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Art 101: What Is Impressionism?

Impression: Sunrise - Claude Monet, 1872

Impressionism was a 19th-century art movement that began as a loose association of Paris-based artists whose independent exhibitions brought them to prominence in the 1870s and 1880s. The name of the movement is derived from the title of a Claude Monet work, Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant), which provoked the critic Louis Leroy to coin the term in a satiric review published in Le Charivari.

Impressionism, both in context and in style, was an art of industrialized, urbanized Paris. As such, it furthered some of the concerns of the preceding movement, Realism, and was resolutely  an art of its time. But whereas Realism focused on the present, Impressionism focused even more acutely on a single moment.

Characteristics of Impressionist paintings include relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes, open composition, emphasis on the accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities (often accentuating the effects of the passage of time), ordinary subject matter, the inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience, and unusual visual angles. The emergence of Impressionism in the visual arts was soon followed by analogous movements in other media which became known as Impressionist music and Impressionist literature.

Liberty Leading the People - Eugène Delacroix, 1830

Radicals in their time, early Impressionists broke the rules of academic painting. They began by giving colours, freely brushed, primacy over line, drawing inspiration from the work of painters such as Eugène Delacroix. They also took the act of painting out of the studio and into the modern world. Previously, still lifes and portraits as well as landscapes had usually been painted indoors. The Impressionists found that they could capture the momentary and transient effects of sunlight by painting en plein air. Painting realistic scenes of modern life, they portrayed overall visual effects instead of details. They used short “broken” brush strokes of mixed and pure unmixed colour, not smoothly blended or shaded, as was customary, in order to achieve the effect of intense colour vibration.

Although the rise of Impressionism in France happened at a time when a number of other painters, including the Italian artists known as the Macchiaioli, and Winslow Homer in the United States, were also exploring plein-air painting, the Impressionists developed new techniques that were specific to the movement. Encompassing what its adherents argued was a different way of seeing, it was an art of immediacy and movement, of candid poses and compositions, of the play of light expressed in a bright and varied use of colour.

The public, at first hostile, gradually came to believe that the Impressionists had captured a fresh and original vision, even if it did not receive the approval of the art critics and establishment.

Eugène Chevreuls color wheel, 1839

Impressionists used contemporary scientific research into the physics of color, including work carried out by Eugène Chevreul, to achieve a more exact representation of color and tone. By re-creating the sensation in the eye that views the subject, rather than recreating the subject, and by creating a welter of techniques and forms, Impressionism became a precursor seminal to various movements in painting which would follow, including Neo-Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism.

In an atmosphere of change as Emperor Napoleon III rebuilt Paris and waged war, the Académie des Beaux-Arts dominated the French art scene in the middle of the 19th century. The Académie was the upholder of traditional standards for French painting, both in content and style. Historical subjects, religious themes, and portraits were valued (landscape and still life were not), and the Académie preferred carefully finished images which mirrored reality when examined closely. Color was somber and conservative, and the traces of brush strokes were suppressed, concealing the artist’s personality, emotions, and working techniques.

The Académie held an annual, juried art show, the Salon de Paris, and artists whose work displayed in the show won prizes, garnered commissions, and enhanced their prestige. The standards of the juries reflected the values of the Académie, represented by the highly polished works of such artists as Jean-Léon Gérômeand Alexandre Cabanel. Some younger artists painted in a lighter and brighter manner than painters of the preceding generation, extending further the realism of Gustave Courbet and the Barbizon school. They were more interested in painting landscape and contemporary life than in recreating scenes from history. Each year, they submitted their art to the Salon, only to see the juries reject their best efforts in favour of trivial works by artists working in the approved style. A core group of young realists, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille, who had studied under Charles Gleyre, became friends and often painted together. They soon were joined by Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and Armand Guillaumin.

Le Déjeuner sur lHerbe (Luncheon on the Grass) - Édouard Manet, 1863

In 1863, the jury rejected Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass)  by Édouard Manet primarily because it depicted a nude woman with two clothed men at a picnic. While nudes were routinely accepted by the Salon when featured in historical and allegorical paintings, the jury condemned Manet for placing a realistic nude in a contemporary setting. The jury’s sharply worded rejection of Manet’s painting, as well as the unusually large number of rejected works that year, set off a firestorm among French artists. Manet was admired by Monet and his friends, and led the discussions at Café Guerbois where the group of artists frequently met.

After seeing the rejected works in 1863, Emperor Napoleon III decreed that the public be allowed to judge the work themselves, and the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Refused) was organized. While many viewers came only to laugh, the Salon des Refusés drew attention to the existence of a new tendency in art and attracted more visitors than the regular Salon.

Artists’ petitions requesting a new Salon des Refusés in 1867, and again in 1872, were denied. In the latter part of 1873, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and Sisley organized the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (“Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers”) for the purpose of exhibiting their artworks independently. Members of the association, which soon included Cézanne, Berthe Morisot, and Edgar Degas, were expected to forswear participation in the Salon. The organizers invited a number of other progressive artists to join them in their inaugural exhibition, including the older Eugène Boudin, whose example had first persuaded Monet to take up plein air painting years before. Another painter who greatly influenced Monet and his friends, Johan Jongkind, declined to participate, as did Manet. In total, thirty artists participated in their first exhibition, held in April 1874 at the studio of the photographer Nadar.

Le Moulin de la Galette - Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1876

The critical response was mixed, with Monet and Cézanne bearing the harshest attacks. Critic and humorist Louis Leroy wrote a scathing review in the Le Charivari newspaper in which, making wordplay with the title of Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant), he gave the artists the name by which they would become known. Derisively titling his article The Exhibition of the Impressionists, Leroy declared that Monet’s painting was at most, a sketch, and could hardly be termed a finished work.

