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In this lesson, you will examine the role that photography played in the development of 19th-century artistic styles, most notably Impressionism. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Photography and Art

Imagine you are an artist. Go ahead.

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Grab some paints and a beret; get into the artistic spirit. Very nice. Now you are an artist, and your success comes from the fact that you are able to present the world around you through your paints and canvas. People come to you to buy landscapes. They come to buy portraits. They come for scenes of daily life.

And then, uh-oh, somebody goes and invents something that can capture any image, anytime. That device is a camera.In the 19th century, artists were suddenly faced with this problem.

Photography could produce an exact, scientific copy of reality and this threatened the essence of what it meant to be an artist. So what do you do? Like anything facing possible extinction, you adapt.

Impacts of Photography

As an artist in the 19th century, witnessing the rise of photography, you begin exploring the application of this style to painting. After all, you’re an artist, you can draw inspiration from anywhere.

One thing that becomes apparent is that, to people of the 19th century, photographs represent reality and are used to capture all of reality, including the daily lives of average people. Photographs cannot take pictures of the past, so they only focused on what was current, visible, and tangible. As an artist, you begin to do the same.

And you’re not alone. Artists at this time developed a fascination with that which could be seen and experienced. No history. No mythology.

Scenes of daily life and average people involved in daily enjoyments and average lives.As an artist, you start paying lots of attention to daily life. But how should you represent it? Photography managed to help generate another sentiment about art: it should try to capture a single moment. That’s what photography does, right? It perfectly preserves a single moment, fixed in time.

Just look at this famous series of prints from 1878 by Eadweard Muybridge called Horse Galloping:

Horse Galloping by Eadweard Muybridge
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These photographs were taken to resolve the debate about whether or not all four hooves of a horse leave the ground at the same time while it is running. This is what photography meant to people, a way to stop time and discover truth within a single moment. As an artist, you love this idea and you strive to capture not just daily scenes but also daily moments.

Impressionism and Art

Now, so far, we’ve talked about the things in photography that you like as an artist.

But, you are a painter and you are trying to create artwork that is important, so it needs to be unique, different from photography. This leads you to the style of Impressionism, an artistic style that offered an alternative to photography, searching for truth within a single moment but not as a fixed point in time.Impressionists used painting to do what photography could not. You see, photographs capture the visible, immobile facts, but they do not capture the essence of the moment.

That sounds very artsy, doesn’t it? Here’s what I mean: Impressionists did not want to represent a fixed moment in time; they wanted to create the impression of a moment passing through time.To do this, Impressionists used techniques that were unavailable to photographers, namely color and texture. Their colors, applied in thick brushstrokes, captured the feel of light and atmosphere. Their brushstrokes created a scene that feels fleeting, changing, in motion.Look at these paintings:

Impressionist Painting
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The closer you get, the more difficult it is to understand.

The subject is best seen from a distance, not from up-close, detailed scrutiny. You are given an impression of the subject, as if only seeing it for a moment while passing by. It is a single moment but captured very differently than in photography.So, as an artist, as an Impressionist painter, you have been very influenced by photography. In some senses, it inspires you to seek truth through capturing single moments of daily life. On the other hand, photography poses a risk of overshadowing painting, so you need to prove that painting still can offer a glimpse of reality that photography cannot.

Lesson Summary

In the 19th century, the development of photography challenged painting for the most accurate representations of reality. Photography inspired artists to look around them for inspiration, only focusing on that which could be seen and experienced by the artist. This led to a focus on capturing a single moment.However, photography did that, so artists needed to present something different. Rather than attempting to create a fixed moment, one artistic movement tried to capture the feeling of a moment in motion. This style is called Impressionism.

Impressionists used rough brushstrokes and an emphasis on light and color to create an image that only granted an impression of a moment, too fleeting for details or up-close scrutiny.So, in your future as an artist, don’t be afraid or discouraged by changes that could threaten the existence of your medium. Adaptation, in art as in nature, is the key to survival.

Learning Outcomes

Successful completion of this lesson could result in your ability to:

  • Recognize the challenge that the invention of photography presented for artists
  • Describe some of the techniques used by Impressionist artists

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