The Impressionism art movement first developed in France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a rebellion against the rigid and dark style of the standards prescribed by the French Academy of Fine Arts and France’s annual official art exhibition, The Salon.
Impressionism showed optical realism by expressing an actual visual experience of light and movement on objects. Impressionism was a movement that influenced painting, sculpture and music of that period. It was a breath of fresh air that brought new freedom and enjoyment of the arts.
The Fundamentals of Impressionism
The art form of Impressionism was developed by a group of artists who shared related approaches and techniques to record visual reality in terms of effects of light and color. They focused on everyday life as the subject matter rather than the historical scenes of idealized beauty and religious subjects. It was representational art rather than realistic depictions.
The Impressionist artists avoided the somber tones of earlier art and instead used light and vibrant colors to give luminosity in capturing the changing effect of sunlight. They used quick, broken brushstrokes which were not smoothed, giving an unfinished appearance. The artists worked quickly in order to capture the moment, which gave their work a spontaneous feel.
Landscapes and nature became subjects for their paintings rather than just backdrops. The artists portrayed people in everyday informal settings such as leisure time, activities in parks, gardens, the seaside, people at work, etc. They introduced nudes (which were acceptable subjects) in everyday life instead of historical and symbolic fictional figures.
The Paris “city scene” involving the 19th century Industrial Revolution was one of the favorite subjects: Parisian leisure time at the riverside and seacoast resorts, women wearing the latest fashions, modern modes of transportation, the airy new streets, etc.
In their still-life paintings, the artists experimented with the changing light and the effects of light and shadow on their subject.
How Impression Was Received by the Art Community
By the late 1860s, a small number of young painters in Paris were starting to discover one another through small exhibitions. They were not united by any particular style, but they shared a comradery in their resistance to the overbearing academic standards of the influential Paris Salon, whose exhibitions were the most important art events in the world.
In 1863, the Salon did not allow the Impressionism artists to participate or display their art work which led to a public outcry. In response, the Impressionism artists formed the Salon des Refusés that same year. The Société des Artistes Indépendants also rebelled against the policies of the conservative juries of Paris, and their exhibition, which opened in 1884, adopted the policy of “no jury nor rewards.” This exhibition included more than 400 artists, many of whom had been rejected by the official Salon. It was not until their third exhibition that they began calling themselves Impressionists.
The first exhibition received limited public attention; however, the later shows attracted audiences well into the thousands. The artists exhibited their work together until 1886, holding a total of eight exhibitions over a period of twelve years.
The “Impressionism” term was coined by Louis Leroy, a French art critic, while he visited the first exhibition of Impressionist painting in 1874 and saw Claude Monet’s painting, Impression: Soleil Levant (1872). He accused it of being a sketch rather than a finished painting.
The Most Influencial Impressionist Artists
Édouard Manet (1832-1883) was one of the first and most influential artists to emerge in the public exhibition scene in Paris. He was revered by the other Impressionist painters and regarded as their leader. He grew up admiring the Old Masters but began using a looser painting style with a brighter palette in the early 1860s. Manet’s mother was a relative of the French Emperor, and he never lost contact with the leading circles. With his great talent and social status he would certainly have been admitted to the Ecole des Beaux Arts, but instead chose to attend the studio of Thomas Couture, an excellent teacher whose pupils were able to show paintings in the Salon. By the age of twenty-nine, Manet was accepted as the leading figure of realism art.
Claude Monet (1840-1926) became the center of attention in the Impressionism movement and conscientiously carried out the Impressionist style with complete objectivity. His sense of color harmony was sometimes deplorable, but he had the greatest knowledge of en plein air landscape painting of all the impressionism artists and introduced advanced ideas to the young Impressionist circle.
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was a great teacher and the most prolific printmaker of the group. He was the only one to show at all the Impressionist exhibitions. He rebelled against all authority and made very little money. He had an emotional attachment to certain colors and scenes and did not have the same ruthlessly objective attitude to painting as Monet.
Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) was a dedicated landscape artist like Monet. He lived a middle-class lifestyle, and not until he reached middle age did he become dependent on his art. He was a good observer like Monet, but his range was narrower, and he chose to paint the more “normal” conditions of light in his landscapes. Monet, Pissarro and Sisley were the three painters who formed the shock troops of Impressionism.
Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was more interested in the unpremeditated gestures of everyday life than the impact of light. The characters in his paintings seem to be taken unawares yet not seeming frozen in mid-gesture. There was nothing casual about his design. The balance was as carefully executed as in any classical style composition, yet much more daring. He created the subtle art of seeming casual. Degas was two years younger than Manet and came from the same social background. They were both city people, frequented the same circles in Parisian society and became friends. Degas was the most complex of all the Impressionism founders. He preferred working in his studio, where he showed an amazing versatility in drawing, watercolors, pastels, and sculpture.
Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) came from a wealthy family, the son of a banker from Aix. He was a very shy person, and his shyness, along with his southern and rustic ways, caused problems for him in the best Parisian circles. He remained unknown longer than any of the other Impressionists. Cezanne was regarded, at best, a mediocre talent by his artist friends as well as the small circle of people interested in his work. However, Ambroise Vollard, a young art dealer, held a Cezanne exhibition in his gallery which opened people’s eyes to Cezanne’s greatness. No longer was he considered mediocre, and no artist from the Impressionist group left such deep impressions for the following generation of artists.
Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) came from a very poor family. He literally starved in his quest to succeed as an artist. Narcisse Diaz, one of the founders of the Barbizon School (located in the village of Barbizon near the famous Fontainebleau forest), helped him out, and Renoir worked closely with Monet on painting landscapes. He then moved into studio work which involved portraiture and figurative painting. Renoir’s art was not concerned with fleeting moments or transient light. It was soft, radiant and eternal and more a part of the main stream of art than revolutionary Impressionism.
These seven Impressionist artists had the greatest influence on the development of Impressionism and were the core of advancing the movement.
In Conclusion . . .
Impressionism was the first modern movement in art . . . realism was embraced and encouraged. Painting was moved from the studio to the open air of the streets and countryside and painted en plein air. It set new standards for how artists visualized and interpreted nature, and it has influenced generations of future artists.
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