Impressionist Art Essays

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"Impressionism is only direct sensation. All great painters were less or more impressionists. It is mainly a question of instinct."

Synopsis

Impressionism can be considered the first distinctly modern movement in painting. Developing in Paris in the 1860s, its influence spread throughout Europe and eventually the United States. Its originators were artists who rejected the official, government-sanctioned exhibitions, or salons, and were consequently shunned by powerful academic art institutions. In turning away from the fine finish and detail to which most artists of their day aspired, the Impressionists aimed to capture the momentary, sensory effect of a scene - the impression objects made on the eye in a fleeting instant. To achieve this effect, many Impressionist artists moved from the studio to the streets and countryside, painting en plein air.

Key Ideas

The Impressionists loosened their brushwork and lightened their palettes to include pure, intense colors. They abandoned traditional linear perspective and avoided the clarity of form that had previously served to distinguish the more important elements of a picture from the lesser ones. For this reason, many critics faulted Impressionist paintings for their unfinished appearance and seemingly amateurish quality.

Picking up on the ideas of Gustave Courbet, the Impressionists aimed to be painters of the real - they aimed to extend the possible subjects for paintings. Getting away from depictions of idealized forms and perfect symmetry, but rather concentrating on the world as they saw it, imperfect in a miriad number of ways.

At the time, there were many ideas of what constituted modernity. Part of the Impressionist idea was to capture a split second of life, an ephemeral moment in time on the canvas: the impression.

Scientific thought at the time was beginning to recognize that what the eye perceived and what the brain understood were two different things. The Impressionists sought to capture the former - the optical effects of light - to convey the passage of time, changes in weather, and other shifts in the atmosphere in their canvases. Their art did not necessarily rely on realistic depictions.

Impressionism records the effects of the massive mid-nineteenth-century renovation of Paris led by civic planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann, which included the city's newly constructed railway stations; wide, tree-lined boulevards that replaced the formerly narrow, crowded streets; and large, deluxe apartment buildings. The works that focused on scenes of public leisure - especially scenes of cafés and cabarets - conveyed the new sense of alienation experienced by the inhabitants of the first modern metropolis.

Most Important Art

Vetheuil in the Fog (1879)

Artist: Claude Monet

In 1878, Monet moved his family to the town of Vetheuil in northern France. They temporarily lived with a wealthy magnate who became Monet's patron. His Vetheuil in the Fog is among his finest works, offering a subtle, albeit distinct impression of a figural form. As was characteristic of many of Monet's paintings, he applied his brush rather quickly to the canvas in order to capture the exact image he wanted before the sunlight shifted or faded away altogether. Monet's emphasis on the fleeting changes in the natural world was a central aspect of his oeuvre that captures the ephemerality of nature and preserves it within the picture plane; thus, the momentary perception is crystallized in the replication of the optical experience of it.

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Impressionism Artworks in Focus:

Impressionism Overview Continues Below

Beginnings

Gustave Courbet and The Challenge to Official Art

The Realist movement, championed by Gustave Courbet, first confronted the official Parisian art establishment in the middle of the nineteenth century. Courbet was an anarchist that thought the art of his time closed its eyes on realities of life. The French were ruled by an oppressive regime and much of the public was in the throes of poverty. Instead of depicting such scenes, the artists of the time concentrated on idealized nudes and glorious depictions of nature. In his protest, Courbet financed an exhibition of his work right opposite the Universal Exposition in Paris of 1855, a bold act that led to the emergence of future artists that would challange the status quo.

Exhibitions in Paris and The Salon des Refusés

In 1863, at the official yearly art salon, the all-important event of the French art world, a large number of artists were not allowed to participate, leading to public outcry. The same year, the Salon des Refusés ("Salon of the Refused") was formed in response to allow the exhibition of works by artists who had previously been refused entrance to the official salon. Some of the exhibitors were Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, James Whistler, and the early iconoclast Édouard Manet. Although promoted by authorities and sanctioned by Emperor Napoleon III, the 1863 exhibition caused a scandal, due largely to the unconventional themes and styles of works such as Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863), which featured clothed men and naked women enjoying an afternoon picnic (the women were not classical depictions of a nude, but rather women that took off their clothes).

