Time, Memory, and Impression: Framing Experience in the Later Nineteenth Century

In collaboration with art historian Nancy Locke (Penn State), I organized a panel for the 2018 Nineteenth-Century Studies Association conference, titled “Time, Memory, and Impression: Framing Experience in the Later Nineteenth Century.” Panelists included Lauren S. Weingarden (Florida State) on Baudelaire’s vision of Charles Meryon’s Eaux-fortes sur Paris (1850-4); Jeremy Melius (Tufts) on Walter Pater’s thinking about sensation during the 1860/70s and Andre Dombrowski (University of Pennsylvania) on the standardization of time and Monet’s landscapes. Nancy Locke was the panel’s respondent. The conference program is available here.

The panel investigated relations between conceptual structures and the experience of art in Western Europe during the second half of the 19th century. From the work of Michael Baxandall, art historians recognize that expectations around perception are historically contingent and affect artistic production. Writing on the art of the Renaissance, Baxandall argued that period viewers possessed skills once taken for granted and now lost, which painters once relied upon to convey meaning. The presenters used a variety of approaches to examine the interaction between artists, viewers and the schemata they used to perceive. For some, this involved examining the philosophical vistas that frame viewers’ standpoints, whereas for others, this meant investigating the cultural histories and technologies that shape the sense of their perceptual abilities. During the period under consideration, artists and their works intersected with a wide range of thinking about seeing. For example, at mid-century, Gustav Fechner’s Elemente der Psychophysik (1860) sought to quantify perception; however, by the end of the century, Henri Bergson’s Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (1889) claimed that perception was unquantifiable. Likewise, advances in industry resulted in increasing mechanization, dramatically altering Europeans’ conceptions of time and space. As the panelists argued, charting the different vistas of perception can give us a better sense of the possibilities and limits of experience during this period, enhancing our understanding of its artistic works.