Christopher Riopelle at The Art Newspaper:
Michael Fried observes that Realism in the Western painting tradition has long involved “a tacit or implicit illusion of the passage of time, of sheer duration”. Absorbed in their labours, the peasants of Millet and Courbet seem to exclude the viewer. Indifferent to our presence as spectators, oblivious to the existence of the urban world of art whence we come, they go about the rituals of life with slow, unselfconscious determination. Such paintings “compel conviction”, Marnin Young explains in Realism in the Age of Impressionism, because they appear “uncontrived, natural, real”. In the mid-19th century such images articulated a thrilling new verisimilitude, which it was painting’s special mission to reveal.
Young has taken up Fried’s challenge of sustained critical attention to the Realist tradition. However, he explores artists of a later generation than Millet and Courbet. From Jules Bastien-Lepage to the young James Ensor, he is interested in a moment of crisis in the late 1870s and early 1880s when Realism confronted Manet and Impressionism and the powerful new allure of instantaneity. How to maintain slow time and deep absorption in its minutiae as privileged realms of painting? How to resist the compelling illusion, fostered now by a Monet or Renoir, that what we see on canvas has been captured in a moment, can be understood by the spectator just as quickly, and as quickly evanesces?
Young traces the confrontation between the two modes. Bastien-Lepage’s Hay Making of 1877 shows two peasants, one asleep on the ground, the other slack-jawed and suspended in torpor as she sits up in the minutes before they head back to afternoon toil. It is a moment suspended, and in that way like Impressionism, but at the same time elemental.