The artist as the objective and subjective observer
Romanticism was characterized by a need for individual expression. The individual’s way of feeling, in the form of emotions that emphasized one’s relationship with nature, allowed the landscape image to become an emblem of Romantic art. Gradually, the nature described through the landscape image became idealized at a personal and collective level for modern society. As European societies progressed into the 19th century, individual reason and objectivism increasingly displaced the subjectivity of individual feelings.
In “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” George Simmel compares the mental processes of a rural inhabitant to a city dweller in response to environmental stimuli.1 The modern city dweller is described as one who emotionally detaches from his or her surroundings because of over-stimulation from environmental variances. As a result, he or she needs to remain rational and objective. The modern city dweller requires his or her own private space, physically and mentally to compensate. In contrast, the small-town dweller is more in sync with his or her senses and emotions, almost performing at an unconscious level. In many ways, the modern landscape artist embodies both of these mental processes: the objectivism and rationality of the city dweller and the emotional sensory functioning of the small-town inhabitant. On one hand, the artist is the objective observer, but on the other hand, the artist is the individual who expresses his or her own subjective experiences. This duality is particularly critical for the city dweller who travels to the rural environment for the artwork’s subject matter. The artist who practices modern objective reasoning on a daily basis now adjusts his or her rationality to the context of nature. Modern landscape art represents the relationship with nature in the dualistic consciousness of the modern person.
The dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity is quite evident in Impressionism. The Impressionist is at first a rational observer, perceiving and understanding the way a picture works: how colours in vision intermingle together when encountering a specific light, and how movements and energies of people relate in their environments. However, the Impressionist is not a imitator; the paintings created are self-expressions that are undeniably subjective.
Gustave Caillebotte, known for his realistic photo-like paintings, was highly influenced by the objectivism of the camera lens. His paintings often reflect the compositions of photographs with purposely-cropped borders, precise perspectival compositions, and special attention to detail. He was particularly interested in the specificity of the human figure during movement. While he took the role of an impartial observer, his paintings resembled vignettes of scenes found in daily life. There is enough ambiguity in the scenes to question whether the original source is imaginary or reality. His Père Magloire series: Père Magloire on Saint-Clair Road to Etretat, Père Magloire on the Road between Saint-Clair and Etretat, and Père Magloire, the Nap are perfect examples of this vignette-like representation. The paintings depict a labourer through the lens of a documentary reporter, showing the man neither working nor in the context of the worksite, but instead leisurely in idle harmony with the local landscape.2 Schrader describes the series as a paradigm for the Impressionist’s value of nature:
the dramatic landscape of Normandy with its steep coastline, houses rising in the background and perched precariously close to the abyss, and the breathtaking view of the sea give expression to an entirely different state of mind and transform the Père Magloire series into a paradigm for the Impressionist concept of the unrepeatable subjective impression of nature and the feeling of unity with it.3
While the vignettes of Magloire inspire curiosity in the viewer, the labourer’s peaceful harmony with his idyllic surroundings also reveal Caillebotte’s ideals of nature. Similarly, the idealism of nature can be found in many Pointillist paintings. Considered as a Neo-Impressionist style, Pointillism built upon the Impressionists’ technique of short brush strokes. Using small dots of colour in equivalent values, Pointillism experimented with colour composition in a rational way. The technique is essentially observational in form and style. In fact, Paul Signac proposed that the style be called chromo-luminarist, as it resembled how varying lights combine together to produce brilliance in the optical process.4 Although quite scientific in principle, Pointillists such as Paul Signac, Georges-Pierre Seurat, and Camille Pissarro expressed their anti-modern romantic subjectivity in their paintings’ contents. Many of their paintings depict industrial elements within pastoral or idyllic contexts. Signac’s The Bois-Colombes Railway Junction and Pissarro’s The Dieppe Railway, Eragny-sur-Epte supposedly reveal railway scenes, yet the modern implications of the railway are restrained by the emphasis of tranquil landscape settings found in the tree hedgerow and rolling hills. Similarly, The Bridge at Courbevoie by Seurat mixes elements of industry with the modern harbor, showcasing a landscape that is leisurely and serene rather than demanding and progressive.
1. George Simmel, “Metropolis and Mental Life,” in Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents, eds. by Vassilike Kolocotroni, Jane Goldman and Olga Taxidou, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 52.↩
2. Kristen Schrader, “In Praise of Idleness,” in Gustave Caillebotte: An Impressionist and Photography, eds. by Karin Sagner, Max Hollein and Ulrich Pohlmann, (Munchen: Hirmer Verlag, 2012), 213.↩
3. Ibid. ↩
4. James H. Rubin, Impressionism and the modern landscape: productivity, technology, and urbanization from Manet to Van Gogh, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 154.↩