The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe

Degas knew how to treat a woman
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The Independent Culture

The critic's lot, like the policeman's, is not a happy one, not least because it bears out Gresham's Law that bad money drives out good. When Impressionism took root in the 1860s, it was not well received; the official salon, the equivalent of the Royal Academy summer exhibition when that was still important - as opposed to merely fashionable - rejected work after work by a group of artists who, 150 later, were affordable only by billionaires. When these artists, including Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro and many more got together to start the Salon des Refusés, the Rejects' Show, the level of critical vituperation was such that it became, and remained, notorious for its high-minded stupidity. This harmed not only the Impressionist artists and their hungry families, but also many of the art critics of the mid and late 20th century who, haunted by the crassness of their predecessors in condemning the new, felt it necessary to seize on everything new and unconventional as a work of genius, so that sensation became commonplace and conceptualists, minimalists et al became wildly rich. And anyone who drew or painted in the manner of the Impressionists was treated as a reactionary and ignored. Gresham's Law indeed.

Because the sheer genius and largely posthumous legacy of the Impressionists had such a profound effect on art and on public taste, Impressionism has spawned a vast library of books on the movement as a whole and on the individual artists. If you are a serious student you need the massive scholarship of John Rewald; if you are simply an art lover then Phoebe Pool's brief survey is admirable. But none of the volumes to date does what Sue Roe has attempted.

Her book is widely researched but has a neat, light touch. It is neither specialist art history nor detailed art criticism, but an anecdotal narrative of the movement from the arrival of Monet and Cézanne as art students in Paris to an epilogue dealing with the final years of the principal artists. Their deaths ranged from that of Caillebotte in 1894, via Cézanne's in 1906 to that of Monet in 1926. By the late 1880s, the impact of the Impressionists was already waning, because most were accepted as mainstream and some - but not all - were even becoming prosperous. Already a group of newcomers was vying for attention, exhibition space and sales and included - to put the Impressionists into perspective - Seurat, Signac, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh.

Although Roe threads a basic historical narrative through her pages, essentially you get what's on the tin; their private lives which, to a contemporary readership, are often almost as depressing as their quest for recognition and enough money to live on. (Probably only Monet, via his friendship with Clemenceau and hence his state patronage in the 20th century, died a rich man.)

Manet was an elegant, handsome, dandified boulevardier whose father the judge naturally kept a mistress but would not permit his son to marry his own life-long mistress. When a son was born to Manet and Suzanne he had to be given a neutral surname. Manet also had an affair with the demi-mondaine Méry Laurent, the maîtresse en titre of the American dentist Thomas Evans who had once smuggled the Empress Eugénie out of danger in Paris to the safety of England. Manet died of tertiary syphilis but not before he had had a gangrenous leg amputated in his own house.

His brother Eugène married Berthe Morisot. Sisley had his parental allowance stopped when he moved into his mistress's flat. Pissarro set up house with one of his mother's maids, and had several children by her, but was not allowed to marry her. Monet was, for a time, kept moderately solvent by his principal patron Ernest Hoschedé. He also conducted a long affair with Hoschedé's wife, and there are doubts about the paternity of the last Hoschedé child. Hoschedé went bankrupt, thus effectively ruining Monet whose wife died leaving him free to marry Alice Hoschedé, but he could not do so till Hoschedé died.

Only Degas seems not to have had a typically Bohemian personal life, seeing women only as the vital ingredients of his paintings, as models but not as companions: "What would I want a wife for? Imagine someone who at the end of a gruelling day in the studio said 'that's a nice painting dear'."

Cézanne also was always under threat of losing the paternal allowance, and he too lived in secret with Hortense and their son marrying only after the death of his uncomprehending father.

There are occasional charming serendipities. Bazille, like Berlioz, was a continually failing medical student whose letters to his distraught father, while not as literate as those of Berlioz, offer similar excuses. We know that Manet's Olympia and Déjeuner sur l'herbe caused scandals but the worst scandal was his painting of the shooting of the Emperor of Mexico, Maximillian. So great was the political, as opposed to sexual, outrage that the censor ordered the picture to be confiscated and had it torn into three pieces. That we can still see this wonderful painting is due to Degas, who not only salvaged it, but painstakingly put it back together.

In the Franco-Prussian war, Cézanne was a draft-dodger, Renoir became a cavalryman and Bazille lost his life, although not in action. Pissarro's house was commandeered and turned into a slaughterhouse with many of his paintings destroyed and used as butchers' aprons. Perhaps the oddest incident is the attack upon Renoir by a bunch of yobs and yobettes in the forest of Fontainebleau. Suddenly a vast man with a wooden leg appears and drives the molesters away. He looks at Renoir's painting and says "Good, good, but why do you paint so black?" Renoir replies that it never hurt Courbet to use black. The giant takes the debate further and identifies himself as the Barbizon painter, the splendidly named Narcisse-Virgil Diaz de la Peña. This anecdote, plus many others in a relatively slight but diverting book, have a certain charm which keeps the reader going to the end.