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Literary Impressionisms

Camilla Storskog

Part III: Fictional impressionists

2. The painter in fiction

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1The painter in fiction is a motif that has long since inspired scholarly writing internationally. Besides the wealth of shorter critical essays on single literary works featuring artists, among the more consistent critical monographs uncovering the painter as a literary type are Theodor R. Bowie’s The Painter in French Fiction (Bowie 1950); Maurice Beebe’s Ivory Towers and Sacred Founts. The Artist as Hero in Fiction from Goethe to Joyce (Beebe 1964); Herbert Marcuse’s doctoral dissertation from 1922, Der deutsche Künstlerroman (The German Artist Novel) published in German in 1978 (Marcuse 1978); Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz’s Die Legende vom Künstler from 1934 (here referred to in the English translation, Legend, Myth and Magic in the Image of the Artist; Kris and Kurz 1979); the volume edited by René Démoris, L’Artiste en représentation (Démoris 1993), and Émilie Sitzia’s doctoral dissertation L’Artiste entre mythe et realité dans trois oeuvres de Balzac, Goncourt et Zola (Sitzia 2004). As to the Scandinavian scene, a rather recent contribution to the field is Paul Binding’s exploration of the representation of artists in Ibsen’s production, With Vine-leaves in His Hair. The Role of the Artist in Ibsen’s Plays (Binding 2006). Conny Svensson’s aforementioned study presents an excellent introduction to Swedish examples belonging to the genre of the artist novel; while exhaustively outlining the specificities of the konstnärsroman of the 1880s, an in-depth analysis of the impressionist painter in fiction falls, however, outside of its scope.

  • 1   The shortage of impressionists in the Swedish artist novel may well depend on the absence of mode (...)

2To the best of my knowledge, very few scholars have scrutinized the representation of impressionist art and artists, specifically. One of these is Anna Gruetzner Robins in an essay dedicated to British writer George Moore and his 1883 novel A Modern Lover (Gruetzner Robins 2007), another is Sarah Brun, who has examined two French plays, La Cigale and Les Impressionnistes, introducing impressionist characters (Brun 2012). That scholarly attention to this topic is limited is perhaps not surprising as the repertory of international narratives featuring fictional impressionist painters, within our given period, seems likewise not particularly abundant and would include, among the best-known examples, characters such as Marcel Proust’s Elstir in À la recherche du temps perdu (1909-22), whose impressionism is discussed in Valazza (2013: 301-09), Rudyard Kipling’s painter-protagonist Dick Heldar in The Light that Failed from 1891, and Stephen Crane’s Will Hawker in The Third Violet, published in 1897. Fellow impressionists to the Swedish specimen examined in the following can also be found in Philippe Burty’s Grave imprudence of 1880, and in Edmond Duranty’s short stories forming the collection Le Pays des Arts, published in 1881 (cf. Johnson 1973: 271)1.

  • 2   None of the authors that are of interest to this part of the present survey indicate the temporal (...)
  • 3   The impressionist painters in the Swedish literary works considered here all have a connection wi (...)

3The sporadic impressionists in Swedish prose written and set in the impressionism era are grouped together here in order to scrutinize the idea of impressionist art and the vision of the impressionist artist that come forth through the texts2. When the impressionist appears as a literary character, does the writer’s portrayal mirror the general opinion of the artists belonging to a movement that found it hard to win acceptance? Is he misunderstood, scandalous, poor, ill-fated, in conflict with his surroundings or, on the contrary, ground-breaking, admired, successful, and envied? Is there a wish to attack or defend his art? What is his role? Where does he live and breathe?3

  • 4   Geijerstam was an amateur reviewer of art (cf., Svensson 1985: 221), while Nordensvan is the auth (...)

4Secondly, and as to the motif of the artistic discourse, we will take a look at the rendering of the technical and aesthetic theories. This field of investigation is particularly interesting when attention is given to authors with a double talent: apart from their activity as novelists and short story writers, Georg Nordensvan and Gustaf af Geijerstam also worked as art critics, which is of relevance to the discussion as it signifies that they had a factual connection to the art world and the knowledge necessary to judge and interpret trends in painting4. Evident in the short stories of both Geijerstam and Nordensvan is the accuracy in terminology, probably deriving from their parallel activity as art critics and art historians. Where present, narrative remarks and observations on the impressionist-protagonists’ landscape paintings with their ‘unnatural’ blue colour, on the impressionist’s endeavour to seize «ögonblicksstämningar» (Nordensvan 1894b: 135; «atmospheres of the moment») and achieve a ‘total effect’, to mention a few examples, are wholly consistent with the ideas of the French innovators, whose blue shadows and refusal to dwell on details in favour of the rapid capturing of the essence of the subject quickly became something of a hallmark. Is art criticism therefore embedded in the writer’s choice of character?

2.1. Gustaf af Geijerstam: Utan pängar

5The title of Geijerstam’s tale introduces the reader to what Theodor R. Bowie (1950: 10) has defined as «perhaps the most pressing problem» to the painter in French fiction; the motif is that of the starving artist, battling with the need to feed his body while saving his soul and artistic vision.

  • 5   Conny Svensson defines Melin «en förnyare och framtidsman inom måleriet» (1985: 228; «an innovato (...)
  • 6   That the contemporary readership understood the protagonist to be representative of the impressio (...)

6The location of Ivar Melin’s atelier, determined in the opening line of the short story to «långt bort på Boulevard Montparnasse» (Geijerstam 1889: 189; «the farther end of the Boulevard Montparnasse»), places this Swedish painter among the emigrant artists who inhabited a cheaper and less romantic neighbourhood than the old artistic heart of the city that it would soon come to replace, i.e., Montmartre, where Melin’s fellow artists are said to reside (235: «han gick uppåt Boulevard Clichy där kamraterna bodde»; «he went up towards Boulevard Clichy where his companions lived»). This piece of information places the protagonist ahead of his time5. It also possibly stresses his fervent desire to break with artistic tradition and adhere to the radical impressionism6.

7Although the initial characterization of the painter-protagonist is formulaic, portraying Melin with the stereotypical attributes of the (unsuccessful) artist: Basque-style beret; yellow straw chair; empty wallet, Geijerstam soon sets the tone for a narration that is original in the way it resonates with the aesthetics of the picture-seeking eye peculiar to the impressionist. Despite the fact that the drama unfolding in the story (covering a period of two days in the life of the artist) is profoundly imbued with the topoi of economic hardship and misery – both commonly employed in the art novel and often connected to the age-old idea that a life of poverty and privation is the lot of the artistic genius (Kris and Kurtz 1979: 114) – the narrative units mediated through the impressionist’s «inspirerade målaröga» (Geijerstam 1889: 190; «inspired painter’s eye») are, for the purpose of my discussion here, the most significant point at issue in Utan pängar. Embedded within the protagonist’s frequent hunger-ridden reflections on the relationship between money and art are smaller narrative sequences seen through the protagonist’s perspective, in which the focalized objects appeal to the impressionist’s sensibility in at least two ways.

8On the one hand we find internal focalizations on aspects of the surrounding reality, such as flooding light, enticing Melin because of their pictorial value; on the other, through the protagonist’s observations of the urban scene, the reader is given access to this character’s distinctive manner of ‘framing unframed compositions’ during his city walks: «med målarens glädje åt färg och lif kunde han tillbringa timmar och dagar på dessa gator, flanerande utan mål, njutande af dessa friska taflor utan ram» (239; «with a painter’s delight in colour and life he would spend hours and days in these streets, strolling aimlessly, relishing in these unsullied, unframed paintings», italics are mine). In spite of the indication according to which Melin experiences certain urban scenes literally as «unframed paintings», these textual descriptions are essentially unpictorial as far as writerly techniques are concerned (unlike the case of Westermarck’s Aftonstämning, previously examined) but, as to the subjects framed, it appears fruitful to examine these passages as patterned after impressionist canvasses, not least because of this authorial suggestion.

9By focussing on a few examples, I will try to illustrate how the narrative units that appeal to the impressionist’s pictorial imagination function in the text. As previously mentioned, they fall into two categories: for clarity, I shall discuss the passages dwelling on light effects as ‘a pictorial approach to the observation of reality’. Subsequently, the scenes impressed on the narrator’s mind as he saunters through the streets of Paris, rendered in a manner similar to that of cutting impressionist canvasses out of their frames, will instead be defined as ‘a literary approach to impressionist subjects’. The question of what function these units perform respectively will be addressed with reference to Marianna Torgovnick’s reflection on the use of the visual arts in literary writing, in which the concept of a ‘decorative’ use (Torgovnick 1985: 70-106) seems particularly relatable to Utan pängar.

10I will conclude the discussion by identifying an instance of pictorialism in the narration that differs from the above: the ekphrastic description of Melin’s own landscape painting moves beyond the ornamental function in all its varying degrees, and informs the reader more accurately of Geijerstam’s understanding of the essence of impressionist art.

