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Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), 1872, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan

Impressionism was a 19th-century art movement that began as a loose association of Paris-based artists whose independent exhibitions brought them to prominence in the 1870s and 1880s. The name of the movement is derived from the title of a Claude Monet work, Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant), which provoked the critic Louis Leroy to coin the term in a satiric review published in Le Charivari.

Characteristics of Impressionist paintings include visible brush strokes, open composition, emphasis on light in its changing qualities (often accentuating the effects of the passage of time), ordinary subject matter, the inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience, and unusual visual angles. The emergence of Impressionism in the visual arts was soon followed by analogous movements in other media which became known as Impressionist music and Impressionist literature.

Impressionism also describes art created in this style, but outside of the late 19th century time period.



Alfred Sisley, Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne, 1872, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Radicals in their time, early Impressionists broke the rules of academic painting. They began by giving colours, freely brushed, primacy over line, drawing inspiration from the work of painters such as Eugène Delacroix. They also took the act of painting out of the studio and into the modern world. Previously, still lifes and portraits as well as landscapes had usually been painted indoors.[1] The Impressionists found that they could capture the momentary and transient effects of sunlight by painting en plein air. Painting realistic scenes of modern life, they portrayed overall visual effects instead of details. They used short "broken" brush strokes of mixed and pure unmixed colour, not smoothly blended or shaded, as was customary, in order to achieve the effect of intense colour vibration.

Although the rise of Impressionism in France happened at a time when a number of other painters, including the Italian artists known as the Macchiaioli, and Winslow Homer in the United States, were also exploring plein-air painting, the Impressionists developed new techniques that were specific to the movement. Encompassing what its adherents argued was a different way of seeing, it was an art of immediacy and movement, of candid poses and compositions, of the play of light expressed in a bright and varied use of colour.

The public, at first hostile, gradually came to believe that the Impressionists had captured a fresh and original vision, even if it did not receive the approval of the art critics and establishment.

By re-creating the sensation in the eye that views the subject, rather than recreating the subject, and by creating a welter of techniques and forms, Impressionism became a precursor seminal to various movements in painting which would follow, including Neo-Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism.


Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (Bal du moulin de la Galette), 1876

In an atmosphere of change as Emperor Napoleon III rebuilt Paris and waged war, the Académie des Beaux-Arts dominated the French art scene in the middle of the 19th century. The Académie was the upholder of traditional standards for French painting, both in content and style. Historical subjects, religious themes, and portraits were valued (landscape and still life were not), and the Académie preferred carefully finished images which mirrored reality when examined closely. Colour was somber and conservative, and the traces of brush strokes were suppressed, concealing the artist's personality, emotions, and working techniques.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Girl with a Hoop, 1885

The Académie held an annual, juried art show, the Salon de Paris, and artists whose work displayed in the show won prizes, garnered commissions, and enhanced their prestige. The standards of the juries reflected the values of the Académie, represented by the highly polished works of such artists as Jean-Léon Gérôme and Alexandre Cabanel. Some younger artists painted in a lighter and brighter manner than painters of the preceding generation, extending further the realism of Gustave Courbet and the Barbizon school. They were more interested in painting landscape and contemporary life than in recreating scenes from history. Each year, they submitted their art to the Salon, only to see the juries reject their best efforts in favour of trivial works by artists working in the approved style. A core group of young realists, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille, who had studied under Charles Gleyre, became friends and often painted together. They soon were joined by Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and Armand Guillaumin.[2]

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, On the Terrace, oil on canvas, 1881, Art Institute of Chicago
Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol, (Camille and Jean Monet), 1875, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In 1863, the jury rejected The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe) by Édouard Manet primarily because it depicted a nude woman with two clothed men at a picnic. While nudes were routinely accepted by the Salon when featured in historical and allegorical paintings, the jury condemned Manet for placing a realistic nude in a contemporary setting.[3] The jury's sharply worded rejection of Manet's painting, as well as the unusually large number of rejected works that year, set off a firestorm among French artists. Manet was admired by Monet and his friends, and led the discussions at Café Guerbois where the group of artists frequently met.

After seeing the rejected works in 1863, Emperor Napoleon III decreed that the public be allowed to judge the work themselves, and the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Refused) was organized. While many viewers came only to laugh, the Salon des Refusés drew attention to the existence of a new tendency in art and attracted more visitors than the regular Salon.[4]

Artists' petitions requesting a new Salon des Refusés in 1867, and again in 1872, were denied. In the latter part of 1873, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and Sisley organized the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs ("Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers") for the purpose of exhibiting their artworks independently. Members of the association, which soon included Cézanne, Berthe Morisot, and Edgar Degas, were expected to forswear participation in the Salon. The organizers invited a number of other progressive artists to join them in their inaugural exhibition, including the older Eugène Boudin, whose example had first persuaded Monet to take up plein air painting years before.[5] Another painter who greatly influenced Monet and his friends, Johan Jongkind, declined to participate, as did Manet. In total, thirty artists participated in their first exhibition, held in April 1874 at the studio of the photographer Nadar.

Claude Monet, The Cliff at Étretat after the Storm, 1885, Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

The critical response was mixed, with Monet and Cézanne bearing the harshest attacks. Critic and humorist Louis Leroy wrote a scathing review in the Le Charivari newspaper in which, making wordplay with the title of Claude Monet's Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant), he gave the artists the name by which they would become known. Derisively titling his article The Exhibition of the Impressionists, Leroy declared that Monet's painting was at most, a sketch, and could hardly be termed a finished work.

He wrote, in the form of a dialog between viewers,

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.[6]

The term "Impressionists" quickly gained favour with the public. It was also accepted by the artists themselves, even though they were a diverse group in style and temperament, unified primarily by their spirit of independence and rebellion. They exhibited together—albeit with shifting membership—eight times between 1874 and 1886.

