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Impressionism is a movement in painting that originated in France in the late 19th century. Impressionist painters were considered radical in their time because they broke many of the rules of picture-making set by earlier generations. They found many of their subjects in life around them rather than in history, which was then the accepted source of subject matter. Instead of painting an ideal of beauty that earlier artists had defined, the impressionists tried to depict what they saw at a given moment, capturing a fresh, original vision that was hard for some people to accept as beautiful. They often painted out of doors, rather than in a studio, so that they could observe nature more directly and set down its most fleeting aspects - especially the changing light of the sun.

The style of impressionist painting has several characteristic features. To achieve the appearance of spontaneity, impressionist painters used broken brushstrokes of bright, often unmixed colors. This practice produced loose or densely textured surfaces rather than the carefully blended colors and smooth surfaces favored by most artists of the time. The colors in impressionist paintings have an overall luminosity because the painters avoided blacks and earth colors. The impressionists also simplified their compositions, omitting detail to achieve a striking overall effect.

The artists most often associated with impressionism include Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley.


In 1874 French art critic Louis Leroy coined the term impressionist in a satirical review of a private exhibition of paintings by a group called The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc. Leroy was prompted to use this term in part by a modest and sketchy harbor scene called Impression, Sunrise (1873, Musée Marmottan, Paris) by Monet. The term impressionist struck Leroy as an appropriate description of the loose, inexact manner of painting of Monet and several other painters in the exhibition, namely Pissarro, Morisot, and Sisley. Leroy argued that as soon as these artists had suggested an impression of a subject by means of a few abrupt, shorthand brushstrokes, they were satisfied and stopped work. He did not apply the term to Degas, Renoir, Paul Cézanne, or Armand Guillaumin, who also took part in the exhibition and are now classified as impressionists. Even at this early stage it was clear that the name fit the styles of some artists less neatly than others.

The impressionists held seven subsequent exhibitions between 1876 and 1886. What united this group was not style so much as a desire to gain independence from an annual government-sponsored exhibition in Paris called the Salon. To exhibit at the Salon, artists were required to submit work to a jury that applied outmoded standards in deciding which works were acceptable. Although most of the impressionists previously had work accepted by the Salon, they had also experienced rejection. They were especially indignant at the humiliating way in which the Salon had responded to the work of fellow painter Édouard Manet. Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863, Musée d'Orsay, Paris) was rejected by the official Salon of 1863, but shown instead at a special exhibition of rejected paintings (called the Salon des Refusés) in 1863. Critics responded with outrage to this painting, which shows two men clothed in contemporary dress seated at a picnic with a naked woman. At the time, nudes were an acceptable subject in allegorical or historical paintings, but not in scenes of everyday life. In fact, Manet had borrowed his composition from Italian Renaissance sources and reworked it in pointedly modern ways.

The critics' hostility toward Manet made him a hero to the younger generation of painters, who rallied round him. Manet provided the link between most of the artists who took part in the first impressionist exhibition, and in turn he responded to the innovations of the impressionists, particularly to the work of Monet. However Manet never joined forces with the new group, because he still regarded acceptance by the Salon as the true test of a painter's reputation.

Despite its negative associations, the name impressionist stuck, and helped give both critics and the artists themselves a sense of joint purpose. In 1877 a short-lived journal entitled L'Impressioniste was published to coincide with the third exhibition held by this group; its purpose was to champion the artists and defend them against critical attack.