2.1.1. A pictorial approach to the observation of reality

11As a confirmation of the aforementioned postulation that the action in Geijerstam’s short story unfolds between two opposite poles of reference – money (or, rather, the lack thereof) and art – the narrative is launched with this dichotomy as its springboard. Melin’s initial, painstaking contemplation of the last franc in his wallet is almost immediately interrupted as his «painter’s eye» (Geijerstam 1889: 190) takes hold of the narration, replacing the earlier despair with a delighted observation of the fugitive play of sunbeams in the greenery outside his atelier:

Solen låg in, så att muren kastade en bjärt skugga öfver det vilda vinet, som i spalierer klängde ända upp till murens kant, och där de ljusa skotten sköto upp öfver muren, spelade solen omkring den unga grönskan och gaf den en färg, hvilken återdallrade i målarens sinne med en ton af musik. […] han vände hufvudet för att följa solstrålarnes lek förbi den skarpa skuggan, som föll på sandgången och bort till en grupp af gula rosor, bakom hvilka syntes en af blekröda slingerrosor täckt berså. Här darrade solljuset i ett vimmel af reflexer, som kommo och gingo, alteftersom den lätta sommarvinden gungade blommor och blad. Det var en glans i de bleka bladen, som skiftade i rödt, hvitt och violett, och på marken under det hvälfda taket lekte solstrålarna mellan skugga och ljus […]. (190-91, italics are mine)

The sun came in, causing the wall to throw a sharp shadow over the woodbine creeping along the trellis all the way up to the edge of the wall; and where the bright sprouts emerged from behind the wall the sun was playing in the pristine greenery, giving it a colour that reverberated in the painter’s mind with a musical tone. […] he turned his head to follow the play of sunbeams exceeding the clear-cut shadow, which fell on the sandy alley, directed at a host of yellow roses behind which an arbour covered with pale red climbing roses emerged. Here, the sunlight was trembling in a myriad of to-and-fro reflections as the light summer breeze swung flowers and leaves. The pale leaves glowed in red, white and violet, and on the ground beneath the arched ceiling the sunbeams played between shadow and light […].

12This far into the narration, nothing has given away Melin’s identity as an impressionist but, as the eyes of the painter-beholder start giving prominence to the dynamic interplay between light and shadow in the passage quoted above, we get a preview of the essence of his artistic sensibility: the rays of sunshine conduct his eyes, which register the effects of moving, shifting, reflecting light, towards the foliage. The abstracting tendency of the impressionists to make items dissolve in strong light is not driven to extremes as the spectator proves able to identify botanical species; even so, the semantic field of lexical items referring to flutter and vibrancy (emphasized through the italics) indicate a heightened awareness of ever-moving light: the throbbing, dappled sunshine and the blurring play of reflections depicted in the passage quoted above show clear affinities with the attention that the impressionists painters devoted to these aspects in their rendering of light in motion. Forgetful of his hunger and sufferings, Ivar Melin then brings his easel outdoors to retain the impression of the scene.

13The narrative composition in Utan pängar is, to a great extent, symmetrical. When the opening scene repeats itself the following morning – with the difference that Melin now is left with nothing but a five-centime coin in his pocket – the atmosphere thickens: «när han stod framför fönstret med kopparmyntet i hand, såg han själf, hur måleriskt solstrimmorna föllo öfver denna tafla, där han och myntet bildade medelpunkten. – Vore jag af den gamla skolan, tänkte han, skulle jag måla en genre» (212; «as he stood by the window with the copper coin in his hand, it was evident to him how pictorially the rays of sunlight struck the painting of which he and the coin formed the centrepiece. – Were I of the old school, he thought, I would paint a genre»). The genre scene Melin imagines – an interior with a young painter standing, last sou in hand, by a windowsill where a revolver with its gleaming barrel is lying – is quickly dismissed as «sentimental nonsense» (213): the point at issue here is that genre painting and the art of hunger, unlike the accurate observation of fugitive effects of light on surfaces, no longer are subjects of interest to the modern artist.

2.1.2. A literary approach to impressionist subjects

14As observed above, Melin’s pictorial approach to reality stimulates his artistic inspiration and invigorates the protagonist’s belief in his distinctive creative act in times when starvation and the public’s inability to understand modern art seem to threaten his integrity as an artist. The text explicitly states that it is the continental light and joie de vivre that has made Melin a painter and guided him in his choice of subjects: «Det var sol, ljus, stilla, leende lycka, söderns fulla glädje […] som lockade och drog honom att måla på en duk» (191; «Sunshine, light, beaming happiness, the bursting southern joy […] had enticed and attracted him to paint on a canvas»). This bright atmosphere is in stark opposition to the dull Swedish landscape with its muddy colours emerging in front of his inner eye as he starts fearing that he will have to retreat from Paris because of the constant lack of money:

Han såg plötsligt klart som i en vision ett parti af en grå klippkust, mot hvilken de salta böljorna slogo gröna och skummiga, Det stod en brygga rätt ut i sjön, och under dess fasta plankor bullrade vågorna. Öfver en backe, beväxt med enbuskar och ljung, gick en sandig väg, och på andra sidan backen lågo ett par stora byggnader med uthus, stall och ladugård, som han kände igen. När han kommit hem från utlandet på besök, brukade han altid på moderns fråga svara, att han aldrig hade sett något vackrare. (201-02)

All of a sudden he saw clearly, as in a vision, a stretch of grey, rocky coastline hit by salty waves, green and foamy. There was a pier leading straight out into the sea, and underneath its firm planks the surfs thundered. A sandy path led across a hill where juniper and heather grew, and on the other side of the hill rose a few large buildings with an outhouse, stables, and a cowshed that he recognized. Every time he came home to visit from abroad, he would always reply to his mother’s question that he had never seen anything more beautiful.

  • 7   In these textual features of Geijerstam’s tale one easily recognizes traits familiar to the artis (...)

15The dark tonalities of the scene and the total absence of natural light, so different from the scenery that has inspired the artist’s «osålda dukar med ljusa, klara färger» (202; «unsold canvasses in light, dazzling colours»), as well as the eerie detail of the pier luring the beholder out into the wild sea, leave no doubt as to the nature of Melin’s yielding to his mother’s national-romantic sentiment: his accommodating answer must be read as blasé, if not ironic. All the more striking is the contrast between these two worlds when the image of the Swedish landscape reappears for the second time in the narration: this time, if the analogy holds, Melin’s vision of an obscure old woman in a straw hat, on top of a hill and against a backdrop of blue skies and white clouds, seems to turn into a vrångbild (a distorted double) of one of Monet’s favoured subjects, that of a young woman wearing a white dress and a veiled hat, silhouetted against a summer sky (fig. 11): «på krönet af kullen, omgifven af ljungen, klart aftecknande sig mot den blåa himlen, på hvilken de hvita molnen seglade för hafsvinden, såg han en kvinna i mörk klädning och en stor halmhatt öfver det gamla ansigtet» (202; «on top of the hill, surrounded by heather, sharply silhouetted against the blue sky where white clouds were sailing in the sea breeze, he saw a woman in a dark dress and a large straw hat over her old face»)7.

16The need to advance hypotheses for identifying painterly equivalences to Geijerstam’s descriptions in Utan pängar might not be of vital importance for the understanding of the story although, given the phenotype of the painter-protagonist, impressionist correspondences to Ivar Melin’s «unframed paintings» should not be considered far-fetched. Even though this second category of narrative units does not strictly read as literary pictorialism, at least not in Hagstrum’s articulate understanding of the term (Hagstrum 1958), the text makes it clear that these scenes filter into Melin’s mind through a pictorial screen. The metaphor of «unframed paintings», utilized to present the urban scenes unfolding in front of the impressionist’s eyes does not, however, prevent that these units are less pictorial than the portrayal of light commented on earlier. Here, Geijerstam is not concerned with demonstrating Ivar Melin’s sensitivity to composition and light effects, if not marginally. Still, although pictorial markers are absent from these descriptions, what the painter chooses to see during his city walks summarizes the repertoire of the impressionists’ urban subjects: the leisure activities of the bourgeoisie in the city parks (206); the drinking and lingering at cafés and the strolling in the streets (237-39); the night views overlooking crowded boulevards illuminated by electricity (241-42).

17To conclude the investigation of what we have called Geijerstam’s ‘literary’ approach to impressionist subjects, we will take a quick look at two examples of urban scenes mentally ‘framed’ by the protagonist, namely the Luxembourg Gardens and the Haussmannian boulevard at night, which share their motifs with well-known impressionist canvasses:

På vägen hem hade han kommit in i Luxembourgträdgården, och han hade stannat i den långa allén, och såg på den myllrande skaran af barn, som, åtföljda af sköterskor eller mödrar, lekte under de skuggiga träden. De ljusklädda småttingarna med sina korta strumpor och bara ben sprungo, sutto och lågo om hvarandra, och utan den ringaste antipati för modet, var det hans vana att stå här och betrakta dessa olika fantasidrägter, som gjorde sig så bra i den starka dagern, och barnens lifliga ansigten, som njöto af sommaren i denna stora park, hvilken är det sydliga Paris’ lekstuga. (206)

On his way home he entered the Luxembourg Gardens, and he stopped in the long alley to watch the swarming crowd of children playing under the shady trees, accompanied by nannies or mothers. Dressed in light colours with short stockings and bare legs, the little ones were running, sitting or lying pell-mell; and with no antipathy whatsoever for fashion, he had taken to standing there and looking at the fanciful garments that came forth so nicely in the strong light, and the lively faces of children enjoying summer in this great park, which is the playhouse of southern Paris.

  • 8   Albert Edelfelt (1854-1905) was the first Finnish artist to gain international fame. After studie (...)

