The Story of Impressionism
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Impressionism is a movement in art which began in France in about 1863 and
created a style of art that is still practised today.
The name “Impressionism” seems to have been coined in 1874 and came from a
critique of Claude Monet's painting called “Impression, Sunrise”
by the humourist Louis Leroy in a review in the newspaper Le
“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 Impressionist Movement
A movement in art requires a style, a group of adherents to popularise the
style and collectors to buy it.
In the case of Impressionism the adherents arose as a group of
discontented artists during the dictatorship of Napoleon III in
France. The style had two sources: a group of landscape
painters working in the countryside near Paris and a group of seascape
painters working in Le Havre.
In 1863 we find France under a dictatorship in which the State is
regulating artistic tastes. The route to artistic advancement lay
through the State controlled Ecole des Beaux-Arts and artists gained
prominence if they exhibited at the “Paris Salon”. The Salon was an
exhibition of fine art that occurred every two years and was run by the
Académie des Beaux-Arts. There can be no doubt that many of the
works exhibited at the Salon were widely regarded as truly fine art by
foreign critics as well as the French Establishment. However,
half of the jury that selected the pictures for the Salon were appointed
by the government.
The jury for the Salon of 1863 rejected two thirds of the submissions and
there was an outcry from the rejected artists. The political nature
of the Jury meant that Napoleon III became involved and to defuse the
situation he proposed a special Salon for the rejected artworks, the
official statement read:
"Numerous complaints have come to the Emperor on the subject of the works
of art which were refused by the jury of the Exposition. His Majesty,
wishing to let the public judge the legitimacy of these complaints, has
decided that the works of art which were refused should be displayed in
another part of the Palace of Industry."
This Salon became known as the Salon des Refusés.
Important works at the Salon des Refuses were:
Dejeuner sur l'herbe by Edouard Manet
and Whistler's Symphony in white no.1: the white girl
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might have been called Whistler's Mistress. At this time Whistler
was widely regarded as a Pre-Raphaelite painter.
The birth of Impressionism
In 1862 Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Frederic Bazille
all students at the studio of Gabriel Charles Gleyre. Gleyre's style
was academic, focussing on naked people, especially women, in various
poses and not at all Impressionist. However, his studio brought
these budding Impressionists together. It was probably the wealthy young
artist, Frederic Bazille, who was most important in bringing the Gleyre
group close together, sharing his lodgings with Monet, Renoir and Sisley
and even buying them artist's materials and buying their pictures.
Another important meeting place for the young impressionists-to-be was the
Academie Suisse, an alternative art college founded by Charles
. Students of the Academie Suisse included:
Paul Cézanne (1839–1906)
Édouard Manet (1832–1883)
Claude Monet (1840–1926)
Camille Pissarro (1830–1903)
and formed the social connection between Manet, Cezanne and Pissaro and
Edgar Degas is the odd-man-out of the original Impressionists. He
went to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and regularly exhibited at the
Salon. He could turn his hand to the sex and violence needed to be
picked by the Jury.
He met Manet in 1862. Degas and Manet were both from fairly wealthy
families and the two became firm friends in the later 1860s.
In 1868 Manet began to host meetings of young painters, the Batignolles
, at the Cafe Guerbois. The meetings brought together the
artists: Frédéric Bazille, Henri Fantin-Latour, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet,
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro.
Of this group Fantin-Latour never became an Impressionist and Degas and
Fantin-Latour were accepted by the regular Salon. The prominent writers:
Émile Zola and Louis Edmond Duranty also attended the meetings.
The Impressionists were a social grouping that originated in Gleyre's
studio and became firmly linked through cafe society and especially the
patronage of Manet and Bazille.
The group were not Impressionists at first but developed the style during
the 1860s. Although Monet and Pissaro were already primed in the
Impressionist style before they had gone to Paris.
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was the oldest of the Impressionists and had
grown up in the Danish West Indies (now the US Virgin Islands) and his
painting from this time shows distinct features of Impressionism before
Impressionism was invented.
Claude Monet (1840-1926) was also painting in a fresh, open air style in
the late 1850s:
The most important influences on the Impressionist style occurred in the
1860s and were the seascape painters of Le Havre and the Landscape
painters, the Barbizon School, who worked near Barbizon, a country town
east of Paris that is on the edge of the Fontainebleau forest.
There were two important seascape painters who influenced Monet in the
early 1860s. These were Eugene Boudin, who ran an art shop in Le
Havre and another mad, but brilliant, Dutchman, Johan Jongkind, who
visited Le Havre at this time. Monet, Boudin and Jongkind would go
out painting together.
