If you’ve ever taken an art class, you’ve probably at least heard of the word impressionism. Even if you’re not quite sure what it means, you’ve definitely seen the work of impressionists in museums around the world or online.
There are likely a handful of impressionists whose names you know and paintings you recognize, but this 19th-century art movement was much more widespread than you think. We’re here to give you a brief introduction to some of the most famous impressionist artists, as well as a few that you may never have heard of before.
Impressionist Artists: What It Means to Be an Impressionist
Before we look at some profiles of famous impressionism artists, let’s run through a quick reminder of what impressionism is.
Some argue that impressionism was one of the most important art movements in history, and it certainly was groundbreaking. In the late 1860s, a small group of French painters decided to forgo their normal studio-based setting and take their tools into the great outdoors.
From there, they quickly discovered the ever-changing shift in light and pattern caused by sunlight. An enlightening experience for many, these artists turned their attention to the use of color, tone, and texture to reflect what they were seeing in front of them. This was an important part of the development of impressionism—instead of retreating back to a studio to finish their paintings, impressionism painters worked beginning to end in their new natural setting.
As we take a look at some of the impressionists’ artwork, you’ll notice that there’s significant overlap in their style and techniques. Rapid and broken up brushwork is common to reflect the changing natural light, and colors usually stick to a neutral and earthy base to accurately depict the landscapes the artists were seeing onto canvas.
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6 Impressionist Artists You Know
There are several artists whose names and legacies are immediately equated with the impressionist movement—and you’ve probably heard of some (if not all) of them before.
1. Claude Monet
When most people think of impressionist painters, Monet is often the first name that comes to mind. One of the founders of the impressionist movement, Monet’s long career was filled with natural landscape paintings that are still enjoyed by art lovers today.
Some of his most notable works include paintings of Rouen Cathedral in Normandy, France, and paintings of water lilies from his own property that took him over 20 years to complete. He exhibited frequently throughout France, along with impressionism artist friends like Renoir, Manet, Sisley, and Degas.
Monet quickly gained a reputation for being a standout landscape painter and continued to produce hundreds of paintings until his eyesight began to fail in his old age.
2. Édouard Manet
Manet, one of the first 19th century artists to capture modern life in his paintings, played a critical role in the art world as it shifted from realism to impressionism. His early works from the 1860s are often considered to be the birth of modern art, and Manet’s career was highly influential for a number of notable impressionists who came after him.
Born in Paris to an affluent family, Manet was discouraged from pursuing an education in art until he twice failed the exam to join the French Navy. From there, he opened his own studio in 1856 and began to develop what was to become his signature style—loose brush strokes, transitional tones, and simplified details.
The subject matter of his work (people in cafes, beggars, and street singers) was a stark contrast to the artists of the previous generation, and his frequent use of black paint was distinctive and in contrast to the other impressionism painters in his social circle.
3. Edgar Degas
Degas, although most famous for his pastel drawings and oil paintings, was a jack-of-all-trades when it came to creative expression. His bronze sculptures and prints were also a significant part of his portfolio and, unlike most impressionists, he chose not to paint outside.
Many of Degas’ paintings depict dancers, and his eye for movement and translating it onto paper or in sculpture is difficult to rival, even by 21st-century artists. His close study of classical art as a young adult is evident in his own work, using similar techniques but adapting them to more up-to-date subject matter.
Although Degas is sometimes referred to as anti-impressionist, his use of vivid color and bold brushstrokes to paint moving scenes in front of him give his paintings a distinctly impressionist feel.
4. Paul Cézanne
Cézanne’s name is commonly brought up in conversations around Matisse and Picasso, and both are said to have referred to him as “the father of us all.” Cézanne’s work, though largely impressionist, spanned the time period of both impressionism and cubism and was a significant influence on early 20th century artists (including Picasso and Matisse).