18The image of well-dressed children playing in the shade of the trees in this urban park, chaperoned by nannies or mothers, finds confirmation in canvasses painted a few years earlier by August Renoir (1883) and Albert Edelfelt (1887, fig. 12). Edelfelt’s painting I Luxembourg-trädgården i Paris (In the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris) is considered the culmination of impressionism in this Finnish artist8.

  • 9   Though undated, Pissarro’s work is part of his 1897 series of paintings dedicated to the renditio (...)

19As to the second example, Geijerstam’s nocturnal scene dwelling on the dark blue night sky, the glimmering stars and the effects of the electric street lights on the wide boulevard teeming with life, captures a motif similarly represented by Camille Pissarro in the painting Boulevard Montmartre: La nuit (The Boulevard Montmartre at Night, fig. 13), owned by London’s National Gallery9:

Hans hufvud var klart och redigt, han såg hur den djupblå aftonhimmelen med tindrande stjärnor hvälfvde sig öfver honom, längs efter boulevarden glänste lyktorna med sitt matta sken, och öfver Place de la Concorde, öfver Madeleine-kyrkan, längs utmed hela den breda boulevarden, som böljade af åkande och gående, glänste de elektriska glödlampornas hvita, dalrande skimmer. (241-42)

His mind was clear and lucid, he saw the dark blue night sky with twinkling stars arching above him. Along the boulevard the street lights shone opaquely, and above Place de la Concorde, above the Madeleine Church, all along the broad boulevard bustling with carriages and pedestrians, the electric light bulbs’ white, flickering gleam glistened.

  • 10   Cf., Storskog 2003: 191.

20Correspondences between Geijerstam’s text and Pissarro’s painting are found in the framing of the recent Parisian boulevard by night with its artificial illumination, a modern subject that also resonated with Edvard Munch’s sensibility while passing by La Madeleine during a night ride through Paris in 1891, as testified to in his diary10.

21We may not have the elements necessary to consider single impressionist canvasses as sources of inspiration to Geijerstam’s textual images, but drawing on the writer’s attention to the above-mentioned variety of urban Paris, we can, however, resolve that with Utan pängar the ‘iconic lexicon’ (Lund 1982: 61-64, 119-121) of impressionism is assimilated into the Swedish prose of the same epoch and its subjects considered relevant for an art concerned with modernity.

2.1.3. The decorative use of the visual arts in literary prose

22In her approach to the ways in which prose writers use the visual arts, the American scholar Marianna Torgovnick explains the modern novel’s diverse engagements with art as a «continuum» accommodating «different degrees of involvement» (1985: 13-14). The least intense textual use of elements belonging to the domain of the visual arts is referred to as «decorative» on Torgovnick’s scale, as explained in the following passage:

When small and isolatable units of the novel – like allusion, description, or metaphor – show a definite, definable use of the visual arts, I will call this a decorative use. I will also use the term decorative when characters in novels are painters or sculptors but their vocation has virtually no consequence or felt influence in the novel. […] Both quantitatively and in terms of significance, the decorative use of the visual arts constitutes the smallest degree of involvement I will discuss. It sends us to another discipline, but not for long. It asks us to think about the visual arts, but not too hard (17, italics in the original).

23The ‘decorative mode’ is then of limited value in making sense of a literary text (Torgovnick 1885: 104). While the title of Geijerstam’s text, Utan pängar, gives reasons for the inclusion of the tale in a collection of short stories entitled Fattigt folk, which sees as its encompassing theme the naturalistic observation of the hardship of the lower classes, the narrative units discussed above mainly help to underscore the painter’s aesthetical orientation. They anchor the painter to the impressionist age: a connection that would be much weaker, perhaps even lost to the eye of the reader, were they to be removed. As I see it, Geijerstam’s references to the alliance between Melin’s picture-seeking eye and light effects, on the one hand, and to the subjects that populate impressionist works of art, on the other, combine to tell the story not of any starving avant-garde painter but of the starving impressionist painter, an argument which is of interest to my discussion here, but might be considered irrelevant to the short story as a whole and to its context of publication. A discussion of the aesthetics and techniques of impressionist art that allows us to advance to a higher degree of involvement in Torgovnick’s continuum, is instead introduced through the ekphrastic presentation of Melin’s own painting in the text. Let us see how.

2.1.4. Overt references to works of art: the ekphrastic discourse

  • 11   Cf., Lund 1993: 48, and p. 61-62 in this study.

24That the impressionist painter should make his debut in Swedish prose through Geijerstam’s only contribution to the genre of artist fiction (Svensson 1985: 224) is interesting in relation to the author’s performance as a literary critic. As I have been able to demonstrate, Geijerstam was among the very few critics writing in Swedish to prove aware of ‘literary impressionism’ as a term. As previously observed, Geijerstam first resorted to this expression in 1884 (a year, which according to local standards must be considered early in the history of literary impressionism as a critical province, since the expression seems to have appeared in a Scandinavian context only in 1883, through the use the Norwegian critic Henrik Jæger made of it, as discussed earlier in the present work)11. In summary, and as we have seen, Geijerstam defined Georg Nordensvan’s narrative mode in Skuggspel as an example of literary impressionism (Geijerstam 1884), and two years later he again applied the term when reviewing the second part of Strindberg’s autobiographical novel Jäsningstid (Geijerstam 1886). These writings, as pointed out earlier, show that to Geijerstam literary impressionism was a question of finding a verbal counterpart to the technique of the impressionist painters, a form of writing synonymous with a metonymic mode of description and with the idea of the ‘innocent eye’. Although Geijerstam’s own literary output does not offer examples of personal attempts at literary impressionism as intermedial transposition, an analysis of the ekphrastic description dedicated to Melin’s landscape painting in Utan pängar will, however, confirm Geijerstam’s ability to grasp the essence of that painterly impressionism, which he considered convertible into words.

25Next to the general, unspecific, observations on Ivar Melin’s art – according to which he is an avant-garde author of oeuvres that «altid chokerade och stälde honom på kant med världen, aldeles som om han varit en agitator för nya och våldsamma läror» (193; «always shocked and opened up a conflict between him and the world, just as if he were an agitator for new and violent schools of thought») and cause him «ett lif af umbäranden» (193; «a life of hardship») – the text presents one case of ekphrastic description dedicated to the artist’s own canvas. This half-finished painting, described through the perspective of Melin, represents a study of a cornfield where the flowers appear as nothing but coloured dots, and the trees in the background are «omtöcknade af den lätta blåa slöja, som hvilar öfver det franska landskapets lointainer» (214; «surrounded by the airy blue veil that stretches out over the distant voids in French landscapes»). The insertion of an ekphrastic discourse at this point of the short story supports the hitherto feeble technical and aesthetic discussion of impressionism, and emphasizes the controversial, though unstable, situation of the painter Melin. The unfinished painting is, in fact, a detail accentuating Melin’s position at the crossroads of tradition and modernist regeneration.

26In an inner monologue (205-06), Melin has made it clear to the reader that he is not a full-fledged modernist but a neophyte striving to master the latest novelties in art, rather confident that his technical ability would win him a medal at the official Salon should he wish to submit a traditional work (221). His reflections on what to do with the cornfield study – finish it according to the dictums of the arbiters of taste (251: «en okunnig hop»; «an ignorant lot») or conserve its sketchiness, the dots and the dashes that remain true to his own impression of the scene – mirror the lack of self-confidence that assaults the famished Melin. As Melin offers the reader a sample of the criticism he expects from the public, Geijerstam pinpoints some of the key characteristics of painterly impressionism:

jag undrar just, hvad folk skulle säga! Först och främst skulle de säga, att något så där blått fins inte i naturen. Ja, det är klart. Alla människor vet, hvad som fins i naturen, utom den, som försöker att måla den. Sedan skulle de undra, hvad de där prickarna skulle betyda. Blommor ser inte ut som prickar, skulle de säga. (214)

just imagine what people would say! First and foremost they would say that there is no such blue in nature. Well, of course. Everyone knows what nature looks like, except the one who wishes to paint it. Then they would ask themselves what those dots are supposed to mean. Flowers do not look like dots, they would say.

27Geijerstam is here alluding to the impressionists’ blue shadows «that caused great excitement among visitors at exhibitions» (Itten 1970: 81); to the idea of the innocent eye with its reliance on pure observation, independent of mental preconceptions, in the approach to the painterly subject; and to the abstracting dots and dashes achieved through short brushstrokes. As Melin very well knows, to please the public he would just have to paint «lite tydligare […] t. ex. måla ut blombladen […] ta bort det blåa omkring popplarna och utföra dem, som det heter, så att man kunde räkna löfven på en half mil» (215; «a little bit more in detail […] e.g., paint the petals on the flowers […] remove the blue colour around the poplars and execute them, as they say, so that one could count the leaves at half a mile’s distance»).

28This ekphrastic passage is undoubtedly the textual segment that draws closest to the detection of an aesthetic discourse on impressionism in Utan pängar. Enraged at the thought of having to renounce his artistic credo, Melin lashes out against his unfinished canvas as a Swedish art merchant with money in his pocket enters the atelier. In the ensuing conversation with the profiteering art dealer, impressionism is only vaguely mentioned (222), but it is significant that this coarse character should not find anything worth buying among the «ljusa stycken» (Ibidem; «luminous pieces»), «extravaganta försök i en smak, hvilken han inte begrep, förrän det almänna erkännandet satt sin prägel på det» (224-25; «extravagant efforts in a taste that he would not understand before the general opinion had sieved it»), covering the walls of Melin’s studio.