Édouard Manet and the Painting Revolution

Édouard Manet was among the first and most important innovators to emerge in the public exhibition scene in Paris. Although he grew up in admiration of the Old Masters, he began to incorporate an innovative, looser painting style and brighter palette in the early 1860s. He also started to focus on images of everyday life, such as scenes in cafés, boudoirs, and out in the street. His anti-academic style and quintessentially modern subject matter soon attracted the attention of artists on the fringes and influenced a new type of painting that would diverge from the standards of the official salon. Similar to Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, his other works such as Olympia (1863) gave the emerging group ideas to depict that were not previously considered art worthy.

French Cafés and Diversity

One of the popular venues for the individuals that were to become the Impressionist to meet and discuss painting and art were Parisian cafés. In particular, Café Guerbois in Montmartre was frequented by Manet starting 1866. Renoir, Sisley, Monet, Degas, Cézanne, and Pissarro would visit that cafe, while Caillebotte and Bazille had studios nearby and would often join the gatherings. Other personalities attracted to the creative group including writers, critics, and the photographer Nadar, and most notably the writer Emile Zola that both added to the ethos of the group, and later championed their work in print.

Part of the interesting dynamics of the group was the variety of personalities, economic circumstances, and political views. Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro had lower and working class backgrounds while Morisot, Caillebotte, and Degas were from haute bourgeoisie roots. Mary Cassatt was American (and a woman) and Alfred Sisley was Anglo-French. This diversity of personalities may be the reason so much success arose from all these individual, and group, efforts.

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The Impressionist Exhibitions

Though not yet united by any particular style, the fledgling group shared a general sense of antipathy toward overbearing academic standards of fine art, and decided to come together in the group themselves Société Anonyme des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, etc.("Artists, Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, Inc."). In general, all the painters had very limited success financially and had few works accepted in the salon exhibitions in Paris. So they held an alternative exhibition in 1874 in the studio of photographer Felix Nadar. It was not until the third exhibition in 1877 that they began to call themselves the Impressionists. While their first exhibition received limited public attention and most of the eight exhibitions they held actually cost money rather than earned money for the cooperative of artists, their later shows attracted vast audiences, with attendance records well in to the thousands. Despite some attention, most members of the group sold very few works in all the years the exhibitions took place, and some of the artists were incredibly poor through many of these years.

The Term "Impressionism"

The movement gained its name after the hostile French critic Louis Leroy, reviewing the first major Impressionist exhibition of 1874, seized on the title of Claude Monet's painting Impression, Sunrise (1873), and accused the group of painting nothing but impressions. The Impressionists embraced the moniker, though they also referred to themselves as the "Independents," referring to the subversive principles of the Société des Artistes Indépendants and the group's efforts to detach itself from academic artistic conventions. Although the styles practiced by the Impressionists varied considerably (and in fact not all of the artists would accept Leroy's title), they were bound together by a common interest in the representation of visual perception, based in fleeting optical impressions, and the focus on ephemeral moments of modern life.

Concepts and Styles

Painting Outdoors and Claude Monet

Claude Monet is perhaps the most celebrated of the Impressionists. He was renowned for his mastery of natural light and painted at many different times of day in an attempt to capture changing conditions. He tended to paint simple impressions or subtle hints of his subjects, using very soft brushstrokes and unmixed colors to create a natural vibrating effect, as if nature itself were alive on the canvas. He did not wait for paint to dry before applying successive layers; this "wet on wet" technique produced softer edges and blurred boundaries that merely suggested a three-dimensional plane, rather than depicting it realistically.

Monet's technique of painting outdoors, known as plein air painting, was practiced widely among the Impressionists. Inherited from the landscape painters of the Barbizon School, this approach led to innovations in the representation of sunlight and the passage of time, which were two central motifs of Impressionist painting. While Monet is largely associated with the tradition of plein air, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, John Singer Sargent, and Alfred Sisley, and others, also painted outside in order to create their lucid portrayals of the transience of the natural world.

