Impressionism refers to an art movement during the 19th century, which was formed by a group of artists based in Paris, France. It was largely in the 1870s to the 1880s that these impressionist artists rose to fame with their independent art exhibitions throughout France. Although they were met by harsh critics, they were still able to present their works and withstood negative remarks from the public.
Primarily, the name of the art movement and style came from Claude Monet’s painting entitled Impression, Sunrise. This artwork caused Louis Leroy, an art critic, to use the term in providing a satirical review of the artist’s masterpiece in Le Charivari, a famous newspaper in Paris.
The art style aims to recreate a kind of sensation in the viewer’s eye who witnesses the subject of the painting instead of ignoring the details. It also allows one to generate a deeper concept of the forms and techniques used in the artwork. Moreover, impressionism served as a the precursor for a wide range of painting styles such as cubism, fauvism, neo-impressionism and post-impressionism.
It all began when four French painters such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frederic Bazille, Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley met and got together while they took art studies under Charles Gleyre, in the 1860s. The four artists realized their common interest in painting contemporary life and landscape, and without much preoccupation on mythological and historical subjects.
Hence, they implemented a technique that became widely popular in the mid-century, and they would go to the countryside and paint sceneries. Their purpose was to paint in the open air and in sunlight, so they can be directly exposed to nature. This also allowed them to make excellent use of vivid and vibrant synthetic pigments that resulted to a lighter quality of colors of the painting. More often, these painters would meet at the Cafe Guerbois, on Avenue de Clichy, and they would be engaged in discussions led by the artist Edouard Manet. Eventually, two other artists joined in, who were Paul Cezanne and Pissarro.
By the 1860s, Monet and his fellow artists experienced much rejection from the Salon jury, as the norm at that time was artworks complying with the approved style and techniques. For instance, The Luncheon on the Grass, one of Manet’s works, was rejected by the Salon jury, in 1863. The reason for the rejection was the presence of a nude woman who sat along with two fully clothed men at the picnic by the grass. The jury believed that the placement of a realistic nude woman in a contemporary setting was unacceptable.
In the latter part of the 1860s, Emperor Napoleon III examined these rejected artworks and ordered the public to be the ones to judge these paintings for themselves. This was the time when the Salon des Refuses was formed, which also gained more followers than the original Salon. By 1873, the Societe Anonyme Cooperative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs was formed. It was founded by artists including Edgar Degas, Sisley, Pissarro, Monet, Cezanne, and Renoir, among several others.
These artists exhibited their works independently, and they declined to participate in the regular Salon. In addition, they invited a few other progressive painters to attend the inaugural exhibition. They were very much impressed with the works of these artists whose techniques proved to be quite interesting and novel at that time.
Subjects of Impressionist Artworks
Impressionist artists are known to reject the conventional rules of techniques, composition and subject matter in painting. They had their own unique style, which made them a subject of controversy and interest by the public.
Among the different subjects of impressionist art include the following:
1. Scenes from daily life
Impressionists focused more on portraying various scenes that involved regular life instead of historical scenes or mythological subjects that idealized moral and beauty. Their concept was to present reality at the very moment they witness various subjects.
For impressionist artists, nature was more important than other themes, and it has become the central focus of their artworks instead of merely serving as a backdrop for any other scene. As they painted landscapes, they intended to present what they see in a way that is void of idealization.
3. Still Life It is common for impressionists to become absorbed in painting still life, as this allowed them to experiment on a wide range of styles. These techniques include the study of light and shadows’ effect on how ordinary objects look like. It also involves the manner of depicting changing light in various scenarios.
People who are in varied situations such as leisure or informal activities appealed to impressionists. In addition, these artists introduced nudes in their paintings, and these subjects were presented in everyday life.
Techniques Used by Impressionists
There are numerous techniques that impressionists used in their artworks. One of these was color, as the artists tried to avoid the use of somber and grim tones that were common in earlier paintings. They preferred vibrant and light colors, which gave their paintings a sense of luminosity while capturing the impact of sunlight on different scenarios or subjects that they painted.
The use of broken and quick brushstrokes were also typical in impressionist art. This gives their artwork a certain appeal as though the artworks were unfinished. Generally, impressionists painted in a quick manner, and this enabled them to capture every moment that they observe. Hence, their masterpieces create a spontaneous and natural feel.
Typically, impressionists worked outdoors instead of being confined in a studio. Their purpose was to have a closer connection with nature while allowing them to observe well the impact of the changing weather, movement and sunlight.