29If Johnson assumes that «an impressionist painter, either real or fictive, often serves as foil for the author’s ideas on impressionism» (Johnson 1973: 287), and if Beebe claims that even a fictional portrait of an artist «helps us to understand the novelist who wrote it» (Beebe 1964: 4), whether Utan pängar rather expresses Geijerstam’s empathy for the impressionists or his sympathy for their adversaries might be left unsaid. More relevant than sympathies and antipathies is however the author’s understanding of the essence of painterly – and literary – impressionism that we have been able to prove through the examination of his prose and his literary criticism.

2.2. Mathilda Roos: Familjen Verle. En skildring

30The development in Geijerstam’s tale discussed above follows a pattern that appears frequent in artist novels of different eras. Maurice Beebe has explained this narrative model as the hero’s rejection of «the claims of love and life, of God, home, and country, until nothing is left but his true self and his consecration as artist» (Beebe 1964: 6). By contrast, in the novel Familjen Verle. En skildring, Mathilda Roos tells the story of a woman whose quest for self through art is almost coincidental, interrupted, and subsequently, as it seems, substituted with a commercial activity as a shopkeeper. Of interest to the present discussion is the circumstance that the protagonist’s path crosses that of two uncommitted impressionists, a detail adding data to our investigation of the image of the impressionist painter conveyed in Swedish prose.

31Sigrid Verle is the eldest of three sisters each of whom possesses distinctive qualities: Etty, the youngest, is witty, sociable, and graceful, Anna is neat and given to religious contemplation, Siri, who has never had any sentimental affairs, belongs to the category of fictional artists who, in the words of Beebe (1964: 16), compensate through art for their «inability to participate actively in society or to lead a satisfying passionate life»:

Ibland fylldes hela hennes inre af bittra, upproriska tankar, verksamhetslusten sjöd inom henne, hon kände en ungdomlig kraft i sina lemmar och i sin hjärna, hon ville arbeta, uträtta något; men hvad kunde hon göra, till hvad duger i allmänhet en kvinna annat än att älska och gifta sig? Men hvarför skulle då icke h o n älska och gifta sig? Ännu hade hon aldrig sett någon man ägna henne en skymt af kärlek. (96, emphasis in the original)

At times her soul was filled with bitter, revolutionary thoughts, the will to work simmered within her, she felt a juvenile strength in her limbs and in her brain, she wanted to work, accomplish something, but what was she able to do, what is a woman commonly fit for, except love and marriage? But why would s h e not love and marry? Until now she had never seen any man dedicate the slightest hint of love to her.

32Rather than as a calling, art enters her life as a compensation for the lack of a fiancé and to fill the emptiness she experiences. To her, painting is equivalent to any other uncommon occupation, be it journalism or the setting up of a singular commercial activity:

I detta svårmod, som endast tidtals skingrades, började småningom uppstå en mängd fantasier och planer för framtiden. Om hon icke, som Anna, blefve förlofvad [...] hvarför skulle hon då inte skaffa sig någon sysselsättning? Hon tänkte hit och dit; hon funderade på att bli lärarinna eller telegrafist, eller gå in i posten, men intet af allt detta tilltalade henne. Nej, hon ville göra något ovanligt – obestämda planer, såsom att bli artist, skrifva i tidningar eller anordna en byrå för tjänstsökande [...]. (97)

In the midst of this spleen, which only at times subsided, little by little a host of fantasies and plans for the future appeared. Would she not, like Anna, get engaged [...] then why shouldn’t she get an occupation? She let her thoughts wander, she considered becoming a schoolmistress or a telegraphist, or working at the post office, but nothing seemed to appeal to her. No, she wished for something uncommon – undefined plans, like becoming an artist, writing for newspapers, or setting up an agency for the unemployed [...].

33After a year of decorating crockery and interiors, Sigrid manages to convince her father to sponsor her first art lessons and then art studies in Paris. During her two years in the French capital she falls in with a group of Swedish artists who act as her guides and counsellors, subsequently introduced to her family as nothing less than «full-blooded impressionists» (118).

34Rather far into the narration, which alternately deals with the destinies of all three girls, the discourse on impressionism is introduced at the point of Sigrid’s return from Paris in the company of her fellow painters. The presence of these impressionists in the text draws the reader into a subplot in which the old school of naturalistic depiction of the common people in rural settings, exemplified by Siri’s own art, is countered by the modern-day impressionist taste, represented by her advisers, Harry Wijkler and Gustaf Larsson. The narrator’s contemptuous treatment of these two impressionist disciples reveals a less romanticized and idealized impressionist character than the self-sacrificing artist figuring in Geijerstam’s short story. Conny Svensson comments as follows on Wijkler’s and Larsson’s appearance in the text:

Att artister – åtminstone de unga och oppositionella – är moraliskt suspekta personer betonas starkt i romanen. Förhållandet exemplifieras ytterligare av de två manliga kolleger till Sigrid, som införs i handlingen. De presenteras uttryckligen som “fullblodsimpressionister” och “opponenter” [...], varför inget tvivel kan råda vilken fålla de hör hemma i. (1985: 253)

That artists – at least the young and the noncompliant – are morally suspect characters, is something the novel strongly emphasizes. This association is further exemplified by Sigrid’s two male colleagues, who are introduced into the plot. They are unambiguously presented as “full-blooded impressionists” and “opponents” […], leaving no doubt as to what league they are in.

35Svensson’s incisive deduction that «dessa två män – en festprisse och en cyniker – får […] spela rollen av typiska representanter för den unga konsten» (254; «these two men – a night reveller and a cynic – are placed in the role of emblematic ambassadors for the young art») proves quite correct as we proceed to the examination of their portrayal in the novel.

2.2.1. «Full-blooded impressionists»

36When the two impressionists are announced in the text, the narrator gives the word to the young painter-protagonist: «Sedan presenterade Sigrid två af sina manliga kamrater bland konstnärerna, artisterna Gustaf Larsson och Harry Wijkler, ‘fullblodsimpressionister’, som Sigrid sade, och ifriga anhängare af den franska målarekonsten, opponenter, m. m. i samma stil» (118; «Sigrid then introduced two of her male companions among the painters, the artists Gustaf Larsson and Harry Wijkler, ‘full-blooded impressionists’, in Sigrid’s words, and keen followers of French painting, opponents and others of the same kind»). Her definition essentially reveals less about the two artists’ true character than about her own naiveté, and the authorial quotation marks framing the expression «fullblodsimpressionister» reveal a certain dose of irony already pointing to the unflattering portrait to be outlined shortly. These young and bold artists bring joyfulness and laughter to the home of the Verles, so much so that even pious Anna, prone to melancholia, is enthralled by the new ‘continental’ atmosphere: «Men… hvad var då det där ordet “lifsglädje”, om hvilket hon så ofta hörde dem tala? Var det synd däri? Hennes tankar kretsade några ögonblick kring detta mystiska ord, som alltid varit henne så främmande och ändå så skönt och lockande» (124-25; «But… what kind of expression was that “joie de vivre”, of which they so often spoke? Did it have anything to do with sin? Her thoughts lingered for a few instants on these mysterious words, which, to her, had always seemed so foreign but still so sweet and tempting»). We learn (119-20) that the Verles have ‘audacious’ conversations revolving around art with the young painters during their cheerful soirées, although the arguments up for discussion are not once revealed.

37Mathilda Roos’s young impressionists are thus foremost associated with worldly pleasures. Harry Wijkler, in particular, is a socialite who subordinates art to life, and as Siri urges him to pick up his work, lest he ruin his career, he readily states in response: «Imorgon reser jag till landet och tar studier till ett vinterlandskap, i 20 graders kyla, alldeles bestämdt» (127; «Tomorrow I am leaving for the countryside to do some sketches for a winter landscape, in minus 20 degrees, that is for sure»). At first sight, his answer is indeed that of a purebred impressionist, stubbornly faithful to the principles of plein air painting, come what may, but this denotation is deformed into a caricature as the following lines make clear that Harry enjoys the company of the admiring ladies so much that his easel remains indoors until spring arrives.

38In summer Sigrid, too, takes up sketching in the open air: «Sigrid satt i solgasset och tog studier, tills hennes näsa och händer blefvo rödbruna» (128; «Sigrid sat outside in the scorching sun, sketching until her nose and hands took on a reddish brown colour»). Even so, the subject chosen for her painting, as well as the narrator’s indication that Sigrid finishes her work in the atelier as autumn arrives, reveal her belonging to the old school:

Då familjen flyttat in från landet, började Sigrid med nyvaknad arbetslust att måla på den tafla, till hvilken hon under sommaren tagit studier, och som hon ville ha färdig att exponera på nyåret. […] Den tafla, hon höll på att måla, föreställde två små bondbarn, en gosse och en flicka, de fulaste hon kunnat leta ut, hvilka sutto på en trappa och åto smörgås. (147)

After the family had moved back into town, Sigrid took to working with renewed stamina on the painting for which she had been sketching during summer, as she wanted it ready to be exhibited on New Year’s Eve. […] The canvas on which she was working represented two little peasant children, a boy and a girl, the ugliest ones she had been able to find, sitting on a step eating sandwiches.

