Impressionism was a 19th-century art movement that originated with a group of Paris-based artists whose independent exhibitions brought them to prominence during the 1870s and 1880s in spite of harsh opposition from the art community in France. The name of the style is derived from the title of a Claude Monet work, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), which provoked the critic Louis Leroy to coin the term in a satiric review published in the Parisian newspaper Le Charivari.
Characteristics of Impressionist paintings include relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes; open composition; emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities (often accentuating the effects of the passage of time); common, ordinary subject matter; the inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience; and unusual visual angles. The development of Impressionism in the visual arts was soon followed by analogous styles in other media which became known as Impressionist music and Impressionist literature.
Radicals in their time, early Impressionists violated the rules of academic painting. They began by constructing their pictures from freely brushed colours that took precedence over lines and contours, following the example of painters such as Eugène Delacroix. They also painted realistic scenes of modern life, and often painted outdoors. Previously, still lifes and portraits as well as landscapes had usually been painted in the studio. The Impressionists found that they could capture the momentary and transient effects of sunlight by painting en plein air. They portrayed overall visual effects instead of details, and used short "broken" brush strokes of mixed and pure unmixed colour—not blended smoothly or shaded, as was customary—in order to achieve the effect of intense colour vibration.
Although the emergence of Impressionism in France happened at a time when a number of other painters, including the Italian artists known as the Macchiaioli, and Winslow Homer in the United States, were also exploring plein-air painting, the Impressionists developed new techniques that were specific to the style. Encompassing what its adherents argued was a different way of seeing, it was an art of immediacy and movement, of candid poses and compositions, of the play of light expressed in a bright and varied use of colour.
The public, at first hostile, gradually came to believe that the Impressionists had captured a fresh and original vision, even if the new style did not receive the approval of the art critics and establishment.
By recreating the sensation in the eye that views the subject, rather than delineating the details of the subject, and by creating a welter of techniques and forms, Impressionism became a precursor of various styles of painting, including Neo-Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism.
In a time of change as Emperor Napoleon III of France rebuilt Paris and waged war, the Académie des Beaux-Arts dominated French art during the middle of the 19th century. The Académie was the preserver of traditional standards for French painting, both in content and style. Historical subjects, religious themes, and portraits were valued (landscape and still life were not), and the Académie preferred carefully finished images which looked realistic when examined closely. Colour was somber and conservative, and the traces of brush strokes were suppressed, concealing the artist's personality, emotions, and working techniques.
The Académie had an annual, juried art show, the Salon de Paris, and artists whose work was displayed in the show won prizes, garnered commissions, and enhanced their prestige. The standards of the juries represented the values of the Académie, represented by the works of such artists as Jean-Léon Gérôme and Alexandre Cabanel. Some younger artists painted in a lighter and brighter manner than painters of the preceding generation, extending further the realism of Gustave Courbet and the Barbizon school. They were more interested in painting landscape and contemporary life than in recreating scenes from history. Each year, the works they submitted to the Salon jury were rejected in favour of works by artists faithful to the approved style. A group of young realists, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille, who had studied under Charles Gleyre, became friends and often painted together. They gathered at the Café Guerbois, where the discussions were often led by Édouard Manet, whom the younger artists greatly admired. They were soon joined by Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and Armand Guillaumin.
In 1863, the jury rejected Manet's The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe) primarily because it depicted a nude woman with two clothed men at a picnic. While nudes were routinely accepted by the Salon when featured in historical and allegorical paintings, the jury condemned Manet for placing a realistic nude in a contemporary setting. The jury's severely worded rejection of Manet's painting appalled his admirers, and the unusually large number of rejected works that year perturbed many French artists.
After seeing the rejected works in 1863, Emperor Napoleon III decreed that the public be allowed to judge the work themselves, and the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Refused) was organized. While many viewers came only to laugh, the Salon des Refusés drew attention to the existence of a new tendency in art and attracted more visitors than the regular Salon.
Artists' petitions requesting a new Salon des Refusés in 1867, and again in 1872, were denied. During the latter part of 1873, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and Sisley organized the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs ("Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers") for the purpose of exhibiting their artworks independently. Members of the association, which soon included Cézanne, Berthe Morisot, and Edgar Degas, were expected to forswear participation in the Salon. The organizers invited a number of other progressive artists to join them in their inaugural exhibition, including the older Eugène Boudin, whose example had first persuaded Monet to adopt plein air painting years before. Another painter who greatly influenced Monet and his friends, Johan Jongkind, declined to participate, as did Manet. In total, thirty artists participated in their first exhibition, held in April 1874 at the studio of the photographer Nadar.
The critical response was mixed, with Monet and Cézanne receiving the harshest attacks. Critic and humorist Louis Leroy wrote a scathing review in the newspaper Le Charivari in which, making wordplay with the title of Claude Monet's Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant), he gave the artists the name by which they would become known. Derisively titling his article The Exhibition of the Impressionists, Leroy declared that Monet's painting was at most, a sketch, and could hardly be termed a finished work.
He wrote, in the form of a dialog between viewers,
Impression—I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it ... and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.
The term "Impressionists" quickly gained favour with the public. It was also accepted by the artists themselves, even though they were a diverse group in style and temperament, unified primarily by their spirit of independence and rebellion. They exhibited together—albeit with shifting membership—eight times between 1874 and 1886.
