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The Transformative Power of the Arts in Victorian and Edwardian Culture and Society
3. The Interactions between Various Art Forms as Well as Art and Life

An ‘extraordinary change’ in the Climate: The Transformative Power of Impressionism in George Moore’s Art Criticism

Un ‘extraordinaire changement’ dans le climat : le pouvoir de transformation de l’Impressionnisme dans la critique d’art de George Moore
Fabienne Gaspari


L’essai d’Oscar Wilde ‘The Decay of Lying’ introduit l’idée du pouvoir de transformation de l’Impressionnisme en peinture, « cet extraordinaire changement qui s’est produit dans le climat de Londres ». Un autre écrivain anglo-irlandais, George Moore, a souligné dans sa critique d’art écrite dans les années 1880 et 1890 les transformations radicales opérées par ce mouvement pictural. Cet article, qui étudie la manière dont George Moore a réagi à la force de rupture des œuvres de Whistler, Monet et Manet, montre que les mutations résultant des progrès technologiques ont créé de nouvelles façons de voir reflétées dans ce nouvel art. De manière très perspicace et annonciatrice d’études plus récentes sur l’Impressionnisme, les textes de Moore se concentrent sur le choc produit par cette peinture et en analysent les effets sur le spectateur. Ces écrits cherchent à transformer l’impression de désorientation ressentie face aux tableaux en un élément essentiel de l’expérience esthétique. Ce sentiment se trouve aussi au cœur de la littérature impressionniste et il s’agit de voir dans cet article dans quelle mesure les idées de Moore au sujet des incertitudes épistémologiques caractéristiques de ce qu’il a appelé la « peinture moderne » ont influencé le champ littéraire à la fin du xixe siècle et au début du xxe.

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  • 1 We find an illustration of Moore’s role in the promotion of modern painting in England and in Irela (...)
  • 2 For a historical approach of Impressionist painting in England and its connections with French Impr (...)
  • 3 We have not included Degas in this analysis. For a thorough study of Moore’s writing on Degas and m (...)

1In the 1880s and 1890s, George Moore published many articles on painting in English magazines (The Speaker, The Bat, The Hawk, The Fortnightly Review and The Magazine of Art). Twenty-six of these articles were collected in Modern Painting published in 1893. For Adrian Frazier, their major theme was ‘the reform of British painting. [Moore] wanted to shake up the British Academy, rally support for the ambitious young painters of the New English Art Club, and clarify the relationship of contemporary painting to the Old Masters. On the whole he advocated the scholarly, allusive, modernist forms of Manet and Degas’ (Frazier 207).1 Moore’s response to the disruptive modernity of Impressionism shows the impact that this artistic movement had in England in the late 19th century, at the end of an era of rapid changes and radical transformations.2 There was a redefinition of the act of seeing in a broader context of scientific and technical experimentation and a need for new artistic subjects reflecting social and technological evolutions. The techniques and subjects of Impressionist art mirrored these changes and created new ways of seeing. This article aims to examine how Moore describes the formal innovations of Impressionist painting and reacts to them in three articles published in Modern Painting (‘Whistler’, “Monet, Sisley, Pissaro and the Decadence’, ‘Chavannes, Millet, and Manet’).3 We will show how the changes in urban spaces modified perceptual models and called for innovative art forms that in turn generated new ways of seeing. Like Oscar Wilde in ‘The Decay of Lying’, Moore comments on these artistic experimentations and their rendering of urban modernity, and he explains how the modifications they introduced radically altered perceptions and visions of the city. We will then see that Moore’s art criticism, initially a response to the shock created by avant-garde painting, is also an analysis of the effects of its bold innovations on the observer, more particularly on his body. In the last part, we will deal with Moore’s appraisal of the allusive forms or ‘ominous spaces’ of Impressionism and we will consider their influence on his literary work.

Urban Modernity and New Ways of Seeing

  • 4 ‘le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent’ (Baudelaire 216). The interdependence between two types (...)

