- See also Impressionist (entertainment):
A girl with a watering can
by Renoir, 1876
Impressionism was a 19th century art movement, which began as a private association of Paris-based artists who exhibited publicly in 1874. The movement was named after Claude Monet's Impression, soleil levant (1872/1873); the term being coined by critic Louis Leroy. Impressionism is also a movement in music.
Early Impressionist painters were radicals in their time, breaking many of the rules of picture making that had been set by earlier generations. Up until the Impressionists, history had been the accepted source of subject matter for paintings, but Impressionists looked instead to the many subjects in life around them. In doing so, they rejected attempts to portray ideal beauty, and instead sought the natural beauty of their surroundings at a given moment. They captured a fresh and original vision that often seemed strange and unfinished to the general public, but which, in our own times, has become much beloved. Sometimes they painted out of doors rather than in a studio as had been the previous custom. This enabled them to observe nature more directly and to capture the fleeting characteristics of the moment, especially the momentary and transient aspects of sunlight.
"Classic" Impressionist paintings are often easy to spot. Short, "broken" brush strokes of pure, untinted and unmixed colors give the appearance of spontaneity and vitality for which these paintings are so noted. The surfaces of these paintings are often highly textured with thick paint, a characteristic which clearly sets them apart from their predecessors in which smooth blending minimized the perception that one was looking at paint on canvas. Compositions are simplified and innovative, and the emphasis is upon overall effect rather than upon details.
At the middle of the 19th century in France, the art world was officially dominated by the Academy of Fine Arts. They set the standards for French painting and held an annual art show, "the Salon." Artists could only get their work into the Paris Salon if it was approved by the Academy's "jury," and the jury had very set ideas about what should, and should not, be called art. In 1863, the jury made a disastrous misjudgment: They rejected Le déjeuner sur l'herbe by Édouard Manet primarily because it depicted a nude woman with two men on a picnic. Nudes were okay in historical and allegorical paintings, according to the jury, but to show them in daily life was strictly forbidden. The jury was not very nice in their wording of the rejection, and Manet felt humiliated. This set off a firestorm among many French artists.
To retaliate against the dominance of the Academy, a group of artists formed an independent show which they dubbed Salon des Refusés (The Salon of the Refused). This show was harshly criticized for years by the art critics of the day who usually lined up to march with the Academy's views. In 1874, one of the critics, Louis Leroy, who was also an engraver, minor painter, and successful playwright, visited the Salon of the Rejects and wrote a scathing review of what he saw. Taking his cue from the title of a painting done by an obscure artist, he titled his article "The Exhibition of the Impressionists," thinking that this was a major put-down, since real artists did not paint their impressions, but produced well-calculated and carefully executed compositions with appropriate content. The article was in the form of a silly dialogue which seemed to trivialize the entire show. The painting which "inspired" Leroy's label was "Impression Sunrise," and the obscure artist was someone named Claude Monet. Leroy declared that the painting was at most a sketch and that it could hardly be termed a finished work.
Within a few years of Leroy's review, the term, "Impressionists," had clearly stuck, not as a term of derision, but as a badge of honor, and a new movement was born. The techniques and standards employed within this movement varied widely though gravitating somewhat around a core of values, but the real glue which bound the movement together was its spirit of rebellion and independence. The tyranny of the Academy of Fine Arts was crumbling.
The Impressionist approach to painting is usually identified with a strong concern for light in its changing qualities, often with an emphasis on the effects of a particular passage of time.
In addition to wanting to control the content of paintings, the Academy of Fine Arts also wanted a say in the techniques used by artists. They wanted mostly somber, conservative colors. They wanted highly refined images that could be carefully examined up close for their faithfulness to "reality," and they encouraged artists to eliminate all traces of their brush strokes from view. Thus, the painting itself was isolated from the artist's personality, emotions, and working techniques. The Academy thought it crude for the artist's identity to creep into the work. Art at that time was considered to be a conservative enterprise whose innovations should always fall within the Academy's carefully defined borders.
The Impressionists changed all that:
- They painted with short, thick strokes of paint in a sketchy way that allowed them to capture and emphasize the essence of their subject rather than in details.
- They used colours with as little mixing on the pallet as possible, believing that it was better to allow the eye to mix the colors as it viewed them upon the canvas. This provided a much more vibrant experience for the viewer.
- They stopped tinting their colours (mixing in black) in order to obtain darker pigments, but instead, if mixing was absolutely necessary, they obtained darker colours by mixing complementary colours. (Black could still be used, but only as a colour in its own right.)
- They left their brush strokes on the canvas to be visible to all, adding a new dimension of familiarity with the artist's personality for the viewer to enjoy.
- They discovered or emphasized new aspects of the play of natural light, including an acute awareness of how colours reflect from object to object within the painting.
- In outdoor paintings, they boldly painted shadows as being filled with the blue of the sky as it was reflected onto surfaces, thus giving a new sense of freshness and openness that had never been captured in painting before. (It was the blue shadow areas on snow which tipped them off to this phenomenon.)
- They painted wet paint into the wet paint already on the canvas instead of waiting for successive applications to dry. This produced softer edges and more exciting intermingling of color.
- They avoided the use of thin paints to create glazes which earlier artists would build up carefully to produce their effect. Instead, the Impressionists put the paint down thickly and did not rely upon layering.
- They painted what and how they wanted to paint, without concern for rules or traditions.
Many of these innovations had been tried from time to time by earlier artists, but this was the first time that they all came together. Earlier examples can be found in the works of Frans Hals, Peter Paul Rubens, John Constable, Theodore Rousseau, Gustave Courbet, Camille Corot, Eugene Boudin, and Eugène Delacroix.
Some of the Impressionists took advantage of advances in the packaging of paint which allowed them to work more spontaneously both outdoors and in. Previously, painters had to grind and mix dry pigment powders with linseed oil to make their paint, but by the 1870s premixed paints were being sold in metal tubes resembling the modern toothpaste tube.
Content and Composition
Painting has been frequently viewed as primarily a way to depict historical and religious subjects in a rather formal manner. Throughout history, however, there have been painters who longed to portray everyday life. Many of the Dutch painters of the 17th century, like Jan Steen, did, in fact, pursue this end, and with astonishing results, but their works still showed the strong influences of traditional thought when it came to the arrangement of the scene itself.
At the time when Impressionism emerged in France in the late 19th century, there was a renewed interest among artists (although not within the official art establishment) in everyday subject matter, however, this time there was a new twist. Photography was beginning to come into its own, and its output was becoming more and more candid as the technology improved in portability. Impressionists were inspired to seek more than ever to capture the moment, not only in the fleeting lights of a landscape, but in the day-to-day lives of people.
Photography and the currently popular Japanese art prints combined to also introduce two additional features into the painting of the Impressionists: odd "snapshot" angles, and non-conventional compositions (arrangements of the subject matter). Edgar Degas' The Dance Class is an excellent example of both of these influences. A dancer on the left is caught in the picture adjusting her costume, and the lower right quadrant of the picture contains nothing but empty floor space. This is a long way from the classical compositions of the past.
Painters in the 19th Century Exhibitions
Pigeons have been trained to distinguish between cubist and impressionist paintings; see discrimination abilities of pigeons for details.