But Monet outdoes both of these painters:
The other major influence on the Impressionists was the Barbizon
School. The Barbizon School were dedicated to painting nature for
its own sake, not simply as a backdrop to mythological or moral
themes. They also painted studies “en plein-air”, outside and
directly from nature although they generally finished their work in the
The leading lights of the Barbizon School were Jean-Baptiste-Camille
Corot, Théodore Rousseau, Jean-François Millet, and Charles-François
Daubigny. The impressionist who was most influenced by the Barbizon
School was Pissarro who was a pupil of Corot . A typical Corot
of the early 1860s is shown below:
This Barbizon influence is very evident in Pissarro's work in the 1860s.
However, it is Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) who is, in the public
imagination, and perhaps stylistically, the archetypical
impressionist. Unlike Manet and Degas who were upper middle class,
and Monet and Pissarro, who were well heeled, Renoir came from a poor
working class family. He started painting at the Levy Brothers
porcelain factory (from 1854-58) and this is evident in some of his
Renoir went to Gleyre's Studio with Monet, Sisley and Bazille which
freed his style from the porcelain image. However, he was an
exceptionally accomplished artist from the start.
Frederic Bazille (1841-1870) may have been the first of the group to
produce an Impressionist work of art.
Although one of the youngest of Gleyre's students Bazille was the typical
French Gentleman of the period. He was as wealthy as Manet and
Degas, highly intelligent, having switched from medicine to art and gave
the whole group an air of respectability. The Landscape at Chailly
shows almost all the features that were to become the Impressionist
Style. It is painted en pleine air, the brush strokes are bold and
colour is the essence of the work, especially the complementary red-green
areas across the centre of the picture.
So far we have talked about Monet, Pissarro, Bazille and Renoir.
These artists were central to the bright, light style of Impressionism
that became popular in the later 1870s. They were stylistically
ahead of Manet and Degas although Manet and Degas had the cash to host the
Something happened in the late 1860s that caused all of the artists who
became the Impressionists to adopt a similar style. Some sort of
zeitgeist spread through them all. Their palettes lightened yet
further and they started to boldly deliver impressions of the everyday
world. Perhaps it was because Monet, Renoir and Sisley all
moved into Bazille's apartment in 1866-1867. This collaborative
atmosphere bore fruit over the next two years.
The change can be clearly seen in Claude Monet's art, in 1867 we have an
almost mature “Monet”:
Renoir also matures by 1867:
And again, Pissarro is awash with colour:
Even Manet catches the bug:
As does Berthe Morisot, who had joined the group. Berthe Morisot
studied as a pupil of Corot's from 1861. She was very much a part of
the Impressionist movement and inevitably ended up marrying Manet's
Someone seems to have said “Let there be light!”
But why did this happen in 1866-67?
There is a telling portrait in 1870 by Henri Fantin Latour, an academic
artist who was a friend of the Impressionists.
The painting was caricatured at the time by a cartoonist in the Journal
Amusant under the title “Jesus Painting Among His Disciples”.
Manet is the centre of the group. Emile Zola, a popular journalist
and novelist, was especially keen on Manet's “naturalistic” style of
painting and wrote in his column in the newspaper “L'Evenement” in 1866
that “M Manet's place in the Louvre is marked out”.
However, although Manet became the social focus of the
Impressionists he did not begin to host meetings of the Batignolles Group
at the Cafe Guerbois until 1868 and the style of Impressionism seems to
have been born in about 1866.
Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Bazille and Monet were working and/or living
closely together in 1866-7. In 1867, having been refused by the
Salon yet again, all of this group except Monet started a petition for a
new “Salon de Refuses” but official backing was refused and they did not
have the funds to mount their own exhibition.
It seems that the Impressionist style was born out of close contact
between a group of artists, especially Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley and
Bazille and was expanded and popularised as a result of patronage by
Zola and Manet. Although Impressionism was born in about 1866 it was
known as “realism” or “naturalism” and firmly included Manet's earlier
art. It was only after 1874 that the name “Impressionism” was coined
and it was only used by the Impressionists to describe their own work from
1877 onwards. Manet's style can be seen as Naturalistic but
frequently not Impressionist.
The Impressionists brought the light but then the darkness fell across
1870 was a year of turmoil and change in France and without understanding
this change it is a mystery as to why the art buying public would support
this revolutionary new style of art.
In 1870 France declared war on Prussia. Both sides wanted war for
their own reasons. On September 2nd Napoleon III surrendered at the Battle
of Sedan. However, France did not surrender and a Republican
Government of National Defence was formed and the war continued.
In 1871 Paris was starving and bombarded by Prussian artillery. An
Armistice was signed on 26th January 1871 and Napoleon III was
exiled to Britain. On 17th February Adolfe Thiers was elected
president of the Third Republic.
