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Impressionist & Modern Art

The Impressionists: 7 Things You Need to Know

The Impressionists’ shimmering lily ponds and pastel ballet dancers today represent the beauty of late-19th-century French life. In their own time, however, the Impressionists met with controversy and critical disregard. Rejecting the grand themes of myth, religion and history, these artists fearlessly turned their attention to capturing everyday life with radically new techniques. Below discover seven must-know facts about the Impressionists and what makes them Fearless Now artists. 
ÉDOUARD MANET, LE DÉJEUNER SUR LHERBE, 1862–63.  COLLECTION OF THE MUSÉE DORSAY, PARIS. 

1. Band of Outsiders:  Impressionism found its early footing in 1863, when a group of artists  formed the Salon des Refusés in reaction to the rigidly academic official Paris Salon. Literally an ‘exhibition of rejects,’ the show included works by Paul Cézanne, Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet and Camille Pissarro, among others. Earning particular critical vitriol was Manet’s seminal Le Dejeuner Sur l'Herbe (1862–63) with its realistically rendered depiction of a nude woman picnicking with two fully clothed men.  

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CLAUDE MONET, IMPRESSION, SUNRISE, 1871–72.  COLLECTION OF MUSÉE MARMOTTAN MONET, PARIS.  

2. Pardon my French, ‘Impressionist’ was first intended as an insult: A riff on the title of Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872), the term was coined by art critic Louis Leroy. First used in his 1874 review of an exhibition featuring many of the movement’s key players, Leroy meant for the designation to satirise the open-ended and spontaneous qualities of the works. To Leroy's chagrin, the newly christened Impressionists eagerly adopted the term.

 

HENRI FANTIN-LATOUR, A STUDIO IN LES BATIGNOLLES, 1870. COLLECTION OF THE MUSÉE DORSAY, PARIS. 

3. Café Life, both on a off the canvas: From the theatre to the horse tracks, the Impressionists sought to capture the new  bourgeois leisure lifestyle that emerged with the Industrial Revolution. The artists themselves reveled in café life, meeting almost daily at Café Guerbois, where friends Manet and Degas were known for their uproarious debates. Writer Emile Zola nicknamed the café regulars the “Batignolles Group” after the Batignolles neighbourhood, where many of the Impressionists lived. 

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PIERRE-AUGUSTE RENOIR, LUNCHEON OF THE BOATING PARTY, 1882. THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION, WASHINGTON, DC.

4. Exodus to England: Many Impressionists crossed the channel to escape the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Notable among these short-lived expatriates were Monet and Pissarro. 

5. The innovation that brought the Impressionists back to nature: Painting directly from nature, or plein air painting, was one of Impressionism’s core tenets with artists Monet, Pissarro, Sisley and Renoir frequently completing their canvases on site. The move out-of-doors, however, was only made possible by the growing availability of oil paint in tin tubes, a product developed in the 1840s by John G Rand, an American painter living in London. 

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MARY CASSATT, THE LETTER, 1890–91. COLLECTION OF THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK.

6. East Meets West: After a period of economic seclusion Japan reopened to trade with the West in 1853. Among the imports that flooded into Europe were Ukiyo-e woodcut prints. Depicting scenes from daily life in elegantly delineated renderings, these prints were highly influential to the Impressionists, with Monet, Degas, Van Gogh and Mary Cassatt (above) each adopting aspects of the style. 

 

Claude Monet, French Impressionist painter, 1923.
CLAUDE MONET WITH PALETTE BEFORE HIS WATER LILIES, 1923.

7. Shutterbugs: Though the then novel medium of photography was far from being considered a fine art, it made a lasting impact on Impressionist aesthetics. From the off-center framing of compositions to unique depictions of light, the Impressionists absorbed all that photography had to offer. The two worlds often overlapped as well – Degas frequently experimented with the process, while Monet’s painted his famed Boulevard des Capucines (1873) from the apartment of pioneering photographer Nadar.