GROWING UP WITH THE IMPRESSIONISTS
The Diary of Julie Manet
Translated and edited by Jane Roberts
Illustrated. 231 pp. I. B. Tauris. Paper, $24.50.
“I never buy a hat without wondering if Monsieur Renoir will like it,” Julie Manet charmingly notes in a journal entry from 1898. The daughter of the French Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot and Eugène Manet (the painter Édouard’s younger brother), Julie is orphaned at 16. From then on, her well-being and “somewhat haphazard education” are overseen by her guardian, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and by her mother’s friends and colleagues, the Impressionists. The girl keeps company with the likes of Monet, Degas and Renoir, who, Julie reports, “was painting alongside Cézanne” when he “heard the news of Maman’s death. He closed his paintbox and took the next train to Paris. I have never forgotten the way he arrived … and held me close to him; I can still see his white cravat with its little red polka dots.”
As here, Julie’s most vivid sentences are visual, her pages enlivened with brief descriptions of landscapes and anecdotes from her daily life among the artists — as when they gather to hang her mother’s memorial exhibition in 1896 and a shouting match erupts between Degas and Monet. Julie becomes a painter herself, although, according to her translator, the art historian Jane Roberts, her work “remains very derivative. She just couldn’t get away from Renoir’s influence” and her “overwhelming admiration for her mother always cramped her style.” Nor is she a writer. There’s little depth here and no dramatic arc to take us from one day to the next. Which needn’t be a problem: “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” is little more than a string of anecdotes about another group of artists in another era. But the voice is Gertrude Stein’s and it delights. Julie’s voice is unremarkable, that of a jeune fille from a certain turn-of-the-century milieu — cultured, prosperous, right-wing, devoutly Roman Catholic — who is lucky enough to be acquainted with a group of remarkable painters and poets, from whom we’d like to hear much more than we do.
Except, unfortunately, during the diary’s last third, where she faithfully records — and concurs with — Renoir’s relentless anti-Semitism (shared, alas, by the great Degas): “Today I was at Renoir’s studio, where the talk is all about the Dreyfus Affair and against the Jews. ‘They come to France to earn money, but if there is any fighting to be done they hide behind a tree,’ said Monsieur Renoir. ‘There are a lot of them in the army, because the Jew likes to walk about wearing flashy uniforms. If they keep getting thrown out of all countries, there must be a good reason for it and they shouldn’t be allowed as much room here…. It’s unsinkable, the Jewish race. Pissarro’s wife isn’t one, yet all the children are, even more so than their father.’ ” And so on and so forth.
Given the injustice perpetrated against Captain Dreyfus and, 40 years later, the unspeakable policies of Vichy France, which occurred during Julie’s lifetime (she was born in 1878 and died in 1966), how are we to give such racism a pass? What to think — what to do — about great artists whose politics are repugnant?
For the moment (especially this moment), eschew Julie Manet’s diary. If you’re looking for a fully realized daughter’s-eye view of growing up among painters, writers and composers, steeped in their impassioned practice and irrepressible talk of art, turn instead to “Night Studio,” the wonderful memoir by Philip Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer.