Artworks and Artists of Impressionism
Progression of Art
Le déjeuner sur l'herbe
Edouard Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) was probably the most controversial artwork of the nineteenth century. It caused outrage with its frank depiction of nudity in a contemporary setting and was scorned by the high-minded salon juries and middle-class audiences of the era. But it also earned Manet fame and patronage. Rejected from the Paris Salon in 1863, it became the most controversial of the works displayed in the so-called "Salon des Refusés" held the same year in order to placate artists rejected from the main exhibition. The painting depicts two fully clothed men picnicking with a nude woman, while another scantily clad woman bathes in the background. By removing the female nude from the legitimizing contexts of mythology and orientalism, and in making his female subject confront the viewer assertively with her gaze, Manet hit a nerve in the bourgeois culture of 1860s Paris, and set the wheels of the avant-garde in motion.
Édouard Manet was born in 1832 into an upper-class family with strong cultural and political ties. In terms of age, he found himself sandwiched between the generation of the great Realists, such as Gustave Courbet, and the Impressionists, most of whom were born in the 1840s. The great irony of Manet's reputation as a controversialist is that, throughout his life, he both sought and achieved mainstream success, generally having more work displayed at the official Paris Salons than his younger Impressionist peers. Similarly, although he was friendly with the Impressionists and exhibited with them - and is now often presented as one of them - his style was in some ways very different to theirs. He was far less reliant on plein-air technique than most of the Impressionists, and, whereas artists such as Monet used loose, visible brushstrokes and blended color palettes to depict subtle tonal effects, Manet preferred sharper outlines and exaggerated color contrasts, often placing dark and light areas close together (as in the contrast between naked flesh and shadow in Le déjeuner sur l'herbe).
Nonetheless, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe stands at the forefront of the whole Impressionist project in its fearless departure from inherited forms and techniques. From the subtly flattened picture plane to the defiance of time-honored motifs of high-brow nudity, everything about Manet’s painting courted shock and even ridicule. The Impressionists were inspired by Manet's example to follow their own creative paths, and while their subject-matter was generally less outrageous than Manet's nude picnic, his pioneering work cleared the space necessary for them to work in the way they wanted to.
Oil on canvas - Musee d'Orsay, Paris
Monet's Impressionism, Sunrise is sometimes cited as the work that gave birth to the Impressionist movement, though by the time it was painted, Monet was in fact one of a number of artists already working in the new style. Certainly, however, it was the critic Louis Leroy's derogatory comments on the work and its title, in a satirical review of the First Impressionist Exhibition of 1874, that gave rise to the term "Impressionism". Leroy's review used the term as a comic insult, but the new school of painters quickly adopted it in a spirit of pride and defiance.
Claude Monet was born into a middle-class merchant family in Paris. His parents were hardworking and financially secure but by no means rich or aristocratic, and throughout his early career Monet would struggle to survive as a painter. When he was very young his family moved from Paris to Le Havre, and though Monet returned to Paris in the early 1960s to train as an artist, it was during a visit to his family in Le Havre in 1872 that he created this and a number of other similar works.
What is striking about Impression, Sunrise is the continuity of the color palette between sea, land and sky. All are bathed in the gentle blues, oranges, and greens of sunrise. The subject of the painting is not the city it depicts nor the anonymous boatmen setting out across the water, but the enveloping warmth and color of sunlight itself, or rather the "impression" it makes on the senses at a certain moment in time. This painting of light and the time-specific effects of light was the hallmark of the new style. Impression, Sunrise was one of a number of sketches of the same scene that Monet created in 1872. This serial approach to subject-matter was typical for the painter. In other cases, Monet would create large cycles of work depicting the same scene at different times of day, or during different seasons, emphasizing the way in which light and atmosphere shifted in time-specific ways. The most famous examples of this effect are in the 25 paintings that make up the series Les Meules à Giverny (1890-91), known in English as "The Haystacks".
Oil on canvas - Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris
Alfred Sisley's beautiful pastoral scene showcases a gentle color-palette, evocation of tranquility and peace, and emphasis on the overall quality and atmosphere of a landscape over and above specific details and human forms. The female protagonist of this painting, serenely picking flowers, is almost entirely obscured by the dense fog that eclipses the meadow. As in much of Sisley's work, the human body seems melded into the natural scene, becoming both an aspect and expression of a wider natural world.
