An influential style of painting that originated in France in the 1870s with artists such as Claude Monet, Pierre-August Renoir and Alfred Sisley. They were interested in capturing the changing effects of light, frequently exploring this through landscape scenes painted in the open air.
Origins of the Style
Impressionism emerged in Paris in the late nineteenth century during a time of great social and cultural change. Paris was the first modern metropolis, a city filled with energy and vitality and artists were increasingly looking for a style to capture the era. In the decades preceding Impressionism artists had already begun to reject the Romanticist ideals of the art establishment, most famously through French Realism and the Salon de Refuses, a group exhibition staged in 1863 to house artworks rejected by the Paris Salon.
French Realist painter Edouard Manet was an older mentor to the Impressionists. He rejected the single vanishing point in favour of 'natural perspective' and his unconventional subject matter subverted classical subjects. Other precursors to the Impressionists were the Barbizon School, who favoured landscape painting en plein air, English painters J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, and French painters Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and Gustave Courbet, who captured the fleeting visual effects of light and the weather.
The invention of photography also proved influential, with its potential for cropping, blurring and fragmentation, as did the proliferation of Japanese prints on display in the West, with their strong outlines, vivid colours and flattened designs.
The First Impressionist Exhibition
In 1873 a group of artists in Paris established the Societe Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, a collective for organising independent exhibitions outside the official art establishment. Founding members included Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley. Their first exhibition was held in 1874 in the Parisian studio of photographer Felix Nadar at 35 Boulevard de Capucines and represented 30 artists, including Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot and Paul Cezanne.
The exhibition made history, mounted as a defiant challenge to the traditionalism of the Paris Salon. Public and critical opinions were mixed, and the art critic Louis Leroy famously wrote a scathing article in response to the show, referencing Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise, 1873 in his article titled 'The Exhibition of the Impressionists'. Despite its critical tone, Leroy’s article unwittingly christened the group’s name. Although initially ridiculed for their sketchiness and lack of finish, these attributes would later become the calling cards for their success.
The group held a further seven exhibitions in Paris and were gradually joined by a band of new members including Jean Frederic Bazille, Gustave Caillebotte and Mary Cassatt. Together they organised regular group gatherings across Paris, attracting influential artists, writers and thinkers, as well as important private patrons and dealers.
Subjects and Styles
Collectively the Impressionists sought to capture the impression of a scene through lively brushstrokes and they often worked en plein air, producing works of art rapidly in a single sitting. Rejecting the Salon’s preference for historical or allegorical subjects, they created instead what Monet called a 'spontaneous work rather than a calculated one'.
In the 1870s many of the Impressionist painters were predominantly attracted to landscape, searching for ways to capture the fleeting effects of light, weather and time of day on canvas. By the 1880s artists had become more individualised. Renoir turned towards figure painting, Monet considered visual perspective in a more abstract way through seriality and repetition and Degas pursued female figures in informal settings, yet each retained the distinctive rapid brushstrokes, fresh colours and sense of internal light unique to Impressionism.
Much like the French Realists, changing Parisian life and the reality of the modern city was a recurring theme for many Impressionists, who painted café scenes, railway bridges and busy boulevards. Although the group was dominated by men, several female artists also rose to prominence including Morisot and Cassatt.
Impressionism rose initially as a painterly style, but gradually expanded to include sculpture. Degas is highly regarded for his Impressionist sculptures as are the French sculptor Auguste Rodin and Italian artist Medardo Rosso, who explored energised, spontaneous surfaces and the fragmentation or dissolution of form.
Impressionism beyond Paris
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s the Impressionist style spread throughout Europe and the United States, where it became immensely popular. In England James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Walter Richard Sickert became leading lights while in the United States major practitioners were William Merritt Chase and John Twachtman.
Impressionism was a revolutionary art movement that had a broad-ranging impact on the development of modern art. The focus on painting 'vision', considering how we see, not what we see, preceded the development of avant-garde movements, particularly Cubism. Their interest in the abstract properties of colour, light, line and form separated painting from its role as instructive and illustrative, opening it up to the freedom of individuality and emotion, leading the way for Fauvism and Expressionism in the early twentieth century.