2Moore studied painting in Paris from 1873 to 1879 and met French writers and painters who were representative of modernity in art. He imitated aesthetes and dandies and found himself immersed in the urban modernity of the rapidly changing French capital. In Confessions of a Young Man, he narrates how he strove ‘to recreate himself as it were in the womb of a new nationality, assuming its ideals, its morals, and its modes of thought’ (Moore 1886, 124) and the formative nature of his stay in France is the subject of this first autobiographical text published in 1886. The young Anglo-Irish landlord discovered new life styles and art forms, he became the typical flâneur, exploring the city and experiencing ‘the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent’ defined by Baudelaire as the essence of modernity.4 He witnessed the technological changes that in those days profoundly altered the perception of space and time and also modified vision. Moore was thus one of those ambulatory observers ‘shaped by a convergence of new urban spaces, technologies, and new economic and symbolic functions of images and products’ (Crary 1992, 12). The railroad, the glass and steel constructions, the artificial lighting and the mirrors in the cafés, contributed to the evolution of perceptual modalities more and more connected with transience and flux. Because of the sense of temporal and spatial dislocation introduced by the new means of transport as well as by the new optical intruments, vision was disconnected from stable and fixed bearings and appeared as rooted in ‘the complex and contingent physiological makeup of the observer’, which made it ‘faulty, unreliable’ (Crary 1992, 12). The kinetic qualities of this new environment shaped by speed and energy and characterized by the presence of crowds (in gardens, museums, bars and streets) were translated into Impressionist subjects and techniques. The association of crowds with the figure of the stroller was central to the construction of ‘perspective as social form’ and led to ‘a revolution in collective and singular seeing, an acknowledgement of the unique perception of the individual as well as the complexities of interactive viewing and movement that made up the crowd’ (Schapiro 144). The bar, the prostitute’s bedroom and the café-concert mapped out new territories. For Moore, they were not just synonymous with the multiplicity of experiences found in Parisian life but also with the crossing of ethical boundaries, more particularly in the work of Manet who, as we are going to see, was one of Moore’s favourite painters:

Art is a personal re-thinking of life from end to end, and for this reason the artist is always eccentric. He is almost unaware of your moral codes, he laughs at them when he thinks of them, which is rarely, . . . . The word ‘unashamed’ perhaps explains Manet’s Art better than any other. It is essentially unashamed, and in speaking of him one must never be afraid to repeat the word ‘unashamed’. (Moore 1914, 141)

3This stress on transgression was not limited to the domain of ethics and involved representational issues. The eccentricity of the artist, so essential to Moore, included every aspect of artistic creation in the 1890s: the writer who opposed circulating libraries and stifling moral standards was also striving to get rid of the tenets of realism and naturalism he had begun to reject by the late 1880s to embrace more symbolist and allusive forms.

4As explained by Jonathan Crary, the Impressionists’ rupture with the rules of perspective and the Renaissance models of vision, but also with the camera obscura which reproduced a form of transcendent vision, profoundly modified perceptual models. This rupture led to a deconstruction of the rules of mimesis and turned perception itself into ‘a primary object of vision’ (Crary 1992, 138). The Impressionists radically changed the vision people had of their surroundings and of themselves as perceiving subjects. In ‘The Decay of Lying’, a debate that aims to demonstrate that ‘Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life’, Oscar Wilde introduces the idea of the transformative power of French Impressionism, an art that revealed the poetic and artistic quality of the London cityscape:

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art. (Wilde 337)

  • 5 During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), some French artists, such as Monet and Pissarro, went t (...)

5In this essay, as in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde addresses representational issues and discusses the primacy of art over life. He praises the allusive forms of Monet’s The Thames below Westminster (1871)5 and insists on the invention of a new way of looking at urban realities. The fogs and the mists become the agents of this transfiguration, a transfiguration both of the city and of the image people may have of it.

  • 6 Isabelle Enaud-Lechien gives an excellent analysis of the ‘critical dialogue’ between Modern Painti (...)

6Similarly, Moore was convinced of the power of Impressionism to convey new ways of seeing, as shown in his comments on Whistler (‘Whistler’) in Modern Painting.6 Whistler studied painting in the French capital and Moore regarded him as close to the French Impressionists and as one of the founders of modern painting, mostly because he ‘helped to purge art of the vice of subject and belief that the mission of the artist is to copy nature’ (Moore 1893, 15). A champion of the Art for Art’s sake movement, Whistler moved away from realism and chose abstraction and allusive forms as early as the 1860s. His Nocturnes are examples of radical novelty in the rendering of the Londonian night. Moore’s evocation of Whistler’s night and more particularly of Nocturne: Blue and Gold–Old Battersea Bridge underlines its qualities of abstraction and indefiniteness:

It was with the night that Mr Whistler set his seal and sign-manual upon art; above all others he is surely the interpreter of the night. Until he came the night of the painter was as ugly and insignificant as any pitch barrel; it was he who first transferred to canvas the blue transparent darkness which folds the world from sunset to sunrise. The purple hollow, and all the illusive distance of the gas-lit river, are Mr Whistler’s own. . . . Mr Whistler’s nights are the blue transparent darknesses which are half of the world’s life. Sometimes he foregoes even the aid of earthly light, and his picture is but luminous blue shadow, delicately graduated, as in the nocturne in M. Duret’s collection—purple above and below, a shadow in the middle of the picture—a little less and there would be nothing.

