Impressionism began in Paris, France during the mid-19th century (around the 1860s) when a handful of artists became disenchanted with the art establishment of the day.
The Academy of Arts in Paris had an annual art exhibition, known as the Salon. At this exhibition, artists would show their work in the hopes that rich patrons would buy it and continue to support their livelihood. In fact, success at the Salon was of utmost importance for any artist’s career.
However, the artists and art critics of the Salon only valued art made in the traditional styles of the old masters – mythological imagery, scenes from the Bible or history, classical landscapes, portraiture, still life, etc.
Artists such as Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas still painted using traditional techniques, but desired something more. They wanted to paint modern life rather than the same things that had been painted for centuries before them.
Manet’s work was instrumental at the beginning of the Impressionist movement. Both he and Degas identified with Realism, an art movement from the 1840s through the 1880s, that stressed the natural, realistic representation of objects and figures in ordinary life. Realism opposed the idealistic and mythical subjects of classical art.
Impressionism also opposed the ideals of traditional, classical-style art, but it took it a step further than Realism. Impressionism brought movement, light, and excitement to an ordinary, fleeting moment.
Artists such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, and Alfred Sisley began painting in their own way, out of doors, with short, quick brushstrokes to capture the fleeting light and the way color changed at various times of the day or throughout the seasons.
Although Édouard Manet did not identify himself as an Impressionist, these young artists respected and admired his work – his freedom of subject matter, as well as his freedom of brushstrokes. And after a while, they began to influence his art too. Manet began to paint in the open air and started using a lighter color palette.
In 1874, Degas joined with Monet, Renoir, and Sisley, as well as Paul Cézanne, Berthe Morisot, and others at their own art exhibition, “The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers.” (Édouard Manet chose not to exhibit with them.)
These artists decided to think for themselves, create from their hearts instead of their heads, and focus on painting modern scenes in the “here and now.” In the process, they began an art revolution.
And unfortunately, they were ridiculed by the art establishment in Paris. One art critic stated that their paintings looked as if they had “fired paint at the canvas with a pistol.” While another said they were “declaring war on beauty.” Still another art critic in his review of their exhibition, sarcastically referred to them as “Impressionists.”
Monet and the rest of his friends quickly adopted the satirical name of Impressionists, and Impressionism became one of the most influential art movements in history. Some of the most admired and esteemed artists of this movement, along with Monet, were: Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, Cassatt, Morisot, Pissarro, Sisley, and others.
In the words of Claude Monet:
“Impressionism is only direct sensation. All great painters were less or more impressionists. It is mainly a question of instinct…”
Click on the artist’s name below to learn more.
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- Frédéric Bazille
- Gustave Caillebotte
- Mary Cassatt
- Edgar Degas
- Claude Monet
- Berthe Morisot
- Camille Pissarro
- Pierre-Auguste Renoir
- Auguste Rodin
- Alfred Sisley