The Impressionist movement, the first of its kind in modern art, left an indelible mark on the development of 20th-century art. With its revolutionary approach, Impressionism found its way into the mainstream, captivating French art and the world at large.
What is Impressionism?
Impressionism, originating in Paris, France at the end of the 19th century, is an artistic movement that defied conventional norms. The Impressionists, a group of painters seeking recognition for their unique techniques and innovative use of color, were not officially recognized as a collective.
Impressionism represented a significant leap forward in the world of painting. The term “impressionism” itself was coined by critics, inspired by Claude Monet’s famous painting, “Impression, soleil levant” (Impression, Sunrise).
Impressionist painting of the rising sun – Claude Monet
The Birth of Impressionist Painting
Around 1862, young painters dissatisfied with the rigid rules taught at the School of Fine Arts encountered Claude Monet in Paris. In line with the artistic paths blazed by Eugène Boudin and Johan Barthold Jongkind in the 1850s and 1860s, these painters embraced outdoor painting, vibrant patterns, and capturing fleeting atmospheric expressions. They aimed to break free from traditional studies and artificial values, seeking inspiration from the natural landscape and exploring the play of light.
These artists trained in private studios such as the Gleyre studios and the Swiss School of Fine Arts. They exchanged ideas at the Guerbois café, drawing influences from the aesthetic of William Turner, Gustave Courbet, realism, and even Delacroix. Inspired by color gradation, complementary colors, and contrasts, the impressionists also drew inspiration from Japanese printmaking and the emerging field of photography.
Spring – Claude Monet
The Boat in the Flood at Marly Harbor by Alfred Sisley
The road to the village of Voisins – Camille Pissarro
During the 19th century, the Academy of Fine Arts served as the pillar of French artistic establishment, hosting the annual Paris Salon exhibition. Any artwork that challenged these established standards was rejected, leaving many innovative young impressionist painters excluded. Faced with rejection from galleries and considered “slanderers,” they lived in poverty and sought ways to gain recognition through private exhibitions.
The first official Impressionist exhibition took place in Paris in 1874 at the studio of photographer Félix Nadar on rue Capucines. On this occasion, journalist Louis Leroy sarcastically referred to Claude Monet’s famous painting “Impression, soleil levant” as “impressionism,” thus giving birth to the term.
This initial exhibition was followed by seven more until 1886. As time went on, the group began to fracture and eventually dissolve. In the 1880s and 1890s, the movement expanded its reach to include foreign artists. More importantly, it laid the groundwork for liberal aesthetic reactions. Despite considerable hostility, impressionist painters found support from the likes of Émile Zola and art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. Gradually, the movement found acceptance, leaving behind the social, political, and economic challenges of the time. Art critic Thédore Duret purchased their paintings and published a seminal History of Impressionism in 1904.
Autumn in Argenteuil by Claude Monet
Two dancers on stage – Edgar Degas
Claude Monet painting in the garden by Pierre Auguste Renoir
The Toilet – Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec
Impressionist painters, including Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Max Liebermann, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec, made significant contributions to the movement. Notably, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Seurat, while influenced by Impressionism, took their art in different creative directions, laying the foundation for 20th-century art.
For the sake of art history, these painters have been dubbed “Post-Impressionists.” Beyond their Impressionist influence, their artistic journeys diverged. Van Gogh delved into Expressionism, Cézanne leaned towards Cubism, and Gauguin and Seurat explored Fauvism and Pointillism.
Characteristics of Impressionism
Impressionist paintings are characterized by visible brush strokes, unrestrained color mixing, and an emphasis on capturing the quality and variation of light. These artists sought to express their new, quick, and impartial outlook, distinct from realistic and naturalist schools of thought.
By the Lake by Pierre Auguste Renoir
Boulevard Montmartre at night – Camille Pissarro
Key to this style was the swift and accurate capturing of scenes, providing an overview that expressed a new perspective. Impressionists aimed to convey the fleeting sensations experienced in a particular moment.
The Ballerina and the Bouquet – Edgar Degas – 1878
Two Sisters on the Balcony by Pierre Auguste Renoir
Impressive Painting Techniques
Impressionist painters actively explored contemporary developments in color theory. Their studies enabled them to analyze the effects of color and light in nature more accurately. They abandoned the traditional notion that shadows should be painted with brown or black, opting instead for strokes of complementary colors to capture the shades. This bold technique injected vibrancy, even in the shadows, contributing to the overall drama of a painting.
