The Private Lives of the Impressionists, by Sue Roe

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Like the Pre-Raphaelites, the Impressionists are perennial: no exhibition season passes without their appearance in one form or another. We know their paintings so well, and their names: Monet, Cezanne, Degas, Renoir, Morisot, Pissarro, Sisley. Others, like Caillebotte and Bazille, are less familiar, but the paintings give vivid views of their social milieux - cafés, theatres, parks, riverside picnics, country gardens, orchards, beaches - presented with alluring immediacy.

Popular and critical attention is lavished on the work, as a visual comfort zone or the cradle of Modernity. Surprisingly, the artists' personal lives are less familiar. Do we know the names of whom they loved and whom they betrayed? How did they interweave home and work? Were their domestic lives as rocky as their finances seem to have been?

Sue Roe's aim is to tell the Impressionists' tale from a domestic perspective, involving the art only when it intersected with private affairs - as it often did. She follows them from from art school to middle age, at work and en congé, noting their borrowing and lending, successes and setbacks. Throughout the story, Manet is a presiding presence, encouraging the young while refusing to join their exhibitions, and his personal life structures the narrative, almost as an exemplar.

For (most of) the Impressionist group chose not bourgeois wives, with wealth and status, but young women who could not be introduced. Camille Doncieux was Monet's companion long before she was his wife, Julie Vellay a servant in the Pissarro family home. Hortense Fiquet met Cezanne as a model. Aline Charigot captivated Renoir as a pretty dressmaker. They trod in the footsteps of Suzanne Leenhoff, the Dutch piano teacher whose son by Manet was camouflaged as her very younger brother. No doubt the artists' families did disapprove. But did they threaten to cancel inheritances, or was this a neat excuse for avoiding the obligations and expense of conventional matrimony? Weddings came in time, the relationships were loving, if occasionally fickle, and lasting, so one suspects that the painters cherished personal as well as artistic independence.

The obvious exceptions were the women, Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, whose lifestyles, as respectable bourgeoises, kept them from flânerie around bars, studios and salons. Through Morisot's correspondence, her relationships with Manet, his brother Eugene, whom she married, and the group as a whole can be partly reconstructed, but the close friendship between Cassatt and Degas remains shadowy.

So too does the ménage à quatre of the Monets with Ernest and Alice Hoschedé, patrons with a mansion in the Parc Monceau before they lost their money. When both were widowed, Monet and Alice married, but, despite much hinting, Sue Roe cannot elucidate their earlier situation. Indeed, much of her subjects' inner lives remains opaque and unexplored. Many letters lamenting poverty are quoted - Monet is an especial whinger - when sceptical scrutiny is the biographer's first duty.

Perhaps because of this, the book as a whole suffers from a flatness of tone, coming most vividly to life during the siege of Paris and the Commune. It ends, oddly, with the most recent astronomical prices paid at auction for Impressionist pictures, in sterling, dollars and euros.

Jan Marsh's biography of DG Rossetti is published by Phoenix