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In this lesson, we will explore Impressionism. We will learn about the founding of the Impressionist movement, the major characteristics of Impressionism, and a few of the primary Impressionist artists.

A New Movement

They were the rebel artists of the 1870s.

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They refused to conform to the rigid academic standards of painting put forth by France’s Acad;mie des Beaux-Arts. Therefore, their work was not accepted at Paris’ sole art exhibition, the Salon, which was judged by the members of the Académie according to the accepted standards. So, they struck out on their own, and in doing so, they started a new movement in the art world: Impressionism.In 1874, a group of 30 of these artists decided to open their own exhibition. Among the works up for exhibit were paintings by such artists as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, and Auguste Renoir.

Although some of these names are familiar to the modern era, these artists were relatively unknown at this point and certainly not well-accepted by their contemporaries in the art world. In fact, their exhibition didn’t exactly draw crowds. It was mostly ignored, but they didn’t give up. The group sponsored seven more exhibitions through 1886, and soon art collectors began to sit up and take notice. Paintings began to sell, and the group established its own place in the Paris art scene.

A New Name

At first, the society didn’t name their new movement.

They simply wanted to exhibit and sell their work, not label it. Art critic Louis Leroy actually came up with the name ‘Impressionist’ when, critiquing the 1874 exhibit, he remarked that the artists’ paintings looked unfinished, like they were just sketches or impressions rather than completed works of art. Rebels that they were, the artists latched on to the label and embraced the idea of being Impressionists.

New Techniques, New Materials

Impressionist artists experimented with several new techniques and materials that became defining characteristics of Impressionism.

First off, they deliberately left their paintings looking unfinished, at least by current artistic standards. Instead of painting detailed scenes with sharp edges and defined shapes, they tried to express their visions of particular moments in time, moments that were always fleeting and subject to the artists’ changing perceptions. Impressionist paintings sometimes seem a bit fuzzy and undefined, like a photograph that captures the subject in motion. Impressionists achieved this look through various brush techniques. They used short, quick brushstrokes that touched colors to the canvas in little comma-like shapes one after another. Sometimes, they didn’t bother to use a brush at all, applying paint to the canvas directly from the tube.Color became another major focus for Impressionist artists.

They tended toward bright, pure colors that seemed to jump off the canvas in their boldness and strike the viewer with their intensity. Vividness was key, and Impressionists loved to use vibrant blues, greens, and yellows. In fact, they even enjoyed playing with new synthetic pigments, like ultramarine and cerulean blue, and they rarely mixed paints together, which tended to diminish the intensity of the colors. They preferred to allow colors to blend in the eye of the viewer instead.Finally, Impressionists were nearly obsessed with capturing the effects of light.

They hauled their easels, canvases, and paints outdoors to work en plein air and directly observe natural light and shadows, which they then attempted to render in their paintings. Impressionists also paid close attention to phenomena, like reflections of the sun on the water, moving clouds, and swirling fog, which they incorporated into their works in creative and fascinating ways.

New Subject Matter

Impressionists didn’t limit themselves to new techniques and materials. They also focused on new subject matter, namely, modern people, modern life, and modern places. Impressionist paintings tend to show ordinary people engaged in the ordinary activities of daily life.

Artists captured scenes from cafes, theaters, beaches, and resorts. They depicted dancers rehearsing, people enjoying lunch, a family boating on a lake, workmen engaged in their tasks, and even a couple strolling down a Paris street in the rain. Some artists, particularly female artists like Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, even chose to focus on the ordinary lives and activities of modern women.Impressionists were also committed to showing modern places just as they were. Artists painted landscapes without hiding the railroads and factories that dotted the countryside.

They also concentrated on depicting Parisian buildings, streets, neighborhoods, and public places, many of which had been recently renovated after the destruction brought on by the Franco-Prussian War.

The Artists of Impressionism

Let’s meet a few of the rebel artists who were part of the Impressionist movement.

  • Claude Monet was known for his commitment to plein air and landscape painting. He allowed nature to guide his color choices, which could make for some interesting and unusual color combinations.

  • Camille Pissarro, a printmaker and teacher, exhibited his work at every Impressionist exhibition.
  • Alfred Sisley focused mostly on landscapes but, unlike Monet, usually confined himself to ‘normal’ light conditions and colors.
  • Edgar Degas was committed to depicting everyday life, and he painted everything from rehearsing dancers to horse races to men working in a cotton office.
  • Auguste Renoir was a traditional ‘starving artist’ from a poor family who especially enjoyed painting portraits.

  • Gustave Caillebotte contributed some remarkable Paris street scenes and liked to experiment with painting snowy landscapes.
  • Berthe Morisot was an upper-class French woman who chose to devote her life to painting. She often depicted women and their daily activities.
  • Mary Cassatt, an American, also chose to paint women and often explored the relationship between a mother and her child.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. In 1874, a group of 30 artists decided to open their own exhibition apart from the strict standards of the Acad;mie des Beaux-Arts and the Salon. The members of this group eventually became known as the Impressionists, thanks to the comments of art critic Louis Leroy about the unfinished appearance of their paintings. Their new artistic movement came to be called Impressionism.Impressionists experimented with several new techniques and materials that became defining characteristics of Impressionism. They deliberately left their paintings looking unfinished because they tried to express their visions of fleeting moments in time.

To achieve this, they used short, quick brushstrokes that touched colors to the canvas in little comma-like shapes one after another.Impressionists also preferred bright, pure colors without mixing them and did not hesitate to experiment with new synthetic pigments. Finally, Impressionists were nearly obsessed with capturing the effects of light and often painted outside, en plein air, to directly observe natural light and shadows.With regard to subject matter, Impressionists depicted modern people, modern life, and modern places. They painted ordinary people, including women, taking part in ordinary activities and often showed modern landscapes and renovated Parisian buildings, streets, neighborhoods, and public places.

Well-known Impressionist artists include Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, Gustave Caillebotte, Berthe Morisot, and Mary Cassatt. These artists were the rebels of the art world during their time, but their works are much loved even to the present day.

Learning Outcomes

After you are done with this lesson, showcase your ability to:

  • Reflect upon the start of the Impressionist movement
  • Detail the way in which the Impressionists got their name
  • Discuss some of the characteristics of Impressionist art
  • Point out the Impressionists’ interest in new subject matter
  • Name some of the Impressionist painters

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