There is the celebrated nocturne in the shape of a T—one pier of the bridge and part of the arch, the mystery of the barge, and the figure guiding the barge in the current, the strange luminosity of the fleeting river! lines of lights, vague purple and illusive distance, and all is so obviously beautiful that one pauses to consider how there could have been stupidity enough to deny it. (Moore 1893, 14)

7Moore here tries to express his impression of night turned into light, of vanishing forms hovering on the verge of nothingness. He comments on the transmutation of the pitch dark night commonly found in works by other painters into ‘blue transparent darknesses’ and ‘luminous blue shadow’. Whistler’s transformative power is referred to in terms that equate it with interpretation and transfer and that define it as the translation in paint of things so far unseen. The passage from pitch dark to oxymoronic luminous darkness that his art achieves is, for the beholder, a transition from darkness to light, a revelation of the real nature of the night. Paradoxically, in making visible a reality that the other painters, representing nights that Moore calls ‘insignificant’, had so far concealed, Whistler conveys its indefiniteness and unreality. It is obvious in this first example taken from Moore’s art criticism that expressing the indeterminacy characteristic of Impressionism was a challenging venture. It led the writer to repeat words signifying vagueness, but also to use figures of speech such as oxymorons that mix light and darkness and a paratactic syntax (as in the second paragraph) that seems to mirror the fragmentary perception of the elements composing the picture.

The Effects of Formal Innovations on the Observer

8Speaking about modern painting was indeed a thought-provoking exercise. Moore developed his art criticism working on the mutation of his original impressions and opinions which are described in the following excerpt from Confessions of a Young Man. He remembers a visit to the third Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1877, where he went with his friend Lewis Welldon Hawkins (called Marshall in the Confessions):

‘Holloa! what, you back again, George Moore? We thought we weren’t going to see you again.’
‘It’s nearly one o’clock; get up. What’s the news?’
‘To-day is the opening of the exhibition of the Impressionists. We’ll breakfast round the corner, at Durand’s, and go on there. I hear that Bedlam is nothing to it; at one end of the room there is a canvas twenty feet square and in three tints: pale yellow for the sunlight, brown for the shadows, and all the rest is sky-blue. A lady walks, I’m told, in the foreground with a ring-tailed monkey, and the tail is said to be three yards long.’
We went to jeer a group of enthusiasts that willingly forfeit all delights of the world in the hope of realizing a new aestheticism; we went insolent with patent leather shoes and bright kid gloves and armed with all the jargon of the school. (Moore 1888, 36)

