Many of us are familiar with the great artists of the Impressionist movement in art history. Claude Monet, Eduard Manet, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Berthe Morisot, and Mary Cassatt all come to mind when you think of the Impressionists. However, their creative visions were so nearly snuffed out by the established, classical art culture of the time. For years, the Salon in Paris was regarded as the pinnacle of artistic display for traditional artwork. The Salon provided a high-visibility outlet for artists to display their work to the greater public but would discriminate against progressive and experimental art pieces. In response, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, and others decided to form The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc. in 1874 to organize their own exhibitions and allow other visionaries to display their work. Initially, their ideas were met with mixed reviews. Some progressive critics found their work to be vibrant and innovative, whereas others found it to be trivial and unfinished. The critic, Louis Leroy, shared a disapproving remark that Monet’s Impression, Sunrise was merely an unfinished sketch and that it certainly gave an “impression”. With that statement, this new style of artwork had a name, “Impressionism” (1).
Impression, Sunrise, 1872 Claude Monet (1)
Historically, classical art displayed in places like the Salon often depicted idealized scenes of historic or religious figures in great detail with neutral tones depicting contrast and shadow. Conversely, the Impressionists often focused on the use of vibrant colors, expressive brush strokes, and scenes from everyday life. The emergence of photography allowed photographers to capture scenes in great detail, nearly mitigating the need for artists to focus on detail in paintings. As a result, Impressionists found an opportunity to portray scenes differently. Enticing colors, stark contrasts, and creative brushwork differentiated impressionist work from the use of photography and encouraged creativity. Many of the vibrant colors used came about from an emphasis on natural light in compositions. Sunlight, by Frank Benson, is an excellent example of vibrant color under the influence of natural light.
Sunlight, 1909 Frank Benson (2)
Everyday scenes became a trend in the compositions of numerous Impressionist painters. Berthe Morisot, for example, came from an upper-class household and focussed much of her work on capturing the lives of aristocratic women in natural settings (3). Similarly, Edgar Degas produced numerous paintings depicting the lives of dancers. He would often depict them at precise points in time, not necessarily in ideal moments but would instead show them amid practice (4).
Summer’s Day, 1879 Berthe Morisot (3)
The Dance Class, 1874 Edgar Degas (4)
The Impressionist movement extended beyond Europe and inspired other great artists worldwide. Like Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt was a prominent female artist and was at the forefront of the Impressionist movement. As an American, her contributions to the art world helped to expose North America to the new form of painting that had originated in Europe (5).
The Reader, 1877 Mary Cassatt (5)
For many Impressionists, it was difficult to be confined to the limitations of being in a studio. Instead, they chose to take their work outside and paint from nature or “en plein air” (3). The theme of painting from everyday life resonated with the Impressionists as they painted outside, capturing a brief moment in time through their eyes in every piece. A prime example of this approach can be seen through Claude Monet’s Water Lilies series. From 1897 to his death in 1926, Monet painted numerous landscapes of water lilies at his home, displaying vibrant landscapes and showcasing his abstract approach to nature (7).
Water Lilies, 1906 Claude Monet (7)
Many of the vibrant colors that Impressionists experimented with were a result of new artificial paint technologies that had been created at the time (1). The majority of impressionists used oil paints as their medium. Compared to acrylic paints, oils provide a luscious texture and dry slowly while also having intense color. This allowed many of the Impressionists to continuously mix paints on the palette and the canvas. Mixing paints on the canvas led to the broken and complex brush strokes that painters such as van Gogh came to be known for. Simplicity was also a component of many works as painters aimed to use a limited palette of colors which encouraged the mixing of paint to create desired colors (8). As a result, many painters used these pigments in unique ways even using greens, blues, and yellows to create shadow and contrast in their work. Impressionists would seldom use black! Georges Seurat took the concept to another level by using his artwork to explore color theory. Seurat is known for his use of pointillism, a painting style characterized by the use of individual points on the canvas to portray figures and color. Instead of mixing paint to create a desired color, Seurat used a culmination of colored dots on the canvas that when seen from a distance would appear to be a completely different color to the human eye. Possibly his most famous example is A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (9).
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884 Georges Seurat (9)
The Impressionist movement created a seismic shift in the art world by challenging traditional techniques and redefining how we view artwork. Impressionism reaches the viewer on a more personal scale and brings about emotion that is not usually felt in artwork that preceded it. Many artists depicted reality through their lens to allow the viewer to have a new perspective on reality and be inspired to be creative and think differently. As a result, the Impressionists are regarded as some of the most influential artists in history who went on to inspire numerous art styles and movements that followed. Personally, Impressionism resonates the most with me considering what periods of art history I have been exposed to in the past. I find it fascinating how artists can be abstract and expressive in their work and yet still depict life in exquisite detail. It is almost surreal. I find that it can instill emotions in the viewer and inspire others to share their perspectives on artwork as a whole. In the future, modern impressionists have the opportunity to preserve the traditions of the original impressionists. Portraying scenes from real life through an impressionistic lens still presents an opportunity to represent nature and society in a different light. In this way, there are now new opportunities to expand impressionistic work into the 21st century.
Water Lilies and the Japanese Bridge, 1899 Claude Monet (10)
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