About Impressionism

Radicalism of Impressionism:
"Trees are Not Violet; The Sky is Not Butter!"

In 1874, fifty-five artists held the first independent group show of Impressionist art. Most of them - including Cézanne, Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, Monet, Manet, and his sister-in-law Berthe Morisot ("a bunch of lunatics and a woman," muttered one observer) - had been rejected by the Salon, the annual French state-sponsored exhibition that offered the only real opportunity for artists to display and sell their work. Never mind, they told each other. At the Salon, paintings were stacked three or four high, and crowded too closely together on the walls. At their independent exhibition, mounted in what was formerly a photographer’s studio, the artists could hang their works at eye level with space between them. Although the artists didn’t call themselves "Impressionists" at first, this occasion would be the first of eight such "Impressionist" exhibits over the next twelve years.

An outraged critic, Louis Leroy, coined the label "Impressionist." He looked at Monet’s Impression Sunrise, the artist’s sensory response to a harbor at dawn, painted with sketchy brushstrokes. "Impression!" the journalist snorted. "Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished!" Within a year, the name Impressionism was an accepted term in the art world.

If the name was accepted, the art itself was not. "Try to make Monsieur Pissarro understand that trees are not violet; that the sky is not the color of fresh butter...and that no sensible human being could countenance such aberrations...try to explain to Monsieur Renoir that a woman’s torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh with those purplish-green stains," wrote art critic Albert Wolff after the second Impressionist exhibition.

Although some people appreciated the new paintings, many did not. The critics and the public agreed the Impressionists couldn’t draw and their colors were considered vulgar. Their compositions were strange. Their short, slapdash brushstrokes made their paintings practically illegible. Why didn’t these artists take the time to finish their canvases, viewers wondered?

Indeed, Impressionism broke every rule of the French Academy of Fine Arts, the conservative school that had dominated art training and taste since 1648. Impressionist scenes of modern urban and country life were a far cry from the Academic efforts to teach moral lessons through historic, mythological, and Biblical themes.

This tradition, drawn from ancient Greek and Roman art, featured idealized images. Symmetrical compositions, hard outlines, and meticulously smooth paint surfaces characterized academic paintings.

Despite the Academy’s power, seeds of artistic and political unrest had been sown long before 1874. The early- and mid-19th century was a time of political instability in France. Between 1830 and 1850, the population of Paris doubled. During the Revolution of 1848, Parisian workers with socialist goals overthrew the monarchy, only to see conservatives seize the reins of government later that year. Fear of further uprisings created widespread distrust among the aristocracy, the poor, and the newly prosperous bourgeoisie or middle class.

At the same time, the far-reaching Industrial Revolution fostered a new faith in the individual and his unlimited potential. Romantic painters such as Eugène Delacroix began to celebrate individuality in terms of painting technique with warm colors and vigorous brushstrokes. Delacroix’s journals would later provide ideas about color theory and painting techniques to the Impressionists. Later in the 19th century, Barbizon School painters Corot, Millet, and Rousseau abandoned classical studio themes to go outside and paint the landscape around them. Realist Gustave Courbet, a mentor to several Impressionists, painted the rural poor just as he saw them. His rough-textured technique displeased the Academy.

The Impressionists, or "Independents," as they preferred to be called, brought together a wide variety of these influences, beliefs, and styles when they first exhibited and met in Paris cafés to discuss art. Their rejection of the Academy and the Academy’s rejection of them united the group.

The Painting of Modern Life and Real Life Subjects

The sturdiest thread linking the Impressionists was an interest in the world around them. For subject matter, they looked to contemporary people at work and play. Inventions such as the steam engine, power loom, streetlights, camera, ready-made fashions, cast iron, and steel had changed the lives of ordinary people. Underlying the Industrial Revolution was a belief that technological progress was key to all human progress. In this climate of discovery, people felt they could do anything.

The Industrial Revolution brought economic prosperity to France, and Emperor Napoleon III set out to make Paris the showpiece of Europe. He hired civic planner Baron Hausmann, Prefect of the Seine, to replace the dirty, old medieval city with wide boulevards, parks, and monuments. The new steel-ribbed railroad stations and bridges were feats of modern engineering. Cafés, restaurants, and theaters lured the bourgeoisie, the powerful new merchant class who had made their homes in and around Paris.

Busy City and Quiet Countryside Settings

Most Impressionists were born in the bourgeoisie class, and this was the world they painted. "Make us see and understand, with brush or with pencil, how great and poetic we are in our cravats and our leather boots," the poet Charles Baudelaire challenged his friend Édouard Manet. Baudelaire’s essay, The Painter of Modern Life, inspired other Impressionists to portray real life themes, too. Degas prowled behind the scenes of the opera and ballet for his subjects. Monet immortalized Paris railroad stations. Nearly all the Impressionist artists painted people hurrying through busy streets and enjoying their leisure time on the boulevard, at the racetrack, in café-concerts, shops, restaurants, and parks.