9In this narrative of his discovery of Impressionist painting, Moore humorously stages his younger self as an insolent would-be painter who, blindly following public opinion, inadequately reacts to the shock of novelty grounded in sensations of the dislocation of space and representation. In her analysis of Moore’s account in Confessions of a Young Man of his visit to the Impressionist exhibition (more particularly of his evocation of the reactions to Monet’s Turkeys and Renoir’s Nude in Sunlight), Anna Gruetzner Robins explains that ‘the twinning of ridicule and aggression in the face of avant-garde painting as a means of affirming its originality . . . became a common trope in subsequent histories of the Impressionist movement, suggesting that Confessions had an influential role as a harbinger of the movement within the Anglophone world’ (Gruetzner Robins 47). The reference to Bedlam in the quotation from Confessions indicates that Moore first judged this new art as akin to madness and meaningless chaos. This jeering, an example for Pierre Bourdieu of the laughter that was the spontaneous reaction to the symbolical revolution achieved by Manet, was the first manifestation of what was to become ‘a crisis of aesthetic language’: ‘la crise que provoque Manet est essentiellement une crise du langage esthétique: les gens ne savent plus comment en parler’ (Bourdieu 34). Moore’s study of modern painting could be defined as an attempt to find words to talk about this crisis and about the new art form that provoked it. For Max Nordau who, in Degeneration (1895), wrote a chapter entitled ‘Visual Derangements in Derangements and Hysteria’, the Impressionists (‘stipplers’, ‘mosaists’, ‘papilloteurs’, ‘quiverers’) offered instances of ‘the visual derangements in degeneration and hysteria’ analyzed by the Charcot school and suffered from ‘nystagmus, or trembling of the eyeball’ (Flint 137). Nordau’s theory of degeneration recalls the comparison of the Impressionist exhibition with Bedlam, but the serious tone of Nordau’s criticism contrasts with Moore’s self-deprecating exaggeration designed to insist on the complete inadequacy of his own reactions to artistic novelty. In the light of these reactions based on utter rejection, his art criticism, in which Impressionist eccentricities were eventually to be presented as truly innovative and transformative, illustrated a radical change. His articles on painting originated in a complete rethinking of this first contact with modern painting, a failed encounter with artworks which quickly became seminal and fascinating influences. Yet Moore’s writings retained traces of the initial sense of shock and continued to express bewilderment. For instance, in ‘Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, and the Decadence’, he describes his sensations when he saw Monet’s Turkeys as both an aesthetic revelation (one might say an illumination) and an experience amounting to a sense of the dissolution of the picture into a riot of colours:

  • 7 Camille Mauclair’s 1903 comments in ‘The French Impressionists 1860-1900’ on Monet’s ‘dazzling disp (...)

I remember very well that sunlit meadow and the long coloured necks of the turkeys. Truly it may be said that, for the space of one rapid glance, the canvas radiates; it throws its light in the face of the spectator as, perhaps, no canvas did before. But if the eyes are not immediately averted the illusion passes, and its place is taken by a somewhat incoherent and crude coloration. (Moore 1893, 48)7

  • 8 These ideas are similar to the critiques of Turner’s work with their emphasis on the materiality of (...)

10This comment on Monet echoes Ruskin’s feeling of outrage in front of Whistler’s works and it is clear that Moore clearly had Ruskin in mind when commenting on modern painting. In ‘Whistler’, he presents one of the Nocturnes (Nocturne in Black and Gold: the Falling Rocket) as the picture ‘which Professor Ruskin declared to be equivalent to flinging a pot of paint in the face of the public’ (Moore 1893, 15). Ruskin’s harsh treatment of Whistler’s art reflected the idea shared by Victorian critics that modern painters merely scratched and scribbled on the canvas which they streaked and smeared with lumps of colour.8 Moore obviously endeavoured to give a positive meaning to this feeling of being as it were blinded by the paint itself. This sensation was also felt by his contemporaries, for instance by Charles W. Furse who, praising the force of Monet’s painting, wrote in 1892 in the Albermarle Review that the painter ‘slaps you in the face with his brush’ so that ‘it is the paint that hits you and not the picture’ (Flint 335).

11While reflecting on the impact of Impressionist art, Moore questioned the role of the observer, reflecting on perceptual modalities and focusing on sensations of dislocation and deconstruction. Working on the complex articulation between representational elements and pictorial substance, he relocated vision in the beholder’s body and its movements. For instance, he tried to show that meaningful effects can be produced by connecting vision and the observer’s body which has to move to get the exact sensation of movement the painter had in mind. His analysis of the effects of Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold could be seen as an answer to Ruskin’s sense of outrage when confronted with the paradox of Whistler’s elusive forms and play on pictorial substance: ‘There is another nocturne in which rockets are rising and falling, and the drawing of these two showers of fire is so perfect, that when you turn quickly towards the picture, the sparks really do ascend and descend’ (Moore 1893, 15). In ‘Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, and the Decadence’, Moore explains that, while examining the divisionist technique of the dottists, he had to kneel in order to compare Seurat and Pissarro. He tells how moving back and forth can modify the visual effects produced by the decomposition of tones. The impression that the canvas is just a mosaic of dots of colours (like a leopard, in his own terms) then gives way to the perception of some harmony and unity:

  • 9 Similarly, Mauclair evokes the recomposition from a distance by the eye which, on close inspection, (...)

