The Private Lives of the Impressionists

Heidenkind’s Art History Challenge ends this week, and I am finishing up the last two books that I selected for the challenge. This morning I finished Sue Roe’s The Private Lives of the Impressionists, which I have been trying to read for several months. It’s not that Roe’s book is boring or bothersome – but it wasn’t compelling enough for me to read in a single sitting. Ironically, I wonder if the book wasn’t amazingly compelling because I’m an art historian. I wasn’t waiting on edge, wondering what was going to happen to the Impressionists, because more-or-less I already knew.

The book is dedicated to the personal and professional lives of several Impressionist artists: Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Cezanne, Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Morisot, and Cassatt. Roe’s writing style is very informed, but also lively and engaging. I thought that she gave fairly equal treatment to all of the artists mentioned, with the exception of Alfred Sisley, who didn’t receive a lot of discussion (which I would expect, since he’s not very well-known).

One of my favorite things that I learned from the book was that Degas traveled to New Orleans. He delayed his return to Paris for three months so that he could paint this picture of a cotton office:

Degas, Cotton Merchants in New Orleans, 1873
I think this might be my new favorite work by Degas. It’s fun and interesting subject matter, and I love the white, fluffy cotton.
Overall, Roe’s book was pretty good. It’s not the most compelling thing that I have ever read, but it was interesting to learn more about the personal lives of the Impressionists. I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about the Impressionists, but I do think it would be easier for the reader to be somewhat informed about Impressionism before reading Roe’s book.
Have you read The Private Lives of the Impressionists? Did you like it?
  • Giulia says:

    How absolutely weird that I just walked in from the Phillips Collection (in DC); I'm a member & rarely buy a book there. I almost bought this…but I was feeling just undecided…really wanted something else & they didn't have it. I think I'll get this from the library then. Then I'll come back & let you know what I think. (If you still want to know:)

    I mean I had it in my hand to buy it 45 minutes ago. Weird. (Travelled via Clever Pup)


  • e says:

    I (big shocker) haven't read that book, but I wanted to leave a comment because I, too, think that cotton is really lovely. So fluffy! I'll bet the strokes are amazing to see in person.

  • Hels says:

    Yes I loved the book.

    My problem with reading about the private lives of artists and writers is that you are then left with the bitter truth: that they are all supremely talented humans with all the flaws of regular people and sometimes worse.

    My favourite examples (not from the Roe book) are
    1. Paul Gauguin who deserted his wife and 5 children, to whore himself around the South Seas. And
    2. Dylan Thomas who was a brawling, womanising fall-down drunk.

    Of course we have to have all the information, to interpret their works properly. But Caravaggio, my all time favourite, broke my heart.

  • heidenkind says:

    I don't think I'll ever get around to reading this book. It'll just sit on my shelf, collecting dust forever.

    Degas completed a lot of great work in New Orleans–I wonder if anyone's done a paper about that part of his career? I know there are several in the New Orleans Museum of Art collection. One of my professors was obsessed with Degas and went on and on about how he was the only Impressionist to come to America.

  • M says:

    Guilia, welcome to my blog! How funny that you were just about to purchase Private Lives of the Impressionists. It must be fate: the two of you are meant to be together. You'll have to let me know what you think, after you end up reading the book.

    e, I'd love to see the Degas painting and brushstrokes in person. The painting is located in the Harvard Art Museum. If you are ever in Boston/Cambridge, you'll have to check it out. 🙂

    Hels, I agree with you about the flaws. It's sometimes disappointing to learn that the creators of larger-than-life works of art were actually quite human (flaws and all). Your examples of Gauguin and Caravaggio are perfect.

    heidenkind, I would love to read more about Degas in New Orleans. If you ever come across such a paper, let me know. I'm sure there's got to be something out there. (Can there be much about the Impressionists that has been left unexplored?) 🙂

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.