What is Impressionism?
Impressionism describes a style of painting developed in France during the mid-to-late 19th century; characterizations of the style include small, visible brushstrokes that offer the bare impression of form, unblended color and an emphasis on the accurate depiction of natural light. The founding Impressionist artists – including Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley and Edgar Degas, among others – were united by their desire to cast off the strict rules of academic-style painting. In particular, the artists sought independence from the Académie des Beaux-Arts and its annual Salon (which was, at the time, considered the greatest art show in the Western world).
The term “Impressionism” was not chosen by the artists – rather, it was born from a satirical review written by French art critic Louis Leroy (1812 – 1885) in an article on the inaugural exhibition of the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (‘Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers'). Held in the spring of 1874, the exhibition included works from 30 Impressionist artists, and is considered the formal start to the movement. In his review, Leroy poked fun at Monet’s 1872 painting Impression, Sunrise, writing that: “‘A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.1
Impressionism is often termed the first modern movement in painting, in part because the greater tide of modernization created the conditions which inspired the movement. The industrial revolution and the invention of the railroad suddenly awarded greater leisure time to middle and lower-class Parisians, and a way to travel quickly and inexpensively to the countryside. During this time, circa 1860, four young art students – Monet, Sisley, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Frédéric Bazille – met while studying under French academic artist Charles Gleyre. In their free time, the students began boarding trains bound for remote areas around the city, where they’d set their easels amongst the fields or riverbanks and try their best to capture the fleeting glints of sunlight reflected by water, workers bent to their task or Parisians enjoying a lazy Sunday by the sea.
1. Art + Paris Impressionists & Post-Impressionists: The Ultimate Guide to Artists, Paintings and Places in Paris and Normandy. United States, Museyon, 2011.
Characteristics and Style of Impressionism
There was no one unifying Impressionist style, but the artists associated with Impressionism did share similar modern approaches to painting. Rather than be confined to a studio, many Impressionists preferred to paint en plein air in the countryside outside of Paris; this approach required the artists to work quickly but allowed them to capture the fleeting impressions of light. The artists used short, visible dabs of paint to capture the overall impression of their subject, choosing not to pay particular attention to the fine details. Instead of using black and gray paint to depict shadows, the painters paired complementary colors. The paints themselves were also brighter than those used in previous eras, due to the invention of synthetic pigments. The artists applied new layers of paint over layers that were still wet, which softened the forms and supplied a unique intermingling of colors. The layers were rarely transparent – instead, the application added opaque dimensions of color.
While the content of Impressionist paintings was not all that radical, the composition was. The boundary between figures and background were blurred, making the figures a part of an overall view rather than the main subject, and the figures appeared to be captured in a single moment – as a snapshot – rather than posed. This new approach coincided with the advent of photography and drew inspiration from Japanese style ukiyo-e art prints.
The ukiyo-e style used foreshortening (angling an object toward a viewer to change the allusion of three-dimensional perspective on a two-dimensional surface) asymmetry to invoke movement and action within a scene. For the Impressionist artists, this technique from the East was a crucial tool in their exploration of a new, modern painting style.
Legacy of Impressionism
In the Western world, reactions, criticism and reinterpretations of Impressionism inspired many of the subsequent Modern art movements.
The ethos of Impressionism made an enduring impact on music and literature as well as the visual arts. Musical Impressionism involved creating the impression of atmosphere or mood and became popular in France in the late 19th century. French writers and poets, in turn, represented Impressionism with syntactic variation and fragmentary prose.
Today, works by Impressionist artists retain incredible value in the market, founded on unbridled interest among private collectors and the public institutions. In 2019, Sotheby’s sold Monet’s Meules for $110.8 million, setting a new record for the artist; the same year saw retrospectives at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay of works by Berthe Morisot, a leading female Impressionist.
Works by Impressionist artists can be found in numerous public institutions around the world, including the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the National Gallery, London; the Musée d'Orsay, Paris; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.
Timeline & History
- 1859Édouard Manet’s The Absinthe Drinker (1859) is rejected by the Paris Salon; completed in the Realist style, the painting was rejected on account of its “degenerative” subject matter, seemingly incomplete style and plainly visible brushstrokes.
The same year, a young Claude Monet moves to Paris to study painting at Académie Suisse. Here, he met Camille Pissarro.