Monet, Sisley, Morisot, and Pissarro may be considered the "purest" Impressionists, in their consistent pursuit of an art of spontaneity, sunlight, and colour. Degas rejected much of this, as he believed in the primacy of drawing over colour and belittled the practice of painting outdoors.[7] Renoir turned against Impressionism for a time in the 1880s, and never entirely regained his commitment to its ideas. Édouard Manet, despite his role as a leader to the group, never abandoned his liberal use of black as a colour, and never participated in the Impressionist exhibitions. He continued to submit his works to the Salon, where his Spanish Singer had won a 2nd class medal in 1861, and he urged the others to do likewise, arguing that "the Salon is the real field of battle" where a reputation could be made.[8]

Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre, 1897, the Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Among the artists of the core group (minus Bazille, who had died in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870), defections occurred as Cézanne, followed later by Renoir, Sisley, and Monet, abstained from the group exhibitions in order to submit their works to the Salon. Disagreements arose from issues such as Guillaumin's membership in the group, championed by Pissarro and Cézanne against opposition from Monet and Degas, who thought him unworthy.[9] Degas invited Mary Cassatt to display her work in the 1879 exhibition, but he also caused dissension by insisting on the inclusion of Jean-François Raffaëlli, Ludovic Lepic, and other realists who did not represent Impressionist practices, leading Monet in 1880 to accuse the Impressionists of "opening doors to first-come daubers".[10] The group divided over the invitation of Signac and Seurat to exhibit with them in 1886. Pissarro was the only artist to show at all eight Impressionist exhibitions.

The individual artists saw few financial rewards from the Impressionist exhibitions, but their art gradually won a degree of public acceptance and support. Their dealer, Durand-Ruel, played a major role in this as he kept their work before the public and arranged shows for them in London and New York. Although Sisley would die in poverty in 1899, Renoir had a great Salon success in 1879. Financial security came to Monet in the early 1880s and to Pissarro by the early 1890s. By this time the methods of Impressionist painting, in a diluted form, had become commonplace in Salon art.[11]

Impressionist techniques

Berthe Morisot, The Cradle, 1872, Musée d'Orsay
  • Short, thick strokes of paint are used to quickly capture the essence of the subject, rather than its details. The paint is often applied impasto.
  • Colours are applied side-by-side with as little mixing as possible, creating a vibrant surface. The optical mixing of colours occurs in the eye of the viewer.
  • Grays and dark tones are produced by mixing complementary colours. In pure Impressionism the use of black paint is avoided.
  • Wet paint is placed into wet paint without waiting for successive applications to dry, producing softer edges and an intermingling of colour.
  • Painting in the evening to get effets de soir - the shadowy effects of the light in the evening or twilight.
  • Impressionist paintings do not exploit the transparency of thin paint films (glazes) which earlier artists built up carefully to produce effects. The surface of an Impressionist painting is typically opaque.
  • The play of natural light is emphasized. Close attention is paid to the reflection of colours from object to object.
  • In paintings made en plein air (outdoors), shadows are boldly painted with the blue of the sky as it is reflected onto surfaces, giving a sense of freshness and openness that was not captured in painting previously. (Blue shadows on snow inspired the technique.)
Mary Cassatt, Lydia Leaning on Her Arms (in a theatre box), 1879

Painters throughout history had occasionally used these methods, but Impressionists were the first to use all of them together, and with such boldness. Earlier artists whose works display these techniques include Frans Hals, Diego Velázquez, Peter Paul Rubens, John Constable, and J. M. W. Turner.

French painters who prepared the way for Impressionism include the Romantic colourist Eugène Delacroix, the leader of the realists Gustave Courbet, and painters of the Barbizon school such as Théodore Rousseau. The Impressionists learned much from the work of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Eugène Boudin, who painted from nature in a style that was close to Impressionism, and who befriended and advised the younger artists.

Impressionists took advantage of the mid-century introduction of premixed paints in lead tubes (resembling modern toothpaste tubes) which allowed artists to work more spontaneously, both outdoors and indoors. Previously, painters made their own paints individually, by grinding and mixing dry pigment powders with linseed oil, which were then stored in animal bladders.[12]

Content and composition

Camille Pissarro, Hay Harvest at Éragny, 1901, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario

Prior to the Impressionists, other painters, notably such 17th-century Dutch painters as Jan Steen, had focused on common subjects, but their approaches to composition were traditional. They arranged their compositions in such a way that the main subject commanded the viewer's attention. The Impressionists relaxed the boundary between subject and background so that the effect of an Impressionist painting often resembles a snapshot, a part of a larger reality captured as if by chance.[13] Photography was gaining popularity, and as cameras became more portable, photographs became more candid. Photography inspired Impressionists to capture the moment, not only in the fleeting lights of a landscape, but in the day-to-day lives of people.

The rise of the impressionist movement can be seen in part as a reaction by artists to the newly established medium of photography. The taking of fixed or still images challenged painters by providing a new medium with which to capture reality. Initially photography's presence seemed to undermine the artist's depiction of nature and their ability to mirror reality. Both portrait and landscape paintings were deemed somewhat deficient and lacking in truth as photography "produced lifelike images much more efficiently and reliably". [14]

Alfred Sisley, View of the Saint-Martin Canal, Paris, 1870, Musée d'Orsay

In spite of this, photography actually inspired artists to pursue other means of artistic expression, and rather than competing with photography to emulate reality, artists focused "on the one thing they could inevitably do better than the photograph – by further developing into an art form its very subjectivity in the conception of the image, the very subjectivity that photography eliminated".[14] The Impressionists sought to express their perceptions of nature, rather than create exacting reflections or mirror images of the world. This allowed artists to subjectively depict what they saw with their "tacit imperatives of taste and conscience". [15] Photography encouraged painters to exploit aspects of the painting medium, like colour, which photography then lacked; "the Impressionists were the first to consciously offer a subjective alternative to the photograph".[14]

Another major influence was Japanese art prints (Japonism), which had originally come into France as wrapping paper for imported goods. The art of these prints contributed significantly to the "snapshot" angles and unconventional compositions which would become characteristic of the movement.