Born in France to English parents, Alfred Sisley met Pissarro and Monet early in the formation of the group, becoming their co-students at the Swiss painter Charles Gleyre's studio in 1862. Sisley and Monet would go on to become the most dedicated and dazzling proponents of the plein air technique, but their fortunes would take them in different directions. Whereas the middle-class Monet had achieved financial success and fame by the end of his life, the silk-trader's son Sisley, born into riches, ended his days in relative poverty after his father's business failed during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Sisley's paintings would not yield true financial success until after his death. Nonetheless, he remained prolific throughout his life, and was deeply committed to the ideals of the Impressionist school.
Indeed, the example of Fog, Voisins suggests that Sisley was perhaps the most quintessential Impressionist painter of the whole group. Focusing almost exclusively on representations of light and atmosphere while diminishing the importance of the human form - an approach that many of his peers would grow weary of later in-their careers - Sisley demonstrates his all-consuming preoccupation with representing the moment of perception.
Oil on canvas - Musee d'Orsay, Paris
In a Park
A key artist of the Impressionist circle, Berthe Morisot is known for both her compelling portraits and her poignant landscapes. In a Park combines these elements in this serene family portrait set in a bucolic garden. Like Mary Cassatt, Morisot is recognized for her portrayals of the private and domestic spaces of female society, rather than the brash café scenes of many of her male peers. As in this quiet image of family life, she often centered on the bond between mother and child. Her loose handling of pastels, a medium embraced by the Impressionists, and visible application of color and form, were central characteristics of her work.
Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 into a well-connected and rich family with ties to the Manets. Although she was a painter of prodigious skill, she was for a long time defined as a muse as much as an artist within portraits of the Impressionist circle, partly because Édouard Manet produced a large number of portraits of her, emphasizing her dark features, brooding and enigmatic persona, and subtle sexual allure (Morisot would eventually marry Manet's brother Eugéne). Morisot was the only woman included in the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874. Indeed, the presence of a woman amongst a radical clique of painters increased the controversy surrounding both them and her. Morisot had previously been a relatively successful salon painter, but for a woman to associate herself with the scandals of the new school was seen as a particular impertinence.
Berthe Morisot was described by the critic Gustave Geffroy in 1894 as one of the three great female painters of Impressionism, along with Marie Bracquemond and the American Cassatt. But Morisot was the only one of these three integrated into the group from the start, involved in the founding of the Société Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs and the mounting of the first, critically eviscerated group exhibitions. As such, she can be considered one of the most important painters of the Impressionist circle and one of the most important and groundbreaking female modern artists of all time.
Pastel on paper - Musee du Petit Palais, Paris
This dour scene, depicting two unfortunate individuals slumped on a bench outside a Parisian café, conveys a deep sense of isolation and degradation, revealing another side to the Impressionists' emphasis on truth to life. Degas's heavily-handled paint communicates the quality of emotional burden which his subjects convey, which in turn seems to stand for the whole oppressive atmosphere of Paris's demi-monde. The work was scandalous, like so many other Impressionist paintings, when it was first exhibited, at the second Impressionist exhibition of 1876. The Irish writer George Moore remarked of its female subject: "a life of idleness and low vice is upon her face, we read there her whole life."
Born in 1834, Degas was slightly older than the majority of the Impressionist circle, and his style continued to show clear points of divergence from the group's approach throughout his career (indeed, Degas rejected the Impressionist label throughout his life). Whereas Impressionists such as Monet and Sisley turned away, to varying degrees, from depicting the physiognomy and detail of the human body, Degas remained deeply preoccupied with the human form, particularly capturing it in motion. His paintings often depict groups of bodies, either static (as above), or in motion (as in his famous paintings of ballet dancers at rehearsal), with brilliant naturalism. Degas's works also suggest an attention to detail at odds with the spontaneous style of Impressionism. Indeed, Degas was famous for his rigorous and methodical approach. He banned all visitors from his studio, working laboriously on canvases all day. "I assure you", he once said, "no art is less spontaneous than mine."
What tied Degas's work to the Impressionist movement was, on the one hand, a focus on capturing spontaneity in his work, even if it was not a characteristic of composition, and on the other hand, an interest in everyday life represented for its own sake. Prior to the work of the later Realists and the Impressionists, genre painting was considered a lesser, escapist avenue of creativity. What Degas achieved with L'Absinthe and similar works was to elevate the humble and commonplace aspects of human life to the status of serious art.
