It is customary in our political circles to link cultural modernism (and its negative social consequences) to Jewish influence. While there are strong grounds for this stance, things are sometimes more complicated than this narrative would suggest. Take, for instance, the group of painters who made up the French Impressionist movement of the late nineteenth century. Considered to be the first avant-garde movement of the Modernist period, Impressionism served as a springboard for many artistic movements of the twentieth century, including Symbolism, Fauvism, and Cubism. Yet among the leaders of the Impressionist movement were artists, like Cezanne, Renoir and Degas, who were notable for their antipathy to Jews.
Of this trio of leading Impressionists, the one who evinced the keenest aversion to Jews was Edgar Degas (1834â€”1917) who was described by Jewish artist Camille Pissarro as â€œthat ferocious anti-Semite.â€ Though Degas is regarded as one of the cornerstone founders of Impressionism, he disliked the name and, indeed, many of the artists who made up the movement. He thought of himself as a realist and â€œpragmatistâ€ painter first and foremost. But this did not stop him from leading the collective and co-organizing their ground-breaking exhibitions from 1874â€”86.
The label â€œimpressionistâ€™ was coined by a critic who said their paintings looked unfinished, as if they were â€œimpressionsâ€ of a scene rather than finished paintings. While many of Degasâ€™ paintings do look spontaneous, they involved intensive planning. He would study his subjects obsessively, making numerous sketches before starting a painting.