Edgar Degas was both an avid photographer and a collector of Japanese prints.[16] His The Dance Class (La classe de danse) of 1874 shows both influences in its asymmetrical composition. The dancers are seemingly caught off guard in various awkward poses, leaving an expanse of empty floor space in the lower right quadrant.

Main Impressionists

Camille Pissarro, Hoarfrost, 1873, Musee d'Orsay, Paris

The central figures in the development of Impressionism in France, listed alphabetically, were:



The Impressionists

Associates and influenced artists

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1874), Detroit Institute of Arts

Among the close associates of the Impressionists were several painters who adopted their methods to some degree. These include Giuseppe De Nittis, an Italian artist living in Paris who participated in the first Impressionist exhibit at the invitation of Degas, although the other Impressionists disparaged his work.[18] Federico Zandomeneghi was another Italian friend of Degas who showed with the Impressionists. Eva Gonzalès was a follower of Manet who did not exhibit with the group. James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an American-born painter who played a part in Impressionism although he did not join the group and preferred grayed colours. Walter Sickert, an English artist, was initially a follower of Whistler, and later an important disciple of Degas; he did not exhibit with the Impressionists. In 1904 the artist and writer Wynford Dewhurst wrote the first important study of the French painters to be published in English, Impressionist Painting: its genesis and development, which did much to popularize Impressionism in Great Britain.

By the early 1880s, Impressionist methods were affecting, at least superficially, the art of the Salon. Fashionable painters such as Jean Beraud and Henri Gervex found critical and financial success by brightening their palettes while retaining the smooth finish expected of Salon art.[19] Works by these artists are sometimes casually referred to as Impressionism, despite their remoteness from Impressionist practice.

Beyond France

Mary Cassatt, The Child's Bath (The Bath), 1893, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago

As the influence of Impressionism spread beyond France, artists, too numerous to list, became identified as practitioners of the new style. Some of the more important examples are:

Sculpture, photography and film

The sculptor Auguste Rodin is sometimes called an Impressionist for the way he used roughly modeled surfaces to suggest transient light effects.

Pictorialist photographers whose work is characterized by soft focus and atmospheric effects have also been called Impressionists.

French Impressionist Cinema is a term applied to a loosely defined group of films and filmmakers in France from 1919-1929, although these years are debatable. French Impressionist filmmakers include Abel Gance, Jean Epstein, Germaine Dulac, Marcel L’Herbier, Louis Delluc, and Dmitry Kirsanoff.

Music and literature

Musical Impressionism is the name given to a movement in European classical music that arose in the late 19th century and continued into the middle of the 20th century. Originating in France, musical Impressionism is characterized by suggestion and atmosphere, and eschews the emotional excesses of the Romantic era. Impressionist composers favoured short forms such as the nocturne, arabesque, and prelude, and often explored uncommon scales such as the whole tone scale. Perhaps the most notable innovations used by Impressionist composers were the first uses of major 7th chords and the extension of chord structures in 3rds to five and six part harmonies.

The influence of visual Impressionism on its musical counterpart is debatable. Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel are generally considered the greatest Impressionist composers, but Debussy disavowed the term, calling it the invention of critics. Erik Satie was also considered to be in this category although his approach was considered to be less serious, more of musical novelty in nature. Paul Dukas is another French composer sometimes considered to be an Impressionist but his style is perhaps more closely aligned to the late Romanticists. Musical Impressionism beyond France includes the work of such composers as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Ottorino Respighi.

The term Impressionism has also been used to describe works of literature in which a few select details suffice to convey the sensory impressions of an incident or scene. Impressionist literature is closely related to Symbolism, with its major exemplars being Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. Authors such as Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad have written works which are Impressionistic in the way that they describe, rather than interpret, the impressions, sensations and emotions that constitute a character's mental life.


Camille Pissarro, Children on a Farm, 1887

Post-Impressionism developed from Impressionism. From the 1880s several artists began to develop different precepts for the use of colour, pattern, form, and line, derived from the Impressionist example: Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. These artists were slightly younger than the Impressionists, and their work is known as post-Impressionism. Some of the original Impressionist artists also ventured into this new territory; Camille Pissarro briefly painted in a pointillist manner, and even Monet abandoned strict plein air painting. Paul Cézanne, who participated in the first and third Impressionist exhibitions, developed a highly individual vision emphasising pictorial structure, and he is more often called a post-Impressionist. Although these cases illustrate the difficulty of assigning labels, the work of the original Impressionist painters may, by definition, be categorised as Impressionism.

See also


  1. ^ Exceptions include Canaletto, who painted outside and may have used the camera obscura.
  2. ^ "Vincent Van Gogh" Oxford Art Online
  3. ^ Denvir (1990), p.133.
  4. ^ Denvir (1990), p.194.
  5. ^ Denvir (1990), p.32.
  6. ^ Rewald (1973), p. 323.
  7. ^ Gordon; Forge (1988), pp. 11–12.
  8. ^ Richardson (1976), p. 3.
  9. ^ Denvir (1990), p.105.
  10. ^ Rewald (1973), p. 603.
  11. ^ Rewald, (1973), p. 475–476.
  12. ^ Renoir and the Impressionist Process, The Phillips Collection
  13. ^ Rosenblum (1989), p. 228.
  14. ^ a b c Levinson, Paul (1997) The Soft Edge; a Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution, Routledge, London and New York
  15. ^ Sontag, Susan (1977) On Photography, Penguin, London
  16. ^ Baumann; Karabelnik, et al. (1994), p. 112.
  17. ^ Denvir (1990), p.140.
  18. ^ Denvir (1990), p.152.
  19. ^ Rewald (1973), p.476–477.


