Impressionist Painters (c.1840-1920)
Impressionism was the most important art movement of the 19th century, and its impact extended throughout the world until well into the 20th century. The name derives from a painting exhibited by Monet in 1874, catalogued as "Impression Sunrise". There is no precise definition of the style. Exponents seek to capture the visual impression of a scene, rather than its objective characteristics, and focus on depicting the instantaneous effect of light. (For more, see: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting 1870-1910.)
In Monet's words, an Impressionist painting is "a spontaneous work, rather than a calculated one." This may be somewhat idealistic, as many artists eventually forsook plein-air painting in favour of studio work. Even so, there is a hurried, almost unfinished look about many Impressionist masterpieces.
Although the movement began quite inauspiciously in Paris, and initially involved only a small number of painters - who exhibited as a group only seven times (1874-82) - it rapidly attracted the efforts of other Parisian artists (many of whom eventually turned to Post-Impressionism or Expressionism) before going on to influence artists across the globe - from Philadelphia to Sydney.
The term 'Impressionism' was first used mockingly, by Louis Leroy (1812-1885), to describe the 1874 exhibition of a new style of French painting by a new generation of French painters - Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Degas and others. Soon the artists themselves accepted the title and Impressionism lost its derisive implications and came to be regarded and praised as one of the most important art movements of the 19th century. The general opinion of the 1874 exhibition was that if you "soil three-quarters of a canvas with black and white, rub the rest with yellow, distribute haphazardly some red and blue spots, you'll obtain an impression". One of the art critics, less harsh but more revealing of their work, said "They are Impressionists in the sense that they render not the landscape but the sensation produced by the landscape".
History of Impressionism
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The daring aims shared by the group included the immediate and visually true rendering of a momentary scene; the painting of the whole work in the open air (which entailed abandoning the traditional sequence of preparatory sketching and carefully worked final painting); the use of pure colour on the canvas instead of first being mixed on the palette; the technique, influenced by recent scientific studies, of depicting light in terms of its component colours; the use of small strokes and dabs of brightly-coloured paint and, above all, the use of light and colour as the sole means of unifying a picture, as opposed to the traditional method of building up a painting by outline and modelling with light and shade.
Taken together, these aims represented a whole revaluation of art. And yet, as with so many 'revolutionary' artistic movements, their roots can be found in what went before. The emphasis on painting direct from nature led on from the stress placed on factual data and direct observation by the Realist artists and the followers of the philosophy of Positivism. The Impressionists' use of colour owed much to the findings of the French scientist Chevreul, who observed that juxtaposed colour pigments alter each other and that, when seen from a distance, two different colours placed side by side blend into a single tone. Theories such as these led eventually to the Impressionist practice of placing pure colours on the canvas for the spectator's eye to fuse from a distance.
But this technique had actually been foreshadowed by earlier painters. Eugene Delacroix (in France) and both John Constable and Richard Parkes Bonington (in England), all of whom influenced the Impressionists. In his journal, Delacroix remarks: "Constable says that the superiority of the greens in his meadows is due to the fact that they are made up of a large number of different (juxtaposed not mixed) greens. What gives a lack of intensity and life to the ordinary run of landscape painters is that they do it with a uniform tint." Delacroix himself came to reject earth tones and use pure, unmixed colours and he anticipated the characteristic brushwork of the Impressionists when he wrote: "It is well if the brush strokes are not actually fused. They fuse naturally at a certain distance by the law of sympathy that has associated them. The colour thus gains in energy and freshness.' These comments usefully outline the Impressionists' greatest contribution to art - the liberation of light and colour and the attempt to create the sense of the immediate, visual impact of an image.
As a unified movement, Impressionism is really confined to the 1870s. After this decade, the artists developed along more individual paths. The 1860s were formative years for all the future Impressionist painters, during which a variety of influences shaped their ideas. These influences can best be seen in the career of Claude Monet (1840-1926), the leading member of the group.