In 1871 the Paris Commune was declared and lasted from 18th March – 28th
May. It was suppressed by troops of the Third Republic with perhaps
10,000 Parisians killed. The Commune followed the pattern of most
revolutions: overthrow of tyrant, government of liberals, bid for power by
demagogues. In England: Charles I, Rump Parliament, Cromwell. In
France Louis XVI, the Directory, Napoleon or in 1848, Louis Philippe,
Second Republic, Napoleon III . In Russia: Tsar Nicholas II,
Kerensky, Bolsheviks. Except that this time the demagogues of the
Commune lost and the Third Republic continued.
From 1871 to 1883 there was continuous debate about restoration of the
absolute monarchy and the powers of the president. In 1875 the
Constitutional Laws of the New Republic were passed which enshrined an
elected president. In Le Seize Mai “coup” in May 1877 the
monarchist president Patrice de Mac-Mahon dissolved parliament and
called an election in October in which he was soundly defeated. In
1883, the childless Comte de Chambord, heir to the throne, died and
The only Impressionist who fought on the front line in the Franco-Prussian
war was Frederic Bazille. He joined a Zouave regiment and died
heroically at the battle of Beaune La Roland at the age of 28.
At the outbreak of war Monet slipped away to England and subsequently
Holland, Sisley had English citizenship but stayed in Paris,
Whistler was an American citizen and retired to London, Pissarro went with
his family to London, Renoir got a post training horses in the Pyrenees,
Degas joined the National Guard in Paris and Manet waited to be
conscripted into the National Guard, serving in Paris.
Bazille's paintings were striking:
If a little homoerotic at times...
But this was the last that would be seen of Bazille's skill.
Whilst in exile Pissarro and Monet produced some paintings that are of
interest to an English audience.
The Realist Exhibition of 1874.
In 1874 Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Morisot, Monet and many more of those who
were painting in the new “realist” or “naturalistic” style banded together
to form the “Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc.”
which in English translates to: “Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc.
Ltd”. Limited Liability Corporations were the
latest thing in 1870.
Thirty artists displayed 165 works at the the modern building that was the
photographer Nadar's former studio at 35 Boulevard des Capucines.
Degas was the principle organiser and Manet did not exhibit.
Jean-Baptiste Armand Guillaumin
Auguste De Molins
Mademoiselle Berthe Morisot
There were many newcomers, artists who had adopted the Impressionist
approach, who exhibited at the 1874 Exhibition:
Zacharie Astruc was a critic and sculptor but tried his hand at painting.
Jean-Baptiste Armand Guillaumin had been part of the circle of friends
since the 1860s.
Probably the most impressive painting in the Exhibition was Renoir's
Unfortunately for the Impressionists there were also artists who we now
know as Post-Impressionists exhibiting and these were certainly too
different for the public or critics to accept.
Cezanne's work is no impression, it is a re-creation of nature according
to the artist's ideals.
The 1874 Exhibition was a critical disaster. The most famous
of the criticisms came from the critic Louis Leroy:
Manet may not have exhibited in 1874 but his art had taken on the
Onwards and Upwards
The most important aspect of the 1874 exhibition was the large number of
artists who had adopted the new “Naturalist” style. Impressionism
had become an art for artists and the buying public just needed to learn
how to appreciate it.
Despite the poor reviews for the 1874 Exhibition, the Impressionist
Exhibitions became a fixture on the Paris art scene and there were eight
exhibitions in total between 1874 and 1886 (74,76,77,79,80,81,82,86).
In 1875 the leading Impressionists held a public auction of their work and
could scarcely give away their paintings.
The second, 1876 Exhibition was another critical failure. There were fewer
artists (19) contributing but these included a lot of new names as well as
the old faithfuls:
Jacques François (an anonymous woman)
Jean-Baptiste Millet (Jean-François Millet's brother)
Léon-Auguste Ottin fils
Manet did not exhibit and was stll trying to get accepted by the Salon.
The most notable new contributor was Gustave Caillebotte. Gustave
Caillebotte was not only an artist but also a wealthy art collector.
Caillebotte organised the third Exhibition in 1877 and for the first time,
used their new name, calling the exhibition the “Exhibition of
Impressionists”. No-one was allowed to contribute unless they
foreswore ever exhibiting at the Salon.
The Fourth Exhibition was held in 1879 and the Impressionists changed
their name to “The Independent Artists”. This Fourth
Exhibition actually made a profit and was seen by 15,400 visitors compared
with 4000 for the first exhibition.
The solidarity of the Independent Artists fractured when first Renoir, in
1879, and then Monet in 1880, submitted work to the Salon. Degas was
mortified and refused to speak to Monet. Manet was also now getting
his work accepted by the Salon.