Needless to say that a sky painted in this way does not bear looking into. Close to the spectator it presents the appearance of a pard; but when he reaches the proper distance there is no denying that the colours do in a measure unite and assume a tone more or less equivalent to the tone that would have been obtained by blending the colours on the palette. (Moore 1893, 52)9

12This technique, a ‘calculated construction of new semantic and cognitive models’ (Crary 2001, 150), compels the viewer to adopt several perspectives by literally moving in order to play on the splitting apart of pictorial substance and figurative elements. The painting is perceived as both a mosaic and a representational image, as plural and unitary. The tension between a sense of composition and the opposite feeling of disruption becomes part and parcel of aesthetic experience and even makes it more challenging and enriching for the viewer.

  • 10 Schapiro describes the interplay between proximity and distance, substance and form, essential to t (...)

13In recent analyses, it is interesting to find a similar approach to the impact of Impressionism, which testifies to Moore’s insight. For instance, Meyer Schapiro underlines the play on shifting perspectives and optical effects and describes a similar visual process: the first beholders who, initially seeing ‘nothing but an unfamiliar pattern of colored brushstrokes’ from close up, realized when stepping back that ‘by moving their own bodies and shifting their points of vision they had magically brought into existence a recognizable image’ (Schapiro 52).10 Moore includes uncertain and unstable vision as a valuable component of the experience of viewing a painting. His writings on painting pay great attention to the experiences of the beholder and mention perceptual modes that are not restricted to visuality but mix several senses. For example, in ‘Chavannes, Millet, and Manet’, the synaesthetic evocation of the rustling silk of Manet’s black involves sound and even touch. Moore narrates how, when he was working in Manet’s studio and was confronted to his own failure in his use of black paint, the artist came to his rescue and with his touch immediately turned the paint into aerial and luminous substance:

One day, seeing that I was in difficulties with a black, he took a brush from my hand, and it seemed to have hardly touched the canvas when the ugly heaviness of my tiresome black began to disappear. There came into it grey and shimmering lights, the shadows filled up with air, and silk seemed to float and rustle. (Moore 1893, 20)

Allusive Forms: From Painting to Writing

14The modification of sense modalities by Impressionist painting involved a ‘singular confrontation with the disruptions, vacancies, and rifts within a perceptual field’ (Crary 2001, 9). This confrontation was central to Moore’s account of how modern painting led to a reconfiguration of the status of the observer. He evokes complex perceptual experiences and it is clear that, more particularly in his studies of portraits, he finds it quite difficult to account for the form of blindness generated by what he calls ‘ominous spaces’. For example, in Whistler’s Arrangement in Black; The Lady in the Yellow Buskin, Portrait of Lady Archibald Campbell (1882–1884), the hand ‘is somewhat uncertain, undetermined, and a gesture is meaningless that the hand does not determine and complete. I do not speak of the fingers of the right hand, which are non-existent’; Lady Archibald Campbell ‘may be said to be walking through incomprehensible space’ (Moore 1893, 6, 8). Much more disturbingly, in Manet’s Olympia, there is ‘that angular, presumptuous and obvious drawing, harsh in its exterior limits and hollow within—the head a sort of convulsive abridgement, the hand void, and the fingers too if we seek their articulations’ (Moore 1893, 25). The way the art critic describes his experience brings forth a sense of disruption based on shifting intensities, discrepancies and gaps. The ekphrasis of Le Repos (1870–1871), a portrait of Berthe Morisot, is probably one of the best examples of the integration into his description of comments on his own malaise in front of these vacancies in representation:

There is the bosom, the waist, the hips, the knees, and the white stockinged foot in the low shoe, coming from out the dress. The drawing about the hips and bosom undulates and floats, vague and yet precise, in a manner that recalls Harlem, and it is not until we turn to the face that we come upon ominous spaces unaccounted for, forms unexplained. . . . The face in this picture is like the face in every picture by Manet. Three or four points are seized, and the spaces between are left unaccounted for. (Moore 1893, 26)

15Beginning with the black dots on ‘this common white dress, with black spots, une robe a poix’, the description concludes on the face which itself seems to be dotted and full of gaps. Moore first notes the dissolution of forms that ‘undulate’ and ‘float’ and a kind of fragmentation mirrored in the focus on salient bodily parts (bosom, waist, hips, knees, and finally the tip of a foot). This impression is followed by a sense of disorientation once the viewer’s gaze rests on the face. Starting with an evocation of the nebulous and the elusive, the description ends with a mention of segmentation and absence.

