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The Impressionists

In April 1874 a group of young artists defied the official Paris Salon by setting up their own independent exhibition. Held at 35 Boulevard des Capucines, it became known as the first ‘Impressionist’ exhibition, comprising works by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot. It was there that Monet exhibited his harbour scene, Impression: Sunrise, which was to give the movement its name. The picture received adverse criticism, due to its sketchy handling and apparent lack of subject. One writer declared that it looked as if it had been 'executed by the infantile hand of a school child'.

The Impressionists came together as a group in Paris during the 1860s. In 1862 Monet moved to the capital from Le Havre and took lessons at the Académie Suisse, where he encountered Pissarro and Cézanne. He also attended the studio of the academician Charles Gleyre, where he met Frédéric Bazille, Renoir and Sisley. These four travelled to the Forest of Fontainebleau to practise painting in the open air. Working ‘en plein air’ was one of the fundamental principles of Impressionism and Monet later constructed his own studio boat.

The Church at Vétheuil, Claude Monet, 1878

The group was brought together by Edouard Manet, who arranged regular meetings at the Café Guerbois in the Avenue de Clichy in Paris. Pissarro encouraged younger artists such as Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat to join the group and, along with Degas, was one of the driving forces behind the impressionist exhibitions which took place between 1874 and 1876. The Impressionists rejected the old-fashioned tenets of the French academy with its emphasis on draughtsmanship, ‘finish’ and historical subject matter. Instead they aimed to capture the transience of nature, the fleeting moment. In order to achieve a sense of immediacy and luminosity they painted quickly, applying light hues on a pale ground and painting shadowed areas with pure colour, rather than mixing local colour with black. Working on small, portable canvases in the open air, they achieved sparkling effects, not by broken tones and contrasts, but by division of colour, often applying the paint in short, fragmented brushstrokes or ‘taches’.

Seeking inspiration for their ‘plein-air’ painting, many of the Impressionists settled in the towns and villages of the Ile de France: at Argenteuil, Louveciennes, Vétheuil and Pontoise, all of which were easily accessible from the capital. Here they depicted idyllic scenes of poppy fields and sunlit river banks, as well as the inevitable encroachment of industry into these suburban spaces. Pissarro settled in Pontoise, north west of Paris, where he painted workers gathering produce from their market gardens. Sisley preferred to depict images of leisure. He spent the summer of 1874 working on the Thames, near London, where he produced a whole series of canvases featuring the weir at East Molesey, the bridge at Hampton Court and people swimming or rowing on the river.

Molesey Weir, Hampton Court, Alfred Sisley, 1874

The Impressionists embraced the ideas of the writer Charles Baudelaire, who encouraged artists to leave their studios and paint their immediate environment: the subjects of modern life. Modernity was not just a question of being ‘up-to-date’ or aware of changing fashions: the artist had to be in tune with the contemporary world, the fleeting experience of urban life. Under Baron Georges Haussman, Paris had been recently transformed from a sprawling medieval town to a gleaming, streamlined city of wide avenues and spacious boulevards. In 1877 Monet depicted the shuddering steam-trains under the vast canopy of the new engine shed at the Gare Saint-Lazare; while Manet, Degas and Renoir recorded the theatre, the ballet at the Paris Opera and the café concerts in the Champs Elysées.

Before the Performance, Edgar Degas, 1896

Women artists were more restricted in their choice of subjects, confined to the domestic sphere, since it was socially unacceptable for a woman to be seen out walking alone or in café society. Berthe Morisot’s paintings often included women and children sitting or reading in gardens or parkland settings. Renoir, too, delighted in painting his children and their carers.

A Woman and Child in a Garden, Berthe Morisot, 1883

A Woman Nursing a Child, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1893

The last impressionist exhibition was held in 1886, but only Degas, Pissarro and Morisot contributed works, along with a group of new artists such as Gauguin, Seurat and Paul Signac. Both Seurat and Signac were experimenting with neo-Impressionism, painting with dots of pure colour that merged when viewed at a distance. By this date several of the Impressionists were becoming more concerned with surface pattern and design. Monet, in particular, was moving in this direction and in the 1880s he developed the idea of painting the same motif at different times of the day and in different atmospheric conditions. This resulted in his first ‘series’ paintings, the Haystacks, which were executed in a field near his house at Giverny.

Haystacks: Snow Effect, Claude Monet, 1891

His second series, the Poplars, was painted on the river Epte, but instead of completing them in the open air, Monet took his canvases back to the studio to work on them further.

Poplars on the Epte, Claude Monet, 1891

In the 1890s Degas, too, produced his own series, focusing on the female body, rather than the landscape. Working predominantly in pastel, he drew women bathing or drying themselves after the bath, often captured from surprising viewpoints, as if seen through a keyhole.

Woman Drying Herself, Edgar Degas, 1890

During the same period Cézanne was painting a series of views of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire at Aix-en-Provence, not far from his home in the south of France. He returned to the motif on numerous occasions, often painting the mountain from a high vantage-point, looking across the valley of the Arc with its distinctive viaduct. As the series progressed, details such as houses, trees, rocks and shadows were submerged, transformed into blocks of colour and light.

Montagne Sainte-Victoire, Paul Cézanne, 1890

In 1899 Monet embarked on his famous Waterlilies series, recording the water gardens at Giverny with its Japanese bridge. In some of these late paintings his brilliant colours and gestural handling of paint go far beyond Impressionism, moving into the realms of pure abstraction. Indeed, with its emphasis on technique, rather than subject-matter, Impressionism shook the foundations of academic art, paving the way for more modern movements.