However, it was not just city bustle that intrigued the Impressionists. Country themes appealed to them, too. Railroads gave people a new mobility. They could hop on a train and be in the countryside in an hour. Commuters escaped the crowded city to the suburbs that sprouted around Paris. The Seine River, parks, and gardens provided recreation for weekend picnickers, swimmers, and boat parties, which the Impressionists duly recorded. One key to Impressionism’s popularity, it has been written, is that the artist often put the viewer in the position of someone on holiday enjoying a beautiful scene. "Monet never painted weekdays," one critic noted wryly.

The home offered other real-life subjects. It was unacceptable for women painters like Berthe Morisot or Mary Cassatt to set up an easel in most public places. They relied on domestic scenes of women from their own social class cuddling babies, playing with their children, dressing in the boudoir, or tending their gardens. The garden was central to late 19th-century life. Monet, Manet, and Renoir often painted their gardens. Monet called his flowerbeds "my most beautiful work of art."

En Plein Air and "The Painter of the Passing Moment"

Painting the sidewalk café, the racetrack, or the boating party attracted the Impressionists to work outdoors, or en plein air. Most Impressionists worked directly and spontaneously from nature. It was Barbizon painter Camille Corot who first advised artists to "submit to the first impression" of what they saw - a real landscape without the contrived classical ruins or Biblical parables of French Academic painting.

Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, and others preferred to record their initial sensory reactions rather than idealize a subject. A painter friend of Monet recalled the master giving him this advice: "He (Monet) said he wished he had been born blind and then had suddenly gained his sight so that he could have begun to paint in this way without knowing what the objects were that he saw before him. He held that the first real look at the motif was likely to be the truest and most unprejudiced one." The Impressionists thought that painting their experiences was more truthful, and thus more ethical, than copying the art of the past.

Impressionist landscapes often contained people, or showed the effects of man’s presence - on a bridge or path, for example. The Impressionists wanted to catch people in candid rather than staged or posed moments. It is as if the artist and we, the viewers, are watching a private, contemplative moment. We see men, women, and children floating in a rowboat, strolling under the trees, or just watching the river flow.

Impressionists often depicted people mid-task. Degas caught opera audience members watching each other instead of the stage and ballet dancers stretching or adjusting their costumes before a performance. Renoir’s guitar player strums her instrument by herself. Pissarro’s Parisian pedestrians hurriedly cross the city streets.

A wish to capture nature’s fleeting moment led many Impressionists to paint the same scene at different times and in different weather. They had to work fast to capture the moment, or to finish an outdoor painting before the light changed. Artists had often made quick sketches in pencil or diluted oil paint on location, but now the sketch became the finished work. Impressionist painters adopted a distinctive style of rapid, broken brushstrokes: lines for people on a busy street, or specks to re-create flowers in a meadow.

These artists often applied paint so thickly that it created a rough texture on the canvas. Impressionists mixed colors right on the canvas or stroked on the hues next to each other and let the viewer’s eye do the blending. This process was called optical color mixing. Not only did this sketchy technique suggest motion, but it also captured the shimmering effects of light that engaged these artists. The rough, brilliant paintings of Impressionism were a drastic departure from the slick, highly finished canvases of Academic painters. Although the Impressionists wanted their work to look almost accidental, it’s no surprise that early critics called it "lazy" and unfinished.

Optical Innovations: Images of "Magical Instantaneity"

Color Theory

In its use of color, Impressionism dramatically broke away from tradition. Advances in the fields of optics and color theory fascinated these painters. Working outdoors, Impressionists rendered the play of sunlight and the hues of nature with a palette of bolder, lighter colors than classical studio painters used. In 1666, Sir Isaac Newton had shown that white light could be split into many

colors - including the three primary colors, red, blue, and yellow - by a prism. The Impressionists learned how to create the prismatic colors with a palette of pure, intense pigments and white. Unlike Academy painters, who covered their canvases with a dark underpainting, Impressionists worked on unprimed white canvas or a pale gray or cream background for a lighter, brighter effect.

Eugene Chevreul’s 1839 book, On the Law of Simultaneous Contrast of Colors, guided the Impressionist practice of laying down strokes of pure, contrasting colors. Chevreul found that colors change in relation to the other colors near them. Complementary colors, or those directly opposite each other on his color wheel, create the most intense effects when placed next to each other, he wrote. Red-green or blue-orange combinations cause an actual vibration in the viewer’s eye so that color appears to leap off the canvas. No wonder viewers react emotionally to the glittering sunlight on Monet’s rivers or the splash of orange costume on Degas’ ballet dancers. "I want my red to sound like a bell!" Renoir said. "If I don’t manage it at first, I put in more red, and also other colors, until I’ve got it."