16It seems that Moore’s appraisal of the uncertainties created by modern painting was also a response to the rise of photography and to its growing influence on painting. In ‘Artistic Education in France and England’ he considers the ‘measured, angular, constipated drawing’ taught in the Beaux Arts as ‘a sort of inferior photograph’ (Moore 1893, 35). This comparison is associated with his rejection of accurate and unselective realism in painting, such as could then be found in the work of George Clausen who, for Moore, threw a uniform light on every detail. In ‘Our Academicians’, Clausen’s method is said to be ‘abject’ and even untrue to the very nature of photography, since photography itself involves effects of light and renders their shifting intensities:

For had [Clausen’s peasants] been photographed, the chances are that some shadow would have clothed, would have hid, something, and a chance gleam might have concentrated the attention on some particular spot. Nine times out of ten the exposure of the plate would not have taken place in a moment of flat grey light. (Moore 1893, 68)

17Moore in fact points out the similar qualities of photography and Impressionist painting which both rely on the creative function of light as subject and medium. First seen as exact reproductions, photographic images in some cases turned out to be as impressionistic as pictorial productions, and the effects of light they made visible (whether unintentional or on the contrary artistically designed) were inherent in the techniques of photographic impression and exposure themselves.

  • 11 For a thorough study of Pater’s influence on Moore, see Adam Parkes, ‘“A Chain of Secret Influences (...)

18Moore valued the ‘poetising aid of light and shade’ (Moore 1893, 68) which transfigures reality in Impressionism and creates unfinished and unstable forms. This indefiniteness became for him a model for selfhood, malleable and fluctuating. Following Pater’s desire to represent ‘the passage and dissolution of impressions, images, sensations . . . that continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves’ (Pater 151–52),11 he gave an image of his own self as ‘a smooth sheet of wax, bearing no impress, but capable of receiving any; of being moulded into all shapes’ (Moore 1886, 1). Moore was essentially a novelist and short-story writer and his art criticism, advocating the allusive and elusive forms of modern painting, coincided with his move away from Zola’s Naturalism, which he had embraced in the early days of his literary career, until the early 90s. Influenced by Édouard Dujardin’s Les lauriers sont coupés, by Mallarmé’s symbolist poetry and by Wagner’s use of the leitmotif, Moore’s writing included elements of modernist aesthetics, without being truly impressionist or modernist. We find for instance the consistent use of inner focalisation, play on perspective and rendering of sensuous experience in the naturalist novel Esther Waters (1894); the creation of the ‘melodic line’ in The Lake (1905) defined in the Preface of 1921 as ‘the weaving of a story out of the soul’s substance’, ‘tied and untied by the flux and reflux of sentiments’, and a particular attention to effects of shifting light and colour.

  • 12 For an analysis of ‘the hermeneutics of literary impressionism’, see Paul Armstrong. Armstrong pres (...)

19Critical studies on literary Impressionism (Armstrong, Bowler, Matz, Parkes) insist on the centrality of the construction of a subject permeated by sensations and they assert that these writings reflected a more general crisis provoked by an acute sense of the unreliability and instability of vision. Literary Impressionism was also a response to more modern media (cinema, the microscope, photography, X-rays) that were then radically altering perceptual modalities and the production of images: ‘the struggle within literature for new ways of seeing, and subsequently representing the visual world, was then a reaction to other visual media, and to the speed and relentlessness of modernity itself’ (Bowler 4). Beyond the pictorial qualities of texts inspired by Impressionist painting, stylistic strategies enabling the writers to convey impressions are also obvious. Internal focalisation with multiple centres of consciousness, embedded narratives and distortions of chronology can be seen as transpositions of the play on sources of light and perspectives. Last but not least, this experience of bewilderment in front of ‘ominous spaces’ so often evoked in Moore’s art criticism is also central to the works of Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford. These authors, who built their novels on epistemological uncertainty and the representation of subjectivity assailed by doubt, wanted to render impressions; they emphasized disorientation, and challenged conventional interpretive constructs.12

20Impressionism can be regarded as the foundation of modernism, as a transformative force promoting multiplicity and uncertainty and calling for formal experimentation. The indefiniteness that this art brought forth was itself the manifestation of social and cultural transformations as modern urban surroundings became places in which a flood of impressions, discontinuous, unexpected, and intense, assailed the self. In his art criticism Moore attempted to give meaning to the sense of shock provoked by modern painting, showing that it challenged mimesis and led to innovative reinterpretations of vision and subjectivity. The Impressionists he met in Paris worked as an alternative to his origins and education (those of an Anglo-Irish landlord striving to escape the strictures of home, nation, and religion) and also led him to reflect on new art forms. His art criticism did not just aim ‘to show the English how to understand the new French painting’ but ‘also enabled him to articulate values of personality and perspectivalism that were to become the keynotes of his literature’ (Frazier 138).

