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Painting the Difference

Sex and Spectator in Modern Art

The picture plane of a painting creates boundaries and perspectives. It governs the relationship of daubs of pigment on a canvas to reality, allowing the viewer to connect with the imagined world of a work of art. Charles Harrison’s latest endeavor, Painting the Difference, explores the role of the picture plane in modern painting and the relationships it creates among the artist, the subject, and the spectator. One of the most respected teachers and theorists of modern art, Harrison here offers a bold interpretation of the Modernist canon that uncovers the significance of gender to the functioning of the picture plane.

Arguing that the representation of women in art was crucial to the character of modernity, Harrison traces the history of female subjects as they began to gaze out of the picture to confront and engage their viewers. Combining sweeping conceptual history with telling investigations into the details of particular paintings, Painting the Difference deciphers the implications of sexual difference for the development of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art. Harrison shows how artists, reflecting the underlying anxieties of the time about gender, used female subjects’ gazes both to create a sexualized relationship between these subjects and their viewers, and to simultaneously question that relationship. In considering works by artists such as Renoir, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Picasso, and Matisse, as well as Rothko, Warhol, Cindy Sherman, and many more, Harrison incorporates elements of cultural criticism and social history into his arguments, and generous color illustrations permit the reader to test Harrison’s claims against the works on which they are based. Rich with detail and compelling analysis, Painting the Difference offers cutting-edge interpretation grounded in the reality of magnificent works of art.

312 pages | 50 color plates, 130 halftones | 8 1/2 x 11 | © 2005

Art: American Art, Art--General Studies, European Art


"Painting the Difference puts forward a novel theory of the evolution of certain key works in the Modernist canon. This highly original book will be of keen interest to art history, cultural studies, and gender studies. A model of lucidity, and direct in its treatment of a difficult topic, Painting the Difference advances a bold theory of modern art of considerable relevance and importance."

Paul Smith, author of Seurat and the Avant-garde

Painting the Difference complicates routine assumptions about the sexism of male artists and viewers, and raises useful questions about the history of seeing.”

Patricia Failing | Art News

“Taken together these chapters serve to demonstrate how careful looking can provide new insight into the making and meaning of iconic works. Conceptually challenging and rich in detail, this is an attractive volume with a generous number of illustrations, both in color and black and white, that help to support the author’s claims and argument.”

Britta C. Dwyer | Woman's Art Journal

“The strength of [Harrison’s] approach is not to reduce the reality of sexual difference to an iconographic or socio-historic question, but to treat it on the very surface of painting, through the devices it invents and the complex games it suggests to the viewer.”

Véronique Goudinoux | Les Cahiers

"Painting the Difference offers a gripping interpretation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century images, mostly paintings, mostly of women. The artists Harrison discusses are modernist icons: Renoir, Manet, Cézanne, Degas, Morisot, Cassatt, Picasso, Matisse, Bonnard, and Rothko. But he brings these canonical painters into entirely fresh focus by showing how their techniques develop from a driving concern with the question of just who is seeing what paintings reveal. Harrison’s central claim is that this self-consciousness arises from a sustained confrontation with the social domination at work in the male regard, including the painter’s regard, that shapes the appearance of women’s bodies in modern life."

Gregg M. Horowitz | Modernism/modernity

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introductions and Acknowledgments
I. Looking Out, Looking In
1. The Picture Plane
2. Renoir
II. Fantasy and Imagination
3. Manet
4. Cézanne
III. Modern Feeling
5. Degas, Part One
6. Degas, Part Two
7. Morisot and Cassatt: "A Woman’s Painting"
IV. Public and Private
8. The Early Twentieth Century
9. Picasso
10. Matisse and Bonnard: "Painting the Emotions"
V. Painting the Unseen
11. Rothko
12. The Later Twentieth Century
Figure Credits

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