  • Baumann, Felix; Karabelnik, Marianne, et al. (1994). Degas Portraits. London: Merrell Holberton. ISBN 1-85894-014-1
  • Denvir, Bernard (1990). The Thames and Hudson Encyclopaedia of Impressionism. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-20239-7
  • Gordon, Robert; Forge, Andrew (1988). Degas. New York: Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 0-8109-1142-6
  • Gowing, Lawrence, with Adriani, Götz; Krumrine, Mary Louise; Lewis, Mary Tompkins; Patin, Sylvie; Rewald, John (1988). Cézanne: The Early Years 1859-1872. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
  • Moskowitz, Ira; Sérullaz, Maurice (1962). French Impressionists: A Selection of Drawings of the French 19th Century. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-316-58560-2
  • Rewald, John (1973). The History of Impressionism (4th, Revised Ed.). New York: The Museum of Modern Art. ISBN 0-87070-360-9
  • Richardson, John (1976). Manet (3rd Ed.). Oxford: Phaidon Press Ltd. ISBN 0-7148-1743-0
  • Rosenblum, Robert (1989). Paintings in the Musée d'Orsay. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang. ISBN 1-55670-099-7

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

IMPRESSIONISM. The word "Impressionist" has come to have a more general application in England than in France, where it took currency as the nickname of a definite group of painters exhibiting together, and was adopted by themselves during the conflict of opinion which the novelty of their art excited. The word therefore belongs to the class of nicknames or battle-names, like "Romanticist," "Naturalist," "Realist," which preceded it, words into which the acuteness of controversy infuses more of theoretical purport than the work of the artists denoted suggests to later times. The painters included in such a "school" differ so much among themselves, and so little from their predecessors compared with the points of likeness, that we may well see in these recurring effervescences of official and popular distaste rather the shock of individual force in the artist measured against contemporary mediocrity than the disturbance of a new doctrine. The "Olympia" of Manet, hooted at the Salon of 1865 as subversive of all tradition, decency and beauty, strikes the visitor to the Luxembourg rather as the reversion to a theme of Titian by an artist of ruder vision than as the demonstration of a revolutionary in painting. Later developments of the school do appear to us revolutionary. With this warning in a matter still too near us for final judgment, we may give some account of the Impressionists proper, and then turn to the wider significance sometimes given to the name.

The words Impressioniste, Impressionisme, are said to have arisen from a phrase in the preface to Manet's catalogue of his pictures exhibited in 1867 during the Exposition Universelle, from which he was excluded. "It is the effect," he wrote, "of sincerity to give to a painter's works a character that makes them resemble a protest, whereas the painter has only thought of rendering his impression." An alternative origin is a catalogue in which Claude Monet entitled a picture of sunrise at sea "Une Impression." The word was probably much used in the discussions of the group, and was caught up by the critics as characteristic.' At the earlier date the only meaning of the word was a claim for individual liberty of subject and treatment. So far as subject went, most, though not all of Manet's pictures were modern and actual of his Paris, for his power lay in the representation of the thing before his eye, and not in fanciful invention. His simplicity in this respect brought him into collision with popular prejudice when, in the "Dejeuner sur l'herbe" (1863), he painted a modern fête champetre. The actual characters of his painting at this period, so fancifully reproached and praised, may be grouped under two heads.

(1) The expression of the object by a few carefully chosen values in flattish patches. Those patches are placed side by side with little attenuation of their sharp collision. This simplification of colour and tone recalls by its broad effects of light and silhouette on the one hand Velasquez, on the other the extreme simplification made by the Japanese for the purposes of colourprinting. Manet, like the other painters of his group, was influenced by these newly-discovered works of art. The image, thus treated, has remarkable hardiness and vigour, and also great decorative breadth. Its vivacity and intensity of aspect is gained by the sacrifice of many minor gradations, and by the judgment with which the leading values have been determined. This matching of values produces, technically, a "solid" painting, without glazing or elaborate transparency in shadows.

(2) During this period Manet makes constant progress towards a fair, clear colour. In his early work the patches of blond colour are relieved against black shadows; later these shadows clear up, and in place of an indeterminate brown sauce we find 1 Mr H. P. Hain Friswell has pointed out that the word "impression" occurs frequently in Chevreul's book on colour; but it is also current among the critics. See Ruskin's chapter on Turner's composition - "impression on the mind." shadows that are colours. A typical picture of this period is the "Musique aux Tuileries," refused by the Salon of 1863. In this we have an actual out-of-doors scene rendered with a frankness and sharp taste of contemporary life surprising to contemporaries, with an elision of detail in the treatment of a crowd and a seizing on the chief colour note and patch that characterize each figure equally surprising, an effort finally to render the total high-pitched gaiety of the spectacle as a banquet of sunlight and colour rather than a collection of separate dramatic groups.

For life of Edouard Manet (1832-1883) see Edmond Bazire, Manet (Paris, 1884). An idea of the state of popular feeling may be gained by reading Zola's eloquent defence in Mon Salon, which appeared in L'Evenement (1866) and Edouard Manet (1867), both reprinted in Mes Haines (Paris, 1880). The same author has embodied many of the impressionist ideals in Claude Lantier, the fictitious hero of L'OEuvre. Other writers belonging to Manet's group are Theodore Duret, author of Les Peintres francais en 1867 and Critique d'avantgarde, articles and catalogue-prefaces reprinted 1885. See also, for Manet and others, J. K. Huysman's L'Art moderne (1883) and Certains. Summaries of the literature of the whole period will be found in R. Muther, The History of Modern Painting (tr. London, 1896), not always trustworthy in detail, and Miss R. G. Kingsley, A History of French Art (1899). For an interesting critical account see W. C. Brownell, French Art (1892).

