Home Magazine Meet the Impressionists: 9 artworks you should know and some you’ve never seen before

Impressionism was an art movement that developed in the early 1860s in France. Impressionist painters used rapid brushstrokes to capture the fleeting, momentary and transient moments, rendering the “impression” of everyday life. 

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Artists such as Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Paul Cezanne and Berthe Morisot are some of the most famous impressionist artists and impressionism painters. But what exactly was impressionistic art? 

Let’s take a look at the history of the impressionist movement. This article explores some of the paintings you really should know—and some you might not know so well—and considers how impressionism painters have influenced artists working today.

Impressionism: painters and artists

The impressionism movement developed in France in the nineteenth century. The principal subject matter for these artists were landscape scenes and moments from everyday life. Rather than working in their studios depicting monumental and mythological scenes (as was the standard in French art at the time) impressionist painters looked to paint “on the spot”, outdoors where life was taking place. 

The practice of painting en plein air—out of doors—and and ‘on the spot’ rather than in a studio from sketches gave their compositions an illuminance and dynamism that had a great impact on the perception of painting at the time.

Impressionist painting techniques

Impressionist painters used small, gestural and visible brush strokes to emphasise movement and the different qualities of light. The effect of these loose and spontaneous brush strokes gave the “impression” of dynamism and light as we perceive it in the moment of viewing a scene. 

Opting to paint their subjects en plein air rather than in the confined of their studio, the impressionists captured the effects of natural sunlight. Painting outdoors meant working at greater speed than inside a studio. As such, impressionism artists adopted a more rapid brushwork using dabs and mixing paint directly onto the canvas to capture the fleeting quality of light in the seene in front of them.

The impressionist techniques can be broken down into the following:

  • Painting on the spot— en plein air— to depict the play of natural light on the subject matter 

  • Using short, thick strokes of paint quickly capture the essence of the subject, rather than its details. 

  • Paint applied to light-coloured surface and unglazed

  • Applying wet painting and mixing colours directly on the canvas

  • Avoiding the use of black paint 

  • Applying paint to a white or light-coloured ground. Previously, painters often used dark grey or strongly coloured grounds.

  • Capturing the play of light eg. morning and evening scenes that depict the showdy and misty light 

Key impressionist artists

The principal Impressionist painters were Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Armand Guillaumin, and Frédéric Bazille, who worked together, influenced each other, and exhibited together. 

Other artists closely associated with the impressionist painters circle include Edgar Degas and Paul Cézanne who adopted the Impressionist style in the early 1970s. 

French impressionism is generally considered to be art produced between 1867 and 1886. The group of painters which included Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Armand Guillaumin, and Frédéric Bazille, who worked together, influenced each other, and exhibited together, can be considered radicals in their time.

Impressionism reacted against the establishment ideals of what artists and painters should be painting. Painters such as Claude Monet wanted to move away from the academy’s teaching’s on historical or mythological subject matter and the name Impressionism was adopted as a way to unite in independence from the academy and the Salon. 

The Impressionists painted realistic scenes of modern life. While artists traditionally painted still life, portraits and landscapes in their studios, the group’s emphasis on depicting the play of light in front of them was a radical rejection of accepted standards of academic painting which favoured the monumental and mythological.

In the 1860s, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille were studying at university under the academic artist Charles Gleyre. The artists shared a mutual interest in painting landscapes rather than mythological scenes. Claude Monet developed the impressionist style in which he sought to paint nature as he perceived it. 

The group of artists submitted their works to the Académie’s annual Salon de Paris in the 1860s but their paintings were continuously rejected. In 1863, Emperor Napoleon III saw the works and decreed that the public be allowed to judge the rejected works and so set up the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Refused). In the following years, requests for further rejection shows were rejected which lead to the creation of the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers) who grouped together to hold the first-ever impressionist show in April 1874 at the studio of the famous Parisian photographer Nadar.

Impressionism painting: the first exhibition

The paintings by this group of painters was routinely rejected by the major salons of the day, including Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe. After the paintings were continuously rejected in 1863, Emperor Napoleon III decreed that the public be allowed to judge the work themselves, and the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Refused) was organized. 

The first group exhibition was in Paris in 1874 and included work by Monet, Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and Paul Cezanne. The exhibition at Nadar’s studio was savaged by the critics and Claude Monet's Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant) bore the brunt of criticism. The critics mocked the artwork and deemed the piece an unfinished sketch or merely “an impression”. What was intended as an insult to the painting, the artists and the group overall soon took hold and the group of painters became known as the impressionists. 

Why did impressionistic art emerge?

The group of French painters emerged at a time when the idea of faithfulness to nature was in crisis. Since the Renaissance, the thrust of art and representations had been to depict and elevate with ever greater veracity historical and mythological scenes. The group of impressionists were not interested in painting these kinds of scenes, but instead wanted to catch the fast-changing world around them, from painting urban and rural landscapes and scenes from contemporary Parisian life.

