"Impressionism is only direct sensation. All great painters were less or more impressionists. It is mainly a question of instinct."
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, 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.
Exhibitions in Paris and The Salon des Refusés
In 1863, at the official salon, the all-important event of the art world, a large number of artists were not allowed to participate, leading to public outcry. The same year, the Salon des Refusés 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, , and the early iconoclast . 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 nude women enjoying an afternoon picnic.
Salon des Artistes Indépendants
Like the participants of the Salon des Refusés, the Société des Artistes Indépendants rebelled against the policies of the conservative juries of Paris. Their first exhibition, which opened in May 1884, adhered to the policy of "no jury nor awards," and included over 400 artists, many of whom had been previously rejected by the official salon. While various Impressionist painters participated in this initial exhibition, the Société des Artistes Indépendants would later come to be a focal point for avant-garde activity and a driving force for Modernism in Paris.
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 cafes, 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.
The Impressionist Exhibitions
By the late 1860s, a small number of young painters working in Paris were beginning to discover one another through a series of small exhibitions. Though not yet united by any particular style, they shared a general sense of antipathy toward overbearing academic standards of fine art, established at the time by the influential Paris salon. The first of these alternative exhibitions was held in 1874 in the studios of photographer Felix Nadar, under the title Société Anonyme des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, etc. It was not until the third exhibition in 1887 that they began to call themselves the Impressionists. While their first exhibition received limited public attention, their later shows attracted vast audiences, with attendance records well in to the thousands. The Impressionists continued to exhibit their work together until 1886, holding a total of eight exhibitions over twelve years.
Concepts and Styles
The Term "Impressionism"
The movement gained its name after the hostile French critic Louis Leroy, reviewing the first major Impressionist exhibition, 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.
Claude Monet and Plein Air Painting
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,, , and , among 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 cafes, musicians in an orchestra pit, ballet dancers performing mundane tasks at rehearsal. He also tended to delineate his forms with greater clarity thanand , using harder lines and thicker brushstrokes.
Similarly, other artists such as, , and 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.
Women and Impressionism - Morisot and Cassatt
Whereas Degas and Renoir 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 and Marie Bracquemond, she was considered one of the three 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(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.
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 to be seen, while 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, 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 Boulevard des Capucines (1873) and 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.
Although the Impressionists proved to be a diverse group, they came together regularly to discuss their work and exhibit. The Cafe Guerbois in Montmartre was a regular meeting place. 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.
Meanwhile, the lessons of the style were taken up by a new generation. If Manet bridged the gap between Realism and Impressionism, thenwas the artist who bridged the gap between Impressionism and . 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 by and .
Later still, many modern artists looked to Impressionism. For example, although the movement is not generally considered to have had a powerful impact on, one can trace important similarities in its artists' works. was once described as a latter-day "American Impressionist," and the surface qualities, suggestions of light, and "all-over" treatment of form in work, all point to the work of .
"There are no lines in nature, only areas of color, one against another."
"You would hardly believe how difficult it is to place a figure alone on a canvas, and to concentrate all the interest on this single and universal figure and still keep it living and real."
"If the painter works directly from nature, he ultimately looks for nothing but momentary effects; he does not try to compose, and soon he gets monotonous."
"I am following Nature without being able to grasp her; I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers."
- Claude Monet
"After 1918, as we know, enlightened public - as well as critical - esteem went decidedly to Cézanne, Renoir and Degas, and to Van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat. The 'unorthodox' Impressionists - Monet, Pissarro, Sisley - fell under a shadow. It was then that the 'amorphousness' of Impressionism became an accepted idea; and it was forgotten that Cézanne himself had belonged to, and with, Impressionism as he had to nothing else."
-Clement Greenberg, from essay "The Later Monet"