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Impressionism Now


Module description

French impressionism is among the most studied and debated movements in the history of art. It is also wildly popular, the subject of an endless stream of exhibitions, publications, and reproductions in calendars and on coffee mugs. In the middle of the twentieth century, its ascendance to the canon was assured when French impressionism was judged the origin point of modernism. In the 1980s and 1990s, the work of French impressionists enabled pivotal feminist and social art-historical interventions in the discipline. In the twenty-first century, postcolonial theory and calls to decolonise art history have placed impressionism in a global context, framing French modernity as one of many local modernities, and French impressionism as one of many impressionisms worldwide.

This module asks what it means to study impressionism now, when the inequalities that motivated feminist and social histories of art remain with us, and the legacies of French colonialism become ever more apparent. We will explore the construction of gender, sexuality, class and race in French impressionist art and culture in the second half of the nineteenth century. We will read reviews of the Impressionist Exhibitions to glean how contemporaries understood the impressionist project and its relationship to bourgeois French identity and tradition. We will also reflect on the most influential writings about French impressionism from the twentieth century and consider their fate in recent years. The last decade has seen a range of exhibitions dedicated to impressionism and gender, sexuality, and race - we will question their strategies and effectiveness in framing impressionism anew. Throughout, we will keep one question central: why study impressionism now?

Indicative module content

  • What is Impressionism?
  • Africa and Paris: Olympia through the years
  • Impressionists and Communards: impressionism and class warfare
  • 'The Male Gaze'? Looking at the opera
  • Feminising Impressionism and Forgetting Women Artists: Morisot then and now
  • Spectacularising Sex Work: the case of easy virtue
  • Queering Impressionism? The modern male bather
  • Physiognomy, Pathology, Race: Degas and difference
  • Impressionism and Primitivism: othering impressionism in the nineteenth century

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will understand:

  • key debates about nineteenth-century modernism in its time and in twentieth-century histories of art
  • relevant works within their historical and geographical contexts
  • the nature of the relationship between art and wider cultural discourses.