39While the other family members are incapable of understanding her selection of models – the ugliness! – the two impressionists seem, if possible, even less happy with the subject adopted. Sigrid herself, though, is content with the finished painting:

Slutligen, i januari, var taflan färdig och exponerades då, jämte andra nyheter, i Blanch’s salong. Sigrid hade stora förhoppningar, de bägge barnen voro så fula som möjligt, med linhår, uppnäsa och små, ljusblå, rödkantade ögon. Hon tyckte själv att taflan var både karaktäristisk, stämningsfull och framför allt af äkta svensk lokalfärg. (149)

Finally, in January, the painting was ready and on display, together with other novelties, in Blanch’s salon. Sigrid’s expectations were great, both toddlers were as ugly as possible, with fair hair, snub noses, and small, light blue, red-rimmed eyes. To her, the painting possessed both character and atmosphere and, above all, true Swedish local colour.

40Unluckily, precisely those aspects of the canvas that Sigrid sees as its assets are scorned by the critics reviewing the exhibition. But it is not until Siri asks Gustaf Larsson for his opinion that she is willing to realize that she lacks the talent required of a true artist. Embedded in Larsson’s scorching criticism is not only an accusation of having taken a divine occupation much too light-heartedly, but the impressionist is also addressing an attack against women artists who are vain enough to look for fame and glory through art instead of excelling at mending stockings:

det är det olyckliga med kvinnorna att, då de ingenting ha att göra, då de inte ha någon “lifsgärning”, som det heter, då gripa de tag i konsten som en räddningsplanka... konsten, konsten, som mera än allt annat fordrar kallelse... och så växer det som svampar omkring oss målarinnor och sångerskor och författarinnor... aktningsvärda, naturligtvis... och redbara... men tråkiga och medelmåttiga och lika hvarandra, så att man kan gå vilse ibland dem! Och hvad är det som drifver dem härtill? Fåfänga, fåfänga! Man blir mera bemärkt, då man målar en tafla medelmåttigt än då man stoppar ett par strumpor bra! Men det hämnar sig, konsten, som de profanerat, hämnar sig och ger dem ett bakslag, så att de tumla ner från sin inbillade höjd. (155)

the sad thing with women is that when they have no occupation, no “goal in life”, so to say, they clutch at art as a last resort… art, art, which more than anything requires vocation… this is why we see female painters and singers and writers sprouting like mushrooms around us… worthy of respect, of course… and honest… but boring and mediocre and akin to one another to the point that one gets lost among them! And what is pushing them? Vanity, vanity! One gets more attention when painting a mediocre canvas than when mending a pair of stockings carefully! But revenge will come, art, which they have profaned, will strike back and have them tumble down from their illusory height.

41It is certainly something of a paradox that an artist representing the most modern school of painting should prove to be a conservative male chauvinist. Moreover, the thesis that a painter’s occupation is holy cannot help but sound hollow coming from one of the two dispassionate impressionists in the book. Larsson’s monologue, however, takes us back to the dichotomy between art and life raised by Sigrid herself at the beginning of the novel: following the conversation with Larsson, Sigrid abandons painting and sets up a stationery shop after the death of her father. Her active participation in society has made her even-tempered and content, and certain of the fact that «hon uträttade något gott och nyttigt i världen» (284; «she did something good and useful in this world»). At the end of the novel the reader further learns that the other female painter in the group, the gifted Elma Bernstedt, has also given up her career after marrying: «hon målade taflor åt sin man och för att pryda hemmet, men lillan och hushållsbestyren togo så mycken tid, att hon ej hann utföra något större arbete» (281; «she painted canvasses for her husband and to decorate her home, but the child and the household chores were so time-consuming that she did not have the time to complete any greater oeuvre»).

42In summary, the two characters here associated with the art of the impressionists are thus respectively made to appear as an almost comic fraud and an arrogant bigot, the latter convinced that a woman should not aspire to anything higher than what “nature” has intended for her (157). When Gustaf Larsson reappears in the novel’s last pages, he and Sigrid are back on friendly terms. Having found a place in society, Sigrid no longer represents a threat to the holy world of art, and instead Larsson now vents his anger at the illusions of religion, by accusing the devout Anna of gullibility because of her capacity to find happiness in life.

2.2.3. The opposition between life and art

43Although the artistic discourse in Mathilda Roos’s novel is rather shallow and but one of many narrative threads explored, nuances in the portrayal of the two ‘full-blooded impressionists’ contribute, in two different ways, to developing the theme of the opposition between life and art common to the tradition of the art novel. While the portrait of Harry Wijkler is one of a hoaxer, who reveals himself to be a greater lover of life than of art unwilling, as he is, to sacrifice comfort and the company of ladies for his mission, Gustaf Larsson’s discourse on the illusion of finding happiness in life stresses, on the other hand, the unbridgeable antagonism between the superior ideal of art and the trite reality, to which the true artist refuses to adapt. Herbert Marcuse, who dedicated a chapter of his book to this motif, spoke of «die schmerzliche Gegensätzlichkeit von Kunst und Leben […] [das] Wissen, daß man niemals reiner Künstler und reiner Mensch zugleich sein kann, daß einfaches menschliches Glück nur dem zuteil wird, der dem Künstlertum nicht verfallen ist» (273; «the painful antinomy between art and life […] the knowledge that one cannot be both a pure artist and a pure human being at one and the same time, […] that plain human happiness can only befall those who have not been surrendered to the artist’s condition»).

  • 12   As a novelist Mathilda Roos (1852-1908) dealt with the conditions of women through themes such as (...)

44As I see it, through Wijkler and Larsson, Mathilda Roos attempted to show two modern artists representing, on the one hand, the shallow bon vivant using his position to impress the ladies and, on the other, the conservative romantic, radical only in his views on art as a superior sphere. That the modern school of painting of which they are said to be representatives should identify with impressionism certainly indicates a lack of appreciation of this art, perhaps surprising when coming from an otherwise progressive author like Mathilda Roos12.

2.3. Georg Nordensvan: aja

  • 13Aja appeared as a feuilleton in Idun, issues 5 to 14, 1894. The same year it was also included in (...)

45Other types of conflicts are at the heart of Georg Nordensvan’s novella. Here, the story is told in the first person by an intradiegetic narrator who plays the part of a detached observer of events that start unrolling at a social gathering in Stockholm where the reader is introduced to the three painter-protagonists: Aja Borgström, Edvard Asp, and Sven Richert. As the anonymous narrator observes Aja standing between the two male artists, something of the ancient conflict that years earlier determined the Parisian life of the threesome comes to life. The narrator mentions «en liten konflikt som kunde ha utvecklat sig till en hel roman» (37, italics in the original; «a lesser conflict that could have developed into a whole novel») thus engaging in a dialogue with the title chosen for Nordensvan’s collection as a whole, Tre små romaner (Three Little Novels)13. Moreover, the narrator’s comment also signals that thematic concentration is on the motif of controversy.

  • 14   The Düsseldorf school had a great impact on portrait and landscape painting in the mid-nineteenth (...)

46Real or imagined, conflict and rivalry between two artists belong, as Kris and Kurtz have observed (1979: 120-25), to the most frequently recurring topoi in the literary tradition dedicated to writing the life of an artist. In the case of Nordensvan’s tale, this metanarrative comment reveals that the archetypical antagonism between artists is at the core of the story. The rivalry at stake is both a matter of opposite positions in the art world and of a sentimental kind but, although it is the latter conflict that ends up governing the narration, what interests us here is the way in which the two painters’ attitude to art differ: while Richert is the cutting-edge artist, always one step ahead, Asp is unsuccessfully trying to free himself from the instruction received during his years in Düsseldorf, where he trained as a landscape painter14. At the time of the Parisian sojourn that triggers the action, both were sentimentally involved with Aja. Having thus set the basis for the tale, the narrator moves on to recollecting «historien, som kunde ha blifvit en roman» (37; «the story that could have turned into a novel»).

  • 15   Summed up, Bowie’s ten devices are: (1) the description of the painter’s youth and training; (2) (...)

47In the following pages, the examination of Nordensvan’s short story will be undertaken in the attempt to discover in what aspects the narrative discourse is affected by the discussion of impressionist art. To this end, some of the ten devices identified by Theodor R. Bowie (1950: 5-7) as strategies commonly employed in works of fiction focussing on painters will prove particularly relevant15. Questions regarding the aesthetics and techniques typical of impressionism are introduced to a greater extent than in the other texts scrutinized in this part of the present study, and are proposed to the reader both through conversations between artists and through the intervention of the anonymous painter-narrator, who uses his position to mock the opinions of the self-proclaimed experts. We will also briefly turn our attention to the description of the artist studio, another element recurring in Bowie’s scheme. Although the studio might seem of limited importance in the case of such notable plein air painters as the impressionists, the characterization of Aja’s atelier illustrates – better than the attempted ekphrastic discourse dedicated to one of her paintings – to what extent this woman has done away with outdated tradition and authority. In addition, in the feuilleton version published in Idun, as we will see, the short story also included the presence of a real painter, Paul Gauguin, and of a real writer, Hans Jæger, both loosely connected with the impressionist movement.

48As statements and articulations of opinions recurring in the short story bear a strong resemblance to the ones expressed in Nordensvan’s art criticism, we will conclude the survey of the author’s involvement with impressionism by taking a closer look at the way in which these two facets of his production combine.

2.3.1. The theoretical discourse

  • 16   A thorough study highlighting the dynamics at work in a Scandinavian artists’ colony at the end o (...)

