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Impressionist art seen as a record of society


New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press. 324 pp. $50

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ROBERT L. HERBERT's intriguing book turns some long-held perceptions of French Impressionism on their head.

Take Degas, for instance. He describes Degas's pictures as ``wily formulations in which artistic structure supports social revelations.'' In other words, Degas's dancers, with their upper-class male admirers, his jockeys preparing for a race (horse-racing being a symbol of industrial drive and competitiveness), his caf'e-concert singers, are evidence of societal attitudes in Second Empire Paris (who'd argue with that?) - while his style, the organization of his pictures, even his brushstrokes, are basically just his way of conveying this evidence to the viewer (which is much more arguable).

So art, in Herbert's view, is not an end in itself, but a means for the depiction, criticism, analysis, or recording of human society - its mores, fashions, and foibles. Even its political atmosphere. Impressionism, as he investigates it, seems much more literary than we thought (though Herbert admits it is anti-anecdotal). Impressionist subject matter is largely leisure in the 1860s, '70s, and '80s, in city, suburb, countryside, and seashore, and the author shows convincingly how this was a political tool of the period.

He develops his thesis through some 300 pages, referring to the minutiae of one excellently reproduced Impressionist painting after another. He makes you look with different eyes at the subject matter of Degas and Manet and Morisot. The process can be revealing because the usual approach is through what Herbert calls the ``central innovation'' of Impressionism. This is ``the supplanting of modeling in light and dark by a new conception of chromatic harmony'' - a wordy way of saying ``light effect made by contrasts between colors instead of tones.'' This ``central innovation'' is a matter of style, but Herbert seems to want subject to be central also.

The substance of this book is not style, but telling background material. For Herbert such things as statistics on increasing railroad travel or the ruthless transformation of old Paris by Baron Haussmann are foreground material. He constantly risks presenting the Impressionists as mere chroniclers of the time.

Herbert's approach works particularly well with those Impressionists who were most directly observers of people - Manet, Degas, and to some extent Renoir. It is less successful with Monet, whose development of the ``central innovation'' became rapidly paramount in his art, and for whom human subject matter was of less and less concern. In Monet's painting, structure cannot be said to underlie social revelations. Few other artists have subordinated structure to light, color, and atmosphere as rigorously as Monet.

Herbert's analysis of some Monet paintings in terms of ``geometric shapes'' led him in one case to the silly conclusion that they ``express his generation's wish to impose order and regular intervals over nature'' and speak ``unwittingly for the Second Empire's diagrams of control.''

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It is perhaps significant that Herbert gives little time to Pissarro or Sisley (while looking more thoroughly at Caillebotte than is conventional) and virtually none to C'ezanne. They are not unknowingly left out of his book, but it is difficult, all the same, not to speculate why.

Is C'ezanne too much of an art-for-art's-sake artist? Herbert manages to explain Monet's increasing isolation from society as in itself a societal phenomenon. But isn't there something about C'ezanne's pursuit of art as separate from society that makes him awkward as a candidate for what Herbert calls his ``socio-cultural context'' for painting?