The painter whom Monet most respected was Edouard Manet (1832-83), who was, during the 1860s, an extremely controversial figure: his "Dejeuner sur l'Herbe" (1863) received outraged criticism when it was exhibited at the new Salon des Refuses (established for showing works rejected by the official Salon). The very qualities for which he was reviled by the art critics - spontaneous brushwork, elimination of half-tones, lack of smooth modelling and disregard of meticulous transition from light to dark - endeared him to the future Impressionists. Inspired by Manet's painting, Monet himself began his own "Dejeuner sur l'Herbe", spending several months sketching in the forest of Fontainebleau. His intention, however, was different from Manet, for he wanted to paint his picnic party as they appeared in a fleeting moment of sunlight. In the same year as he finished this, 1866, Monet painted "Women in the Garden", with which he began his practice of painting works entirely out of doors (en plein air).
Monet had, early on in his career, been introduced to plein-air painting by an artist friend Eugene Boudin (1824-98), while living in Le Havre. From Boudin, Monet derived a fascination for capturing fleeting atmospheric effects, and his paintings of the harbours and beaches of Normandy are concerned largely with the evocation of the play of light on surfaces.
Monet's developing interest in optical effects are further seen in the series of snow scenes which he painted in and around Honfleur during the early 1860s. By this time his style was being modified by his knowledge of Japanese art. Japanese colour woodcuts were beginning to be known in Europe from the mid-nineteenth century, when Japan entered into trade relations with it. Prints of these woodcuts were often used as wrappings and padding for tea, and could be bought cheaply at tea-shops. Many artists in France from the late 1850s onwards collected these prints; they saw in Japanese art a way of revitalizing their own style. Several motifs of this "Japonism" corresponded with effects currently being explored in their own environment, for example the cut-off composition, with figures seen from unexpected angles or partly obscured (also a feature of photography), the use of black outline, of large flat areas of colour and of dramatic perspective foreshortening. This last feature was adopted by Monet in his "Road near Honfleur in Snow" (1867) as it tends to make the picture's impact one of an impression received in a momentary glance.
After this, perspective foreshortening was used repeatedly by Impressionist painters, in particular Camille Pissarro (1831-1903) and Alfred Sisley (1839-99) for road scenes, and by Manet again for his river views. Different aspects of Japanese art were taken up by different painters according to their interests: Edgar Degas (1834-1917), more interested in design and drawing than the main Impressionists, was particularly influenced by the uncluttered nature of Japanese art and by the possibilities of the cut-off composition, which he explored most fully in his numerous studies of ballet dancers.
For Manet the attraction of Japanese art lay in its use of colour; his work during the 1860s, with its use of flat areas of bright colour, reflects his knowledge of Japanese prints. Although both Manet and Degas were both, at some stage of their career, influenced by the techniques and findings of the Impressionists, they both held themselves somewhat aloof from the main group - separated by different social backgrounds, by age, by a greater sophistication of outlook, and by different artistic aims.
The growing interest in photography, too, played an important part in Monet's conception of painting and in his artistic style. His depiction of pedestrians in his city scene "Boulevard des Capucines" (1873), in which the people are distorted into mere black dabs, echoes exactly the effects found in contemporary photographs taken on glass plates, which tend to blur moving forms. Sometimes actual photographs were used by the Impressionists; at other times, photography enabled objects and scenes to be viewed from unexpected angles.
Monet was the link between the different members of the group. He had met Renoir and Sisley in Paris, while studying at the studio of Charles Gleyre (1806-74), and had befriended Pissarro and Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) at the Academie Suisse, also in Paris. From 1864, these artists were all working in the Forest of Fontainebleau either independently or together.
Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) - although influenced by Monet in his use of bright, flat colour - was more like Manet in his responsiveness to the art of the past. And for him, as for Manet, it is the human figure that remains the most fascinating subject of artistic expression. Throughout the 1860s, Renoir tried to maintain a balance between certain academic standards and the pictorial advances he saw being carried out around him. In its use of deep colour and textured pigment his work at Fontainebleau shows the influence of Gustave Courbet. Gradually however - as a result of continual painting out of doors and of Monet's influence - his colours became lighter and his handling freer. But his interest in the human figure dominates even when he is closest to Monet in theme and style.
