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What is Impressionism?


 The term ‘Impressionist’ was first used in response to the artwork ‘Impression, Sunrise‘ by Monet, exhibited in 1874. Art critic Louis Leroy coined the term and used it to describe the works in the exhibition put together by the Société Anonyme des Peintres, Sculpteurs et Graveurs (Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers). Monet’s piece was an impression of the atmospheric effects of the morning sea Le Havre Harbour. The term was originally intended to be derogatory as works were deemed ‘unfinished’. Leroy wrote in his review ‘a preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape’. The artists, however, came to think of Impressionism as a good name for their work although they never actually used it for their exhibitions. Originally the Impressionists did not intend for their work to be a reaction against the academic art of The Salon* but rather they mounted the exhibition in order to sell their work.

 Since all the artists painted different subject maters, an exact definition of Impressionism can be difficult. As a group they believed that the personality of the artist should be visible in their brushstrokes and technique. They painted real life, trying to be truthful and paint subjects relevant to their time. They aimed to create fleeting impressions of scenes in order to capture the sensation of that particular moment.

The main artists of the Impressionism movement were Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas.

Monet kept true to his intentions all the way through his life and didn’t change direction unlike many other Impressionist artists. For him Impressionism was a way of capturing the atmosphere and feel of a moment, for instance the effects of light, water and vapour.

Renoir was largely a figurative painter. He felt that his Impressionist art lacked a sense of something more permanent and began to draw on classical tradition and the work of the old masters to improve this aspect of his work.

Degas was a painter of people, fascinated by movement but mostly interested in painting gaslit interiors, going against the ‘en plein air’ painting favoured by other artists. He had a classical training and brought more figure painters to the Impressionist group.

Another feature of Impressionism was that female artists began to participate. Berthe Morisot , Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalès, and Marie Bracquemond were all members of the Impressionist group.  These four women lived in Paris and exhibited work that was as innovative as those of their male counterparts. It was a time when a strict code of social rules was in operation for women. Each overcame daunting obstacles to contribute to the development of Impressionism. Morisot, Cassatt, Gonzalès, and Bracquemond negotiated not only personal challenges but also those posed by the conventional ideas of acceptable behaviour for women of their period.

 The contrast between the ideas of The Salon and the new Impressionist ideas can be seen clearly in ‘Les Parapluies‘ by Renoir. Part of the painting has the looser brushstrokes of Impressionism and the rest shows the influences of true Classical Tradition which interested Renoir in his later work as a way of creating something more solid. ‘The Beach at Trouville’ (1870) by Monet uses loose white brushstrokes to suggest the presence of bright sunlight.

Bathers at La Grenouille’ (1869), shows the early stages of Impressionist artists using dashes of paint to create light effects. Degas too used loose brushstrokes and visible strokes of pastel in his later works such as his series of portrayals of bathers in the 1880s, although not necessarily to indicate a strong light source since throughout his life he had preferred to paint indoors.

Another feature of Impressionism (although they were not the first to use it) was the concept of ‘en plein air’ painting. This was particularly favoured by Monet and Renoir. It was made possible in the practical sense by the invention of the paint tube and ready-made canvas in the nineteenth century. Monet’s ‘Ladies in the Garden’ and ‘The Beach at trouville’ 1870 were painted outside, and both have a feeling of bright sunlight about them. The ‘en plein air’ technique helped Monet to more effectively capture the sensations of light by which he was fascinated.

This interest in light effects also led to the use of a light gound on which to begin painting. The light ground enabled colours to appear brighter and almost luminous. Areas of the canvas could also be left unpainted so that the light ground colour was visible beneath the paint to create a greater feeling of light.

Bright colours were used in Impressionism as another way of expressing emotions or capturing the particular sensation of a moment. Impressionists tended to favour lively and often unrealistic colours for these reasons. An expressive use of bright and not necessarily local colours is visible in Monet’s ‘Bathers at La Grenouille’ (see above) where red has been used as a way of capturing light on a dress. A popular technique featured in Impressionism was that of of putting complementary colours beside one other in order to to reinforce and identify the colours. This is shown in ‘Boating on The Seine‘ by Renior in which the reddy-brown of the boats and the blue of the water sit next to each other, enhancing the colours.

 Impressionism also began to make use of new influences such as Japanese art and photography. The influence of Japanese prints is another Impressionist feature visible in ‘The beach at Trouville’ by Monet. Japanese prints were linear, not using modelling, depth or perspective, and expressed a love of nature which appealed to the Impressionists, and they found the art to be very truthful. The influence of photography can be seen in ‘Garden of the Princess‘ by Monet. The painting shows a view of the garden from an unusual angle which has quite a casual effect on the painting, as if it was a photograph capturing a moment of moving people and carriages. This topographical subject matter shows developments taking place in Paris at the time, and although views of Paris were not innovative subject matter, it was a casual view of day to day life without aiming to show either the seedy or glamourous side of the city.

There were 8 exhibitions by the Impressionist group between 1874-86. Monet only exhibited until about 1880, after this newer artists such as Georges Seurat and Camille Pissarro were called the Neo-Impressionists. Seurat’s masterpiece, ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte‘ (1884) marked the beginning of the Neo- Impressionism movement when it first made its appearance at an exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants in Paris. Seurat and his followers strived to refine the impulsive and intuitive artistic mannerisms of the Impressionists. A disciplined network of dots was used in their desire to instil a sense of organisation and permanence in their work. Following the development of colour theory by Michel Eugène Chevreul and others by the late 19th century, the influence of optic and colour perceptions also became apparent as the movement was further refined.


* The Paris Salon (Salon de Paris), began in 1725 and was the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France. Between 1748–1890 it was the greatest annual or biannual art event in the Western world. Conservative, academic juries of awarded artists would make decisions about the art that was to be put on show.

Related Links – Impressionism:

Musée des Impressionnismes Giverny

Cover Image: Beach Walk at Old Hunstanton by Mary Kemp