Impressionism was a 19th century art movement, that began as a
loose association of Paris-based artists who began publicly exhibiting
their art in the 1860s. The name of the movement is derived from
Claude Monet's Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant).
Critic Louis Leroy inadvertently coined the term in a satiric review
published in Le Charivari.
The influence of Impressionist thought spread beyond the art world,
leading to Impressionist music and Impressionist literature.
Characteristic of impressionist painting are visible brushstrokes,
light colors, open composition, emphasis on light in its changing
qualities (often accentuating the effects of the passage of time),
ordinary subject matter, and unusual visual angles.
Impressionism also describes art done in this style, but outside
of the late 19th century time period.
Radicals in their time, early impressionists broke the picture making
rules of earlier generations. They captured a fresh and original
vision that seemed strange and unfinished to their viewing public.
Rejecting attempts to portray ideal beauty, the impressionists looked
instead to beauty in candid day-to-day living. They painted "en
plein air" (outdoors) rather than in a studio as was the custom,
capturing the momentary and transient aspects of sunlight.
Impressionist paintings feature short, "broken" brush
strokes of pure, untinted and unmixed pigments that give an appearance
of spontaneity and vitality. The surfaces of the paintings are often
textured with thick paint, a characteristic setting them apart from
their predecessors in which smooth blending minimized the perception
that one is looking at paint on canvas. Compositions are simplified
and innovative, and the emphasis is on overall effect rather than
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. Art at the time
was considered a conservative enterprise whose innovations fell
within the Académie's defined borders. The Académie
set the standards for French painting.
In addition to dictating the content of paintings (historical and
religious themes, and portraits were valued), the Académie
commanded which techniques artists used. They valued somber, conservative
colours. Refined images, mirroring reality when closely examined,
were esteemed. The Académie encouraged artists to eliminate
all traces of brush strokes — essentially isolating art from
the artist's personality, emotions, and working techniques.
The Académie held an annual art show — Salon de Paris,
and artists whose work displayed in the show won prizes and garnered
commissions to create more art. Only art selected by the Académie
jury exhibited in the show. The standards of the juries about suitable
art for the salon reflected the values of the Académie.
The young artists painted in a lighter and brighter style than
most of the generation before them, extending the realism style
of Gustave Courbet, Winslow Homer and the Barbizon school. They
submitted their art to the Salon, and the juries rejected the pieces.
A core group of them, Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir and Alfred
Sisley, studied under Charles Gleyre. The three of them became friends
and often painted together.
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 on a picnic. According to the
jury nudes were acceptable in historical and allegorical paintings,
but to show them in common settings was forbidden. Manet felt humiliated
by the sharply worded rejection of the jury, which set off a firestorm
among many French artists. Although Manet did not consider himself
an impressionist, he led discussions at Café Guerbois where
the impressionists gathered, and influenced the explorations of
the artistic group.
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.
For years art critics rebuked the Salon des Refusés, and
in 1874 the impressionists (though not yet known by the name) organized
their own exhibition.
After seeing the show, critic Louis Leroy (an engraver, painter,
and successful playwright), wrote a scathing review in the Le Charivari
newspaper. Targeting a painting by a then obscure artist he titled
his article, The Exhibition of the Impressionists. Leroy declared
that Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant) by Claude Monet
was at most a sketch and could hardly be termed a finished work.
Leroy 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.
The term "impressionists" gained favor with the artists,
not as a term of derision, but as a badge of honor. The techniques
and standards within the movement varied, but the spirit of rebellion
and independence bound the movement together.
Short, thick strokes of paint in a sketchy way, allowing the painter
to capture and emphasize the essence of the subject rather than
They left brush strokes on the canvas, adding a new dimension of
familiarity with the personality of the artist for the viewer to
Colours with as little pigment mixing as possible, allowing the
eye of the viewer to optically mix the colors as they looked at
the canvas, and providing a vibrant experience for the viewer.
Impressionists did not tint (mix with black) their colours in order
to obtain darker pigments. Instead, when the artists needed darker
shades, they mixed with complementary colours. (Black was used,
but only as a colour in its own right.)
They painted wet paint into the wet paint instead of waiting for
successive applications to dry, producing softer edges and intermingling
Impressionist avoided the use of thin paints to create glazes which
earlier artists built up carefully to produce effects. Rather, the
impressionists put paint down thickly and did not rely upon layering.
Impressionists discovered or emphasized aspects of the play of natural
light, including an acute awareness of how colours reflect from
object to object.
In outdoor paintings, they boldly painted shadows with the blue
of the sky as it reflected onto surfaces, giving a sense of freshness
and openness that was not captured in painting previously. (Blue
shadows on snow inspired the technique.)
They worked "en plein air" (outdoors)
Previous artists occasionally used these techniques, but impressionists
employed them constantly. Earlier examples are found in the works
of Frans Hals, Peter Paul Rubens, John Constable, Theodore Rousseau,
Gustave Courbet, Camille Corot, Eugene Boudin, and Eugène
Impressionists took advantage of the mid-century introduction of
premixed paints in tubes (resembling modern toothpaste tubes) which
allowed artists to work more spontaneously both outdoors and indoors.
Previously, each painter made their own paints by grinding and mixing
dry pigment powders with linseed oil.
Content and composition
Even though, historically, painting was viewed as primarily a way
to depict historical and religious subjects in a rather formal manner,
painters portrayed everyday subjects. Many 17th century Dutch painters,
like Jan Steen, focused on common subjects, but their works showed
the influences of traditional composition in arrangement of the
When impressionism began, there was interest among the artists
in mundane subject matter, and a new method of capturing images
became available. 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.
Photography and popular Japanese art prints (Japonism) combined
to introduce to impressionists odd "snapshot" angles,
and unconventional compositions.
Edgar Degas' The Dance Class (La classe de danse) shows both influences.
A dancer is caught in adjusting her costume, and the lower right
quadrant of the picture contains empty floor space.