In 1868 he and Monet worked together on the River Seine and their individual interpretations of a scene at La Grenouillere (a popular bathing place on the River Seine) reveal their contrasting interests - Renoir's in social scenes and human figures, Monet's in the effects of light and water. It was here that Renoir and Monet discovered that shadows are not brown or black (as they were traditionally depicted) but are coloured by their surroundings. They accordingly rejected blacks, browns and earth colours more and more from their palettes.
Along with Monet, it was Pissarro and Sisley who were perhaps the most faithful to Impressionism. Pissarro, though much influenced by Monet, reveals a far greater respect for the underlying structure of a painting and for the solid, durable aspects of the earth and countryside. Sisley, almost exclusively focused on landscape painting, was heavily influenced by Monet in his later works executed during the 1870s. But his landscapes, for example "Misty Morning" (1874), and in particular his snowscapes, retain a sense of melancholy and delicacy wholly personal to his art.
During the mid 1870s, the Impressionist style reached its peak. The artists associated with it were working in their most characteristic style of small, separate brush strokes, and small dabs of pure colour applied direct to a white primed canvas, with no prior mixing. These Impressionist paintings transmit not only a sense of liberation in style, but a true enjoyment of life, their most typical subjects being breakfasts, picnics, promenades and boating trips, and scenes of nature in different moods and in different seasons.
Since 1872 Monet had been living at Argenteuil on the River Seine, where he had fitted out a floating studio, from which he could study and paint the interaction of light and water. Here he painted with Renoir, and in the summer of 1874 they were joined by Manet, whose parents owned a property nearby. This summer marked the height of Manet's involvement with Impressionism: his colours became lighter, his technique looser and he came increasingly to value the experience of working out of doors. His painting "Monet Working in his Boat" (1874) acts as a tribute to this phase and conveys something of Manet's new-found delight in the spontaneous rendering of the physical aspects of a scene. But although the newspaper critics insisted on talking of the younger artists as "Manet's gang", Manet himself never wanted to be identified with the Impressionists and refused to take part in any of their exhibitions. Organized by Degas, the first of these Impressionist exhibitions took place in 1874 and was vilified by the critics and the public alike.
The group itself, although continuing to hold exhibitions until 1886 had, by the end of the 1870s, begun to split up. Monet left Argenteuil in 1876 and two years later settled at Vetheuil, further from Paris. He began the series of paintings in which he explored one subject under different conditions and times of day: these included the Poplars and the Haystacks, Rouen cathedral and the Water-lilies - the last theme being painted right up to his death in 1926. They show an increasing dissolution of form and sensuous rendering of light and colour. Renoir, always inclined towards academic art, returned to his basic preoccupation with the human figure and his later work shows an increased attention to form, contour and smoothness of surface. Pissarro became involved with the colour-theories of the Neo-Impressionism group, led by Georges Seurat, leaving only Sisley of the original group as a pure Impressionist to the end of his life. Thus the 1880s witnessed the original group of Impressionists following their independent styles, and the rise of a new generation - Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh - who, with the Impressionist innovations as their starting point, were to forge a new and more radical art which would transform painting in the 20th century.
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For more, see German Art, 19th Century.
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Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942)
Abbott McNeill Whistler (18341903)
Mark Fisher (1841-1923)
Merritt Chase (1849-1916)
Henry Twachtman (1853-1902)
Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
Alden Weir (1852-1919)
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An early form of Impressionism in Italy is represented in works by Giovanni Fattori (18251908), Silvestro Lega (182695), Serafino da Tivoli (1826-92), Giuseppe Abbati (1836-68) and Telemaco Signorini (18351901), all of whom were associated with the Macchiaioli painting movement. In Spain, the leading Impressionist was the Catalan painter Joaquin Sorolla Y Bastida (1863-1923).
For more about 19th-century painting, see: Homepage.
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