Critics and historians have defined the impressionist style in various ways over time, and have reordered the importance assigned to individual impressionist artists. For the first historians of the movement, the landscapes of Monet, Sisley, and Renoir represented impressionism in its purest form. Their technique of applying paint in small dabs perfectly captured the flickering quality of sunlight, especially its reflections on water. Art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who worked hard to sell impressionist works, promoted this view of impressionism as a movement concerned primarily with landscape painting, with Monet as its central figure. Art historians tended to overlook the work of Morisot despite her similar technique and participation in the original 1874 exhibition - partly because she was a woman and partly because she had fewer works in circulation than the others. For years Monet's reputation overshadowed that of Pissarro, whose paintings offer a more solid, structured view of nature in rural France, seen for instance in Market Garden at l'Hermitage, Pontoise (1879, Musée d'Orsay). Since about 1980, art historians have increasingly recognized Pissarro's importance as the movement's most loyal exhibitor and most influential teacher. Similarly, historians have focused renewed attention on the immense achievements in figure painting of Degas, Renoir, American expatriate Mary Cassatt, and Gustave Caillebotte.

Many of the practices and objectives of the impressionists had precedents in earlier French painting of the 19th century. Most of the impressionists shared a belief in painting the unembellished truth of what they saw, and in this concern for realism they followed the tendencies of earlier French realists such as Gustave Courbet. They emulated French painter Camille Corot in his sensitivity to the effects of light in nature. They also learned from French landscape painters of the Barbizon School, many of whom practiced outdoor painting. Especially influential in their practice of painting in the open air were French painter Eugène Louis Boudin and Dutch painter Johan Barthold Jongkind, who were noted for their seascapes. The impressionists also admired the vibrant color and lively brushstrokes of Eugène Delacroix, although they avoided his religious, moral, and historical subject matter in order to concentrate on themes from everyday life.


The impressionists specialized in landscape, informal portraits in a domestic setting, and still life - genres that before the 1870s had been regarded as of lesser importance than history painting. It was a major achievement of the impressionists to overturn this prejudice. Many impressionist landscapes depict unremarkable corners of nature with no obvious point of interest. Pissarro, for example, found the edge of a field and a partially obscured view of houses sufficient subject matter for Market Garden at L'Hermitage, Pontoise. Sisley, however, favored more conventionally picturesque sites, such as the village along a river bank in The Bridge at Moret-sur-Loing (1893, Musée d'Orsay). Morisot often painted women in indoor settings. The delicacy of her paint handling can be seen in The Cradle (1872, Musée d'Orsay), an intimate study of her sister and baby niece.

In 1863 French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire had called for a "painter of modern life." The impressionists took up his challenge in paintings of the changing city scene: women wearing the latest fashions, the airy new streets and suburbs of Paris, modern modes of transportation (particularly the railway), and the riverside and seacoast resorts where Parisians spent their leisure time. Degas abandoned his early paintings of historical subjects in favor of the spectacles of modern life, heroic in their own way: jockeys at the racecourse, launderers and hatmakers at work, dancers in rehearsal or on stage. During the 1870s, the peak decade of French impressionism, these artists were never far from the fashionable crowds. Manet came closest to the impressionist style in such brightly colored depictions of modern leisure activities as Argenteuil (1874, Musée des Beaux Arts, Tournai, Belgium), a boating scene set on the river Seine. Monet and Renoir painted similar modern subjects at the same spot.


It was the novelty of their technique more than their subject matter that set the impressionists apart from their contemporaries. They rejected somber tones and a painstaking degree of finish that removed all traces of the artist's hand. These were qualities demanded by the Académie des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts), the institution that set the standards for French painting and organized the Salon. Instead of creating smoothly blended colors, the impressionists placed separate touches of vibrantly contrasting colors directly onto the canvas, sometimes without prior mixing on the palette, and allowed their brushstrokes to retain the liveliness and seeming spontaneity of a sketch. As a result their work appeared unfinished to many viewers, including the critic Leroy. Manet had encouraged this tendency in his paintings of the 1860s, in which he did away with the middle tones that would have eased the transition from lightest light to darkest dark. Instead, Manet set lights directly next to darks to create strikingly stark contrasts.

In seeking to capture the luminous effects of sunlight, the impressionists used light colors and applied them onto a light or white ground (the canvas's initial coat) rather than the darker ground that was then conventional. The impressionists worked quickly to preserve a feeling of spontaneity and directness. They often painted one color on top of another that was still wet, a practice that tends to blur contours and soften forms.