These artists aimed to capture the atmosphere at various times of day and the influence of different weather conditions on landscapes. To successfully convey these fleeting experiences, they had to paint quickly.
The entrance to Versailles in Louveciennes – Camille Pissarro – 1869
On the shores of Langland – Alfred Sisley – 1887
However, their unconventional techniques did not find favor with the French Institute of the Arts, which valued blurred colors and precise detail. The Academy failed to appreciate the fresh and spontaneous expression present in impressionistic art. Yet, the public gradually fell in love with the vitality and energy of Impressionist techniques, making Impressionism one of the most beloved movements in art history.
Influence of Photography
During the early stages of photography, photographers often experienced discrepancies between what they saw in the camera’s viewfinder and what appeared on the negative. To improve composition, photographers cropped their images, resulting in unusual and asymmetrical compositions that emphasized shapes at the edges. Some Impressionists, like Edgar Degas in his painting “Four Dancers,” embraced these asymmetrical effects, making them prominent features in their work.
The Four Dancers – Edgar Degas – 1900
Traditionally, artists worked with lines, shapes, shadows, and colors arranged to draw the viewer’s attention to the center of the painting—the most critical area. A work was deemed unsuccessful if the background or edges detracted from the focal point. In contrast, Impressionists defied this norm.
Boat Racing on Molesey – Alfred Sisley – 1874
Jalais Hill – Camille Pissarro
The Woman and the Umbrella – Claude Monet
Germain Hilaire – Edgar Degas
Impressionist painters allowed light to permeate the entire space, distributing its effects instead of focusing solely on the center of the frame.
Influence of Japanese Woodblock Prints
The bold designs of Japanese woodblock prints, then popular in France, also left a significant imprint on Impressionist painters. The contrasting and asymmetrical arrangements of flat color areas and intricate patterns found in these prints provided a compositional structure that the Impressionists eagerly borrowed to enhance their exploration of color. Vincent Van Gogh, the renowned Post-Impressionist painter, particularly embraced this influence.
Portrait of Pere Tanguy – Vincent Van Gogh – 1887
Almond Blossom – Vincent Van Gogh – 1890
Landscape Painting: A Direct Encounter with Nature
Impressionists were the pioneers of outdoor painting, drawn to the exploration of nature. The introduction of tube paint played a significant role in this shift, allowing artists to carry all their studio equipment in one box for the first time. They felt compelled to paint en plein air to capture the true effects of light and color in natural settings. Consequently, landscapes, both urban and rural, became the dominant and most natural subject matter for the Impressionists.
Lunch on the Lawn – Claude Monet
Two women talking by the sea – Camille Pissarro
Lunch on the boat by Pierre Auguste Renoir
Impressionism and Still Life
Still life painting did not garner significant attention from Impressionist painters. The genre was deemed unsuitable for capturing the play of light and color outdoors. However, a few remarkable examples defy this trend, such as Renoir’s “Fruit of the Midi.” In this painting, carefully selected fruits and vegetables imbue the work with a vibrant color spectrum.
Fruit of the Midi – Pierre Auguste Renoir
Lastly, it is impossible to discuss the Impressionist movement without acknowledging the significant contributions of four post-impressionist painters: Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Seurat. While influenced by Impressionism, these artists charted their own creative paths, leaving a lasting impact on 20th-century art.
Iris Painting – Van Gogh – 1889
Sunflower Vase – Van Gogh – 1888
Starry Night – Van Gogh – 1888
The Starry Night – Van Gogh – 1889
Portrait of Doctor Gachet – Van Gogh – 1890
Areois Seeds – Paul Gauguin
Tahitian Women on the Shore by Paul Gauguin
Where We Come From – Who We Are – Where We Are Going, 1897 – Paul Gauguin
Still life with the curtain – Paul Cézanne
Fairy Bath – Paul Cezanne
Mont Sainte Victoire by Paul Cezanne
A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte – Georges Seurat
Eiffel Tower – Georges Seurat
The Impressionist movement revolutionized art, pushing boundaries and reimagining the possibilities of painting. Through visible brush strokes, vibrant colors, and capturing the essence of light, these artists left an indelible mark on the art world. Impressionism’s legacy lives on, inspiring generations of artists to think beyond conventional norms and embrace their unique creative visions. To explore more about art and its various movements, visit Caravansarai.