Greatest Art Critics Series
Louis Leroy

Biography of French Art Critic Who Invented the Name "Impressionism".

Art Critic Louis Leroy.

Louis Leroy (1812-1885)
Who first coined the term "Impressionists"


Who Was Louis Leroy?
The First Exhibition of Impressionism


Impression, Sunrise (1872)
The landscape painting by Monet
now in the Musee Marmottan, Paris,
whose title was used by art critic
Louis Leroy to coin the term

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Leo Steinberg (1920-2011)

Who Was Louis Leroy?

Louis Leroy became one of the most notorious art critics associated with the era of modern art, as a result of publishing a derisive review of a group exhibition in Paris, under the heading "The Exhibition of the Impressionists." In doing so, he unwittingly christened one of the great movements in the history of art - Impressionism - and provided a clear identity for the small group of Impressionist painters who participated in the show. The latter included Claude Monet (1840-1926), Renoir (1841-1919), Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Berthe Morisot (1841-95), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), and Armand Guillaumin (1841-1927), who had banded together to form the Societe Anonyme des Peintres, Sculpteurs et Graveurs (Anonymous society of painters, sculptors and engravers), in order to exhibit their art. Louis Leroy had taken his lead from one of Claude Monet's pictures, entitled: "Impression, Sunrise" (Impression, Soleil Levant). Alas, his complete misjudgment of the aesthetics and painterly qualities of these early Impressionist paintings, has gone down in history as one of the biggest gaffes in French painting. That said, few French art critics found anything positive to say about any of the eight Impressionist exhibitions in Paris, held between 1874 and 1886. The public were no more enthusiastic. Indeed, despite the financial support of Parisian art dealers like Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) and Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939), it wasn't until the arrival of wealthy art collectors from America and Russia - such as Albert Barnes (1872-1951) and Ivan Morozov (1871-1921) - that Impressionist artists began to sell thir paintings for significant sums. So Louis Leroy's caustic and unflattering review of the first appearance of Monet's Impressionism was quite in line with contemporary Parisian taste. For other art critics from the same period, see: Felix Feneon (1861-1944) and Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918).




Louis Leroy was a highly versatile 19th century artist and critic, who dabbled in several different types of art, including literature, as well as painting and engraving. Nevertheless, he is chiefly remembered as the journalist and art reviewer for the French satirical publication Le Charivari (whose name means "discordant music"), who first coined the satirical term "Impressionists" to describe the unfinished-looking paintings on display at the first Impressionist exhibition, on the second floor of 35 Boulevard des Capucines.

Le Charivari was an illustrated newspaper, published daily in Paris, from 1832 to 1936. It featured caricature art, as well as cartoons, reviews and satires of everyday life, and was the model used by Ebenezer Landells and Henry Mayhew, when they launched Punch magazine in 1841. Leroy's review appeared on 25 April 1874 under the title "The Exhibition of the Impressionists" (Exposition des Impressionnistes).

The First Exhibition of Impressionism

Used to the carefully composed, beautifully finished and life-like paintings exhibited annually at the Paris Salon, the 62-year old Leroy was shocked by the loose brushwork and casual composition of Monet and his friends. His reaction was shared by most of the visitors to the show, who thought the subject-matter (mostly landscapes or scenes of street people going about their everyday lives) "vulgar" and "commonplace". In addition, they considered the manner of painting adopted to be far too sketchy and incomplete. The use of rapid brushstrokes - with entire paintings completed in one session - was considered to be an insult to the meticulous and time-consuming brushwork of traditional artists, who often spent weeks on a single work.

Leroy's use of the term Impressionist has ensured his immortality, but it all stemmed from a casual decision by Claude Monet who, when asked for a title for his painting of the docks at Le Havre, to be included in the show-catalogue, replied "put down Impression".

Note: in addition to 51 works by the Impressionist group, the show also included 114 other paintings by 20 or so other artists. However, the critical focus of most reviews remained fixed on the former.

Note: After Leroy, the next French critic to achieve immortality was the younger Louis Vauxcelles (1870-1943), who first used the term Fauvism for Matisse's colourist group, and also first coined the term Cubism to describe Picasso's and Braque's early Cubist landscapes.


Although most of the Impressionists happily accepted Leroy's nickname, Edouard Manet disassociated himself from it, and Degas strongly disagreed with it, preferring the title of "independents", while the critic and writer Emile Zola insisted on using the term "naturalists". No doubt Leroy felt vindicated by the fact that, after one month, the exhibition closed with such a loss that the artists were forced to disband the company they had only just formed, each contributing an equal share of the costs incurred. Thankfully, despite further setbacks, the Impressionists survived - thanks to generous financial support from fellow artists like Frederic Bazille (1841-70) and Gustave Caillebotte (1848-94), as well as amateur art collectors like Victor Chocquet.

In 1990, the oil painting Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876), painted by Renoir was sold at Sotheby's (New York) for $78.1 million. In 2008, the landscape composition Le Bassin aux Nympheas (1919) painted by Claude Monet, was sold at Christie's (London) for £49.9 million. For more details of these and other art records, see: Most Expensive Paintings: Top 10.

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