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Bourdieu, Pierre. Manet, une révolution symbolique. Paris: Seuil, 2013.

Bowler, Rebecca. Literary Impressionism, Vision and Memory in Dorothy Richardson, Ford Madox Ford, H. D. and May Sinclair. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

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Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception, Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.

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Enaud-Lechien, Isabelle. ‘Moore-Degas-Paris: Exchanges, Reminiscences and Intersecting Arts’. George Moore’s Paris and his Ongoing French Connections. Ed. Michel Brunet, Fabienne Gaspari and Mary Pierse. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2015. 19–40.

Flint, Kate, ed. Impressionists in England: The Critical Reception. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1984.

Frazier, Adrian. George Moore (1852-1933). New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.

Gruetzner Robins, Anna. ‘“A Visit to an Impressionist Exhibition” in Moore’s Confessions of a Young Man’. George Moore Influence and Collaboration. Ed. Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn. Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 2014. 39–52.

Matz, Jesse. Literary Impressionism and Modernist Aesthetics. Cambridge: CUP, 2001.

Mc Conkey, Kenneth. British Impressionism. Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited, 1989.

Moore, George. Confessions of a Young Man. 1888. London: W. Heinemann, 1928.

Moore, George. Modern Painting. 1893. United States: Kessinger, 2004.

Moore, George. The Lake. 1905. Gerrards Cross: C. Smythe, 1980.

Moore, George. Hail and Farewell. Vale. London: W. Heinemann, 1914.

Parkes, Adam. A Sense of Shock, The Impact of Impressionism on Modern British and Irish Writing. Oxford: OUP, 2011.

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance, Studies in Art and Poetry. 1873. Ed. Adam Phillips. Oxford: OUP, 1998.

Schapiro, Meyer. Impressionism, Reflections and Perceptions. New York: G. Braziller, 1997.

Wilde, Oscar. ‘The Decay of Lying’. 1891. New York: Norton, 2007.

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1 We find an illustration of Moore’s role in the promotion of modern painting in England and in Ireland in William Orpen’s painting Homage to Manet (1909). Orpen, who aimed to foreground the role played by Moore in the defense of Impressionist painting, represented the house of Sir Hugh Lane, the founder of the first gallery of modern art in Dublin. Around a table, from the left to the right, we can see George Moore, reading a newspaper, Wilson Steer, D. S. MacColl (art critic and director of the Tate Gallery), W. R. Sickert, Sir Hugh Lane and Henry Tonks; above them, there is Manet’s portrait of Eva Gonzales (later donated by Hugh Lane to the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art). This scene, in which Moore holds the attention of eminent patrons and of members of the New English Art Club whose art he also championed, showcases the Anglo-Irish writer’s seminal function.

2 For a historical approach of Impressionist painting in England and its connections with French Impressionism, see for example Kenneth Mc Conkey, British Impressionism, Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited, 1989.

3 We have not included Degas in this analysis. For a thorough study of Moore’s writing on Degas and more generally on the connection between Moore and the French painter, see Isabelle Enaud-Lechien’s article, ‘Moore-Degas-Paris: Exchanges, Reminiscences and Intersecting Arts’ in George Moore’s Paris and his Ongoing French Connections, eds. Michel Brunet, Fabienne Gaspari and Mary Pierse (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2015), 19–40.

4 ‘le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent’ (Baudelaire 216). The interdependence between two types of modernity (technological and scientific on the one hand and artistic on the other hand) is best summed up in this definition of urban modernity. The observer becomes a ‘kaleidoscope’ (Baudelaire 213), an optical instrument invented in 1816 and epitomizing new perceptual modalities, a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness. In Le peintre de la vie moderne, Constantin Guys, traveller and cosmopolitan painter is the typical flâneur or ambulatory observer.