The second period, to which the name is sometimes limited, is complicated by the emergence of new figures, and it is difficult as yet, and perhaps will always remain difficult, to say how much of originality belongs to each artist in the group. The main features are an intenser study of illumination, a greater variety of illuminations, and a revolution in facture with a view to pressing closer to a high pitch of light. Manet plays his part in this development, but we shall not be wrong probably in giving to Claude Monet (b. 1840) the chief role as the instinctive artist of the period, and to Camille Pissarro (b. 1830) a very large part as a painter, curious in theory and experiment. Monet at the early date of 1866 had painted a picture as daring in its naïve brutality of out-of-door illumination as the "Dejeuner sur l'herbe." But this picture has the breadth of patch, solidity and suavity of paste of Manet's practice. During the siege of Paris (1870-71) Monet and Pissarro were in London, and there the study of Turner's pictures enlarged their ideas of the pitch in lighting and range of effect possible in painting, and also suggested a new handling of colour, by small broken touches in place of the large flowing touches characteristic of Manet. This method of painting occupied much of the discussion of the group that centred round Manet at the Café Guerbois, in the Batignolles quarter (hence called L'Ecole de Batignolles). The ideas were: (1) Abolition of conventional brown tonality. But all browns, in the fervour of this revolt, went the way of conventional brown, and all ready-made mixtures like the umbers, ochres, siennas were banished from the palette. Black itself was condemned. (2) The idea of the spectrum, as exhibiting the series of "primary" or "pure" colours, directed the reformed palette. Six colours, besides white, were admitted to represent the chief hues of the spectrum. (3) These colours were laid on the canvas with as little previous mixture on the palette as possible to maintain a maximum of luminosity, and were fused by touch on the canvas as little as possible, for the same reason. Hence the "broken" character of the touch in this painting, and the subordination of delicacies of form and suave continuity of texture to the one aim of glittering light-and-colour notation. Justification of these procedures was sought in occasional features of the practice of E. Delacroix, of Watteau, of J. B. Chardin, in the hatchings of pastel, the stipple of water-colour. With the ferment of theory went a parti pris for translating all effects into the upper registers of tone (cf. Ruskin's chapter on Turner's practice in Modern Painters), and for emphasizing the colour of shadows at the expense of their tone. The characteristic work of this period is landscape, as the subject of illumination strictly observed and followed through the round of the day and of the seasons. Other pictorial motives were subordinated to this research of effect, and Monet, with a haystack, group of poplars, or church front, has demonstrated the variety of lighting that the day and the season bring to a single scene. Besides Pissarro, Alfred Sisley (1840-1899) is a member of the group, and Manet continues his progress, influenced by the new ideas in pictures like "Le Linge" and "Chez le Pere Lathuille." Edmond Degas (b. 1834), a severe and learned draughtsman, is associated with this landscape group by his curiosity in the expression of momentary action and the effects of artificial illumination, and by his experiments in broken colour, more particularly in pastel. The novelty of his matter, taken from unexplored corners of modern life, still more the daring and irony of his observation and points of view, and the strangeness of his composition, strongly influenced by Japanese art, enriched the associations now gathering about the word "impressionist." Another name, that of Auguste Renoir (b. 1841), completes the leading figures of the group. Any "school" programme would be strained to breaking-point to admit this painter, unless on the very general grounds of love of bright colour, sunlit places and independence of vision. He has no science of drawing or of tone, but wins a precarious charm of colour and expression.

The landscape, out-of-doors line, which unites in this period with Manet's line, may be represented by these names: J. B. Corot, J. B. Jongkind, Boudin, Monet. Monet's real teacher was Eugene Boudin (1824-1898). (See Gustave Cahen's Eugene Boudin, Paris, 1900). They, and others of the group, worked together in a painters' colony at Saint Simeon, near Honfleur. It is usual to date the origin of plein-air painting, i.e. painting out-of-doors, in an out-of-doors key of tone, from a picture Manet painted in the garden of de Nittis, just before the outbreak of war in 1870. This dates only Manet's change to the lighter key and looser handling. It was Monet who carried the practice to a logical extreme, working on his canvas only during the effect and in its presence. The method of Degas is altogether different, viz., a combination in the studio from innumerable notes and observations. It will be evident from what has been said above that impressionistic painting is an artistic ferment, corresponding to the scientific research into the principles of light and colour, just as earlier movements ill painting coincided with the scientific study of perspective and anatomy. Chevreul's famous book, already referred to, De la loi du contraste simultane des couleurs (1838), established certain laws of interaction for colours adjacent to one another. He still, however, referred the sensations of colour to the three impossible "primaries" of Brewster - red, blue and yellow. The Young-Helmholtz theory affected the palette of the Impressionists, and the work of Ogden Rood, Colour (Internat. Scientific Series, 1879-1881), published in English, French and German, furnished the theorists with formulae measuring the degradation of pitch suffered by pigments in mixture.

The Impressionist group (with the exception of Manet, who still fought for his place in the Salon) exhibited together for the first time as L'Exposition des Impressionistes at Nadar's, Boulevard des Capucines, in 1874. They were then taken up by the dealer DurandRuel, and the succeeding exhibitions in 1876, 1877, 1879, 1880, 1881, 1882 and 1886 were held by him in various galleries. The full history of these exhibitions, with the names of the painters, will be found in two works: Felix-Feneon, Les Impressionistes 1886 (Paris, 1886), and G. Geffroy, La Vie artistique (" Histoire de l'impressionisme," in vol. for 1894). See also G. Lecomte, L'Art impressioniste d'apres la collection privee de M. Durand-Ruel (Paris, 1892); Duranty, La Peinture nouvelle (1876). Besides the names already cited, some others may be added: Madame Berthe Morisot, sister-in-law of Manet; Paul Cezanne, belonging to the Nlanet-Pissarro group; and, later, Gauguin. J. F. Raffaelli applied a "characteristic" drawing, to use his word, to scenes in the dismal suburbs of Paris; Forain, the satiric draughtsman, was a disciple of Degas, as also Zandomeneghi. Miss Mary Cassatt was his pupil. Caillebotte, who bequeathed the collection of Impressionist paintings now in the Luxembourg, was also an exhibitor; and Boudin, who linked the movement to the earlier schools.

