Even an instant demands to measured. Anything but stable and discrete, an instant is never as long as a second, certainly not a minute; it is shorter than a mere moment and synonymous with, but hardly equal to, the now. Having no fixed length, it is easily turned into a figure of speech and, in its malleability, is preternaturally useful to modern painting. Precisely in its fluid and subjective state, the instant became Impressionism’s favored frame of time. “I’m getting so slow at my work it makes me despair, but the further I get, the more I see that a lot of work has to be done in order to render what I’m looking for: ‘instantaneously,’ the ‘envelope’ above all, the same light spread over everything,” Claude Monet famously wrote to the critic Gustave Geoffrey in 1890, wrestling with painting as much as with time. An instant, as Monet made clear when using quotation marks, it not a neutral, much less a purely aesthetic category of painting and art criticism. It is, rather, a sign of modernity’s temporal epistemology, responsive to political, economic, and technological demands—the “distinctive temporal forms of power,” as Sarah Sharma calls them. Keyed to matters central to the Industrial Revolution—speed, efficiency, precision (and therefore profit)—the instant became a crucial measure during the long stretch of Monet’s lifetime (the 1840s to 1920s), an era obsessed with new temporal regimes.
Monet’s Minutes studies the complex relationship that ensued between the hyperbolic representation of transitory moments that is Monet’s art and the emerging cultures and technologies of time in which his painting was ultimately rooted. It is—briefly put—about the difference between Monet saying instantaneity and “instantaneity,” about how shifting the rhetorical emphasis rewrites a generalized faith in the neutralized transparency and positivist implications of time. This includes highly influential changes in temporal reckoning of the late nineteenth century and their attending discourses, which prompted Monet to use quotation marks around the term “instantaneity” in the first place and helped him elevate fleeting temporal frames to the center of modern painting. Monet’s understanding of time and the painterly practices it engendered are center stage, arrayed against the backdrop of his culture’s obsession with all things quick, scheduled, and prompt. Alternating between the period’s ideas about time and the temporal forms Monet’s art took in response, Monet’s Minutes charts Impressionism’s invention of painting time—the style’s aestheticization of the modern shape of time. This book’s primary objective is to release Impressionist temporality from the manifold aesthetic reifications that art criticism and art history have tended to impose on it over the past century and a half; it shows how, in claiming the poetic instant for painting, Monet in fact stylized the industrial minute.
Impressionism aspired to be an art premised on a modern sense of time. The instant of Impressionism is a deeply social time and signifies only in a comparative frame. Monet’s art is no exception to this rule. By extension, Monet shows cultural times more often than natural times (even when painting the rural landscape)—or, better, cultural times naturalized within the modern landscape. It becomes clear in retrospect that this intense naturalization of time in representation was an outgrowth of an age best characterized by one of its signature features, the so-called industrialization of time, by which is meant the full rationalization and standardization of the temporal experience, (individual) time’s complete permeation by industry and capital. One of the subtlest and least visible aspects of the Industrial Revolution, the industrialization of time was deeply intrusive, both physically and psychically, cutting through flesh with the thinnest of blades. Few harshly disagreed with the new temporal order it produced—it was, after all, more convenient, efficient, and precise, while being less prone to accident and waste—but rather fluidly accepted and accommodated its streamlined protocols within daily life, even if it took many decades to achieve completely.
During the late nineteenth century, a new method of timekeeping emerged: a nationally, and eventually “universally,” synchronized time that deployed the global time grid used to this day, overriding local and personal time, even though of course they persisted. An outgrowth of the period’s rapid expansion of the railroad and international travel and commerce, standard time soon intruded into all aspects of life, and time infrastructures of all kinds became normal to behold. This history started with the eighteenth century’s Industrial Revolution and was furthered during the Second Industrial Revolution that began in the 1850s and 1860s, with its innovations in electricity and communication technologies. A central tool in the colonizing mission of the West as it stretched across the globe by 1900, the new global time grid assured smoother transits and the more efficient extraction of raw materials, furthering both profit and political domination; it was also employed in the various “civilizing” pursuits that instrumentalized cultures outside of Europe and North America as temporally and religiously backward. Impressionism in all its variants should be considered one mode (the advent of the moving image another) in which culture responded to, and aestheticized, these massive transformations in lived time.
An instant, for Monet, was never a neutral temporal frame to be taken literally, nor for granted—neither an inherent part of the landscape nor urban scenery, nor of sensory experience—but rather an expression of the period’s contested politics of time. Even when Monet tried to naturalize this fact, especially in his later, post-1880 oeuvre, the cultures of temporality that pervaded any instant made their presence known. The only way to the instant was, after all, through the instant, which is to say—certainly for Monet’s art—that all painterly content had to be filtered through the instant’s historically and culturally variable frames. Whenever Monet painted a moment, he wrestled with the very structures of time as much as with his materials and the weather: the history of time was therefore one of the elemental themes of his art. As the science journalist François Henri Peudefer (writing as Henri de Parville) put it in 1894 (when Monet was at work on the Rouen Cathedral series), “One deceives oneself a lot, by the way, if one believes, with some other old-fashioned thinkers, that time has stayed unchanged across the ages; nothing, by contrast, has changed as much as time has.” Monet’s Minutes argues in a similar vein that Monet took the historically changing nature of time as his chief subject and kept looking for instantaneity, knowing full well that it was always partial and elusive, and that it could not stand still and uncontested long enough to be truly rendered in paint. A new and different history of Impressionism begins from this realization.
From Monet’s Minutes: Impressionism and the Industrialization of Time by André Dombrowski. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.
André Dombrowski is the Frances Shapiro-Weitzenhoffer Associate Professor of 19th Century European Art at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Cézanne, Murder, and Modern Life, winner of the Phillips Book Prize.