Impressionism and the rise of consumer culture

audience sits in front of professor speaking
Emily Wiley

Art historian Nancy Locke discusses Impressionism with the Research Unplugged crowd.

To look at art and see only something "pretty" is to miss seeing the whole picture. Art reflects the society and culture in which it was created, and even influences the culture that follows it.

That was Nancy Locke's message to a crowd of both town and gown that gathered Wednesday for the final Research Unplugged conversation of the spring season. With the recognizable image of Claude Monet's "Water Lilies" projected on the wall, Locke explained the ways in which French Impressionist paintings are linked to today's consumer culture.

"We want to be modern and fashionable; we want to consume. That's what Impressionists were painting in the 19th century," said Locke, associate professor of art history and author of the book Manet and the Family Romance.

After the Franco-Prussian War, Paris sat at the end of an empire and the beginning of a republic, Locke told the crowd. The opening of the first department store in Paris in 1869, for example, led to a social shift that became heavily manifested in Impressionist art. For the first time, she noted, the same off-the-rack dresses might be worn by both respectable middle-class women and fashionable prostitutes.

"There was anxiety about consumer culture masking class identity," Locke said. "It was a world in which images began to mediate the relationships between people, and class became harder to discern." The painting of modernity, she told the group, is part of what made Impressionism so controversial in Paris in the 1860s, and one reason why it remains so popular in America today.

Locke shared images of some of her favorite Impressionist paintings, including "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere" by Edouard Manet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Le Bal au Moulin de la Galette." Such paintings were dubbed "mistakes" by critics when they first appeared in the late 1860s, but are now revered and marketed on everything from mouse pads to shopping bags to posters that adorn collegiate dormitories.

"I think it's great that there are blockbuster exhibits bringing people into museums, and I think that the popularity of Impressionism urged society to become more conscious of art," Locke said as many heads nodded in agreement. "But printing this art on shopping bags diminishes what made it so oppositional in the beginning."

While many audience members pondered the paintings and shared opinions on their respective significances, Locke fielded a question that she has surely heard many times: Isn't it possible that there is no social message—that the artist just wanted to paint for painting's sake?

Locke paused to think before answering. "Artists make choices," she said. "You have to ask, 'Why did they make these selections and not others?' When painting mythological and religious subjects seemed to be the path to the academy, why are some painters depicting homeless people, gypsies, and street musicians?" Locke went on to explain how pieces of art like the "Bar at the Folies-Bergere" gave middle-class Parisians a taste of the luxuries previously afforded only by the well-to-do.

"Manet didn't paint academic pieces with smiles and kisses," Locke continued. By painting the homeless, for example, Manet depicted the social implications of poverty. Similarly, by painting scenes which blurred class lines (like many subjects of the Impressionist canvas), artists influenced shifts in society.

Locke stressed the importance of considering the artist's choices. "You can see these paintings as strokes on a canvas, but they are also embodiments of desire, consumption, and identity," she said. "With its unfinished style and subject matter, the Impressionist paintings helped create the consumer culture we live in today.

Nancy Locke, Ph.D., is associate professor of art history and can be reached at nel3@psu.edu. Katie Feeney is an undergraduate communications student and intern for Research Unplugged. She can be reached at kaf254@psu.edu.

Last Updated April 19, 2006