In The Octopus (1901), some of the main characters are in a gentlemen's club (a genuine one, not a euphemistically-named one) where a raffle is being held of a competent but, I think we're supposed to believe, rather dry and imitative landscape painting by a minor character, Hartrath. Here's the scene:
But the focus of the assembly was the little space before Hartrath's painting. It was called "A Study of the Contra Costa Foothills," and was set in a frame of natural redwood, the bark still adhering. It was conspicuously displayed on an easel at the right of the entrance to the main room of the club, and was very large. In the foreground, and to the left, under the shade of a live-oak, stood a couple of reddish cows, knee-deep in a patch of yellow poppies, while in the right-hand corner, to balance the composition, was placed a girl in a pink dress and white sunbonnet, in which the shadows were indicated by broad dashes of pale blue paint. The ladies and young girls examined the production with little murmurs of admiration, hazarding remembered phrases, searching for the exact balance between generous praise and critical discrimination, expressing their opinions in the mild technicalities of the Art Books and painting classes. They spoke of atmospheric effects, of middle distance, of "chiaro-oscuro," of fore-shortening, of the decomposition of light, of the subordination of individuality to fidelity of interpretation.Now, when Eleanor Stoddard and Eveline Hutchins meet in the Art Institute of Chicago, here is what they say:
One tall girl, with hair almost white in its blondness, having observed that the handling of the masses reminded her strongly of Corot, her companion, who carried a gold lorgnette by a chain around her neck, answered:
"Ah! Millet, perhaps, but not Corot."
This verdict had an immediate success. It was passed from group to group. It seemed to imply a delicate distinction that carried conviction at once. It was decided formally that the reddish brown cows in the picture were reminiscent of Daubigny, and that the handling of the masses was altogether Millet, but that the general effect was not quite Corot.
"What other pictures do you like?" [Eveline said.] Eleanor looked carefully at the Whistler; then she said slowly, "I like Whistler and Corot." "I do too, but I like Millet best. He's so round and warm… Have you ever been to Barbizon?" "No, but I'd love to." There was a pause. "But I think Millet's a little coarse, don't you?" Eleanor ventured. "You mean that chromo of the Angelus? Yes, I simply loathe and despise religious feeling in a picture, don't you?" Eleanor didn't quite know what to say to that, so she shook her head and said, "I love Whistler so; when I've been looking at them I can look out of the window and everything looks, you know, pastelly like that."Now, Jean-François Millet and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot would often have been grouped together as the leading figures in the Barbizon school of painting (Daubigny, also mentioned by Norris was another in the school), so perhaps this isn't so intertextual after all, simply the result of two writers wanting to introduce an explicit discussion of realism into their novels, rather like Ibsen and Strindberg turning up together in conversation in two separate novels.
Yet there is something similar, and perhaps similarly mean, about both scenes of young women grasping at cultural straws to impress other young women; "Corot" and "Millet" de-code in both passages as a sort of feminized, shallow, rather frivolous appropriation of the vitality of realism, the realism of the male writer composing this scene. I don't know a very great deal about the Barbizon school, but the most famous product of it, Millet's "The Gleaners," which inspired Agnès Varda's magnificent documentary The Gleaners and I, would seem visually to corroborate this hunch:
Poussin or Lorrain. (That is not necessarily to say that Norris or Dos Passos would prefer Poussin or Lorrain to Millet, Corot, and Whistler, though.)
Now, like I said, I don't know very much about 19th century painting, so my characterization of Corot and Millet may be incorrect and I would greatly appreciate any art historians or generally more knowledgeable people to help me out here, but it is my sense that Norris and Dos Passos are each making a slight dig at a more feminized version of realism which is the kind of thing one appreciates with a lorgnette and titters over with a word like "pastelly." In a sense, these women stand in relation to the masculine realism of the authors in exactly the same relationship as the subject's of Millet's painting do to the farmers who cut the grain in the first place: Eleanor and Eveline are aesthetic gleaners, taking the scattered leavings of the trailblazers and geniuses, who of course just happen to be both male and masculine.