittis also depicted laundresses in their works from the late 1800s, though they both situated the female figures among crowds of male bodies. Such compositions link sex, labor, and class, and show the European street as a meeting place for a diverse cross-section of society.

Maximilien Luce, Factory in the Moonlight, 1898. Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

In an email, Shields explained the origins of our misconceptions about Impressionism. Early and influential histories of the movement by authors such as the midcentury historian John Rewald, she wrote, “positioned the movement as one associated with leisure, and that reading persisted for a long time.” The AGO show is also a product of its time. In the 21st century, we’re increasingly conscious of the tradeoffs for “progress.” New machines give way to growing concerns about pollution and global warming, while innovative technologies lead to anxieties about job loss. Shields and her cohort aren’t suggesting that we forsake the lush landscapes that have long defined Impressionism. Instead, she asks us to take a closer look at the bodies that populate the movement’s urban scenes. This perspective isn’t just compassionate toward the working class, it adds a complexity to a major art movement and the artists within it that resonates with our own age of industry and global warming.

Alina Cohen
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019