It was not until the Seventh Exhibition of the Independent Artists in 1882
that there was some critical acclaim for the Impressionists. This
may have been because it involved fewer contributors who exhibited some of
their finest work. The contributors were:
Mme. Berthe Morisot
It was also the case that Impressionism had become popular with collectors
outside of France. This popularity was largely due to the
American Impressionist artist Mary Cassat who was exhibited in the
Pennsylvania Academy in Philadelphia in 1876, 1878 and 1879.
In France in the late 1870s Cassat introduced the collectors Mrs
Havermeyer, Mrs Potter Palmer and James Stillman to Impressionism and
Cassat also collected many paintings herself, especially those by her
teacher, Edgar Degas.
Cassat's brother, Alexander Cassat was President of the Pennsylvania
Railroad System and loaded. Mary Cassat sent hime pictures by
Pissarro, Monet and Degas.
Mary wrote to her brother that: “When you get these pictures you
will probably be the only person in Philadelphia who owns specimens of
either of the Masters. Mame's friends, the Elders, have a Degas and
a Pissarro and Mame thinks that there are no others in America”.
John G Johnson, Supreme Court judge was extremely wealthy and one of the
most avid art collectors in the Philadelphia area. He noticed the
new Impressionist paintings and started to buy his own.
In 1886 the American Art Association put on a major exhibition in New York
of paintings by the principle Impressionists (supplied by the art dealer
Paul Durand Ruel). The American collectors bought 15 of the pictures
for $17,000. He wrote to the artist Fantin-Latour saying:
“Don't think that the Americans are savages..on the contrary, they are
less ignorant, less bound by routine, than our French collectors.”
A small group of wealthy New York art collectors began to focus on
Impressionists, especially James F Sutton of the American Art Association.
After the late 1880s every US Industrialist and billionaire who had an art
collection started buying Impressionists and their place in history was
(See American Collectors of French Impressionist Art by Amy Linda Boyce
By the time of the eighth, and last Exhibition in 1886 Impressionism was
no longer “leading” edge and the exhibition included works by
neo-impressionists such as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac and by
post-impressionists such as Gauguin.
Famous Impressionist Pictures
The Legacy of Impressionism
Impressionism opened up the possibility of experimentation in art.
It changed painting from a representation of visual space to embrace the
representation of the psychological and imaginary.
This licence to experiment opened the floodgates to a whole succession of
new styles and approaches in the late 19th and early twentieth century.
The Impressionist Style
The style of Impressionism introduced light into the dark, studio
art or the nineteenth century. Impressionism used ordinary subjects
and everyday scenes and, most importantly, Impressionist painting often
resembles a snapshot, a part of a larger reality captured as if by
chance. Although the painting was a “snapshot” it was supposed to
embody the sentiment and emotion of the artist so that it transcended
There is an excellent summary of the Impressionist technique in Wikipedia:
Short, thick strokes of paint quickly capture the essence of the subject,
rather than its details. The paint is often applied impasto (thickly and
Colours are applied side-by-side with as little mixing as possible,
creating a vibrant surface. The optical mixing of colours occurs in the
eye of the viewer.
Grays and dark tones are produced by mixing complementary colours. Pure
impressionism avoids the use of black paint.
Wet paint is placed into wet paint without waiting for successive
applications to dry, producing softer edges and intermingling of colour.
Painters often worked in the evening to produce effets de soir—the shadowy
effects of evening or twilight.
Impressionist paintings do not exploit the transparency of thin paint
films (glazes), which earlier artists manipulated carefully to produce
effects. The impressionist painting surface is typically opaque.
The play of natural light is emphasized. Close attention is paid to the
reflection of colours from object to object.
In paintings made outdoors, shadows are boldly painted with the blue of
the sky as it is reflected onto surfaces, giving a sense of freshness
previously not represented in painting. (Blue shadows on snow inspired the
Potted history of France 1815-63
1815 Napoleon exiled to St Helena, Bourbon Monarchy restored. Louis
XVIII was the supreme head of the state.
1830 Constitutional Monarchy under Louis Philippe I
1848 February Revolution. Second Republic. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte
(Napoleon's nephew and heir) elected president.
1851 Louis Napoleon became dictator of France after a coup. He took the
title Emperor Napoleon III. (Napoleon II never ruled France).
France was governed as a dictatorship with an advisory, vaguely freely
1863-1869 In 1869 only 25% of French army recruits could read and
write. 15000 schools were founded between 1863 and 1869 to educate
the populace and universities expanded.
1863 Imperial decree that the Emperor appoint the Director of École des
Beaux-Arts, seizing control from the Académie des Beaux-Arts – the
elitist organisation of professional French painters.
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