49The anonymous storyteller’s recollection of events, triggered by the artists’ gathering in Stockholm, takes the reader back in time and space to the ideal setting for presenting a theoretical discussion on the techniques and aesthetics of impressionist art. We are, in fact, transferred to an artists’ colony in the Swedish countryside, where a group of landscape painters (the narrator included) has come together to work in the open air16. The theoretical discourse is first presented by Aja and the languid artist Nisse Linder who, like Aja, has spent the spring in Paris and returned to Sweden «fullproppad med moderna teorier och hade klart för sig, både hvad som borde målas och hur allting borde målas» (108, italics in the original; «stuffed with modern theories and cognizant both of what was worth painting and how it should be painted»). The two companions get a chance of posing as experts as Edvard Asp, a painter whom they judge as «tunguisk» (111; «soulless»), «düsseldorfare» (Ibidem) and, tongue-in-cheek, «skicklig» (Ibidem; «skilled»), pays a visit to the colony.

50When referring Linder’s and Aja’s lesson on the latest trends in painting, the narrator gets his chance at acting as a superior and somewhat caustic connoisseur, dismissing both Linder’s and Aja’s knowledge of modern art as superficial:

  • 17   In the feuilleton version of the short story, the irony with which the narrator treats Linder’s ‘ (...)

den store teoretikern Nisse [...] laddade ur sig den nyaste visdom, han fört med sig från Paris17. Aja sekunderade honom ibland, men med vida mindre säkerhet. Asp hörde på dem med intresse – detta var tydligen nytt för honom. [...] Han talade om impressionister och luminister och pointillister. Till slut blef hans anförande så inveckladt och dimmigt, att Aja måste bita af det med ett skämtsamt ord. (113-14)

the great theoretic Nisse […] unloaded the latest wisdom he had brought with him from Paris. Aja assisted him at times, though much less convinced. Asp listened to them with interest – this was apparently news to him. […] He spoke of impressionists and luminists and pointillists. In the end his speech got so confused and nebulous that Aja had to cut it with a humorous word.

  • 18   One of Aja’s «publiktaflor» seems to mimic Sigrid’s unfortunate painting in Familjen Verle, previ (...)

51Less given to abstract reflection, Aja resolutely leads Asp into her studio to show him an example of the kind of art that Linder has whimsically been describing. Her own production divides into «publiktaflor» (116; «paintings for the public») and «experimenter» (Ibidem; «experiments»)18. The canvas corresponding to Linder’s theoretical discourse draws close to the archetypical impressionist painting, showing a landscape captured in the evening light with a clear, bright blue, colour enveloping the trees in the backdrop. As Edvard Asp retraces his reaction to Aja’s landscape painting during a conversation with the anonymous narrator, he is outraged not only at the paintress’s cynical division of art into two categories, but also at her use of this blue colour:

i hennes studier är det något groft och rått – till exempel den där stora blåa, det är ju blå färg struken öfver allt, i stället för att det skulle vara luft. Det är tillyxadt, ingenting smält, ingenting personligt. För mig är det motbjudande att se naturen uppfattad så utan känsla och kärlek. Och så att måla i en helt annan anda, när det är frågan om att måla taflor som ska’ bli lätt sålda – det är cyniskt och okonstnärligt. (117, italics in the original)

there is something rough and raw about her studies – for example that big blue; blue colour has been smeared all over where there should be air. It is roughly sketched, nothing digested, nothing personal. I am disgusted at seeing nature represented without feeling or affection. And to paint with a whole different spirit when it comes to selling – that is cynical and inartistic.

52Aja’s way of explaining the principles of impressionism to Asp, a painter who is holding on to his technical bravery, stresses the importance of achieving the ‘total effect’: «Aja nöjde sig likväl med att framhålla för honom, att målaren bör söka ljus och luft, bör bry sig kitten om naturens detaljer utan endast söka totaleffekten i motivet» (122; «Aja was just as satisfied with emphasizing to him that a painter should look for light air without paying any attention what so ever to details, and instead strive to obtain the overall impression of the motif»). Linder, on the other hand, enters into a semi- scientific discussion on the new, revolutionary colour theory by hinting at the impressionists’ idea of letting colours blend optically rather than making use of tonal contrasts (123).

53Asp’s receptivity to their teaching is shown through his solitary contemplation of Aja’s work (124, 126) and perhaps also through the plein air canvas representing the rising sun on which he is secretly working, as described by the narrator who is the first to see it (127). Even so, just as Aja suspects, during a spell of bad weather Edvard cannot resist continuing to refine his Morgonstämning (131; Morning atmosphere) indoors, thus losing all his promising work. As an impressionist he is doomed to failure, as is confirmed by the narrator reporting that, while in Paris, Edvard was working on «experiment, som inte alls lågo för hans lynne […] ögonblicksstämningar […] luftstudium» (135; «experiments, which had nothing to do with his temperament […] instant impressions […] the study of air»). Accordingly, he then falls back to composing decorative landscapes indoors (139).

2.3.2. The artist’s studio

54There is, however, another side to Aja’s adoption of the impressionist idiom, hitherto unseen in the texts discussed in this part of the study. The paintress’s familiarity with le dernier cri is unmistakably palpable in the collection of Japanese curiosities that adorn her atelier. When the reader is allowed entrance to Aja’s studio, the narrator describes the milieu as «modernt “parisiskt”» (114; «modernly “Parisian”»), decorated as it is with drapery, paper lanterns, fans, and other «godtköpspariservaror» (Ibidem; «Parisian bric-a-brac»). These are elements that make of Aja an addict of the fashion of Japonisme which had spread in the European art world after the reopening of the Japanese borders in 1854, showing her sympathies for an art trailing a blaze towards modernity through its foreignness to the classical tradition. There is, however, nothing in Aja’s affection for Japonerie that leads us to imagine that it also has an influence on the aesthetics of composition in her own work. Her environment rather suggests the aesthetics of those impressionist artists whose canvasses feature oriental artefacts simply as props.

55Another point of view on Aja’s atelier is offered through the eyes of Edvard’s wife. When Mrs Asp enters the studio, she takes a look around only to find Aja’s attempts at bedecking her environment «med pariserchic temligen besynnerliga och smaklösa» (1894b: 56; «in the Parisian fashion rather bizarre and tasteless»). Aja’s modernity thus represents a stumbling block in the marriage of the Asps, appearing as attractive to Edvard as it appears repugnant to his wife.

2.3.3. the impressionist as bohémien

  • 19   In the version of the short story included in Tre små romaner (1894a), Hans Jæger is described as (...)

56Unlike Asp, Aja, and the narrator himself, Sven Richert is only seen in the company of Frenchmen and does not socialize with the Scandinavian artist colony in Paris, were it not for his association with the Norwegian anarchist Hans Jæger. In Aja, a tale, as we have seen, revolving around the divergence between painters of the juste milieu and painters of the avant-garde, the motif of conflict is further fuelled by Richert’s connection with bohemians and anarchists, a detail which places him on the outskirts of society19. Richert’s association with the antisocial Norwegian writer who refused to accept authority places the painter in the tradition of alienated artists caught in the act of épater le bourgeois, originating, according to Beebe (1964: 22) with prototypes such as «Cain, Lucifer, or Prometheus». The isolation of the artistic genius is thus pushed one step further than in Familjen Verle, where Gustaf Larsson adheres to a romantic tradition when proclaiming his being of a superior essence: the impressionist Sven Richert’s association with the bohème turns instead the portrait of the artist into that of an outcast and a declassé.

  • 20   Jaeger’s connection to the adjective ‘impressionist’ was, as we have seen, more of a political ki (...)

57If the introduction of a recognizable historical figure in the artist tale is done, according to Bowie (1950: 6), «for the sake of the plot and for the purposes of verisimilitude», the company of the Norwegian bohemian proves well-suited to a revolutionary painter like Sven Richert, who has rapidly moved on from being an impressionist «med hull och hår» (134; «through and through»), painting «våldsamma effekttaflor» (Ibidem; «violently shocking paintings») to becoming an «intentionist and syntetist» (Ibidem; «intentionist and a synthetist»), who despises the trivial study of nature20.

58Compared to the other fictional impressionists discussed above, this description of Richert’s career is likely to turn him into the one artist whose fictional life is the most truthful to the late ninenteeth-century art scene in Sweden. As mentioned earlier, to most Scandinavian painters, impressionism was but a phase in their development as artists (Gunnarsson 2002: 25), and a movement often encountered in years when significant changes and novelties impeding the very access to impressionism were emerging in the art world. According to Hans Henrik Brummer (2002: 79), in the reorientation towards symbolism and «the discovery of the immaterial world»,

what manifested itself to Scandinavian artists, as for instance Axel Gallén, Richard Bergh, and Prince Eugen, was the re-emergence, and rehabilitation, of other realms, far from the Parisian boulevards. And there was another aspect. The art of Edvard Munch allowed access to a deeper dimension of human experience. (Ibidem)

59Sven Richert thus remains true to his nature of «farlig upprorsmakare» («dangerous rebel») all the way through his advancement from an experimental and disparaged impressionist to his embracement of an abstruse symbolism. This characterization of Richert also sustains the fact that impressionism was still seen as a radical movement, not yet approved of by the critics, as late as the 1880s, that is, in times when the true radicals among the artists had already moved on towards symbolism (cf., Hedström 2002: 74).