The first exhibitions of the Impressionists in London were in 1882 and 1883, but their fortunes there cannot be pursued in the present article, nor the history of the movement beyond its originators. This excludes notable figures, of which M. Besnard may be chosen as a type.

In Manet's painting, even in the final steps he took towards "la peinture claire," there is nothing of the "decomposition of tones" that logically followed from the theories of his followers. He recognized the existence in certain illuminations of the violet shadow, and he adopted in open-air work a looser and more broken touch. The nature of his subjects encouraged such a handling, for the painter who attempts to note from nature the colour values of an elusive effect must treat form in a summary fashion, still more so when the material is in constant movement like water. Moreover, in the river-side subjects near Paris there was a great deal that was only pictorially tolerable when its tone was subtracted from the details of its form. Monet's painting carries the shorthand of form and broken colour to extremity; the flowing touch of Manet is chopped up into harsher, smaller notes of tone, and the pitch pushed up till all values approach the iridescent end of the register. It was in 1886 that the doctrinaire ferment came to a head, and what was supposed to be a scientific method of colour was formulated. This was pointillisme, the resolution of the colours of nature back into six bands of the rainbow or spectrum, and their representation on the canvas by dots of unmixed pigment. These dots, at a sufficient distance, combine their hues in the eye with the effect of a mixture of coloured lights, not of pigments, so that the result is an increase instead of a loss of luminosity. There are several fallacies, however, theoretical and practical, in this "spectral palette" and pointillist method. If we depart from the three primaries of the Helmholtz hypothesis, there is no reason why we should stop at six hues instead of six hundred. But pigments follow the spectrum series so imperfectly that the three primaries, even if we could exactly locate them, limit the palette considerably in its upper range. The sacrifice of black is quite illogical, and the lower ranges suffer accordingly. Moreover, it is doubtful whether many painters have followed the laws of mixture of lights in their dotting, e.g. dotting green and red together to produce yellow. It may be added that dotting with oil pigment is in practice too coarse and inaccurate a method. This innovation of pointillisme is generally ascribed to George Seurat (d. 1890), whose picture, "La Grande Jatte," was exhibited at the Rue Laffitte in 1886. Pissarro experimented in the new method, but abandoned it, and other names among the Pointillistes are Paul Signac, Vincent van Gogh, and van Rysselberghe. The theory opened the way for endless casuistries, and its extravagances died out in the later exhibition of the Independants or were domesticated in the Salon by painters like M. Henri Martin.

The first modern painter to concern himself scientifically with the reactions of complementary colours appears to have been Delacroix (J. Leonardo, it should be remembered, left some notes on the subject). It is claimed for Delacroix that as early as 1825 he observed and made use of these reactions, anticipating the complete exposition of Chevreul. He certainly studied the treatise, and his biographers describe a dial-face he constructed for reference. He had quantities of little wafers of each colour, with which he tried colour effects, a curious anticipation of pointillist technique. The pointillists claim him as their grandfather. See Paul Signac, "D'Eugene Delacroix au Neo-Impressionnisme" (Revue Blanche, 1898). For a fuller discussion of the spectral palette see the Saturday Review, 2nd, 9th and 23rd February and 23rd March 1901.

In England the ideas connected with the word Impressionism have been refracted through the circumstances of the British schools. The questions of pitch of light and iridescent colour had already arisen over the work of Turner, of the PreRaphaelites, and also of G. F. Watts, but less isolated and narrowed, because the art of none of these limited itself to the pursuit of light. Pointillisme, after a fashion, existed in British water-colour practice. But the Pre-Raphaelite school had accustomed the English eye to extreme definition in painting and to elaboration of detail, and it happened that the painting of James M c Neill Whistler (Grosvenor Gallery, 1878) brought the battle-name Impressionism into England and gave it a different colour. Whistler's method of painting was in no way revolutionary, and he preferred to transpose values into a lower key rather than compete with natural pitch, but his vision, like that of Manet under the same influences, Spanish and Japanese, simplified tone and subordinated detail. These characteristics raised the whole question of the science and art of aspect in modern painting, and the field of controversy was extended backwards to Velasquez as the chief master of the moderns. "Impressionism" at first had meant individualism of vision, later the notation of fugitive aspects of light and of movement; now it came to mean breadth in pictorial vision, all the simplifications that arise from the modern analysis of aspect, and especially the effect produced upon the parts of a picture-field by attending to the impression of the whole. Ancient painting analyses aspect into three separate acts as form, tone and colour. All forms are made out with equal clearness by a conventional outline; over this system of outlines a second system of light and shade is passed, and over this again a system of colours. Tone is conceived as a difference of black or white added to the tints, and the colours are the definite local tints of the objects (a blue, a red, a yellow, and so forth). In fully developed modern painting, instead of an object analysed into sharp outlines covered with a uniform colour darkened or lightened in places, we find an object analysed into a number of surfaces or planes set at different angles. On each of these facets the character of the object and of the illumination, with accidents of reflection, produces a patch called by modern painters a "value," because it is colour of a particular value or tone. (With each difference of tone, "value" implies a difference of hue also, so that when we speak of a different tone of the same colour we are using the word "same" in a loose or approximate sense.) These planes or facets define themselves one against another with greater or less sharpness. Modern technique follows this modern analysis of vision, and in one act instead of three renders by a "touch" of paint the shape and value of these facets, and instead of imposing a uniform ideal outline at all their junctions, allows these patches to define themselves against one another with variable sharpness.

