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Impressionism - Art History 101 Basics

1869 to the Present

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Public domain photograph

Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926). Impression, Sunrise, 1873. Oil on canvas. 48 x 63 cm (18 7/8 x 24 13/16 in.).

© Musée Marmottan, Paris

Impressionism is about the nature of fugitive light falling on surfaces. This play of moving light, as opposed to stationary light, expresses the ephemeral quality of modernity. Impressionism is about the temporary, the here and now, and not about the timeless, the forever.

Impressionism is about life lived in bursts of brief encounters in the city. It's about faster speeds, quickly moving clouds, sunshine reflected on water, and the shimmer of satin ribbons dangling from a baby's cradle.

Above all, Impressionism is about modernity: its faster pace and various improvements in the quality of daily life. It is about middle class activities: shopping, vacationing, rushing, strolling, lingering, waiting, working and taking time off to flirt in a Montmartre dance hall or a restaurant on the Seine.

The artists who seemed to quickly jot down these instances of modern life were playfully dubbed "Impressionists" and their paintings became known as "Impressionism."

However, the critics' nickname was not a compliment, for at this time "serious" artists blended their colors and minimized the appearance of brushstrokes to produce the "licked" surface preferred by the academic masters. Impressionism featured short, visible strokes - dots, commas, smears and blobs - that the arbiters of taste considered pathetically inept. To say "Impressionist" in 1874 meant the painter had no skill and lacked the common sense to finish a painting before selling it.

In 1874, a group of artists who dedicated themselves to this "messy" style pooled their resources to promote themselves in their own exhibition. The idea was radical. In those days the French art world revolved around the annual Salon, an official exhibition sponsored by the French government through its Académie des Beaux-Arts.

The group called themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc., and rented the photographer Nadar's studio in a new building, which was on its own a rather modern edifice. Their effort caused a brief sensation. For the average art-audience, the art looked strange, the exhibition space looked unconventional and the decision to show their art outside of the Salon or the Academy's orbit (and even sell directly off the walls) seemed close to madness. Indeed, they pushed the limits of art in the 1870s far beyond the range of "acceptable" practice.

The best known artists in the group were Claude Monet, Pierre-August Renoir, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Eugene Boudin, and Berthe Morisot. One of Claude Monet's entries for the show, Impression: Sunrise (1873) inspired the critical nickname "Impressionism" in the earliest reviews (Louis Leroy, Le Charivari, 25 April 1874).

Even in 1879, during the fourth Impressionist Exhibition, the French critic Henry Havard wrote: "I confess humbly I do not see nature as they do, never having seen these skies fluffy with pink cotton, these opaque and moiré waters, this multi-colored foliage. Maybe they do exist. I do not know them." ("L'exposition des artistes indépendants," Le Siècle, 27 April 1879.)

Impressionism created a new visuality, a new way of seeing the world. It was a way of seeing the city, the suburbs and the countryside as mirrors of the modernization that each of these artists perceived and wanted to record from his or her point of view. Modernity, as they knew it, became their subject matter. It replaced mythology, biblical scenes and historical events that dominated the revered "history" painting of their era. In a sense, the spectacle of the street, cabaret or seaside resort became "history" painting for these stalwart Independents (also known as the Intransigents - the stubborn ones).

The Impressionists mounted eight shows from 1874 to 1886, although very few of the core artists exhibited in every show. After 1886, the gallery dealers organized solo exhibition or small group shows, and each artist concentrated on his or her own career.

Nevertheless, they remained friends (except for Degas, who stopped talking to Pissarro because he was an anti-Dreyfessard and Pissarro was Jewish). They stayed in touch and protected each other well into old age. Among the original group of 1874, Claude Monet survived the longest. He died in 1926.

Still, we can say that Impressionism as a style continues in the work of some artists to this very day. Some artists who exhibited with the Impressionists in the 1870s and 1880s pushed their art into different directions. They became known as Post-Impressionists: Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Seurat, among others.

How Long Has Impressionism Been a Movement?

The Impressionists' technique developed during the late 1860s. They acquired their name in 1874.

Impressionist techniques and criteria are still practiced today.

What Are the Key Characteristics of Impressionism?

  • Light and its reflection.
  • Quickly painted surfaces (or the appearance of quickly painted surfaces).
  • Dots, dashes, commas and other short brushstrokes.
  • Separating colors and letting the eye's perception mix them.
  • Modern life as the subject matter.

Who Are the Best Known Impressionists?

  • Claude Monet
  • Edgar Degas
  • Pierre-August Renoir
  • Camille Pissarro
  • Berthe Morisot
  • Mary Cassatt
  • Alfred Sisley
  • Gustave Caillebotte
  • Armand Guillaumin

(We also have a longer list of Impressionists.)

Suggested Reading:

Brettell, Richard R. Impressionism: Painting Quickly in France, 1860-1890.
New Haven and Williamstown: Yale University Press and Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2000.

Denvir, Bernard. The Chronicle of Impressionism.
New York: Bulfinch Press, 1993.

Herbert, Robert. Impressionism: Art, Leisure and Parisian Society.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

King, Ross. Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism.
New York: Walker and Company, 2006.

Moffett, Charles et. al. The New Painting: Impressionism, 1874-1886.
San Francisco: The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 1986.

Rewald, John. Impressionism, 4th revised edition.
New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973.

Smith, Paul. Impressionism: Beneath the Surface.
New York: Abrams, 1995.

Thomson, Belinda. Impressionism: Origins, Practice and Reception.
London: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

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