What Is Impressionism?

January 12, 2023

Impressionism is a movement in art that originated in France in the late 19th century.

The artists associated with Impressionism sought to capture the feeling or “impression” of a moment or scene in their paintings rather than creating a detailed, realistic representation. They emphasized the use of light and color to create a sense of movement and atmosphere and were often painted outdoors, or “en plein air.

The Origins of Impressionism 

Impressionism’s origins can be traced back to the early 1860s when a group of artists in France began experimenting with new techniques for capturing the effects of light and color in their paintings.

These artists, including Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas, began to break away from the traditional academic painting methods and instead focused on capturing the fleeting impressions of light and color they saw worldwide around them.

Impressionism was not only a style of painting but also a social movement. This art movement is associated with the artists who refused to conform to the Académie des Beaux-Arts and exhibited their works in a series of independent exhibitions that began in 1874.

Impressionism rejected the traditional academic art of the time, which focused on historical and mythological subjects and often had a moralizing message.

However, despite this criticism, Impressionism was widely popular among the general public and played an important role in shaping the art world of the 20th century.

These independent exhibitions were considered a revolution in the art world. They allowed the artist to showcase their work without the constraint of the academy’s taste and expectations, giving them more freedom of expression and creativity.

Impressionism and the Rise of Photography

One of the major influences on Impressionism was the rise of photography in the 19th century.

Photography had the power to capture a single moment in time, and Impressionist artists sought to emulate this by depicting their subjects with the same sense of immediacy.

This urge to capture subjects in a single moment led to a new painting technique encompassing small brushstrokes and quick brushwork, intended to emulate a moving image. This gave paintings a new sense of vibrancy and pushed the concept of Impressionism more and more into the Avant-Garde.

Techniques and Styles of Impressionism 

One of the key features of Impressionist paintings is the use of light.

Impressionist artists sought to capture the way that light changes throughout the day, and how it interacts with different surfaces. They often painted outdoors, or “en plein air,” to better capture a scene’s natural light and atmosphere. This led to the use of broken colors, or small strokes of colors that are applied side by side, to give the impression of the actual light and color, rather than a literal representation.

Another key aspect of Impressionism is the use of vibrant colors. Impressionist painters used a wide range of tones and in their paintings, and often employed the use of complementary colors to create stark contrasts. They also used colors in a way that reflected the emotions they wanted to convey in the painting, rather than in a way that solely represented the colors in the scene.

Impressionist artists experimented with different techniques, such as the use of visible brushstrokes and the layering of colors. This was an effort to create a sense of movement and depth in their paintings. They also used impasto, which is the thick application of paint, to add texture to the paintings. This gives the paintings a sense of physicality and realism, allowing the viewer to sense the movement of the brush.

Impressionism is not only limited to the use of light and color, but also to the subject matter. Impressionist artists usually depicted ordinary people and their activities. They showed the scenes of everyday life, landscapes and contemporary social events. This was a departure from traditional art, which often focused on historical or mythological themes.

Influence of Impressionism

Impressionism had a profound impact on the development of art history, as it marked a departure from the highly finished and idealized style of academic painting that had been the norm up to that point.

The Impressionists’ use of light and color was particularly influential. They often painted outdoors, directly from nature, and used a broken color technique to depict light. They also used short brushstrokes to create a sense of movement.

This approach to painting, which emphasized the artist’s own perception of the world, rather than traditional conventions, would go on to inspire countless other artists.

The Impressionist movement also had a great impact on the art world of the time. It was popular among the middle class, many of whom were able to purchase these relatively inexpensive paintings, which helped to make art accessible to a wider audience.

Impressionism gave rise to several other styles, such as Post-Impressionism and Fauvism.

Reception of Impressionism 

When the movement first emerged, it was met with resistance and criticism from the traditional art world.

Many art critics and gallery owners viewed the Impressionist paintings as unfinished and amateurish. They criticized the use of vibrant colors and loose brushstrokes, arguing that it did not conform to traditional standards of beauty and technical skill.

Despite the initial negative reception, Impressionism gradually gained acceptance among the public. The Impressionist painters began to hold their own independent exhibitions, bypassing the traditional art institutions. The public was drawn to the new, modern style of painting, and the movement quickly gained popularity.