Impressionist Figures by Degas and Renoir

Other Impressionists, like Edgar Degas, were less interested in painting outdoors and rejected the idea that painting should be a spontaneous act. Considered a highly skilled draftsman and portraitist, Degas preferred indoor scenes of modern life: people sitting in cafés, musicians in an orchestra pit, ballet dancers performing mundane tasks at rehearsal. He also tended to delineate his forms with greater clarity than Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, using harder lines and thicker brushstrokes.

Similarly, other artists such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot, and Mary Cassatt focused on the figure and the internal psychology of the individual. Renoir, known for his use of vibrant, saturated colors, depicted the daily activities of individuals from his neighborhood of Montmartre, and, in particular, portrayed the social pastimes of Parisian society. While Renoir, like Morisot and Cassatt, also painted outdoors, he emphasized the emotional attributes of his subjects, using light and loose brushwork to highlight the human form.

The Women of Impressionism

Whereas the male Impressionists painted figures mainly within the public context of the city, Morisot focused on the female figure and the private lives of women in late-nineteenth-century society. The first woman to exhibit with the Impressionists, she created rich compositions that highlighted the internal, highly personal sphere of feminine society, often emphasizing the maternal bond between mother and child in paintings such as The Cradle (1872). Together with Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzales, and Marie Bracquemond, she was considered one of the four central female figures of the movement.

Cassatt, an American painter who moved to Paris in 1866 and began exhibiting with the Impressionists in 1879, depicted the private sphere of the home, but also represented the woman in the public spaces of the newly modernized city, as in her painting At the Opera (1879). Her work features a number of innovations, including the reduction of three-dimensional space and the application of bright, even garish colors in her paintings, both of which heralded later developments in modern art.

Impressionist Cityscapes

Since the movement was deeply embedded within Parisian society, Impressionism was also greatly influenced by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann's renovation of the city in the 1860s. Haussmann's urban project, also referred to as "Haussmannization," sought to modernize the city and largely centered in the construction of wide boulevards, which became the literal hub of public social activity. This reconstruction of the city also led to the rise of the flaneur: an idler or lounger who roamed the public spaces of the city in order observe, yet remaining detached from the crowd. In many Impressionist paintings, the detachment of the flaneur is closely associated with modernity and the estrangement of the individual within the metropolis.

These themes of urbanity are depicted in the work of Gustave Caillebotte, a later proponent of the Impressionist movement, who focused on panoramic views of the city and the psychology of its citizens. Although more realistic in style than other Impressionists, Caillebotte's images such as Paris, Rainy Day (1877) depict the artist's reaction to the changing nature of modern society, showing a flaneur in his characteristic black coat and top hat, strolling through the open space of the boulevard while gazing at passersby. Other Impressionists depicted the fleeting impressions and movements of the metropolis in cityscapes such as Monet's Boulevard des Capucines (1873) and Pissarro's The Boulevard Montmarte, Afternoon (1897). Similarly, these works emphasize the geometrical arrangement of public space through the careful delineation of buildings, trees, and streets. By applying crude brushstrokes and impressionistic streaks of color, they evoke the rapid tempo of modern life as a central facet of late-nineteenth-century urban society.

Later Developments

Although the Impressionists proved to be a diverse group, they came together regularly to discuss their work and exhibit. The group collaborated on eight exhibitions between 1874 and 1886 while slowly beginning to unravel. Many felt they had mastered the early, experimental styles that had won them attention and wanted to move on to explore other avenues. Others, anxious about the continued commercial failure of their work, changed course.

The Triumph of Impressionism

The ultimate acceptance and glory of the Impressionist movement is largely the achievement of Paul Durand-Ruel, a French art dealer that lived in London. Monet met Durand-Ruel in 1871 and the gallerist purchased Impressionist works and exhibited them in London for many years. Sales were meager, but starting in the late 1880s, he started showing Impressionsist works in the United States with growing success. In the next few years, having exhibited in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago Durand-Ruel was able to entice an audience of American buyers that bought more Impressionist works than were ever sold in France. Prices for Impressionst works skyrocketed (as much as 10 times), to the point that Monet became a millionaire. Moreover, Impressionism almost became academic to the point that a whole group of American painters descended on Monet's residence in Giverny to learn from the leader of the group.