Monet, Sisley, Morisot, and Pissarro may be considered the "purest" Impressionists, in their consistent pursuit of an art of spontaneity, sunlight, and colour. Degas rejected much of this, as he believed in the primacy of drawing over colour and belittled the practice of painting outdoors. Renoir turned away from Impressionism for a time during the 1880s, and never entirely regained his commitment to its ideas. Édouard Manet, despite his role as a leader to the group, never abandoned his liberal use of black as a colour, and never participated in the Impressionist exhibitions. He continued to submit his works to the Salon, where his painting Spanish Singer had won a 2nd class medal in 1861, and he urged the others to do likewise, arguing that "the Salon is the real field of battle" where a reputation could be made.
Among the artists of the core group (minus Bazille, who had died in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870), defections occurred as Cézanne, followed later by Renoir, Sisley, and Monet, abstained from the group exhibitions in order to submit their works to the Salon. Disagreements arose from issues such as Guillaumin's membership in the group, championed by Pissarro and Cézanne against opposition from Monet and Degas, who thought him unworthy. Degas invited Mary Cassatt to display her work in the 1879 exhibition, but he also caused dissension by insisting on the inclusion of Jean-François Raffaëlli, Ludovic Lepic, and other realists who did not represent Impressionist practices, causing Monet in 1880 to accuse the Impressionists of "opening doors to first-come daubers". The group divided over the invitation of Paul Signac and Georges-Pierre Seurat to exhibit with them in 1886. Pissarro was the only artist to show at all eight Impressionist exhibitions.
The individual artists achieved few financial rewards from the Impressionist exhibitions, but their art gradually won a degree of public acceptance and support. Their dealer, Durand-Ruel, played a major role in this as he kept their work before the public and arranged shows for them in London and New York. Although Sisley would die in poverty in 1899, Renoir had a great Salon success in 1879. Monet became secure financially during the early 1880s and so did Pissarro by the early 1890s. By this time the methods of Impressionist painting, in a diluted form, had become commonplace in Salon art.
- Short, thick strokes of paint are used to quickly capture the essence of the subject, rather than its details. The paint is often applied impasto.
- Colours are applied side-by-side with as little mixing as possible, creating a vibrant surface. The optical mixing of colours occurs in the eye of the viewer.
- Grays and dark tones are produced by mixing complementary colours. In pure Impressionism the use of black paint is avoided.
- Wet paint is placed into wet paint without waiting for successive applications to dry, producing softer edges and an intermingling of colour.
- Painting during evening to get effets de soir—the shadowy effects of the light in the evening or twilight.
- Impressionist paintings do not exploit the transparency of thin paint films (glazes) which earlier artists manipulated carefully to produce effects. The surface of an Impressionist painting is typically opaque.
- The play of natural light is emphasized. Close attention is paid to the reflection of colours from object to object.
- In paintings made en plein air (outdoors), shadows are boldly painted with the blue of the sky as it is reflected onto surfaces, giving a sense of freshness that was not represented in painting previously. (Blue shadows on snow inspired the technique.)
Painters throughout history had occasionally used these methods, but Impressionists were the first to use all of them together, and with such consistency. Earlier artists whose works display these techniques include Frans Hals, Diego Velázquez, Peter Paul Rubens, John Constable, and J. M. W. Turner.
French painters who prepared the way for Impressionism include the Romantic colourist Eugène Delacroix, the leader of the realists Gustave Courbet, and painters of the Barbizon school such as Théodore Rousseau. The Impressionists learned much from the work of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Eugène Boudin, who painted from nature in a style that was similar to Impressionism, and who befriended and advised the younger artists.
Impressionists took advantage of the mid-century introduction of premixed paints in lead tubes (resembling modern toothpaste tubes), which allowed artists to work more spontaneously, both outdoors and indoors. Previously, painters made their own paints individually, by grinding and mixing dry pigment powders with linseed oil, which were then stored in animal bladders.
Content and composition
Prior to the Impressionists, other painters, notably such 17th-century Dutch painters as Jan Steen, had emphasized common subjects, but their methods of composition were traditional. They arranged their compositions in such a way that the main subject commanded the viewer's attention. The Impressionists relaxed the boundary between subject and background so that the effect of an Impressionist painting often resembles a snapshot, a part of a larger reality captured as if by chance. Photography was gaining popularity, and as cameras became more portable, photographs became more candid. Photography inspired Impressionists to represent momentary action, not only in the fleeting lights of a landscape, but in the day-to-day lives of people.
The development of Impressionism can be considered partly as a reaction by artists to the challenge presented by photography, which seemed to devalue the artist's skill in reproducing reality. Both portrait and landscape paintings were deemed somewhat deficient and lacking in truth as photography "produced lifelike images much more efficiently and reliably".
In spite of this, photography actually inspired artists to pursue other means of artistic expression, and rather than competing with photography to emulate reality, artists focused "on the one thing they could inevitably do better than the photograph—by further developing into an art form its very subjectivity in the conception of the image, the very subjectivity that photography eliminated". The Impressionists sought to express their perceptions of nature, rather than create exacting representations. This allowed artists to depict subjectively what they saw with their "tacit imperatives of taste and conscience". Photography encouraged painters to exploit aspects of the painting medium, like colour, which photography then lacked; "the Impressionists were the first to consciously offer a subjective alternative to the photograph".
Another major influence was Japanese art prints (Japonism), which had come into France originally as wrapping paper for imported goods. The art of these prints contributed significantly to the "snapshot" angles and unconventional compositions which would become characteristic of the style.
Edgar Degas was both an avid photographer and a collector of Japanese prints. His The Dance Class (La classe de danse) of 1874 shows both influences in its asymmetrical composition. The dancers are seemingly caught off guard in various awkward poses, leaving an expanse of empty floor space in the lower right quadrant. His dancers were also captured in sculpture such as The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer.