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The defining feature of all artistic works is that they’re supposed to make you feel something. And impressionism, with its focus on capturing not so much a physical scene as the experience of being there, is uniquely suited to conveying emotion and transporting the viewer to a moment in time.
Impressionism is a modern art movement with a storied history. The artists at the heart of the movement—including famous impressionists Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas—introduced a new approach to painting that went against the contemporary styles of the time and faced quite a bit of backlash in response. This included rejection from many of their peers and critics, who failed to see how a seemingly “unfinished” painting could accurately lend itself to the discourse of the day.
To better understand the impressionism era is to better understand the broader scope of art history in the Western world. Here’s what to know about the impressionism time period, including renowned impressionism art examples and the lasting effect that they have had on modern art.
The purpose of impressionist art was to make a statement about the rapidly changing urban environment and the fleeting nature of contemporary life. This was accomplished through modern and ethereal techniques that, at the time, were a radical departure from the more academic work of the artistic elite.
The name of the movement was taken from Monet’s painting “Impression, soleil levant” (meaning “Impression, Sunrise”), first displayed in April 1874 at the first “Exhibition of the Impressionists” in Paris (and currently on display at the Musée Marmottan Monet). “Impression, Sunrise” is a depiction of a port at sunrise, with colors blending at the horizon in such a way that there is barely any clear boundary between water and sky.
What “Impression, Sunrise” and other impressionist works had in common was a stark divergence from realism, even as they sought to impress the viewer with very real feelings. Scenes are hazy and almost incomplete, and it is their effect, rather than their portrayals, that hold all of the emotional power.
Founded in Paris, impressionism was a late 19th century art movement that focused on painting outdoor scenes with an accurate depiction of natural light conditions. Impressionist works captured the feeling of a moment, as if the artist sat down to paint after taking a mere glance at the scene in front of them. This was achieved through short, thin brushstrokes that resulted in a somewhat distorted representation of the subjects in the piece, as well as the use of a vibrant, highly saturated color palette.
Why Was Impressionism an Insult?
It might be hard to imagine since impressionist artists and their works are so celebrated today, but in the 19th century, “impressionism” wasn’t so much an endearment as it was a critique of the style and its founders.
The impressionism era took place at a time when most artists were highly focused on academic, or true-to-life, depictions of their subjects. Impressionist works, with their rapid, harried, and gestural brushstrokes, were a far cry from the realist art that was being championed by critics. As such, the term was used to imply that a work was incomplete—an impression of a finished painting instead of a work that stood out on its own merit.
Fortunately, to classify a painting as impressionistic is no longer an insult. Today, we appreciate the impressionism time period not just for its ability to take us to a moment in time but also for its bold and purposeful departure from the high-minded standards of 19th century European art.
The impressionist movement began in April 1874 with an exhibition put on by the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, Etc., members of which included Renoir, Monet, and Degas, as well as Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot.
Later known as the First Impressionist Exhibition, this event was the premier reveal of impressionism art. It was undeniable that this new artistic approach held a strong influence with viewers, though many showed up simply to gawk at the paintings, which were widely panned in the press.
While there’s no denying that some saw the beauty in impressionist art, it’s hard to understate how resounding the dismay was among critics of the era. In response to Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise,” a newspaper critic said that “a preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished.” Other terms like “commonplace” and “vulgar” were used to describe the work on display.
Impressionism was considered modern in both technique and in its depiction of the urban environment. It was also quickly recognized for its rejection of the realist art that was so popular. Both of these things shocked critics and the public and led to its widespread denunciation. Despite the critiques, the Anonymous Society went on to hold eight total impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1886, though the only artist to display his work in all eight exhibitions was Pissarro.
There were a number of reasons that the impressionist exhibitions ultimately ceased, including an evolution of many of the members’ styles (Pissarro himself moved on to a technique called neo-impressionism) and some members—Renoir and Monet among them—adopting more commercial techniques in order to actually sell their art.
Despite being a relatively short movement, impressionism has had long-standing implications. Today, there are artists who continue to be inspired by impressionist paintings and use their techniques in their own work. And the famous works of impressionism are lauded among modern-day critics—not disparaged.
While we’ve gone over a bit about what impressionist artists were trying to achieve, there’s certainly more to be said about the various techniques that they used to get there. The characteristics of impressionist art were as central to the movement as the finished pieces themselves and continue to be used by artists to convey emotion in their paintings.
Here are some of the primary traits that you’ll find throughout works of the impressionist era.
Small and Bold Brushstrokes
This style of brushstroke produces a disjointed effect that makes the viewer feel they are glancing at a scene just as the artist once did.
Portrayals of Natural Light
Impressionist paintings are overwhelmingly of outdoor scenes, and natural light played an important role in their depictions. Because impressionist artists often sat and painted en plein air (in the outdoors) for many hours at a time, their paintings show light shifting throughout the scene—a characteristic that in itself represented the intent to capture a fleeting moment.
The paint on impressionism art was left unmixed, producing a contrast between brushstrokes that didn’t blend together on the canvas but did so to the eye. This further contributed to the otherworldly nature of impressionist paintings and also served to make each individual color appear more vibrant.
Many Impressionist works show landscapes and subjects simply going about their everyday lives in the modern urban environment; working, doing domestic chores, or chatting with friends and family. In contrast, the more regarded works of the time were concerned with academic subjects like history, mythology, and religion.
Lack of Emphasis on Detail
The lines in impressionist paintings are blurry and spontaneous. This leaves details looking undefined, with the texture of the scene coming through more than distinct items. It also results in the dream-like nature of impressionism, since the only clear depictions in the painting are of light and shadow.
The impressionist movement was short-lived, but there are many famous impressionism art examples that are considered masterpieces to this day. Do you recognize any of these works of impressionist art?
Renoir’s “The Dancer” (1874) premiered at the First Impressionist Exhibition. Upon viewing it, M. Joseph Vincent, a landscape painter, remarked to art critic Louis Leroy: “What a pity that the painter, who has a certain understanding of color, doesn’t draw better; his dancer’s legs are as cottony as the gauze of her skirts.”
Ferry to the Ile-de-la-Loge – Flood
“Ferry to the Ile-de-la-Loge – Flood” was an early impressionist work painted in 1872 by Alfred Sisley. The painting was purchased by a French art dealer named Paul Durand-Ruel, who saw the potential in impressionism and submitted “Ferry to the Ile-de-la-Loge – Flood” to the first exhibition.
The Artist’s Garden at Giverny
Monet didn’t completely give up on impressionism after the last exhibition in 1886. “The Artist’s Garden at Giverny,” arguably one of his most beloved impressionist works, was painted quite a few years later in 1900.
A common characteristic of impressionism is that it depicted subjects doing everyday tasks in the urban world. “The Laundress” (1874) by Degas is a great example of this focus on the mundane.
The Modern Olympia
Paul Cezanne’s “The Modern Olympia” (1873-1874) is a nod to modernist Édouard Manet’s “Olympia,” which shocked critics when it was exhibited at the 1865 Paris Salon. Manet himself was an influence for (and was influenced by) the impressionists, but he publicly refused to be considered an impressionist painter or have his work displayed in their exhibitions.
The Cabbage Field, Pontoise
Pissarro was one of the most dedicated impressionists. His painting “The Cabbage Field, Pontoise” (1873) exemplifies the movement and is one of more than 300 landscapes that he produced.
Terrace on the Banks of the Seine at Melun
“Terrace on the Banks of the Seine at Melun,” painted by Henri Rouart, is commonly dated 1880, though many art experts believe that it was actually painted earlier and was shown at the First Impressionist Exhibition.
Soon after impressionism found its way into the European painting community it also found its way into music. Like impressionist art, impressionist music is all about leaving an impression by conveying the feelings, moods, and emotions of a moment.
An important element of this style of music is timbre, or the quality of a musical note. Timbre is utilized in impressionist music much the same way that brushstrokes are used in impressionist paintings, with various sounds appearing unmixed in order to create texture in the piece.
Well known examples of impressionism in music include:
- “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy
- “In a Summer Garden” by Frederick Delius
- “Granada” by Isaac Albéniz
- “La Valse” by Maurice Ravel
- “Fountains of Rome” by Ottorino Respighi
- “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Paul Dukas
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