Art History 101:

Impressionism

The history of art is the history of mankind. As long as humans have been communicating, they have also been making art. Through this crash course in basic art history, we’ll take you on a journey through some of the most groundbreaking periods and highlight some of the most important artists in our shared history. Together we can develop a deeper understanding of how artists in the past have helped to shape art-making in the present.

In present times, it is easy to conceive of Impressionism as a pillar of modern art history and a rightful subject of many marquee museum exhibitions. However, the birth of the movement was actually due, in large part, to a rejection from the institutional European art systems of the late 19th century. The dominant forces of the time were the Royal Academies of England and France, where young artists studied and trained. The Academies would organize regular salons (or exhibitions) of artwork, carefully selected by their panel of judges looking for what they deemed to be outstanding examples of fine art. These institutions had the benefit of government support and held virtual monopolies on the networks of patronage, and thus exerted significant influence on what styles and subject matters could be deemed "fine art."

 

In the 1870s in France, a small group of artists formed, united mainly through their independence from the Academies. They called themselves the Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers, and they would later be christened the Impressionists. In 1874, they hosted an inaugural exhibition at the Parisian studio space of the photographer, Félix Nadar. The artworks included in this exhibition - made by Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley - were all rejected by the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and considered unfit for exhibition in their Salon. Critics condemned their canvases as unfinished, sketchy, and amateur, with one detractor even writing, “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished…”

Image of the exterior of Félix Nadar’s studio, from Wikimedia Commons.

While their themes and styles varied, the Impressionists focused less on translating each lifelike detail of a subject and instead sought to capture the sense of a fleeting, ephemeral moment in their artwork. Recent advances in science were beginning to prove the dissonance between what human eyes registered and what the brain actually perceived. The qualities of color and light were of great interest to the Impressionists, and rather than sequestering themselves to their studios, they preferred painting out in nature, or en plein air, thanks to the invention of tubed paint earlier that century. Using short, thick brushstrokes to layer bursts of pure, unblended color, they took creative liberties in their use of bold color to communicate highlights and shadows. With much less emphasis on achieving perfection of form or perspective, Impressionist painters could capture the spontaneity and exact sense of moment with seemingly little effort. Claude Monet often painted the same subject multiple times, attempting to convey the differences of light and color during varied times of day or season. The two paintings below are from his series of haystacks, which he began in 1890 and is comprised of nearly thirty canvases of haystacks found in a field near his home in Giverny, France. Monet’s mastery of color is apparent, and he does not simply use black or gray to demonstrate a shadow, but rather interspersed strokes of blue or even red. Though he struggled to paint quicker than the shifting light, his ability to capture the atmospheric setting is unparalleled, and as he once expressed: “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life—the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.”

Top image: Claude Monet, Haystacks - Snow Effect, 1891. Bottom image: Claude Monet, Haystack, End of the Summer Morning, 1891.

Impressionists took not only to the countryside but painted around the cafes and parks of metropolitan Paris. While scenes of Neoclassical or allegorical subjects were still in vogue with the academic painters, artists like Édouard Manet and Berthe Morisot (who was actually married to Manet’s brother, Eugène) painted scenes of daily life. A game of croquet is almost entirely rendered in varying shades of green, and Manet’s dynamic strokes seem to make the background leaves dance as if blown in a breeze while the human subjects remain still, patiently waiting for the player to take her shot. The fact that Morisot - a female painter - depicted a leisurely scene of her husband and daughter would have been considered quite revolutionary at the time, when it would have typically been the other way around. 

Left image: Édouard Manet, A game of croquet, 1873. Right image: Berthe Morisot, Eugène Manet and His Daughter at Bougival, 1881.

Impressionism resists exact categorization because of its many facets and, in fact, many of its participants are also associated with other artistic movements that developed either concurrently or subsequently, including realism, fauvism, and pointillism. Its definitions and its applications are loose, perhaps with the exception of a shared yearning to capture a sense of the ephemeral, yet Impressionism was undoubtedly a crucial period that catalyzes both the waning of the academic stronghold on the arts and the rise of stirring avant-garde movements developing throughout Europe and the United States.

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