This desire to paint everyday scenes emerged soon after the invention of photography in the late 1830s. The ever-growing popularity of the medium for depicting people and landscapes in Paris in the 1860s meant painters were free to consider representation less strictly connected to formal representation. 

What are some examples of impressionism paintings?

Impression Sunrise (Monet, 1871)

The painting by Claude Monet was first shown at what would become known as the "Exhibition of the Impressionists" in Paris in April, 1874. The painting, alongside the scathing review by the critic noted above, is credited with inspiring the name of the Impressionist movement.

The hazy scene of Impression, Sunrise marked a move away from traditional execution of landscape painting and the ideas of classic, idealized beauty. 

Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre, 1897

In 1897, Camille Pissarro painted scenes of the Boulevard Montmatre and captured 14 different scenes from winter to spring. This painting is the only example of a night-time scene nand is perhaps his most famous view of the boulevard. The play of light in this painting captures the artificial lamp light and gaslights reflecting on and off the wet pavement. The overall effect gives the feel of a bustling movement of crowds on a cold and wet winter evening. 

Edouard Manet, Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1882

Manet’s portrait of a woman behind the bar at the Folies Bergere, one of his favourite evening entertainment haunts in Paris in the 1880s, is more than a simple portrait. The picture depicts a tired looking barmaid leaning on the counter, looking directly at the viewer. In the mirror behind we get a view of the bustling venue behind with tables filled with attendees, a stage set and a circus performer in the top left. Reflected in the mirror is a bearded man and the reflection of the barmaid. Manet’s playful execution sees the viewer embodied in the reflection—we become the man reflected in the mirror, standing at the Folies Bergere bar. 

Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol, 1875

First exhibited at the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876, this emblematic impressionist artwork sees Monet paint his wife Camille Monet and their son Jean Monet in Argenteuil on a windy summer's day.

Monet uses free brush strokes to add a layer of dynamism to the moving clouds, and to give the impression of a breeze that blows against the parasol and moves the grassy meadow.

Berthe Morisot, Girl on a Divan c.1885

The impressionism art movement was not a male-only enclave. The most prominent women impressionist painters and artists contributed to the creation and development of impressionism in the late nineteenth century Alongside Marie Bracquemond and Mary Cassat, Berthe Morisot was described as one of "les trois grandes dames" (the three great ladies) of Impressionism. In fact, Morisot tended to paint portraits and landscape scenes of women and children. Although Morisot did not achieve great fame during her life, her artworks detail a delicate and exquisite use of colour that went noted by the artists within the Impressionist art movement of the time. 

Claude Monet, Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond, 1920, 

For thirty years from the mid-1890s, Monet principally painted water lilies from his flower garden at his home in Giverny, France. The works produced during this period play successfully with colour, light, and reflection of the water. Perhaps his most successful and well known paintings of waterlillies is Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond, 1920. The large-scale triptych measures 2 x 12 metres and depicts the play of light across the waterlily pond with the reflection of clouds and shadow. 

Pierre- Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party French: Le Déjeuner des canotiers 1881 

Renoir’s painting is densely packed with characters, diverging gazes and activity. Based on a scene of his friends enjoying lunch on the balcony of the Maison Fournaise in Chatou, France  the busy lunchtime scene is executed with fluid brush strokes that capture the flickering light of the sun across the balcony. 

The painting was first exhibited at the Seventh Impressionist Exhibition in 1882 and was met with positive praise. Critics noted the complex use of shape, space and colour that give a sense of texture to the picture.

Not only is the painting a depiction of a group of friends over lunch, but Renoir also includes a still life scene with bottles of wine, glasses and fruit arranged across the table. Through his subjects, he allows gestures, expressions and gazes to emphasise a degree of depth to the picture.

Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878

The impressionist art movement had a profound effect on the development of art in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. Women artists began experimenting with impressionist painting techniques, including the Pennsylvanian painter and printmaker Mary Cassat. 

Alongside Berthe Morisot, Cassatt was one of the so-called “three great ladies” of the Impressionist group who spent days together copying the works of great masters at the Louvre. 

One of Cassatt’s most well-known paintings is emblematic of her preference for painting domestic indoor scenes. The subject matter of the painting is highly informal, depicting a little girl lost in her own thought, rather than obediently posing for a portrait. The loose brushstrokes of the blue floral furnishings in the room add to the decorative feel of the work overall. 

Contemporary impressionism

The impressionist painters described above created a style and proposed a technique of painting that has inspired impression artists and impressionistic art to this very day.

Contemporary impressionist artists use a style of art that explores similar techniques and delivers similar aesthetic qualities (of light, brush work and subject matter) explored by artists of the nineteenth century art movement.

Painters such as Erin Hanson explore the possibilities of impressionism to depict contemporary natural landscape scenes. Her Crystal Grove II painting depicts the refracted light seen through tree branches and the long shadows of tall trees in the Oregon countryside. 

Hanson, like other contemporary impressionist painters, emphasise the effects of fading daylight and the illumination, much like the masters of the nineteenth century art movement. 

Cover image: unsplash

Written by: Kooness

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