5 During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), some French artists, such as Monet and Pissarro, went to London. This exile was a key moment in their careers and London became one of the subjects of their painting. See the EY Exhibition at Tate Britain (October 2017-May 2018): ‘Impressionnists in London, French Artists in Exile (1870-1904)’. In ‘The Decay of Lying’, there is a clear reference to Monet when Vivian adds: ‘That white quivering sunlight that one sees now in France, with its strange blotches of mauve, and its restless violet shadows, is [Nature’s] latest fancy, and, on the whole, Nature reproduces it quite admirably. Where she used to give us Corots and Daubignys, she gives us now exquisite Monets and entrancing Pissaros. Indeed there are moments, rare, it is true, but still to be observed from time to time, when Nature becomes absolutely modern’. (Wilde 338)

6 Isabelle Enaud-Lechien gives an excellent analysis of the ‘critical dialogue’ between Modern Painting and ‘Ten O’Clock’ in ‘Moore and Whistler: Writer and Painter at Loggerheads’.

7 Camille Mauclair’s 1903 comments in ‘The French Impressionists 1860-1900’ on Monet’s ‘dazzling display of luminous atoms’ show how this impression of being blinded by the association of paint and light came to be regarded as a valuable experience: ‘There are some midday scenes by Claude Monet, where every material silhouette—tree, hay-rick, or rock—is annihilated, volatilised in the fiery vibration of the dust of sunlight, and before which the beholder gets really blinded, just as he would in actual sunlight’ (Flint 323).

8 These ideas are similar to the critiques of Turner’s work with their emphasis on the materiality of the paint (and, in the harshest judgements, on the meaninglessness of forms). This led Ruskin to write in 1843 a defense of Turner (the starting point of Modern Painters); ironically enough, Ruskin disparaged Whistler’s work using arguments resembling those of Turner’s detractors.

9 Similarly, Mauclair evokes the recomposition from a distance by the eye which, on close inspection, just sees an ‘accumulation of spots which seem projected in a furious shower’ (Flint 323).

10 Schapiro describes the interplay between proximity and distance, substance and form, essential to the experience of the beholder of an Impressionist painting and he stresses the importance of the material reality of the paint felt in the perception of the web of strokes that compose the image: ‘To experience intimately an Impressionist work as ordered color and stroke you must hold it in your hands. Only then can you sense the rhythmic, graphic play of the brush, the fine differences and accords of tone in neighboring touches, and the passages of colors in ever varied chords on that surface. All these disappear as you step back in order to bring into focus the mirrored landscape. And yet, even at a distance an effect of the constant interplay between the two aspects remains’ (Schapiro 52).

11 For a thorough study of Pater’s influence on Moore, see Adam Parkes, ‘“A Chain of Secret Influences”: Pater Disciples’, A Sense of Shock. The Impact of Impressionism on Modern British and Irish Writing (Oxford: OUP, 2011).

12 For an analysis of ‘the hermeneutics of literary impressionism’, see Paul Armstrong. Armstrong presents ‘the experience of bewilderment’ (478) as the starting point of James’s, Conrad’s and Ford’s reflections on the problem of understanding: ‘Just as they focus their dramatic attention on the processes by which we create and construe meaning, so these literary impressionists explore self-consciously the epistemological bases of representation in the theory and practice of their fiction’ (Armstrong 487).

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Fabienne Gaspari, « An ‘extraordinary change’ in the Climate: The Transformative Power of Impressionism in George Moore’s Art Criticism »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 89 Spring | 2019, mis en ligne le 14 juin 2019, consulté le 24 janvier 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Fabienne Gaspari

Fabienne Gaspari is a senior lecturer at the University of Pau where she teaches 19th-century British literature. She focuses on the relationships between writing and the body. Her 2012 study, ‘Morsels for the gods’: l’écriture du visage dans la littérature britannique (1839-1900), examines novelistic treatments of the visage. She has published papers on 19th-century British authors including George Moore and has co-directed, with Michel Brunet and Mary Pierse, George Moore’s Paris and his Ongoing French Connections (2015).
Fabienne Gaspari est maîtresse de conférences à l’Université de Pau où elle enseigne la littérature britannique du xixe siècle. Elle étudie les relations entre le corps et l’écriture. L’ouvrage ‘Morsels for the gods’ : l’écriture du visage dans la littérature britannique (1839-1900), paru en 2012, analyse les représentations du visage dans le roman. Elle a publié des articles sur des auteurs britanniques du xixe siècle, parmi lesquels George Moore et a co-dirigé, avec Michel Brunet and Mary Pierse, George Moore’s Paris and his Ongoing French Connections (2015).

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