Many Cézanne paintings are instantly identifiable, thanks to his use of repetitive brushstrokes and single-point perspective. Taking advice from his friend and mentor Pissarro, Cézanne began to shift away from darker palettes as he embraced painting outdoors and landscape work.
5. Mary Cassatt
Although born in the United States, Cassatt lived in France for most of her adult life. She quickly befriended Degas and joined the impressionist movement, exhibiting her artwork across France and throughout Europe.
An early advocate for women’s rights, her paintings often looked at the relationship between mothers and their children or featured women in private or social situations. She fought for her place among her male peers in the art world and began to paint using impressionist techniques and style. She met with fellow impressionist painters privately and at art exhibitions, experimenting with pastels and etchings at the encouragement of Degas.
She eventually moved away from the impressionists but still retained much of what she had learned from these artists. Her paintings continued to depict the “new woman” of the 19th century, and she used her artwork to consistently explore what it meant to be a woman in this time period.
6. Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Renoir is best known as an impressionist painter for his portrayals of late 19th century women in his artwork. Like Degas, Renoir’s art makes use of classic impressionist techniques and tones, while focusing on moving subject matter in the real world.
He became close friends with Sisley, Bazille, and Monet while studying in Paris in the early 1860s, learning from his peers and developing his own style and interests under the impressionist movement.
Renoir’s art uses vibrant, saturated colors and free brush strokes, leaving his subject matter a little blurred around the edges and adding an intimate feel to the final piece. Over his lifetime, he created several thousand paintings and his artwork has been reproduced almost more than any other artist in history.
3 Impressionist Artists You (Probably) Don’t Know
While these artists had prolific careers and found plenty of success during their lifetimes, they’re not as big of household names when discussing the impressionist movement. Mention some of their pieces, and you’ll seem like a real art buff.
1. Berthe Morisot
Morisot was one of the most respected French impressionist artists of the 1860s and 1870s, with her work exhibited at the prestigious Salon de Paris in 1864. She later went on to exhibit independently, alongside the Salon-rejected impressionists like Cézanne, Degas, Renoir, Money, and Sisley.
She originally trained as an artist by drawing classical figures, but soon expressed an interest in the outdoors, or en plein air painting. Although she continued to work with both pastels and watercolors, Morisot’s signature style developed as she used her paints to create an almost translucent effect on her work.
This lightness in her paintings often left her labeled as being full of “feminine charm” by her male contemporaries, which wasn’t helped by her prolific use of families, flowers, and children in her work. Her limited color palette was also distinctive, making her paintings feel bright and personal.
2. Laura Muntz Lyall
Much like Cassatt, Muntz’s paintings were primarily focused on a soft portrayal of women and children. Born in the U.K., Muntz moved to Canada as a child and studied at the Ontario School of Art in the early 1880s. Although her career came slightly later than the original impressionists, Muntz was heavily influenced by this style of painting and developed this from the early 1890s onwards.
Her work has received praise and admiration across Canada, both in her lifetime and after. In 1909, she was the only woman invited to exhibit at the Canadian Art Club. Muntz’s paintings are often darker in tone than many impressionist artworks, and her use of subdued light was reflective of earlier impressionism styles.
3. Wynford Dewhurst
As an English impressionist, Dewhurst moved to Paris to study art and was notably influenced by Monet’s art. This is evident in many of Dewhurst’s own paintings, with his countryside landscapes and use of short, imperfect brushstrokes an homage to his mentor.
Dewhurst uses much brighter and more vibrant colors than many of the early impressionists, which often makes him stand out as a later convert to the movement. His style of blending short brushstrokes with finer, detailed pieces of the landscape (like deer, leaves, or buildings in the distance) are unique and distinctive in this era and demonstrate the shifting techniques of impressionism throughout the period.
What’s Your Impression?
Impressionism brought about a fundamental shift in the art world, one which would go on to influence some of the most notable painters of the 20th century. But although we may be separated by over 150 years from the original artists of the movement, impressionist styles and techniques are still used by artists all over the world to this day.
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