The Painting by Monet That Gave Impressionism Its Name

Impressionist painting by Claude Monet of sunrise
"Impression Sunrise" by Monet (1872). Oil on canvas. Approx 18x25 inches or 48x63cm. Currently in the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris. Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images. Heritage Images/Hulton Fine Art Collection/Getty Images

Monet gets his place in the art timeline because of his leading role in the impressionist art movement, and through the enduring appeal of his artistic style. Looking at this painting, done early in his career, it may not seem one of Monet's best paintings, but the big deal about it is that it was the painting that gave impressionism its name.

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What's the Big Deal About Monet and His Sunrise Painting?

Monet exhibited the painting he titled Impression: Sunrise in what we now call the First Impressionist Exhibition, in Paris. Monet and a group of about 30 other artists, frustrated by restrictions and politics of the official annual art salon, had decided to hold their own independent exhibition, an unusual thing to do at the time. They called themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc (Société Anonyme des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, etc.) and included artists who are now world famous such as Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, Morisot, and Cézanne. The exhibition was held from 15 April to 15 May 1874 in the former studio of the photographer Nadar (Félix Tournachon) at 35 Boulevard des Capucines, a fashionable address1.

In his review of the exhibition, the art critic for Le Charivari, Louis Leroy, used the title of Monet's painting as the headline, calling it the "Exhibition of Impressionists". Leroy had meant it sarcastically as the term 'impression' was used "to describe a rapidly notated painting of an atmospheric effect, [that] artists rarely, if ever exhibited pictures so quickly sketched"2. The label stuck. In his review published on 25 April 1874, Leroy wrote:

"A catastrophe seemed to me imminent, and it was reserved to M. Monet to contribute the last straw. ... What does the canvas depict? Look at the catalogue.
"
Impression, Sunrise ".
"
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." 3

In a supportive review published a few days later in Le Siècle on 29 April 1874, Jules Castagnary was the first art critic to use the term Impressionism in a positive way:

"The shared point of view that makes them a group with a collective force of its own... is their decision not to strive for detailed finished, but to go no further than a certain overall aspect. Once the impression has been discerned and set down, they declare their task finished. ...If we are to describe them with a single word, we must invent the new term Impressionists . They are Impressionists in the sense that they depict not the landscape but the sensation produced by the landscape." 4

Monet said he'd called the painting "impression" because "it really couldn't pass as a view of Le Havre".5

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How Monet Painted "Impression Sunrise"

Impression Sunrise painting by Monet
Details from "Impression Sunrise" by Monet (1872). Oil on canvas. Approx 18x25 inches or 48x63cm. Currently in the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris. Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Monet's painting, done with oil paint on canvas, is characterized by thin washes of rather muted colors, on top of which he's painted short strokes of pure color. There isn't much intermingling of the colors in the painting, nor the numerous layers that characterize his later paintings.

The boats in the foreground as well as the sun and its reflections "were added when the thin paint-layers beneath them were still wet"6 and it was painted "in a very brief time, and probably in a single sitting."7.

Traces of a previous painting Monet had begun on the same canvas "have become visible through the later layers, which have presumably become more translucent with age... dark shapes can be seen around the signature and vertically above its right part, extending down again into the area between and below the two boats."8. So next time you reuse a canvas, know that even Monet did! But perhaps apply your paint more thickly or opaquely to ensure what's underneath doesn't show through over time.

If you're familiar with Whistler's paintings and think the style and approach in this painting of Monet seems similar, you're not mistaken:

"...the broad washes of thinly applied oil paint and the delicacy of the treatment of the background ships bear the clear imprint of Monet's knowledge of Whistler's Nocturnes." 9
"...in still water and port scenes like [Impression: Sunrise] water and sky alike are treated in liquid sweeps of colour which suggest that Money may have responded to Whistler's early Nocturnes." 10

 

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The Orange Sun

Famous paintings Impression Sunrise by Monet 1872
Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images

The orange of the sun seems very intense against the grey sky, but convert a photo of the painting into black-and-white and you'll immediately see that the tone of the sun is similar to that of the sky, it doesn't stand out at all. In her book Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing (Buy Direct) neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone says:

"If the artist were painting in a strictly representational style, the sun should always be brighter than the sky... By making it the exact same luminance as the sky, [Monet] achieves an eerie effect." 11
"The sun in this painting seems both hot and cold, light and dark. It appears so brilliant it seems to pulsate. But the sun is actually no lighter than the background clouds..." 12

Livingstone goes on to explain how different parts of our visual system perceive both the color and the greyscale versions of the sun simultaneously.

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Perspective in Monet's Impression Sunrise Painting

Famous paintings Impression Sunrise by Monet 1872
Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Monet gave depth and perspective to an otherwise flat painting by the use of aerial perspective. Look closely at the three boats: you can see how these get lighter in tone, which is the way aerial perspective works. The lighter boats appear to be further away from us than the darkest one.

This aerial perspective on the boats is echoed in the water in the foreground, where the flecks of paint of the water shift from dark (below the boat) to lighter (orange of the sunlight) to lightest. You may find it easier to see in the greyscale photo of the painting.

Notice also that the three boats are arranged on a straight line, or on a single perspective line. This intersects the vertical line created by the sun and reflected sunlight on the water. Monet uses this to draw the viewer further into the painting, and give a sense of depth and perspective to the scene.

References:

1. Eyewitness Art: Monet by Jude Welton, Dorling Kindersley Publishers 1992, p24.
2. Turner Whistler Monet by Katharine Lochnan, Tate Publishing, 2004, p132.
3. "L'Exposition des Impressionnistes" by Louis Leroy, Le Charivari, 25 April 1874, Paris. Translated by John Rewald in The History of Impressionism, Moma, 1946, p256-61; quoted in Salon to Biennial: Exhibitions that Made Art History by Bruce Altshuler, Phaidon, p42-43.
4. "Exposition du Boulevard des Capucines: Les Impressionnistes" by Jules Castagnary, Le Siècle, 29 April 1874, Paris. Quoted in Salon to Biennial: Exhibitions that Made Art History by Bruce Altshuler, Phaidon, p44.
5. Letter from Monet to Durand-Ruel, 23 February 1892, quoted in Monet: Nature Into Art by John House, Yale University Press, 1986, p162.
6,7&9. Turner Whistler Monet by Katharine Lochnan, Tate Publishing, 2004, p132.
8&10. Monet: Nature Into Art by John House, Yale University Press, 1986, p183 and p79.
11&12. Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing by Margaret Livingstone, Harry N Abrams 2002, page 39, 40.