Before You Write an Essay on Impressionism

Landscape at Auvers-sur-Oise, ca 1873, by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), oil on canvas, 46.3x55.2 cm
De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

So, you have to write an essay about Impressionism, do you? It shouldn't be too hard, for you've certainly got a wealth of material to work with. There are a few common misconceptions about Impressionism, however, that you may want to avoid including. There are also a few truisms that you most definitely should include. Those which follow below are salient points to either hit or miss.

Impressionism Changed Art

You definitely can, and should, include this point in your essay. Defend it with the subsequent generations of artists Impressionism influenced the multitude of movements that Impressionism spawned, the fact that Modern Art was firmly modern from the Impressionists on, and the ways in which viewers, patrons, and critics altered their viewing, buying and critical habits after becoming acquainted with the Impressionists.

    Impressionism Was About Light

    The Impressionists studied light to the -nth degree. You probably could write of optical color receptors and wavelength measurement from a scientific point of view, but that isn't actually how the Impressionists "studied" light. Instead, they looked long and hard at how light is reflected or absorbed, and how this interplay subsequently registers colors in our brains. They observed and sketched endlessly. They then tried to recreate light itself with paints and brushes. We can't begin to tell you how truly innovative this type of visual thought was.

      Color theory Was a Key Component of Impressionism, Too

      Color theory was a relatively new science, formulated by the French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889) and published in 1839. The Impressionists were the first group of artists to fully grasp Chevreul's findings and put them into practice. You can see the results for yourself whenever seemingly incongruous but complementary primary, secondary and tertiary colors are used next to one another in Impressionist canvases to achieve color blends that are, yes, found in nature.

        The Third Main Ingredient of Impressionism Concerns Technique

        Here, too, Impressionism was bold and daring. These artists broke from smooth convention and let anyone who cared to look see full evidence their brushwork (unthinkable!). Because they now had tubes of paint that could open and close, they began mixing colors right on their canvases instead of their palettes (unheard of!). And, after stretching them, the Impressionists primed their canvases to be white (inconceivable!). None of the academic painters did this. They used unprimed, dark canvases because that was how it had always been done. Until these wild rebels hit the scene, of course.

          A Fourth Point to Make About Impressionism Is Its Chosen Subject Matter

          In one final, definitive break from academic tradition, the Impressionists threw history, royalty, and mythology out the subject matter window. Rather, they concentrated on scenes from the life that a thoroughly modern Paris offered. They gave us pictures of an emerging middle class enjoying leisure activities in locations that could now be easily reached by train, mothers, and children who were enjoying the relatively new concept of "childhood," and ordinary people (previously excluded from such fun) who were seen enjoying attending the opera, the ballet, the theatre, balls, bars, horse races and even dancing lessons.

            Impressionism Did Not Spring, Fully Formed, out of the Either

            A myth has come to surround the Impressionists, making them into towering artistic geniuses who collectively formed a completely original way to make art. While these artists had their genius moments, nothing in art ever springs up fully formed. Over time we tend to forget that, while Impressionism was new and radical in the 1870s, it was also a synthesis of many disparate elements gleaned from earlier artists and movements. The Impressionists deserve credit for "inventing" Impressionism, but they themselves were quick to point out when, where and from whose prior work they'd been inspired to do this new thing.

              The Impressionists Did Not Do All of Their Painting Outdoors

              The Impressionists popularized outdoor scenes and so have the reputation of being a group of "outdoor" painters, but this is not fully warranted. They weren't actually even the pioneers of painting en plein air they are supposed to be. Facts are, the Impressionists painted a lot of landscapes, and did a lot of preliminary work outdoors. However, most of these same landscapes (including Monet's) saw a much larger proportion of indoor studio time while they were being completed. So avoid any sweeping generalizations in the "outdoor" area.

                The Impressionists Were Not Universally Loathed by Art Critics

                This is also a popular, dramatic and somewhat romantic falsehood. We seem to have concentrated on Impressionism's initial detractors in art history and have repeated their scornful quotes so often that all anyone remembers these days is how doltish said commentators appear in retrospect. In truth, the list of friendly critics, literary champions and early patrons of the Impressionists are much longer than the list of those who've been made to eat their harsh words over the years.