Blurred definition, then, as it exists in our natural view of things, is admitted into painting; a blurring that may arise from distance, from vapour or smoke, from brilliant light, from obscurity, or simply from the nearness in value of adjacent objects. Similarly, much detail that in primitive art is elaborated is absorbed by rendering the aspect instead of the facts known to make up that aspect. Thus hair and fur, the texture of stuffs, the blades of grass at a little distance, become patches of tone showing only their larger constructive markings. But the blurring of definitions and the elimination of detail that we find in modern pictorial art are not all of this ready-made character. We have so far only the scientific analysis of a field of view. If the painter were a scientific reporter he would have to pursue the systems of planes, with their shapes and values, to infinity. Impressionism is the art that surveys the field and determines which of the shapes and tones are of chief importance to the interested eye, enforces these, and sacrifices the rest. Construction, the logic of the object rendered, determines partly this action of the eye, and also decoration, the effects of rhythm in line and harmony in fields of colour. These motives belong to all art, but the specially impressionist motive is the act of attention as it affects the aspect of the field. We are familiar, in the ordinary use of the eye, with two features of its structure that limit clearness of vision. There is, first, the spot of clear vision on the retina, outside of which all falls away into blur; there is, secondly, the action of focus. As the former limits clear definition to one spot in the field extended vertically and laterally, so focus limits clear definition to one plane in the third dimension, viz. depth. If three objects, A, B and C, stand at different depths before the eye, we can at will fix A, whereupon B and C must fall out of focus, or B, whereupon A and C must be blurred, or C, sacrificing the clearness of A and B. All this apparatus makes it impossible to see everything at once with equal clearness, enables us, and forces us for the uses of real life, to frame and limit our picture, according to the immediate interest of the eye, whatever it may be. The painter instinctively uses these means to arrive at the emphasis and neglect that his choice requires. If he is engaged on a face he will now screw his attention to a part and now relax it, distributing the attention over the whole so as to restore the bigger relations of aspect. Sir Joshua Reynolds describes this process as seeing the whole "with the dilated eye"; the commoner precept of the studios is "to look with the eyes half closed"; a third way is to throw the whole voluntarily out of focus. In any case the result is that minor planes are swamped in bigger, that smaller patches of colour are swept up into broader, that markings are blurred. The final result of these tentative reviews records, in what is blurred and what is clear, the attention that has been distributed to different parts, and to parts measured against the whole. The Impressionist painter does not allot so much detail to a face in a full-length portrait as to a head alone, nor to twenty figures on a canvas as to one. Again, he indicates by his treatment of planes and definitions whether the main subject of his picture is in the foreground or the distance. He persuades the eye to slip over hosts of near objects so that, as in life, it may hit a distant target, or concentrate its attack on what is near, while the distance falls away into a dim curtain. All those devices by which attention is directed and distributed, and the importance in space of an object established, affect impressionistic composition.

It is an inevitable misunderstanding of painting which plays the game of art so closely up to the real aspects of nature that its aim is that of mere exact copying. Painting like Manet's, accused of being realistic in this sense, sufficiently disproves the accusation when examined. Never did painting show a parti pris more pronounced, even more violent. The elisions and assertions by which Manet selects what he finds significant and beautiful in the complete natural image are startling to the stupid realist, and the Impressionist may best be described as the painter who out of the completed contents of vision constructs an image moulded upon his own interest in the thing seen and not on that of any imaginary schoolmaster. Accepting the most complex terms of nature with their special emotions, he uses the same freedom of sacrifice as the man who at the other end of the scale expresses his interest in things by a few scratches of outline. The perpetual enemy of both is the eclectic, who works for possible interests not his own.

Some of the points touched on above will be found amplified in articles by the writer in The Albemarle (September 1892), the Fortnightly Review (June 1894), and The Artist (March-July 1896). An admirable exposition of Impressionism in this sense is R. A. M. Stevenson's The Art of Velasquez (1895). Mr Stevenson was trained in the school of Carolus Duran, where impressionist painting was reduced to a system. Mr Sargent's painting is a brilliant example of the system. (D. S. M.)

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Simple English

File:Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant,
Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, (1872), oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan

Impressionism is a style of painting which began in France in the late 19th century. "Impressionist" painting shows life-like subjects painted in a broad quick style, with brushstrokes that are easily seen and colours that are often bright. The name "Impressionism" comes from a painting by Claude Monet, which he showed in an exhibition with the name Impression, soleil levant ("Impression, Sunrise"). An art critic called Louis Leroy saw the exhibition and wrote a review in which he said that all the paintings were just "impressions". The word stuck.

Impressionist painters are mostly known for their work in oil paint on canvas. Some Impressionist painters also made watercolours and prints. There is also some Impressionist sculpture.



File:Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
Corot, Italian landscape. Corot's pictures influenced the Impressionists

In the 19th century, most artists learned to paint by attending an art school, called an academy. The academies were very strict about the way that young artists learnt to paint. The popular style of painting was called "Classicism". Classical paintings were always done inside a studio. They often showed stories from mythology. An artist would prepare for a painting by doing lots of drawings. The paintings were very smoothly and carefully painted.

At the same time there were several painters who loved to paint the French landscape and the village people in a realist way that was different from Classicism. They would often make small quick paintings out of doors, and then finish them in the studio. These artists include Gustave Courbet and Jean-Baptiste Corot. Edgar Degas wrote in 1883: "There is one master, Corot. We are nothing in comparison, nothing."[1] A group of young painters who admired the work of these artists became friends and started painting together. These artists were Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Frédéric Bazille, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and Armand Guillaumin.

Every year the academy in Paris would hold a big exhibition (art show) called the Salon de Paris. In 1863 an artist called Edouard Manet put a picture into the show called Lunch on the Grass ("Le déjeuner sur l'herbe"). The judges at the Salon refused to hang this work in the gallery because it showed a naked woman sitting on the grass with two men wearing clothes. If the painting had been about Ancient Greek mythology, this would not be a problem but these men were wearing ordinary suits, and the woman's dress and hat were lying on the grass. Perhaps she was a prostitute! The judges said that the painting was indecent (very rude).[2] Monet and his friends also had their paintings turned away. They were angry and they met with Manet to discuss this. The Emperor Napoleon III gave permission for another exhibition called the Salon des Refuses which showed all the pictures that had been "refused". Many people went to see this exhibition and soon discovered that there was a new "movement" in art, quite different from the style that they were used to.

