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The Challenges Of Group Biography

Writing the intertwined lives of the Impressionists

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

The first surprise was that the early French Impressionists really were a cohesive, living group: they met as young students and remained friends for about twenty-six years. My initial reading (art history books, exhibition catalogues, biographies, correspondence, memoirs) both identified the artists as personal friends and revealed that there was no book tracing their intertwined lives from the time they met un-til they went their separate ways. The old chestnut, I couldn’t find such a book, so decided to write it.

What a bunch of exhilarating characters, how compatible, and how different. Taciturn Cézanne; driven, ambitious Monet; placid, philosophical Renoir; reserved, diffident Caillebotte; beautiful, melancholy Berthe Morisot, devotedly in love with Manet. (He was married; she married his brother). Degas, the Impressionist who hated fresh air; quiet, private Sisley; devoted father and socialist, Pissarro. Energetic, stylish Mary Cassatt, whose atrocious French accent amused Renoir (‘How do you paint your browns?’ she asked him; ‘the way you roll your r’s,’ he replied).

Another discovery — they were remarkably uncompetitive. For over two decades they worked in an ongoing, extraordinary ambiance of friendly interconnection. Their works are, of course, famously in sync. Can you immediately distinguish a Sisley from a Pissarro? (You start noticing what marks them out: the lavender hue of Sisley’s snow scenes; Monet’s spots of vivid animation, the magpie, black against untrodden snow; the small red mark, barely perceptible at first glance, that creates movement). As young men, Monet and Renoir painted their riverbank scenes seated side by side; Cassatt not only took advice from Degas, his brushstrokes actually appear in some of her early work; Cézanne went on exploring the Impressionist method of working colour into form until, some say, he outstripped them all as an experimentalist. They met frequently, they exchanged news in letters; they painted one another, and one another’s wives and children. They exhibited together. Here, then, was a genuine clan, a rare gift to a biographer.

What next? You take copious notes on sources, always with a view to accurately reflecting instances of lived connection. Researching a single life is a walk in the park compared with the sustained industry of cross-referencing a dozen interconnected life stories. Archival research? Forget it, unless you wish to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops necessary to inspect say five precious letters by Monet, which need to be identified precisely first. In other words, you need to have read them (in reproduction) already, so there will be no discoveries of the kind you can make in the archives of a single, less celebrated subject. After all, one original letter signed by Monet or Cézanne, if it ever came up for sale… just think about it. The biographer of a group has to adapt not only to the exigencies of researching single life trajectories and spotting every significant connection with those of a dozen others, but also to searching out different, more varied sources. No going to a library and immersing yourself for days – weeks – in caches of precious letters and notebooks; you will need to be more broad-minded about what constitutes a valuable resource. The memoirs of a friend, a dealer; published correspondence; existing biographies, some old, some new, some by family members; art history books; exhibition catalogues, some slender, some huge. Monet’s catalogue raisonné runs to six volumes. An obscure publication in French (simply by virtue of limiting the scope of its readership) can feel like a precious find.

Then comes the footstepping (since Richard Holmes identified it as such), a major element of every biographer’s work. Paris is the first location — wandering through the streets with maps and addresses to identify the locations of the cafés, the studios, the apartments of your subjects, some no longer standing, others bearing plaques, which you photograph (why? a photograph of a plaque won’t take you closer to your subject, though knowing you are standing on the very spot where… somehow mysteriously does). As the Impressionists increasingly produced more children and (in their early years as artists) still no saleable work, unable to afford Parisian rents they moved away from the capital to the rural villages that encircle Paris in a kind of necklace around the Seine and the Oise. Now for the more ambitious walks from village to village, the train journeys to Auvers and Pontoise, to stand on the exact spots where the artists set up their easels.

The riverside scenes are (mostly) astonishingly unchanged; and exploring the sites brings revelations. The narrow, muddy lanes of Auvers actually slope vertiginously, just the way Cézanne painted them. (And the church does offer strangely twisted perspectives, just as Van Gogh depicted it.) Seeing the terraces of Pontoise, the sparkling, white spring blossom against red rooftops, painted by Pissarro, brings the works alive in unforeseen ways. On my way to explore the riverside beyond Chatou, I happened upon the little-known museum of the Grenouillière, the Frog Pond, the name given to the bar in the middle of the river, reachable by a small boardwalk, painted by Monet and Renoir. They were celebrating the dancing and open-air bathing, enjoyed by train loads of Parisians, arriving in their finery, who first jumped into the river (turning their chignons into streaming wet hair) before drying off to dance the night away. The museum is captivating, with picture books, photographs, posters and cartoons all detailing the pleasures of the Grenouillère (including the Grenouillière coiffure). Visiting the museum at Pontoise I saw beautiful drawings by Pissarro. I asked to meet the director of the museum who, out of town that day, generously made up for his absence by sending me a copy of the precious booklet, published by the Friends of the Museum of Pontoise, of fourteen letters to Pissarro from Julie, the artist’s (common-law) wife. Julie’s letters are gems. She wrote expressively (without conventional grammar or punctuation) of her love for her husband, exasperated by his periods of absence (in Paris, looking for purchasers); sending him news of the family, the chickens, the flowers, the vegetables killed by the frost… all the challenges and hardships of the Pissarro family life in the country, movingly conveyed.

The biographer is of course, throughout these preliminaries, keeping her notes in order. When you begin, you optimistically open a computer file for each artist. Soon you need a file per year, per artist (11 artists, 26 years = 286 files). A file for their principal dealers, a file on each significant painting, etc. As you print everything off, the piles of notes continue to mount. Research generates research. The large publication, in French, detailing the ambiance and produce of each rural village becomes not an optional extra but vital to your understanding of the everyday lives of the group. As the Morisots are forced out of Paris, as Manet takes up position on the ramparts, as Renoir narrowly escapes being shot at, the Franco-Prussian war (spanning eighteen months of the timescale of my story) becomes increasingly significant. I spent a whole summer studying the politics of the Franco-Prussian war. For each artist there are several existing biographies, some recent, some old, but for the biographer there is no such thing as out of date, one account does not supersede another. On some points, biographers’ findings conflict, the dates (let alone interpretations) of events, episodes, even of paintings, vary across sources. Conflicting data must be examined and compared, and decisions made, because nothing can be invented. Oh, to be a novelist, to have a particular character enter the story sooner (or later), to meet so-and-so earlier; if only I could re-write the script, and spare a subject an untimely or agonising demise. But you are tied to what actually happened.

At some point the biographer will need to marshal her notes and write a long narrative, the painstaking result of a year, two years’ unremitting research: the first draft. Don’t get distracted by one artist over another, don’t linger too long on episodes or anecdotes that might become disproportionate. Some events are particularly riveting. But no single event, no individual story must be prioritized. The group biographer is always looking for moments that will flare up and bring the story alive. But do not tip the balance, keep, at all times, the rhythm of the story, the picture of events as they actually took place.

Once it is published, you may receive correspondence from readers, kindly sending you, perhaps, a postcard of one of the paintings you describe. Were you aware that…? Yes, thank you, I was, but I couldn’t unfortunately include every picture. One letter points out that I several times mention the weather: did I consult meteorological records? No, this is a book about the interconnected lives of the early French Impressionists. I studied Monet’s (published) correspondence, and if Monet tells a friend it is raining, that is good enough for me.

Sue Roe is the author of four biographies, In Montparnasse: The Emergence of Surrealism in Paris, from Duchamp to Dali, In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris 1900-1910, The Private Lives of the Impressionists and Gwen John: A Life. She is also a novelist, poet and critic.

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