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Impressionism in the Visual Arts

What is Impressionism?

Impressionism is a 19th century artistic movement that swept much of the painting and sculpture styles of the period. It was not just a passing fad but has defined an entirely modern way of expressing one’s artistry that eventually rubbed of in other art forms like literature and photography.

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Impressionist Art Roots

The impressionist artistic style had its formal launching in 1874, when a group of Parisian artists from the Cooperative and Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptures and Engravers mounted an exhibit at the studio of photographer/journalist Felix Nadar. A group of artists composed of Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, and a few others organized the group during the latter part of 1873 and were subsequently joined by Paul Cezanne, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Berthe Morisot among the noted artists of the time. A total of 30 artists participated in the exhibit. They exhibited together eight times between 1874 and 1886.

The exhibit actually marked a percolating rebellion against the established artistic standards of the Academie des Beaux-Arts, considered the authority in the realist styles of French painting that has characterized the country’s accepted painting styles of the period. 

The Academie held annual art exhibits called Salon de Paris that featured juried works conforming to its standards.  For struggling artists, getting theirs works exhibited in the Salon gave them their break, winning prizes and opening up opportunities for commissions, getting reviewed and the right exposure to patrons of the art and eventually carving a reputation in the arts community.

It was not long before a new generation of artist using lighter brush strokes and brighter colors, with lesser attention to details and more bias to landscapes and mundane less noble aspects of life started getting their works rejected by the established Salon.  You have the works of Renoir, Sisley, Monet, Pissarro, Cezanne Guillaumin and Bazille rejected year after year.  In 1863, the Academie rejected Manet’s Luncheon of the Grass for depicting a realistic nude lady posed with a couple of clothed men in a contemporary picnic setting.  The jury’s rejection appalled Manet’s admirers even among tradition arts patrons.  That year alone saw an unusually large body of artworks rejected, prompting the then Emperor Napoleon III to decree the creation of the Salon of the Refused, an exhibition of works rejected by the Academie.

Origin of the Word

The first exhibit elicited highly critical reviews which could be expected from arts reviewers in the established traditions. Cezanne and Monet received the harshest critique by reviewer-humorist Louis Leroy whose criticism appeared in the Le Charivari newspaper and used the word “Impressionist” from Claude Monet’s painting entitled Impression Sunrise (Impression, Soleil Levant) to derisively describe the artists whose works he considered as being no more than unfinished sketches.  He scathingly wrote:

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.

In a short time, the term "Impressionists" achieved wide public acceptance, including the artists themselves, despite the fact that the avant garde painting style had more stylistic and temperamental diversity than the word suggests.