2.3.4. impressionism in Nordensvan’s art criticism

60Both the wording and the arguments that are up for discussion in Aja can be found in Nordensvan’s art criticism. When defining Sven Richert a «farlig upprorsmakare», the author, in point of fact, resorts to an expression he had used to mock the critics’ reaction to the first impressionists in an article dating back to 1883 (Nordensvan 1883c: 17). In the following paragraphs, we will trace the change gradually occurring in Nordensvan’s views on impressionism starting from 1883, the year in which his article Impressionism appeared in Ny illustrerad tidskrift, up to the publication of Aja in 1894, and take a look at how these assessments resonate with the understanding of impressionism in the short story.

61In 1883, more than ten years before the publication of Aja, Georg Nordensvan published three articles of interest to our discussion here: Impressionism (1883a), Studier i modern konst. Parisersalongen 1883, I and II (1883b); Studier i modern konst. Parisersalongen 1883, III and IV (1883c). While demonstrating that he had grasped the revolutionary achievements of the movement, awarding the French impressionists a place in art history comparable only to the that of the Romantics, Nordensvan gave a detailed account of the methods and techniques concerning impressionist landscape painting:

Det är nu länge, sedan ungdomen först började fråga, hvarför landskapsmålaren återgaf blott naturens enskildheter, prickade ut löf i stället för att måla träd och målade träd i stället för att gifva totalbilden af en skog. Så började en och annan på egen risk att fästa på duken den stämning, de hade för ögonen och som intagit dem, och för dennas skull utförde de enskildheterna mera summariskt, så som det syntes, då man plirande med ögonen kastade blott en flygtig blick ut öfver motivet. Att återgifva ej naturens alla små bisaker utan det intryck, ett landskap – smått eller stort – gaf [...] det var ett jettesteg framåt, liksom det också var det första steget mot impressionismen. (1883c: 17)

It has been long since young people first started to wonder why the landscape painters only depicted nature’s minutiae, pinpointing single leaves instead of painting trees and showing trees instead of the total impression of the wood. One after the other they set out to capture on canvas the atmosphere in front of them, which had enthralled them, and so they rendered the details summarily, the way these appeared when one gives a passing glance at the motif. The idea of representing the impression of a landscape – whether minor or major – instead of depicting every single natural element […] was a huge step forward, just as it was the first step towards impressionism.

62However, Nordensvan underscores the gap between the moderate masters of impressionism – De Nittis and Jacquemart – and the radical impressionists, «nyhetsmakare» (1883c: 17; «noveltymakers») with «vämjeligt råa framställningssätt» (1883a: 419 and 1883b: 18; «horribly crude rendering»), who have abandoned the tonal values and applied dots of pure colour directly onto the canvas:

Så tog den yttersta venstern steget fullt ut, i det den började att lägga färgen rå och oblandad på duken. En tafla bör ses på ett visst afstånd för att verka med full kraft. Nå väl, hvarför då blanda sina färger på paletten till den ton, naturen möjligen har, men som på det der afståndet ej gör sig fullkomligt rätt; hvarför ej hellre sätta på taflan hvarje färg ren för sig och låta dem blanda sig i åskådarens öga, låta dem flyta samman så, att totalverkan af dem, då de ses på “det der afståndet”, blir den rigtiga? Detta är impressionisternes regel [...]. Impressionisten uppgifver helt och hållet all elegans i behandlingen, då hans tafla består ej af penseldrag utan af färgfläckar, och likaså försmår han ofta all noggrannhet i teckningen, då han sträfvar att återgifva intet annat än ögonblickets intryck. (1883c: 17)

The extreme left-wing painters then went all the way as they started to use pure, unmodulated colours on the canvas. Well, why blend the colours on the palette in an attempt to find the tone that nature might have, but which at a distance does not perfectly correspond; why not rather apply unblended colours and allow these to mix in the eye of the beholder, merge in a way that their total impression, seen at “a certain distance”, proves correct? This is the impressionists’ rule […]. The impressionist perfectly renounces all elegance in treatment, as his painting is not made up of brushstrokes but of colour dots, he also disdains any accuracy in drawing, in an attempt to render nothing but the momentary impression.

63Just like Edvard Asp lamented to the narrator after seeing Aja’s little landscape, Nordensvan, too, warns against the tendency of the radical impressionists to fall back on certain mannerisms that risk cancelling the individuality of each artist, such as the extravagant use of the blue colour: «för att få luft i en tafla målar en allting blått, hvilket tycks mig föga bättre än att hålla taflan i grått, som andra göra nu för tiden, eller i brunt enligt münchener-receptet» (Ibidem; «to make a painting look airy one paints it all blue, which seems to me not much better than keeping it all grey, like other painters do nowadays, or brown, according to the recipe of the Munich school»), and remarks that few impressionist canvasses are a pleasure to the eye or an embellishment in the collector’s home.

64In 1885, Nordensvan reviewed the so called «opponentutställningen» («the exhibition of the opponents») held in Stockholm, which saw numerous Swedish painters who had studied in Paris come together to protest against the lack of reforms in the academic art world. «Pariserskolan», especially its representative Bruno Liljefors, on which impressionism had a lasting impact (Nordensvan 1885: 75, 79), is appreciated by the critic as it has proved capable of renewing Swedish landscape painting (78). Nordensvan, however, laments the impressionists’ devotion to pure observation, which runs the risk of producing an art without any substance, one in which form prevails over content: «formen, utförandet, tekniken skymma bort innehållet eller öfverskyla bristen på innehåll» (75; «form, execution, technique stand in the way of content or conceal the lack of content»).

65As the «left-wing» Swedish painters (Bergh, Kreuger, Georg and Hanna Pauli, Nordström, Ekström, Liljefors) mature and refine their impressionist technique, Nordensvan sees the individuality of each artist emerging out of the earlier, unspecific mannerism, so much so that he is now willing to substitute «impressionism» with «individualism» (1890: 481). In 1891, he writes as follows about Anders Zorn’s impressionist paintings:

Taflorna äro målade raskt och summariskt, med tydligt uttryckt afsikt att visa ögonblickets stämning, stundens färger med all deras friskhet, styrka och glans – med sedan ej gifva något mera, intet detaljerande, inga delikata linjer att se på nära håll, ingen elegant penselföring, det hela impressionen af motivet och ingenting mera. (1891: 397)

The execution of the paintings is hasty and summary, with the evident intention of rendering the atmosphere of the moment, the temporary colours in all their freshness, strength, and brightness – and then end it here without going further; there are no detailed, delicate outlines to scrutinize at a close distance, no elegant brushwork, it all comes down to the impression of the motif and nothing else.

66Two years later it was the Norwegian painter Werenskiold’s turn to be defended from his detractors’ accusations, according to which his paintings were unfinished. Nordensvan now dismisses this critique as irrelevant and as one coming from critics who fail to understand that Werenskiold’s technique – the rendering of vibrating light through the use of pure colour dots – is the method of a genuine impressionist and also representative of «den framåtsträvande konsten» (1892: 449; «progressive art»).

67As we draw closer to the year of Aja’s composition, Nordensvan has thus come to moderate his criticism of what he earlier saw as the ‘weak’ aspects of impressionist art. But above and beyond any personal aesthetic preferences, the main point is again, as in Strindberg’s case, that Nordensvan proved capable of understanding the novelty of this painterly technique right from the early 1880s, although he considered it applicable, with caution, only to landscape painting. As he recycles, in Aja, expressions present in his art criticism to describe the impressionists in the short story, he reprocesses, in hindsight, his own early bewilderment.


1   The shortage of impressionists in the Swedish artist novel may well depend on the absence of models in the contemporary art world. According to Torsten Gunnarsson (2002: 25), with the single exception of Anders Zorn, impressionism was nothing but an «episode» on the main road leading Swedish painters, such as Karl Nordström, Per Ekström, and Carl Trädgårdh, from realism to symbolism. In volumes of Finnish art history, the absence of artists outspokenly impressionist is sometimes explained with the statement that Finland lacked a modern metropolitan culture, the very climate on which impressionism thrived (see, e.g., Lindberg 1998: 174). Sixten Ringbom also writes that impressionism seems to have disappeared in the wave of symbolism which at the turn of the century came to serve Finnish nationalism also in the art world: «Av de senare riktningarna hade impressionismen (ca 1874-86) passerat tämlingen oförmärkt bland våra konstnärer; det är bara i några enstaka ekon hos Edelfelt och Westerholm som intryck av målare som Manet och Degas gör sig gällande. Icke så med symbolismen – denna parisiska 90-talsriktning skulle hos oss utlösa krafter som stod i tjänst hos den nationella idé som dominerade 1800-talets finländska konstliv» (Ringbom 1998: 216; «Among the later currents, impressionism [ca. 1874-86] had passed without our artists giving it greater attention; only sparse echoes originating in painters such as Manet and Degas can be observed in Edelfelt and Westerholm. This is definitely not the case with symbolism – this Parisian current of the 1890s that would come to release energies serving the nationalistic idea dominating the Finnish art world in the nineteenth century»). Given the shortage of impressionist painters in Finnish art history, it is perhaps not surprising that fictional counterparts should be almost absent in literary writing.