He wrote, in the form of a dialog between viewers:

“Impression—I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it … and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.”

The term “Impressionists” quickly gained favour with the public. It was also accepted by the artists themselves, even though they were a diverse group in style and temperament, unified primarily by their spirit of independence and rebellion. They exhibited together—albeit with shifting membership—eight times between 1874 and 1886.

Ballet Rehearsal - Edgar Degas, 1874

Monet, Sisley, Morisot, and Pissarro may be considered the “purest” Impressionists, in their consistent pursuit of an art of spontaneity, sunlight, and colour. Degas rejected much of this, as he believed in the primacy of drawing over colour and belittled the practice of painting outdoors. Renoir turned against Impressionism for a time in the 1880s, and never entirely regained his commitment to its ideas. Édouard Manet, despite his role as a leader to the group, never abandoned his liberal use of black as a colour, and never participated in the Impressionist exhibitions. He continued to submit his works to the Salon, where his Spanish Singer had won a 2nd class medal in 1861, and he urged the others to do likewise, arguing that “the Salon is the real field of battle” where a reputation could be made.

The Bath - Mary Cassatt, ca. 1892

Among the artists of the core group (minus Bazille, who had died in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870), defections occurred as Cézanne, followed later by Renoir, Sisley, and Monet, abstained from the group exhibitions in order to submit their works to the Salon. Disagreements arose from issues such as Guillaumin’s membership in the group, championed by Pissarro and Cézanne against opposition from Monet and Degas, who thought him unworthy. Degas invited Mary Cassatt to display her work in the 1879 exhibition, but he also caused dissension by insisting on the inclusion of Jean-François Raffaëlli, Ludovic Lepic, and other realists who did not represent Impressionist practices, leading Monet in 1880 to accuse the Impressionists of “opening doors to first-come daubers”. The group divided over the invitation of Signac and Seurat to exhibit with them in 1886. Pissarro was the only artist to show at all eight Impressionist exhibitions.

The individual artists saw few financial rewards from the Impressionist exhibitions, but their art gradually won a degree of public acceptance and support. Their dealer, Durand-Ruel, played a major role in this as he kept their work before the public and arranged shows for them in London and New York. Although Sisley would die in poverty in 1899, Renoir had a great Salon success in 1879. Financial security came to Monet in the early 1880s and to Pissarro by the early 1890s. By this time the methods of Impressionist painting, in a diluted form, had become commonplace in Salon art.

Saint-Lazare Train Station - Claude Monet, 1877

Some of the other influences on the Impressionists were the newly industrialized and bourgeoise urbanisme of Paris. Most of the Impressionists depicted scenes in and around Paris, where industrialization and urbanization had their greatest impact. Monet’s Saint-Lazare Train Station depicts a dominant aspect of Parisian life. The expanding railway network had made travel more convenient, bringing throngs of people into Paris. Saint-Lazare was centrally located, adjacent to the Grands Boulevards, a bustling, fashionable commercial area. Monet captured the area’s energy and vitality; the train, emerging from the steam and smoke it emits, comes into the station. the tall buildings that were becoming a major component of the Parisian landscape are just visible through the background haze. Monet’s agitated paint application contributes to the sense of energy and conveys the atmosphere of urban life.

Paris: A Rainy Day - Gustave Caillebotte, 1877

Other Impressionists represented facets of city life. Gustave Caillebotte depicted yet another scene in Paris: A Rainy Day. His setting is a junction of spacious boulevards that resulted from the redesigning of Paris begun in 1852. The city’s population had reached close to 1.5 million by mid-century, and to accommodate the congregation of humanity, Emperor Napoleon III ordered the city rebuilt. Napoleon was also interested in making an imperial statement through his redesign of Paris and in facilitating the movement of troops in the event of another revolution. the emperor names Baron Georges Haussmann, a city superintendent, to oversee the project; consequently, this process became known as “Haussmannization.” In addition to new water and sewer systems, street lighting, and new residential and commercial buildings, a major component of the new Paris was the creation of wide, open boulevards. These great avenues, whose construction caused the demolition of thousands of ancient buildings and streets, transformed medieval Paris into the present modern city, with its superb vistas and wide uninterrupted arteries for the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Caillebotte chose to focus on these markers of the city’s rapid urbanization.

Although Caillebotte did not dissolve his image into the broken color and brushwork characteristic of Impressionism, he did use an informal and asymmetrical composition. The figures seem randomly placed, with the frame cropping them arbitrarily, suggesting the transitory nature of the scene. The picture captures the artist’s overall “impression” of the urban city.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère - Édouard Manet, 1882

Leisure, recreation, and lively nightlife were also common themes for Impressionists. Scenes of dining, dancing, the café-concerts, the opera, the ballet, and other forms of entertainment were mainstays of Impressionism. Although seemingly unrelated to industrialization, these activities were facilitated by it. With the advent of set working hours, people’s schedules became more regimented, allowing them to plan their favorite pastimes, such as the dance hall scene from Renoir above. One of the most famous Impressionist paintings is Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882. The Folies-Bergère was a popular Parisin café-concert (a café with music-hall performances). These cafés were fashionable gathering places for throngs of revelers, and many of the Impressionists frequented these establishments.

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Paris

Gertrude Stein once said, “America is my country and Paris is my hometown.” Anyone who has had the pleasure of spending any length of time in Paris will agree completely. These images are from spring 2007.

The River Seine from Petit Pont

 

Place St-Michel

Place St-Michel

 

Champs-Élysées looking west towards the Arc de Triomphe

Eiffel Tower from Trocadero

Eiffel Tower from Trocadero

Façade of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame

Façade of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame

Northern façade of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame from the Seine

Interior of Cathedral Notre-Dame; nave facing apse (Palm Sunday Service)

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