(left) Manet's The Absinthe Drinker, 1859
- 1860A porcelain dealer, Felix Bracquemond, brings Japanese woodblock prints to France. These artworks would inspire Impressionists to experiment with perspective, subject, medium and technique.
(left) Utagawa Hiroshige, Rain Shower at Shōno from The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō, 1832
- 1861Monet is drafted to the French army and sent to Algeria to complete a seven-month-long tour. Upon completing the service, Monet returns to Paris and begins studying under academic painter Charles Gleyre. Monet befriends fellow students Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Frédéric Bazille. Together, the troupe begins traveling to the Parisian countryside to paint en plein air.
(left) A young Monet, photographed circa 1858
- 1863Manet submits Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe (1863) to the Salon; the work is rejected, but included in the Salon des Refuses, or exhibition of rejected works. The work offends the public and critics, a few of whom call it a practical joke.
(left) Édouard Manet, Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, 1863
- 1864The Salon accepts two works by female artist Berthe Morisot for exhibition but rejects a work by Manet, along with 4,000 works. Paris’s forward-thinking artistic community simmers with anger.
(left) Berthe Morisot, Vieux Chemin à Auvers, 1863. Sold for $118,750 in 2013 (Note: this work was not one of the two accepted for exhibition by the Salon).
- 1865The Salon votes to include Manet’s Olympia (1863). The painting shows a prostitute reclining, looking pointedly at the viewer. The public’s reaction to the work is so hostile that Manet takes refuge in Spain.
(left) Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863
- 1866The Salon accepts Monet’s work Woman in the Green Dress (1866). Manet does not submit work, weary of criticism.
(left) Claude Monet, Woman in the Green Dress, 1866
- 1867The Salon jury rejects Monet’s Women in the Garden (1866); the artist first proposes the idea of Impressionists exhibiting together, but the idea goes no further due to lack of funds. Artists request another Salon des Refusés, but the request is denied.
(left) Claude Monet, Women in the Garden, 1866
- 1868Morisot meets Manet, and the pair become great friends. Manet introduces Morisot to his brother, Eugène; Morisot and Eugène marry in 1874.
(left) Édouard Manet, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, 1872
- 1869Throughout the summer, Monet and Renoir meet to paint together, often painting the same subject. They compete to see who can capture the impression of a moment in the shortest amount of time, capturing the color and reflection of light. In doing this, they discover that the color of shadows is not black, but instead reflects the colors of surrounding objects (an effect known as diffuse reflection). Both artists paint La Grenouillère – today the paintings are considered fundamental to the movement’s canon.
(left) Claude Monet, Bathers at la Grenouillére, 1869
- 1870The Salon again rejects a work by Monet. In July, Napoleon III declares war against Prussia; come September, the Siege of Paris begins. Monet and Pissarro leave Paris for London, Cezanne hides out in the French countryside and Manet stays in Paris. Bazille joins the French army; in November, he’s killed in action.
(left) Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, The siege of Paris in 1870, 1884
- 1871The Siege of Paris ends. Napoleon III abdicates the throne; the Third Republic begins.
(left) Édouard Manet, The Barricade (Civil War), 1871 (painting depicts a dispute between forces from the Third Republic and the Commune's National Guard).
- 1872The term ‘Japonisme’ was first voiced by French art critic Philippe Burty; Burty discusses the influence of Japanese art on French artists. Artists again request another Salon des Refusés; again, their request is denied.
(left) Claude Monet, La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume), 1876
- 1873In December, a group of artists including Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne, Morisot and Degas have finally had enough of the Salon. They found Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs and invite other artists to join – so long as they cease to participate in the Salon.
(left) The studio of photographer Nadar, 35 boulevard des Capucines, Paris 2e arr. The first exhibition of impressionist painters took place there in 1874.
- 1874In April, the first exhibition of Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs opens in Paris. Thirty artists participate in the show, but Manet does not – his focus remains on the Salon. Art critic Louis Leroy writes a humorous (and critical) review of the show, entitling the piece The Exhibition of the Impressionists; the term sticks.
(left) Claude Monet, Impression, sunrise, 1872
- 1876The second Impressionist exhibition is held; Caillebotte, who is independently wealthy, finances the show.
(left) Caillebotte, circa 1878
- 1877The third Impressionist exhibition is held; the reviews continue to be critical.
(left) Claude Monet, Flowers on the riverbank at Argenteuil, 1877
- 1878Degas posits that no Impressionist artists should submit work to the Salon.
