Weingarden on Callen (2015)


Callen, Anthea. The Work of Art: Plein-Air Painting and Artistic Identity in Nineteenth-Century France. Reaktion Books, 2015, pp. 256, 120 color plates, 60 halftones, ISBN 9781780233550

Lauren S. Weingarden, Florida State University

Anthea Callen’s The Work of Art: Plein-Air Painting and Artistic Identity in Nineteenth-Century France is a welcome return to the material and technical matter of Impressionist paintings, continuing the legacy of Richard Shiff, John House, and Robert Herbert. Callen’s study advances to new levels from bringing forth the “multilayered meanings” of “matter/material” relationship, signifying “modern artistic identity and subjectivity” (28). To this end, Callen skillfully interweaves performative, social, and aesthetic evidence that propelled the identity-construct of male plein-air landscape painters. The author casts her evidential net wide, examining instructional, critical, and theoretical texts, firsthand written accounts of painters and painting, photographic documents, art supply catalogues, current scientific analyses, and iconographic interpretation. Particularly compelling is that these tangents converge on the multilayered identity of (male) plein-air painters as manual laborers. The title, The Work of Art, thus signifies this multivalent convergence.

In many ways, Callen’s hard evidence effects a demythologizing of Impressionist practices. Although she does not say so directly, Callen begins this process with her deployment of lesser-known paintings—études and esquisses—to lay bare the Impressionists’ labor-driven techniques and the malleable materials that mark their canvas surfaces. Callen demythologizes the originality of Impressionist plein-air painting by backdating these practices to the late eighteenth century. She specifically focuses on the Neoclassicist Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750–1819), whose legacy was extended to the Impressionists through his students who later instructed the Barbizon painters and Camille Corot. While this legacy may be familiar to art historians, the hands-on practices that Callen documents are not. In chapter one, “The Origins of Plein-air Painting to 1850,” Callen establishes that Valenciennes advocated for the use of plein-air sketches and precise tools and materials as foundations for conventional finished oil paintings. These apparatuses include “the hog’s-hair bristle and sable, or fitch-hair brushes” and light-colored paper supports for sketching; together they fostered the luminous “unity of effect” (29) of natural light and led to the next generations’ lightening of the canvas’ underpainting.

Chapters two and three, “Maître Courbet” and “Cézanne, Pissarro and Knife Painting,” consider the fundamental importance of Gustave Courbet’s work and influence, in particular his formative impact on the early work of Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro, during the 1860s and 70s. Chapter two presents Courbet as the father of material/matter relationship and male-laborer identity. (I use the term “father” in line with Callen’s claim that nineteenth-century plein-air painting was gendered and restrictive of women.) In the introduction, Callen clearly enumerates the societal and practical limitations that women artists confronted in matters of plein-air painting. These limitations include the treachery of carrying cumbersome equipment into rural rivers and fields, destinations that were equally treacherous to traverse. In this context, everything that contributed to the conflation of male identity and plein-air painting was opposite the normative social coding of womanhood. (Rosa Bonheur managed to work around these restrictions, while Berthe Morisot was confined to domestic outdoor settings).

Courbet is the kingpin of gendered plein-air painting. He devised innovative technical and performative procedures: “His use of rag, sponge, and [the painting] knife” appeared as “radically visible and disruptive” (28). Here (and throughout the book) Callen’s eloquent descriptions of the painting and knifing process mirror the tactile plasticity of the thick pigments on the canvases she describes. Likewise, the author’s lively prose captures the dynamics of hand and tool movements not only as indexical marks of the making process, but also of the changing components of manufactured pigments. With an eye to the modern manufacture and commerce of artists’ equipment, Callen highlights the advance of Courbet’s (and Cézanne’s and Pissarro’s) plein-air painting through the recently fabricated—and marketed—portable easel. Thanks to this apparatus, “the worker-painter” could now perform his labor in situ with his “portable outdoor studio” as workshop and stage. Subsequently, the manufacture of portable paint boxes (treated in chapter four) provided increased mobility, an expanded array of pigments, and opportunities to experiment with capturing nature’s transience.

In chapter four “Colour: The Material and the Ephemeral,” Callen applies her close looking to Caillebotte’s Laundry Drying to address “the question of speed, transience and capturing outdoor effects quickly in oils” (30). Here, she broadens her analysis beyond the canvas to examine the composition of the artists’ palette. In doing so, Callen exerts her expert knowledge of the chemical make-up of pigments and reveals how modern manufacture of these compounds enhanced the artists’ color mixing and layering. These modern materials further facilitated the painter’s speed of execution and the means for transforming matter into the ephemeral and transient. Callen also adapts modern science to garner evidence of studio work in Impressionist painters’ ostensibly plein-air paintings. “Many paintings that give the impression of having been painted en plein air were in fact completed or even wholly executed indoors in the studio” (212).

Callen’s query into the complex layers of studio-vs-outdoor painting demythologizes the quintessential mark of Impressionist practices, namely the “spontaneity” inscribed on the canvas surface. Indeed, chapter four reveals “the central paradox of the landscapists’ project to depict that most transient of phenomena, light, and its changing coloured effects outdoors” (224). We can conclude from Callen’s densely demonstrated deconstruction of Impressionist practices and the tactile materiality of the painted canvases that the complex manufacture of Impressionist paintings compels a sense of wonder. Indeed, Callen’s book is a testimony to the Impressionists’ achievement. These artists mastered and exceeded the limitations of tools, techniques, pigments, and supports to produce the ephemeral and luminous effects of nature which make us believe—or feel—that the painting was painted—from start to finish—en plein air.