2   None of the authors that are of interest to this part of the present survey indicate the temporal setting of their stories with a precise year. The unfolding of the action, however, allows the reader to trace the events, in Geijerstam’s case, to the years before impressionism won acceptance in Sweden as well as in Paris. Mathilda Roos’s novel most likely takes place some time later, in the years when naturalistic painting as well as national subjects were beginning to seem outdated and French impressionism had reached its peak. Nordensvan’s short story Aja covers a time span of six years, beginning in the years when French impressionism was still in bloom and ending as symbolism and synthetism were making their entrance into the art world, i.e., in the second half of the 1880s (cf., Gunnarsson 2002: 36). Tavaststjerna’s short story unfolds «innan impressionismen kommit på modet som konstart» (Tavaststjerna 1892: 11; «before impressionism had become a fashionable movement in art»). To help locate these narratives in time, it could be added that impressionism, with the exception of those few painters who early on came into direct contact with the French forerunners (e.g., De Nittis, Zandomeneghi, Cassatt) did not spread internationally before the end of the 1880s (cf., Hedström 2002: 70).

3   The impressionist painters in the Swedish literary works considered here all have a connection with Paris. As is known, impressionism was essentially an urban art and, it must be added, specifically a Parisian art, profoundly tied to the rapid developments of this city, which by the mid-nineteenth century had turned into the cultural capital of Europe.

4   Geijerstam was an amateur reviewer of art (cf., Svensson 1985: 221), while Nordensvan is the author of a great many classic works on Swedish art history.

5   Conny Svensson defines Melin «en förnyare och framtidsman inom måleriet» (1985: 228; «an innovator and a man of the future within painting»). Ivar Melin thus belongs to those young Swedish artists who, starting from the 1870s, favoured France over Germany (Düsseldorf) for their studies abroad, abandoning the taste for «ett romantiskt, idealistiskt folklivsmåleri» (Hedström 2002: 48; «a romantic, idealistic painting of the life of the lower classes»).

6   That the contemporary readership understood the protagonist to be representative of the impressionist school of painters is confirmed by the review C.G. Estlander dedicated to Fattigt folk II (Estlander 1890). As previously mentioned, in his review Estlander commented on the moment when Ivar Melin finally succeeds in selling a painting in terms suggesting that by 1890, in Scandinavia, a consensus on the value of impressionist art had at last been reached, at least in the eyes of a perspicacious connoisseur like Estlander: «troligen går det honom sedan mycket bra, impressionist som han är» (Estlander 1890: 62; «being an impressionist he is subsequently probably very successful»). Conny Svensson also points out «i förbigående» (228; «in passing») that «Melin troligen är den första uttalat impressionistiske målaren som uppträder i svensk skönlitteratur» (Ibidem; «Melin is likely to be the first outspokenly impressionist painter to appear in Swedish fiction») and adds that this fictional character probably was modelled on the Swedish painter Karl Nordström, whom Geijerstam had befriended in Grèz-sur-Loing in 1884: «hans roll motsvarar [...] den som i verkligheten spelades av Geijerstams vän Karl Nordström, betecknad som den förste impressionisten i svenskt måleri» (222; «his role corresponds [...] to the one that in reality belonged to Geijerstam’s friend Karl Nordström, defined as the first impressionist in Swedish painting»).

7   In these textual features of Geijerstam’s tale one easily recognizes traits familiar to the artist-novel as a genre. Maurice Beebe (1964: 22) mentions the «dissatisfaction with the domestic environment, estrangement from a philistine father […] the discovery that you can’t go home again» as archetypical topoi of this tradition.

8   Albert Edelfelt (1854-1905) was the first Finnish artist to gain international fame. After studies in Finland and in Belgium, he moved to Paris in 1874. Famous for his historical subjects, Edelfelt came into contact with the impressionists through their exhibitions at Durand-Ruel’s studio and commented on their art in the Finnish press. In spite of his initial biting comments he was later influenced by their art, as I Luxembourg-trädgården i Paris reveals, cf., e.g., Reitala (1997) at «The years 1886-87 saw the production of the large painting of the Paris Luxembourgin puisto (Luxembourg Gardens). In exhibitions held at Georges Petit’s gallery, Edelfelt had begun collaborating with leading French impressionists, a fact visible in this work. Light was an ever more important element; but at the same time there was no compromising over the detailed nature of his work. In his sketches and small works from the 1880s there are many features reminiscent of the impressionists». Accessed 25 January 2014.

9   Though undated, Pissarro’s work is part of his 1897 series of paintings dedicated to the rendition of this boulevard at different times of day. It was not exhibited during the artist’s lifetime. Cf., Accessed 25 January 2018.

10   Cf., Storskog 2003: 191.

11   Cf., Lund 1993: 48, and p. 61-62 in this study.

12   As a novelist Mathilda Roos (1852-1908) dealt with the conditions of women through themes such as female eroticism, homosexuality, and sexual abuse. She is also the author of three political pamphlets expressing concern over Ellen Key’s anti-feminism. Cf., e.g., Lotass’s biographical note at Accessed 25 January 2018.

13Aja appeared as a feuilleton in Idun, issues 5 to 14, 1894. The same year it was also included in Nordensvan’s collection of short stories bearing the title Tre små romaner. A second edition of this book was published in 1908. Several changes have been made in the text in its transformation from feuilleton to printed edition; some of these are relevant to our discourse and will be discussed further on. Unless otherwise specified, all quotations are taken from the 1894 edition of Tre små romaner.

14   The Düsseldorf school had a great impact on portrait and landscape painting in the mid-nineteenth century. It is associated with idealized landscapes in the national romantic style and with a love for details. See also Dusseldorf school at, accessed 25 January 2018 and Painting School of Düsseldorf at Accessed 25 January 2018.

15   Summed up, Bowie’s ten devices are: (1) the description of the painter’s youth and training; (2) the description of the painter’s milieu (the atelier, contacts with nature or with the cityscape, circle of friends and fellow painters); (3) the rendering of the painter’s conversation with other artists, models, and art dealers; (4) the rendering of discussions regarding aesthetics and techniques (through the artist’s monologues or «by an author’s mouthpiece»); (5) violent criticism against the official taste and the academic tradition; (6) accounts of art exhibitions; (7) the introduction of literary figures as foils to the painter; (8) the introduction of threats to the painter’s artistic integrity (e.g., sentimental affairs); (9) the presence of real painters (with their actual names or in disguise, for verisimilitude or for the sake of the plot); (10) the practice of showing the painters at work (by describing the composition of a finished work in the order it presumably came into being or while the artist is at work on the painting).

16   A thorough study highlighting the dynamics at work in a Scandinavian artists’ colony at the end of the century is Anna-Maria Wiljanen’s doctoral dissertation «Nej, i sanning, ett bättre ställe hade den unga målaren ej kunnat hamna på». Önningeby konstnärskoloni och de mångfacetterade sociala nätverkens interaktion (Wiljanen 2014; «No, Truth Be Told, the Young Painter Could Not Have Ended Up in a Better Place». The Artists’ Colony of Önningeby and the Interaction of the Multifaceted Social Networks). Wiljanen has a chapter on the of role women of this colony established on the Åland islands under the leadership of Victor Westerholm in the years 1886-92 (2014: 145-80).

17   In the feuilleton version of the short story, the irony with which the narrator treats Linder’s ‘expertise’ is even more evident. The phrase which at this point stresses his ironic stance and reveals the narrator’s superiority has been left out in the short story collection: «Hur pass djupt han trängt in i de moderna idéerna och hur skarpsinningt han uppfattat dem, skall jag lämna osagt» (Nordensvan 1894b: «How deeply he had dwelled on the modern ideas and how profoundly he had understood them is best left unsaid»).

18   One of Aja’s «publiktaflor» seems to mimic Sigrid’s unfortunate painting in Familjen Verle, previously discussed. It represents «en liten linhårig flicka ute på en äng i solgass» (114; «a little flaxen-haired girl in a sunlit field») and is described by Aja as «en köptafla för grosshandlarherrskapet, när man flyttat in från landet på hösten» (Ibidem; «a commercial canvas for the bourgeoisie who is back in town after a summer in the countryside»).

19   In the version of the short story included in Tre små romaner (1894a), Hans Jæger is described as the notorious author of a novel with the telling title of Decadence, whereas in the feuilleton version (1894b), Jæger is «en norsk författare, martyr (i världsåskådning) och författare till Fri Kierlighed» («a Norwegian writer, martyr [as to Weltanshauung] and author of Fri Kierlighed»). The title Fri Kierlighed (Free Love) is thinly disguising the one given to the first volume of Jæger’s disreputable autobiographical trilogy, Syk kjaerlihet (Sick Love), of 1893. The latter version of the short story also replaces the name of Paul Gauguin, to whose atelier Aja pays a visit in the company of Richert in the feuilleton, with «monsieur Gasque, symbolisten» (158; «monsieur Gasque, the symbolist»). Gauguin is the only historical painter appearing under real name.

20   Jaeger’s connection to the adjective ‘impressionist’ was, as we have seen, more of a political kind, not so much dependent on his adherence to impressionist aesthetics as on the idea of subversion associated to his name. Impressionism, the first movement of the modern avant-gardes, had a revolutionary concept which attracted the bohemian subculture in Norway. Virginie Pouzet-Duzer, through Isabella Checcaglini, reminds us of the fact that ‘impressionist’ as a definition was often synonymous with «être traité de “revolutionnair”’, d’“intransigeant”, d’“indépendant”, et aussi de “communard”» (2008: 63; «being treated as a “revolutionary”, an “extremist”, and also a “communist”).


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