File:Édouard Manet - Le Déjeuner sur l'
Manet, Lunch on the Grass ("Le déjeuner sur l'herbe")

In 1872 Monet and his friends formed a society called the "Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers". They began to organize their own art show. In 1874 thirty artists held their first exhibition. The critic Louis Leroy made fun of their work and wrote an article called The Exhibition of the Impressionists. The public who came to the exhibition also began to use this name. The painters themselves soon started to use the name "Impressionists" and they have been called by that name ever since. They had eight exhibitions between 1874 and 1886. They paid a dealer called Paul Durand-Ruel to organise exhibitions, and he arranged shows in London and New York. Bit by bit, their paintings became popular. Some of the Impressionists, Monet and Renoir, lived to be old and famous, but others died very poor. The main artists who are called "Impressionists" include Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Armand Guillaumin, Mary Cassatt, Gustave Caillebotte and Frederic Bazille.

Many artists worked with the Impressionists for a short time, but then began to try out new ideas. These artists all painted in different ways, but together are called the Post-Impressionists. They include Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vincent van Gogh.

While the French Impressionist painters were at work in France, painters in other countries were also beginning to paint outdoors in a broader style. Eventually the Impressionist style spread to many countries across Europe, to North America and Australia. Some artists continued to paint in the Impressionist style right through the 20th century.

Subject and style

File:Edgar Germain Hilaire Degas
Degas, A woman washing herself in her bedroom. Impressionists painted everyday subjects, often as if they were looking through a camera.

Impressionism and photography

Before the time of the Impressionists, many artists worked by painting portraits. Before the invention of the camera, painted portraits were the main way to record a person's "appearance" (what they looked like). But by the time the Impressionists started painting, there were many photographers who had studios where people could go to be photographed. As cameras improved, photographers started taking "snapshots" of scenery and people outdoors.

Photography had two effects on painters. Firstly, it meant that it was much harder for them to live by painting portraits. Many artists became very poor. Secondly, the image taken by a camera often has interesting angles and viewpoints that are not usually painted by artists. Impressionist painters were able to learn from photographs. Many Impressionist paintings make the viewer feel as if they were right there, looking at the scene through the eyes of the artist.


Impressionist painters did not paint from their imagination, from literature, history or mythology like most other painters of the 19th century. They painted what they saw in the world around them: the town where they lived, the landscape where they went on holiday, their family, their friends, their studios and the things that were around their home. Sometimes they were "commissioned" (given a job) to paint a portrait of someone.

Impressionist painters liked to paint "ordinary" things that were part of everyday life. They painted women doing the washing and ironing, ballet dancers doing exercises, horses getting ready for a race and a bored-looking waitress serving a customer. Nobody, before the Impressionists, had ever thought that these subjects were interesting enough to paint.

Even though many Impressionist artists painted people, they are thought of mainly for their landscape painting. Impressionist painters were not satisfied with doing some drawings or quick painted sketches outdoors and then making grand pictures in the studio. Impressionist painters were not satisfied with painting the shape of the land, the buildings and trees. They wanted to capture the light and the weather.


The Impressionist painters looked for a "technique" (a way of doing something) to paint landscapes that showed the light and the weather. The light and the weather change all the time. The light of the sun on the landscape changes every minute as the Earth turns. Impressionist painters looked at the works of earlier French artists such as Camille Corot and Gustave Coubet. Courbet often took his paints outdoors and made quick coloured sketches that he could then use to make large paintings in his studio. The Impressionist painters were more interested in the sketches than the finished paintings.

File:WLANL - andrevanb - Falaises près de Pourville, Claude Monet,
Monet, Cliffs at Pourville. The bright-coloured paints have been used without mixing them.

Another artist, Eugene Boudin, used to sit on the beach at Deauville with his oil paints, and make quick paintings of the people on holiday. They would sometimes buy his paintings as souvenirs.

Claude Monet met Boudin and learnt that the only way to "capture" the way that a landscape looked at a particular time was to paint small pictures, very quickly, and without bothering to mix the paints up to make nice smooth even colours. Impressionist painters would use big brushstrokes of different bright colours and let them get mixed up on the canvas, instead of carefully mixing them up on a palette first. By painting in this way, without bothering with the details, Impressionist painters capture a realistic "impression" of a the world that they saw around them.

Some of the things that they painted were: snow gently falling over a town, mist rising on a river in the pink morning light, people walking through a field of wheat with bright red poppies growing in it, sunlight dappling through leaves onto people dancing, a train sending up clouds of smoke in a big railway station, and water lillies floating on a pool under drooping willows.

Most Impressionist landscape paintings are small, so that the artist could carry them outdoors. Some artists, particularly Claude Monet, would take several canvases, and as the day went on and the light changed, he would put down one and take up another. He rented a room from which he could see Rouen Cathedral so that he could paint it from the window at different times of day. Monet also did a series of Haystack paintings, showing them standing in the field from different angles and in all sorts of weather, bright sunshine, morning frost and snow. Paintings that are done outdoors are called "plein air" paintings. The Impressionist painters often used to go out together on painting trips, so there are many pictures that can be compared.

Other "Impressionist" art forms

The term "impressionism" has been used for other forms of art, such as writing and music. Octave Mirbeau is often described as an impressionist writer. In 1887, music critics said the works of Claude Debussy were "impressionist". Later, other composers were also described as "impressionist", including Maurice Ravel, Paul Dukas, Erik Satie and Albert Roussel.

Gallery of Impressionist paintings

Click on each image to enlarge it, to see the way each artist has used brush-strokes and colour.

Capturing the scene

Seeing like a camera

People outdoors

Changing seasons in the town

Light on water

Other pages



  • Helen Gardner, Art through the Ages, Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc. ISBN 07677933
  • Jurgen Schultze, Art of Nineteenth-Century Europe, Abrams, (1979) ISBN 0-8109-8017-7
  • Nathaniel Harris, The Impressionists, Viscount Books, (1984) ISBN 0-600-35848-8

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