Scientific advances helped the impressionists. The new availability of oil paint in metal tubes made painting out of doors much easier, and new paints based on artificial pigments provided brighter colors, particularly blues, yellows, and greens. The impressionists also put into practice new scientific theories about color: To enhance the intensity of colors in their paintings, they avoided black or earth colors for depicting shadows and substituted complementary colors. So, for instance, the shadowed underside of a red apple would be dappled with shades of green.

Although each impressionist had his or her individual way of applying paint, they all tended to prefer impasto (thick, textural dabs of paint) to more traditional glazes (thin, transparent layers of paint). The impressionists were by no means the first artists in history to use impasto. Their predecessors include 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painters Frans Hals and Peter Paul Rubens, and early 19th-century landscape painters John Constable in England and Théodore Rousseau in France.


Many impressionist paintings broke the Académie's rules of composition. Rather than attempting to produce carefully constructed, permanent records of events or scenes, the impressionist objective was to capture the fleeting moment, the optical sensation produced by a chance effect of weather, light, or movement. Their very choice of subject - often a fragment of nature with limited depth - countered the traditional representation of space in which the eye is led naturally from foreground to distance.

In figure painting, Renoir used relatively conventional compositions as in the portrait of actor Jeanne Samary (1878, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia). By contrast, Degas, Caillebotte, and Cassatt were remarkably daring in their use of odd angles and discontinuous spaces. In Fin d'Arabesque (1877, Musée d'Orsay), for example, Degas painted the plunging view enjoyed by a spectator in a theater box, showing the dancer taking her bow on the stage below. Her skirt is cut off by the edge of the canvas, giving the impression of a chance composition and a fleeting moment. The cropping may indicate the influence of photography, which was then a new invention. Cassatt used a similar approach in Mrs. Cassatt Reading to Her Grandchildren (1880, private collection), which has the casual, unposed appearance of a snapshot. Impressionist painters also studied the asymmetrical balance and decorative patterns of Japanese prints, which were in wide circulation in Paris at the time.


By the 1880s a number of artists had begun to react against various aspects of impressionism. Painters Georges Seurat and Paul Gauguin protested the movement's exclusive concentration on subjects they saw as momentary, ordinary, and unimaginative. Seurat sought to create more solid, monumental forms and make a more timeless statement as he took impressionism in a new direction called neoimpressionism. Gauguin and others turned to Cézanne for an example of how to make more solidly constructed compositions from impressionism. In a sense Cézanne's goals already made him impressionism's odd man out, and after 1877 he stopped exhibiting with the group. In the later 1880s and 1890s he became the all-important figure for the next generation of innovators, the so-called postimpressionists.

The impressionist group began to break up during the 1880s. Even Monet departed from his direct approach to nature in his late style. Instead of painting a passing scene in a single sitting, Monet began to examine the ways a single large-scale subject responded to changing light. In several series of paintings - of haystacks near his home, for instance, and of the west façade of the cathedral at Rouen - he showed the same subject in different seasons or at different times of day. Unlike his earlier work, these paintings were finished in the studio.

Although the Académie and conservative critics had initially greeted the innovations of the impressionists with hostility, sympathetic critics encouraged the painters, and a select few patrons bought their work. By the 1890s impressionist paintings began to attract more buyers. Impressionism appealed mainly to newly rich middle-class collectors, who brought fewer prejudices to new art than did members of the establishment. These collectors also responded to the small scale and ready comprehensibility of impressionist paintings. Impressionism caught on quickly in America from the 1880s onward. The ground had been prepared by American painters who became sympathetic to the style while living in France. They included Cassatt, who exhibited with the impressionists, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and John Singer Sargent. Artists in other countries were just as quick to catch on: British painter Walter Sickert, Italian painter Giovanni Segantini, and German painter Max Liebermann all adopted aspects of impressionism and helped popularize the style back home.

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