The Inspiration for Future Modernists

Meanwhile, the lessons of the style were taken up by a new generation. If Manet bridged the gap between Realism and Impressionism, then Paul Cézanne was the artist who bridged the gap between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Cézanne learned much from Impressionist technique, but he evolved a more deliberate style of paint handling, and, toward the end of his life, a closer attention to the structure of the forms that his broad, repetitive brushstrokes depicted. As he once put it, he wished to "redo [Nicolas] Poussin after nature and make Impressionism something solid and durable like the Old Masters." Cézanne wished to break down objects into their basic geometric constituents and depict their essential building blocks. This experiment would ultimately prove highly influential for the development of Cubism by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque.

Later still, many modern artists looked to Impressionism. For example, although the movement is not generally considered to have had a powerful impact on Abstract Expressionism, one can trace important similarities in its artists' works. Philip Guston was once described as a latter-day "American Impressionist," and the surface qualities, suggestions of light, and "all-over" treatment of form in Jackson Pollock's work, all point to the work of Claude Monet.


A Studio in the Batignolles (1870) by Henri Fantin-Latour features Édouard Manet painting and surrounded by artists that include Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and Frederic Bazille

John Singer Sargent (in the tradition of the Barbizon School and Claude Monet) painting outdoors, close to nature

The Child's Bath(1893) by Mary Cassatt is an example of domestic, private insights focused on by female Impressionists

Boulevard des Italiens(1880) by Gustave Caillebotte

The Painter's Studio(1854–55) by Gustave Courbet - the artist is in central role, while others are the subjects of his art

At The Café(1869) by Édouard Manet - a loose interpretation of artists gathering in a cafe atmosphere to discuss their avant garde ideas

Throughout history, art and music have developed in parallel with each other. The impressionist movement is no exception. Impressionism in art began in France near the end of the 19th century. Impressionist painters did not seek to show reality in the classical sense of a picture-perfect image; instead, they emphasized light and color to give an overall “impression” of their subjects. Much in the same way, impressionism in music aims to create descriptive impressions, not necessarily to draw clear pictures.

The music is not designed to explicitly describe anything, but rather to create a mood or atmosphere. This is done through almost every aspect of music: melody, harmony, color, rhythm, and form. Melodies tend to be short in nature, often repeated in different contexts to give different moods. In terms of color, notes are often drawn from scale systems other than the traditional major and minor. These include pentatonic, whole-tone, or other exotic scales (for example, Debussy, a major figure of impressionism, was influenced by Asian music).

The use (or misuse, as some critics might say) of harmony was a major part of impressionism. Impressionists did not use chords in the traditional way. For nearly the entire history of Western music, chords had been used to build and relieve tension, thus giving the music a sense of direction. Now to provide an example of impressionism, we have “L’îsle Joyeuse” (“The Island of Joy”) by Claude Debussy. This is actually a musical interpretation of the painting “The Embarkation for Cythera” by Jean-Antoine Watteau. Both the painting and the piece tell the story of a journey to the mythical island of Cythera, an ideal place of love and beauty.

The opening trills suggest the excited anticipation of the travelers; a middle section depicts them floating over the water; their arrival is heralded by jubilant trumpeting; and their ecstatic joy in realizing their destination provides a climactic finish. The chords in this piece sometimes serve no harmonic purpose in the traditional sense; these chords set the joyful “color” and mood of the piece, and are no longer exclusively used to build and release tension. Sometimes the melody isn’t very clear, but rather implied… we only get an impression of it.

Impressionism marked the first major steps into the Debussy and Maurice Ravel. An especially noteworthy aspect of impressionism was the weakening of the concept of tonality. Even though impressionist music was still tonal in nature, the “non-functional” chords paved the way for the later likes of Schoenberg, and others to do away with tonality altogether.

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