Art Materials

New technology in art materials made a wider range of color pigments available. In the past, artists had to grind and mix their own pigments with oil. Now, color merchants sold ready-to-use paints and other materials from storefront establishments. In addition, collapsible metal tubes replaced pigs-bladder pouches as storage vessels for paint. Tubes preserved the pigment longer, allowing artists to take extended painting trips outdoors.


Perhaps no invention of the Industrial Revolution influenced Impressionism more than the camera. Black and white photography not only recorded the scene for later study, it arrested the very real-life moments that Impressionists pursued. Most of the Impressionists had cameras; in fact, Monet had four and Degas experimented with one of the early Kodak portable models. Their art took on the odd, unexpected, and asymmetrical compositions sometimes caught by the camera.

Rejecting the centered figural groups of traditional art, Impressionists thought nothing of cutting off a figure at the painting’s edge, or pushing the action into corners and leaving the center of the composition empty. Degas called photography "an image of magical instantaneity," and was particularly adept at the off-center composition. He was also intrigued by the newly invented motion picture machine, which took multiple photographs of moving animals at high shutter speeds. He used the machine to study movement and gesture. Impressionists eagerly studied panoramic landscape photography and adopted its flattened perspective. Monet noticed that slow shutter speeds blurred moving figures, and he began to smudge his painted figures similarly. To the human eye, of course, figures don’t blur, and one early critic dismissed Monet’s distant pedestrians as "black tongue lickings." Even those who praised the artist’s ability to capture this "ant-like swarming... the instantaneity of movement" often missed the link to photography.


Another visual influence on Impressionism was the phenomenon called Japonisme. The opening of Japan to Western trade and diplomacy in 1854 led to a rage in France for all things Japanese. Japanese artifacts found an eager market in the growing middle class in Paris. In 1862, a Far Eastern curio shop called Le Porte Chinoise opened near the Louvre Museum. The shop sold fans, kimonos, lacquered boxes, hanging scrolls, ceramics, bronze statuary and other items the Impressionists used as props in their paintings. In particular, Impressionists admired Japanese wood-block prints and applied that art form’s flat, decorative shapes, bright colors, and asymmetrical compositions to their own work.

The elegant Japanese prints (known as ukiyo-e, or "images of the floating world" of geishas and other popular entertainment) also inspired a new interest in printmaking. In addition to wood-block prints, Impressionists created lithographs (prints made from oil-based ink designs on wet stone) and etchings (prints from designs etched into metal plates with acid). These methods allowed Degas, Monet, Cassatt, and other artists to make multiple copies of their work and thus reach a larger audience.

Collecting Impressionism: "Something Solid and Durable"

In the early years of Impressionism, artists struggled to find markets for their work, and many lived hand-to-mouth. Impressionism changed when artists quarreled with one another, withdrew from exhibitions, or, like Monet and Renoir, reverted to a more Academic style they hoped would lure buyers. Cézanne also turned away from Impressionism, disappointed that he hadn’t been able "to make of Impressionism something solid and durable like the art of the museums."

However, one visionary Paris art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, recognized the greatness of Impressionism as early as 1870. "A true picture dealer should also be an enlightened patron; he should, if necessary, sacrifice his immediate interest to his artistic convictions," Durand-Ruel wrote. He regularly bought, sold, and promoted Impressionist paintings during the early years. Finally, in the 1880s and ‘90s, the world the Impressionists painted began to embrace them. American collectors were largely responsible for this reversal of fortune, buying enough paintings to keep several artists at work. The Musée de Luxembourg in Paris mounted the first museum exhibition of Impressionist art in 1897, and an exhibition at the 1900 World Exposition sealed the artists’ reputations. Paintings sold twenty-five years earlier for a mere fifty francs, noted Durand-Ruel, now fetched 50,000 francs.

What caused the public’s change of heart? "Ironically," writes art historian Ann Dumas, "the Impressionists" former status as renegades enhanced their appeal to the connoisseurship and speculative skills of the bourgeois collector...(it was) a new art for a new class that wanted images of the world they inhabited."

Perhaps more crucial to its present-day popularity is the broadly appealing color, spontaneity, and freshness of Impressionist art. Before the first exhibition in 1874, the art critic Armand Silvestre observed of these paintings, "A blond light pervades them, and everything is gaiety, clarity, spring festivals, golden evenings or apple trees in blossom. They are windows opening on the joyous countryside, on rivers full of pleasure boats stretching into the distance, on a sky which shines with light mists, on the outdoor life, panoramic and charming."

Continue reading on to the next page, Overall Looking Questions and Activities.

© 2023, All rights reserved |