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Painting Time: Impressionism and the Modern Temporal Order

How quickening brushwork arose from the industrialization of time

By André Dombrowski Published 2013

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Claude Monet's La Grenouillère (1869) captures the "now" as a unit in time and the ever-changing experience of modernity.

It is often said that impressionism sought to make represented time and the time of representation coterminous. With its seemingly quick and unpolished touch, it gave the modern cultures of speed their first appropriately modernist forms. But art historians have rarely if ever interrogated the concrete histories and technologies of time (and time keeping) that underwrote this seismic stylistic shift or to inquire into the links between quickening brushwork and the nineteenth century’s industrialization of time. This is especially remarkable given the fact that two key scientific events in the measuring of modern time—the advent of quantifiable nervous reaction time in France around 1865 and the standardization of universal time in 1884—overlap so precisely with the history of impressionism, its rise in the mid-1860s, and the turn toward postimpressionism around the mid-1880s.

I propose an intimate correlation between the new subjectivizations of impressionist picture-making and the period’s growing regulation of time. Impressionism evinced an acute awareness of the particularly modern pressures of time. It chronicled the constant shifts in weather, the seasons and time of day, while heroizing the new practices of leisure time, the “time-off” from work. Proposing that the flux of visual experience could be distilled into forms compatible with Western easel painting, it nonetheless portrayed a seeming urgency of execution and a concomitant disrespect for the protocols of pictorial finish. All these figurations of freedom from temporal and pictorial constraints seemed in clear contrast to the electro-technical world of the modern clock during the so-called Second Industrial Revolution—or “The Age of Synergy” as Vaclav Smil calls the decades after 1860—and its drive toward a global telegraphic connectivity and exchange of goods. The regulation of time had been a crucial component of the Industrial Revolution from its eighteenth-century origins, especially after scheduled trains started running in the 1820s, but never before had the demand for temporal precision been as pervasive a feature of modern culture as in the age of electricity and global wiring, travel and commerce, starting in the 1860s and 1870s.

Impressionism’s aesthetic play with the laws and markets of time became possible only at a moment in history when the precise marking of time itself fully regulated commodity form: marketed as a coordinated system first through pneumatic and later through electrically coordinated city-wide clocks (as sold, for instance, by the Parisian Compagnie générale des horloges pneumatiques, which not only offered clocks but the continual upkeep of their precision as well). The style’s fusion of paint and time could have the wider cultural resonance it eventually gained only once time itself became fully quantifiable and its visibility recognized as a scientific—and economic—fact of modern global life. Impressionism is one of the period’s crucial aesthetic innovations born of the “product” time, deeply aware of time’s new prominence in urban life and its public clocks, train schedules, and so forth. “Seven twenty-three! Only seven more minutes until soup would be served,” claimed a character in Paul Alexis’s novel Madame Meuriot (1891) as just one of the many seemingly gratuitous indications of temporal order that help structure a complicated plot of adultery.

Impressionism’s relation to technology, science, industry, and modernity can be seen in its iconography—the representations of clocks in Edgar Degas’s or Paul Cézanne’s work or the trains that populate so many an impressionist canvas—and in its representation of leisure and industry, with the factories in the modern landscape and the lives lived away from work amidst their growing presence, as is the theme of much crucial art historical investigation, from T. J. Clark’s influential work on the period to more recent studies, such as James H. Rubin’s inquiry into impressionism’s industrialized landscapes. But I am more interested in locating an economy of time in impressionism on a stylistic level as well as on a semantic one, what I want to call impressionism’s “social forms”: in its new logics of brushwork and composition, redefinitions of the standards of painting, and translations of modern experience, just as much as in its modern subject matter of industrialized culture.

Art Institute of Chicago

Pointillism’s synchronized “dots” of color, as seen in George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884–86), ­reflects the advent of a global system of temporal and spatial units.

Specifically, what does our critical vocabulary of the movement’s embellishments of time—speed of execution, instantaneity, momentariness, presentness, and so on—evoke historically? The language of im­pres­sionism’s early reception is filled with temporal metaphors that still require more careful unpacking as to the range of their sociocultural meanings: in 1883, Jules Laforgue called impressionism painting “in fifteen minutes”; Félix Fénéon affirmed that it was “four o’clock” in Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte; and in 1876, the critic Arthur Baignères called impressionism “a kind of telegraphic mechanism” that fixed impressions like “the letters of a dispatch on azure-colored paper.” How did it come to pass that such chronometric coordinates became a central tool in the exegesis of early modernist painting even if they could not be fully confirmed visually? Why have they so often survived into our accounts of the movement as in such influential books as Richard Brettell’s Impression: Painting Quickly in France 1860–1890 (2000) or Virginia Spate’s Claude Monet: The Color of Time (1992)?

Impressionism emerged at the precise moment when the scientific measurement of the speed of sensory transmission, of “reaction time,” became possible. Claude Monet’s early, oft-considered unfinished and “failed” attempts at bringing impressionism into the large-scale format of his Déjeuner sur l’herbe (ca. 1865) can be seen in light of “psychometry’s” proof that there was no instantaneity of nervous transmission. Auguste Renoir’s and Monet’s depictions of the bathing spot of La Grenouillère encapsulated precise meanings of the “now” at the time, and such modern temporal frames can be seen in dialogue with the painters’ pictorial demands for a more “speedy” execution. One of the most popular and trendy leisure spots of the late Second Empire, La Grenouillère became the site of contestation over definitions of the “present” and the “now” as a unit in time and the possible temporal durée of a phenomenon like the ever-changing experience of modernity. The collapse of an impressionist aesthetic into the postimpressionist order and systematicity of pointillism in the mid-1880s occurs at precisely the advent of global standardized time, set at the Meridian conference in Washington in 1884 with representatives from most industrialized nations present including France. George Seurat and Paul Signac’s pictorial world of the synchronized “dots” of color—a pictorial innovation we generally agree first emerged in 1885—was hardly conceivable outside the frame of the universal hour and its invisible if crucial regulation of a global system of temporal and spatial units.

My study of the history of impressionism and the history of the period’s construction of time engages in a new way the twinned aspirations of freedom from and fears of regulation so typical of the modern world—something that could stand as a metaphor of impressionist picture-making itself. Impressionism’s high-keyed temporal anxiety—its conflation of represented time, experienced time, and the time of representation—is one of the period’s most sensitive registrations of industrial time’s regulatory power.

André Dombrowski, Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, began writing his second book, about impressionism’s relationship to the then new techniques of time-keeping, while a Member (2012–13) in the School of Historical Studies.

Published in The Institute Letter Fall 2013