Art History Basics: Impressionism

Impressionism from 1869 to the present

Claude Monet's painting of people on a boat.
Sunrise, 1873. Oil on canvas by Claude Monet.

Musée Marmottan, Paris

Impressionism is a style of painting that emerged in the mid to late 1800s and emphasizes an artist's immediate impression of a moment or scene, usually communicated through the use of light and its reflection, short brushstrokes, and separation of colors. Impressionist painters often used modern life as their subject matter and painted quickly and freely. 

Origins of the Term

Although some of the most respected artists of the Western canon were part of the Impressionist moment, the term "impressionist" was originally intended as a derogatory term, used by art critics appalled at this style of painting. In the mid-1800s, when the Impressionist movement was born, it was commonly accepted that "serious" artists blended their colors and minimized the appearance of brushstrokes to produce the "licked" surface preferred by the academic masters. Impressionism, in contrast, featured short, visible strokes—dots, commas, smears, and blobs.

One of Claude Monet's entries for the show, Impression: Sunrise (1873) was the first to inspire the critical nickname "Impressionism" in early reviews. To call someone an "Impressionist" in 1874 meant the painter had no skill and lacked the common sense to finish a painting before selling it. 

The First Impressionists Exhibition

Bazille's Studio, Frédéric Bazille, 1870
Frédéric Bazille, "Bazille's Studio," 1870. Musée d'Orsay, París (Francia)

In 1874, a group of artists who dedicated themselves to this "messy" style pooled their resources to promote themselves in their own exhibition. The idea was radical. In those days the French art world revolved around the annual Salon, an official exhibition sponsored by the French government through its Académie des Beaux-Arts.

The group called themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc., and rented the photographer Nadar's studio in a new building, which was on its own a rather modern edifice. Their effort caused a brief sensation. For the average audience, the art looked strange, the exhibition space looked unconventional, and the decision to show their art outside of the Salon or the Academy's orbit (and even sell directly off the walls) seemed close to madness. Indeed, these artists pushed the limits of art in the 1870s far beyond the range of "acceptable" practice.

Even in 1879, during the fourth Impressionist Exhibition, the French critic Henry Havard wrote:

"I confess humbly I do not see nature as they do, never having seen these skies fluffy with pink cotton, these opaque and moiré waters, this multi-colored foliage. Maybe they do exist. I do not know them." 

Impressionism and Modern Life

The Dance Class by Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas, "The Dance Class," 1874. Mondadori Portfolio

Impressionism created a new way of seeing the world. It was a way of seeing the city, the suburbs and the countryside as mirrors of the modernization that each of these artists perceived and wanted to record from his or her point of view. Modernity, as they knew it, became their subject matter. Mythology, biblical scenes and historical events that dominated the revered "history" painting of their era were replaced by subjects of contemporary life, such as cafes and street life in Paris, suburban and rural leisure life outside of Paris, dancers and singers and workmen.

The Impressionists attempted to capture the quickly shifting light of natural daylight, by painting outdoors ("en plein air"). They mixed their colors on the canvas rather than their palettes and painted rapidly in wet-on-wet complementary colors made from new synthetic pigments. They invented the technique of "broken colors," leaving gaps in the top layers to reveal colors below, and forgoing the films and glazes of the older masters for a thick impasto of pure, intense color.

In a sense, the spectacle of the street, cabaret or seaside resort became "history" painting for these stalwart Independents (also known as the Intransigents—the stubborn ones).

The Evolution of Post-Impressionism

A Cup of Tea by Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt, "A Cup of Tea," 1879. Corbis/VCG via Getty Images / Getty Images

The Impressionists mounted eight shows from 1874 to 1886, although very few of the core artists exhibited in every show. After 1886, the gallery dealers organized solo exhibitions or small group shows, and each artist concentrated on his or her own career.

Nevertheless, they remained friends (except for Degas, who stopped talking to Pissarro because he was an anti-Dreyfessard and Pissarro was Jewish). They stayed in touch and protected each other well into old age. Among the original group of 1874, Monet survived the longest. He died in 1926.

Some artists who exhibited with the Impressionists in the 1870s and 1880s pushed their art into different directions. They became known as Post-Impressionists: Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Seurat, among others.

Impressionists You Should Know