Oil on canvas - Musee d'Orsay, Paris
Paris Street, Rainy Day
While the work of Gustave Caillebotte adheres to a distinctly Realist aesthetic, it also reflects a concern with modern life that was central to Impressionism. Paris Street, Rainy Day shows this tendency within Caillebotte's oeuvre. The panoramic view of a rain-drizzled boulevard shows us the newly renovated Parisian metropolis, while the anonymous figures in the background seem to encapsulate the alienation of the individual within the modern city. The painting centers on the apathetic gaze of the male figure in the foreground, who epitomizes the cool detachment of the flaneur, poised in his characteristic black coat and top hat. Like Caillebotte's other paintings, this work explores the impact of modernity on human psychology, fleeting impressions of the street, and the effect of the changing urban sphere upon society.
Caillebotte was one of the youngest artists associated with Impressionism, born into a rich upper-class family in 1848. His personal wealth meant that he was able to support fellow painters as a patron while also exhibiting alongside them. It is perhaps partly for this reason that he became connected to the group, as, despite his brilliance, there are several points of distinction in his approach. His great attention to the details of the human form, for example, and his relatively close, naturalistic brushwork, is closer in spirit to the tradition of Realism than to Impressionism. Caillebotte's work is often compared in this respect to that of Degas. Moreover, both artists were heavily influenced by photography, often framing their scenes in such a way that they seemed like snapshots rather than careful arrangements, with buildings and bodies cut in half by the edges of canvases (as above, or in Degas Place de la Concorde ).
In spite of these points, Caillebotte's works were important in pushing forward the Impressionist emphasis on depicting everyday life. Indeed, despite his background, he was adept at capturing the working and psychological lives of everyday Parisians: not only in scenes of middle-class urban ennui such as Paris Street, but also in scenes of physical labor such as his monumental 1875 painting The Floor Scrapers.
Oil on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago
At the Opera
Much of Mary Cassatt's work focuses on the environs and inhabitants of Paris under Haussmannization, while emphasizing, in particular, the private and public lives of women. Here, she depicts the recently-built Palais Garnier of the Paris Opera which served as a social hub for the city’s upper classes. As the painting demonstrates, the opera was not only a site of culture and entertainment but a place for seeing and being seen. The pose of the female subject, training her binoculars on the stage, is mirrored by that of the main across the concert hall, who directs his binoculars at her. Through this witty composition, Cassatt offers a playful meditation on the act of looking, a central concern of the Impressionists, and also perhaps on the lot of the female artist, who is observed and visually assessed even as she seeks to be the observer.
The American expatriate Mary Cassatt was born in Pennsylvania in 1844, the daughter of a successful stockbroker. Her family was culturally conventional but she sought the life of an artist and flâneuse, training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before moving to Paris in 1866 (returning briefly to America during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71). Cassatt initially submitted paintings to the official Salons but she gradually became disillusioned with the conventional style and themes proffered by the judges and by the implicit snobbery and sexism of Paris's artistic establishment. By the late 1870s she had become friendly with the Impressionists and her work had begun to mirror theirs in form and subject-matter. Like many of her women counterparts, she focused a good deal on female subjects and social worlds.
As an avowed feminist, Cassatt played a key role in using Impressionist techniques to represent women’s lives, thoughts, and feelings. Her presence as an American expatriate in Paris is also symbolic of the strong relationship between French Impressionism and North America from the 1880s onwards. It was after their exposure to the American market, after all, that the Impressionists finally found real financial success.
Oil on canvas - Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, Massachusetts
Girl with a Hoop
In the mid-1880s, Renoir was commissioned to create a portrait of a nine-year-old girl, Marie Goujon. A few year prior, following a trip to Italy, he had been inspired by the work of Renaissance painters to develop a new style which he dubbed "aigre" ("sour"), indicating a new emphasis on hardness and clarity of form. Using the "aigre" technique to create his new painting, he applied thick, elongated brushstrokes to evoke natural movement in the backdrop of the work and soft, textural brushstrokes complemented by hard lines to portray the young girl in the foreground. Though the painting represents a jump forward in Renoir's technique, his fluid handling of paint and portrayal of the young girl at play evokes the carefree mood of his entire oeuvre. While the other Impressionists focused on existential themes such as alienation in modern society, Renoir's disposition remained lighthearted, with much of his work depicting leisure activities and beautiful women.
Born in 1841, Renoir was from a far more modest background than many of his peers, his father a tailor who moved the family to Paris to improve their prospects. In 1862 Renoir enrolled at Charles Gleyre's studio, where he met Monet and Sisley, and so became one of the original members of the nascent Impressionist grouping. Like Monet, Renoir loved to employ natural light in his paintings. However, by the 1880s he had become dissatisfied with capturing fleeting visual effects. Having felt he had "wrung Impressionism dry," and losing all inspiration or will to paint, Renoir began to search for more clarity of form. The result of this process was his discovery of the "aigre" technique.