In terms of composition, the impressionists were not interested in focusing more on detail, as their preoccupation was more on the general impact of the artwork. These artists observed their subjects at a different angle, and they also framed their work in a manner that was quite new to the concept of painting.
Indeed, there were numerous working habits and techniques that were considered as innovative and unique to impressionist artists. These methods are usually evident in the works of numerous artists including Caravaggio, Diego Velazquez, and Eugene Delacroix, and Gustave Courbet among a few other artists who first used these styles even before impressionism in art.
When it comes to the use of color, little mixing was used. They also produced darker tones from mixing various complementary colors. As what was typical with pure impressionism art, black paint was never used. Wet paint was also placed directly into wet paint even without having to wait for successive applications of color to dry. This resulted to the intermingling of color while generating softer edges.
The term was coined in 1910 by Roger Fry in the title of an exhibition of modern French painters: Manet and the Post-Impressionists, organized by Fry for the Grafton Galleries in London. Most of the artists in the exhibition were younger than the Impressionists. Fry later explained: “For purposes of convenience, it was necessary to give these artists a name, and I chose, as being the vaguest and most non-committal, the name of Post-Impressionism. This merely stated their position in time relatively to the Impressionist movement.” John Rewald limited the scope to the years between 1886 and 1892 in his pioneering publication on Post-Impressionism: From Van Gogh to Gauguin (1956): Rewald focused on outstanding early Post-Impressionists active in France: Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, and Redon.
The art of Paul Gauguin developed out of similar Impressionist foundations, but he too dispensed with Impressionistic handling of pigment and imagery in exchange for an approach characterized by solid patches of color and clearly defined forms, which he used to depict exotic themes and images of private and religious symbolism. Gauguin’s peripatetic disposition took him to Brittany, Provence, Martinique, and Panama, finally settling him in remote Polynesia, at first Tahiti then the Marquesas Islands. Hoping to escape the aggravations of the industrialized European world and constantly searching for an untouched land of simplicity and beauty, Gauguin looked toward remote destinations where he could live easily and paint the purity of the country and its inhabitants. In Tahiti, he made some of the most insightful and expressive pictures of his career. We Hail Thee Mary resonates with striking imagery and Polynesian iconography, used unconventionally with several well-known Christian themes, including the Adoration of the Magi and the Annunciation. He described this picture in a letter to a dealer friend in Paris: “An angel with yellow wings points out Mary and Jesus, both Tahitians, to two Tahitian women, nudes wrapped in pareus, a sort of cotton cloth printed with flowers that can be draped as one likes from the waist” (letter to Daniel de Monfreid, March 11, 1892).
In Two Tahitian Women and Still Life with Teapot and Fruit, Gauguin employs simplified colors and solid forms as he builds flat objects that lack traditional notions of perspective, particularly apparent in the still-life arrangement atop a white tablecloth pushed directly into the foreground of the picture plane.
Striving toward comparable emotional intensities as Gauguin, and even working briefly with him in Arles in the south of France in 1888, Vincent van Gogh searched with equal determination to create personal expression in his art. Van Gogh’s early pictures are coarsely rendered images of Dutch peasant life depicted with rugged brushstrokes and dark, earthy tones. The Cottage shows his fascination with the working class, portrayed here in a crude style of thickly applied dark pigments. Self-Portrait and Sunflowersis reminiscent of the rapidly applied divisionist strokes of the Neo-Impressionists, particularly Signac, with whom Van Gogh became friends in Paris, while the image on its reverse, The Potato Eaters, recalls his dark style of the early 1880s. This unique object encapsulates the artist’s stylistic experimentations.
Working in Arles, Van Gogh completed a series of paintings that exemplify the artistic independence and proto-Expressionist technique that he developed by the late 1880s, which would later strongly influence Henri Matisse and his circle of Fauvist painters, as well as the German Expressionists. L’Arlésienne and La Berceuse feature Van Gogh’s style of rapidly applied, thick, bright colors with dark, definitive outlines. After his voluntary commitment to an asylum in Saint-Rémy in 1889, he painted several pictures with extraordinarily poignant undertones, agitated lines, brilliant colors, and distorted perspective, which include, among others, A Corridor in the Asylum. Paying homage to Jean-François Millet, whom Van Gogh had long admired as evident in his very early pictures of peasants, he celebrates the Barbizon artist’s legacy with First Steps, after Millet.
Through their radically independent styles and dedication to pursuing unique means of artistic expression, the Post-Impressionists dramatically influenced generations of artists, including the Nabis, especially Pierre Bonnard, and Édouard Vuillard, the German Expressionists, the Fauvists, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and American modernists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.