(left) Edgar Degas, The Singer with the Glove, 1878
- 1879The fourth Impressionist show is held, but without the participation of Cezanne, Renoir or Morisot. Monet does participate, submitting his painting Rue Montorgueil (1878).
(left) Claude Monet, Rue Montorgueil, 1878
- 1880Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Cezanne chose not to participate in the Impressionist show; instead, Monet’s painting entitled Sunset on the Seine Lavacourt (1880) is accepted for the Salon but does not receive a beneficial placement within the show.
(left) Claude Monet, Sunset on the Seine Lavacourt, 1880
- 1881Manet finally wins a medal at the Salon. Later, the French state awards him the Legion d’honneur. The Salon opts to change its rules: the show will now be overseen by an association of artists rather than the government, and all participating artists will have a vote on the jury.
(left) Édouard Manet, Bunch of Asparagus, 1880
- 1882Manet’s The Bar at the Folies Bergère is included in the Salon, to poor reviews. The painting will be the artist’s last major work.
(left) Édouard Manet, The Bar at the Folies Bergère, 1882
- 1883Manet dies, Monet moves from Paris to Giverny. This year, Paris gallery Durand-Ruel produces independent shows for Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley. In America, the first major exhibition of Impressionist works is held.
(left) Claude Monet, Jardin de pivoines, 1887. The subject of the painting is Monet's garden at Giverny.
- 1884The Louvre holds a posthumous exhibition of Manet’s work. This same year, Georges Seurat paints A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, a masterpiece of Neo-Impressionism. Neo-Impressionism, more commonly called Divisionism, emerges as a reaction to Impressionism.
(left) Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884
- 1886The eighth and final exhibition of Impressionist works takes place, though many artists – including Monet, Renoir and Sisley – do not participate. Pissarro does participate, exhibiting his first ‘pointilliste’ work; he argues for the inclusion of works by Paul Signac and Seurat.
(left) A work of pointillism from Pissarro, entitled Children on a Farm, 1887
- 1890-91Focusing on the haystacks near his home in Giverny, Monet paints his acclaimed Haystacks series. In 1891, he exhibits the works at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in Paris.
(left) Claude Monet, Meules, 1890. Sold for $110.7 million in 2019.
- 1895Morisot dies.
(left) One of Morisot's last paintings, entitled La Coiffure, completed in 1894
- 1896Monet begins painting water lilies; the subject would hold his attention for decades to come.
(left) Calude Monet, Nymphéas, 1906
- 1906Cézanne dies.
(left) Paul Cézanne, Still Life with a Curtain, 1895
- 1907The Louvre hangs Manet’s Olympia.
(left) Olympia on display at the Musée d'Orsay, where it hangs today.
- 1912An American collector buys Degas’s Dancers Practicing at the Barre for 478,500 francs, nearly doubling the record price paid for a work by a living artist.
(left) Edgar Degas, Dancers Practicing at the Barre, 1877
- 1917Degas dies.
(left) Photograph of Edgar Degas, 1895
- 1919Renoir dies.
(left) Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Self-portrait, 1910
- 1922A work from Monet’s Water Lily series sells for 800,000 francs, setting a new record paid for a work by a living artist.
(left) Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1916. This work sold to Kojiro Matsukata in 1922, setting a record at the time.
- 1926Monet dies.
(left) Claude Monet, 1899. Photograph by Nadar.
- 2002A work by Cézanne, entitled The Card Players, sells for $259 million – the most ever paid, at the time, for a painting. Today, the work still holds the third-place spot for most-expensive painting sold at auction.
(left) Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, 1894–1895
- 2019Sotheby’s sells a work by Monet, entitled Meules, for $110.7 million, setting a record for the artist.
(left) Claude Monet, Meules, 1890
Regardless of technique, artists were considered Impressionists if they exhibited at any point in the group Impressionist shows.
While Monet is the artist most closely associated with Impressionism, and Manet’s greatest work are most associated with Realism than Impressionism, Manet is nonetheless a pivotal figure in the Impressionist movement. The artist’s ongoing battle with the Salon over the institution's antiquated guidelines and biased jury made him a hero of the avant-garde and paved the way for Impressionists to establish their own exhibition.
The most prominent exhibiting Impressionists besides Monet and Manet are Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, Pissarro, Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Sisley, Gustave Caillebotte, Armand Guillaumin and Bazille.
Impressionists at Auction
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