In moving from the depiction of momentary perception to a more expressionistic use of brushwork, Renoir's development as a painter later in his career predicts the emergence of Post-Impressionism, whereby brushwork become ever more deliberative and idiosyncratic. For this reason and others, including his proximity to the other key artists of the movement, Renoir was one of the most important figures of the Impressionist generation.
Oil on canvas - The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
The Boulevard Montmartre, Afternoon
Pissarro's Boulevard Montmartre, Afternoon applies the techniques of his earlier plein-air landscapes to the modern city. The work uses broad strokes of paint, carefully applied to the canvas, to represent the fleeting nature of modern life, and the visual impression made by the metropolis. It is one of a series of paintings, painted in Pissarro's room at the Hotel de Russie overlooking the street, that depict the same scene during different points of the day and different seasons of the year. The series emphasizes the changing effects of natural light upon the urban setting, resulting in a reflection on the passage of time and the transformation of the city.
Pissarro was one of the oldest of the Impressionist group, referred to by Cézanne as "the first Impressionist." Of mixed Jewish-French-Portuguese heritage, he was born into a merchant family in 1830 on the tiny Caribbean island of St. Thomas. Pissarro's early paintings depict the sun-drenched beaches and palm trees of his island home, but he attended boarding school in Paris as a child, and moved there permanently in 1855. He became respected amongst the other Impressionist painters both for his artistic skill and for his wisdom, his works characterized by a bright palette, depiction of quiet landscapes, and representation of natural light. Pissarro served as a mentor to many of his younger friends, including Paul Cézanne, and was among the most radical of the Impressionist painters. Indeed, Pissarro saw their decision to form the Société Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs in 1874 as a politically significant one, matching his anarchist ideals of self-government.
The only artist to have shown his work at all eight of the Impressionist's group exhibitions (1874-86), Pissarro also taught a number of Post-Impressionist artists, including Georges Seurat - pioneer of Pointillist techniques - Vincent Van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin. Pissarro's significance as both an artist and teacher to the development of modern art in the late-nineteenth century cannot be overstated.
Oil on canvas - The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge
Whistler's Nocturne: Blue and Gold is one of the most dazzling works of the wider Impressionist movement. Produced at a time of urban reconstruction in London, it depicts the old Battersea Bridge in the south of the city from a riverbank perspective, with the lights of the newer Albert Bridge winking in the background while rockets cascade from the sky. It is one of a whole series of Nocturne paintings which convey the stillness, beauty, and subtle foreboding of London's nighttime atmosphere. Whistler deploys an Impressionist emphasis on individual, time-bound perspective in a context wholly different to the busy street-scenes of the Parisian school.
The art critic Frances Spalding describes the innovative technique Whistler used to create his Nocturnes. "[I]n the early 1870s he developed a system and a formula which he could vary with subtle effect. He would mix his colours beforehand, using a lot of medium, until he had, as he called it, a 'sauce'. Then, on a canvas often prepared with a red ground to force up the blues and suggest darkness behind, he would pour on the fluid paint, often painting on the floor to prevent the paint running off, and, with long strokes of the brush pulled from one side to another, would create the sky, buildings and river, subtly altering the tones where necessary and blending them with the utmost skill." Whistler then added individual features such as the barge and figure in this painting, which often appear ghostly or translucent against the background wash.
Whistler was strongly informed by Japonism, particularly Japanese woodblock printing which is reflected in his Nocturne series. This explains the subtly Oriental mood conveyed by the exaggerated shape of the barge in the water. At the same time, the curious profile perspective, which cuts off a large section of the bridge from view, suggests the position of an individual human viewer on the riverbank, while the depiction of two fireworks in the sky, one ascending and the other exploding, locates the image precisely in a single moment in time. It is perhaps for this reason that the title for this work and others, Nocturne, refers to a musical composition evocative of night, connecting the works to the time-bound medium of music.
Whistler's Nocturnes caused outrage when first exhibited, provoking the Victorian critic John Ruskin to such harsh attacks that Whistler took him to court. In the decades following its composition, however, this and other paintings became recognized as masterpieces of a distinctly modern style. As Spalding notes, Whistler's works convey an ineffable, almost magical quality: "out of the decorative unity ... grow atmosphere and mystery, the sense that the visible world thinly veils the inexplicable".
Oil on canvas - Tate Britain