Despite its initial rejection by the art world, Impressionism has had a lasting impact. Its emphasis on light and color, and its focus on capturing the momentary impression of a scene, were major influences on later art movements such as Post-Impressionism and Fauvism.

Today, Impressionism is widely considered to be one of the most important art movements of the 19th century, and many works of Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir are considered masterpieces.

Key Artists of The Impressionist Movement 

Claude Monet

Claude Monet was one of the Impressionist movement’s most prominent and influential artists. He is perhaps best known for his series of paintings depicting water lilies, which he began working on in the 1890s and continued to create until he died in 1926.

Monet was born in 1840 in Paris and began his artistic career as a teenager, studying at the Académie Suisse. He was heavily influenced by the work of the Old Masters, particularly the 17th-century Dutch painters, as well as Japanese art, which the West was discovering at the time. He was also heavily influenced by the work of the Barbizon school, a group of artists who worked in the forest of Fontainebleau, outside of Paris.

In 1874, Monet’s painting “Impression, Sunrise” was exhibited at the first Impressionist exhibition, and the term “Impressionism” was coined to describe this new painting style. Monet became one of the leading members of the Impressionist movement, and his work was exhibited in numerous Impressionist shows throughout the 1870s and 1880s.

One of Monet’s most famous paintings is the “Water Lilies,” which he began working on in the 1890s and continued to create until his death in 1926. This series of paintings depict the artist’s flower garden at his home in Giverny, France, showcasing his understanding of light’s effects on the natural world.

The paintings are characterized by their vibrant colors, bold brushstrokes, and the impression of movement created by the rippling water and floating lilies. This series was popular among audiences in the early 20th century, with some of these works now considered masterpieces and hanging in museums worldwide.

Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was an American painter and printmaker who was an important member of the Impressionist movement. She was born in Pennsylvania and began her art studies in Philadelphia before moving to Paris in 1866. Cassatt was one of a small group of women artists who were able to break into the male-dominated art world of the late 19th century.

Her work often depicted the everyday lives of women and their children. She was particularly interested in capturing the close relationships between mothers and children.

Cassatt’s paintings are characterized by their bold brushstrokes and use of vibrant colors. Her style is considered to be a fusion of Impressionism and Realism, as her works are both realistic in terms of details but also have the ability to show movement and light, showing an Impressionistic approach.

She also made a significant contribution to the medium of printmaking. She was one of the first Impressionists to experiment with the technique of color drypoint, in which an image is incised into a plate with a needle and then printed. Her color drypoints are considered to be some of the finest examples of the medium.

In addition to her artistic contributions, Cassatt was also an advocate for the rights of women artists. She helped to organize the first independent exhibition of female artists in 1877, and she was a member of the Society of American Women Artists.

Cassatt’s work had an enduring impact on the art world and her paintings continue to be popular today. She is widely considered one of the leading Impressionist painters, and her work is featured in major museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Paul Cézanne

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) was a French painter and Post-Impressionist artist. He is known for his unique style and technique, which helped to lay the foundation for the transition from 19th-century Impressionism to 20th-century Cubism.

Cézanne was initially rejected by the art establishment and his work was not widely recognized during his lifetime. Yet in the early 20th century, his paintings were discovered by the artists of the Fauvist and Cubist movements, who greatly admired his bold use of color and innovative techniques.

Cézanne’s paintings are characterized by their strong geometric shapes, bold brushstrokes, and the use of a limited color palette. He often painted landscapes, still lifes and portraits, and was particularly interested in depicting the relationship between objects in a scene, and the way they interacted with light and shadow.

He is considered one of the most innovative painters of his time, and his approach to composition and color theory changed the way people approach art.

One of Cézanne’s most significant contributions to the art world was his experimentation with new techniques and methods. He was one of the first artists to use the technique of applying paint in small, multi-colored dabs, which became known as “the Cézanne touch.”

This technique, which was later adopted by the Fauvist and Cubist painters, allowed for a greater range of color and movement to be captured in a single painting.

Cézanne’s work had a profound impact on the development of modern art. His use of geometric shapes and the simplification of forms influenced the emergence of Cubism, a movement that would come to dominate the art world in the early 20th century.

His work also heavily influenced the development of various forms of modern art, such as Fauvism and abstract art. He was seen as a trailblazer, with his ability to simplify forms and use color in a new way.

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