Impressionism

1860 – 1895

Impressionism is looked on fondly by appreciators of art the world over as being a beautiful form art produced by masters of a bygone era, but it was indeed a movement that was extraordinarily outside the norm in its day. Henri Matisse found it so disturbing he couldn’t bear to look at it at first.

The movement was the first hallmark of modern art, and its first artists were rejected by the critics and art institutions of the time. The artists held to the idea of capturing life in impression – those fleeting moments when the eye isn’t entirely focused but captures the feeling or sense of a scene. They disliked what was ‘normal’ or sanctioned in art by salons (government-sanctioned exhibitions) and forged their own style. They preferred to paint en plein air, the meaning of which is exactly what it sounds like – in open air.

Origins and Historical Importance:

The art movement took off in 1874 at an exhibit in the studio of Felix Nadar, a noted photographer. Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and others had formed a Cooperative and Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers to oppose and rebel against the leading art authority of the time the Academie des Beaux-Arts, an organization that held the fate of artists up to its strict standards of realistic technique. The Cooperative of these Impressionists were 30 in number (and also included Cezanne, Renoir, and Sisley) and they exhibited as one group eight times in the late 19th century.

While it would be shocking to hear of today, our most beloved works by Renoir, Monet, Manet, and others were regularly rejected by the salon on a yearly basis. The Salon was so harsh that Napoleon III created the Salon of the Refused to show the works that had been rejected by the Academie des Beaux-Arts.

One critic, Louis Leroy, wrote in response to his seeing Monet’s Impression Sunrise, “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.” It was Leroy that coined the termed “Impressionist” when he titled his critique “The Exhibition of the Impressionists.”

The subject matter of the Impressionist artists was often landscape, but it was also of scenes of Parisian life as it unfolded into a Metropolis and people were discovering the city and outdoors in new ways. As the city gave way to tree lined streets and alleys, large buildings of apartments, rail stations, and parks, the plein air painters had much to source from.
They focused quite a bit on leisurely activities and scenes like afternoon lunches at cafes, dancers at caberets, boating, picnics, and other pastimes.

These scenes were executed with loose brushwork and pure color, often on the light side. Previous years had seen very dark, muted, earth tones and the Impressionist painters brought a gaiety to their painting by expanding their palettes to include vivid color as well as pastels.

The overall effects of their paintings seemed unfinished to some, but the point was to capture the essence and life of a scene through the play of light and color as if almost in a memory. The Impressionists felt that feeling evoked from an image took precedence over the strict adherence to line, perspective, and clear rendering of a form.

Many of the artists of the movement and period are known somewhat by their subject matter. Degas, for instance is known for his paintings of the ballet, Monet for his flowery landscapes and lily pads, Renoir for his outdoor parties and ladies in the sun, Manet for his use of black in otherwise colorful pictures, and Mary Cassat for her paintings of women and children.
Impressionism included and influenced many subsequent movements including Pointillism, Fauvism, Art Nouveau, and Divisionism.

Key Highlights:

  • The impressionists took advantage of the newfound scientific knowledge that there was a difference in perception between the eye and the brain and used the optical effects of light to impress upon the viewer the time of day, passage of time, and differences in weather in their techniques.
  • Prior artists had used glazing and thinning of paint to create various effects in their work, but these techniques were not used by the Impressionists who usually had opaque paintings.
  • If you were to look at the shadow of a colored object on a white tablecloth, you would see that the shadow has some of the color of the object in it. The Impressionists were the first artists to see and use this to their advantage and some of the first examples are blue shadows on snow.
  • This time period saw the first ready-made paints, which in part was how it was possible for the artists to paint outdoors as they did not have to go to the trouble to make paint and keep it wet while traveling to the scene they were to paint.

Top Works:

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