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Definition of Impressionism

Impressionism (from French impression that sounds the same in English) is an artistic movement of the last third of the 19th cent. that emerged in France and spread all over the world. It representatives searched for techniques and methods for the most natural and vivid way of depicting the reality in all its dynamism and inconstancy, fixing some fleeting moments of existence. Usually under this term a certain trend in painting is understood, though its ideas also were represented in literature and music, where impressionist authors also developed their own system of methods for recreating sensitive, direct experience from life in written or musical forms.

Origins of Impressionism

During Renaissance epoch artists of venetian school were attempting to develop a vivacious manner of painting, using bright colors and numerous sub tones. Their knowledge was absorbed by some Spanish masters like El Greco, Velazquez and Goya, whose oeuvre had a tremendous influence of the leading impressionists – Edouard Manet and Auguste Renoir.

Later, during baroque epoch, Pieter Rubens worked in the same direction, making shadows on his canvases colorful with transparent transitional hues. As Delacroix mentioned, Rubens had shown light with delicate, exquisite tints, and shadows – with warmer and intensive ones, so chiaroscuro effect was created. Rubens also didn’t use black color, what would later become one of the main principles of impressionistic painting. Edouard Manet was inspired by another contemporary of Rubens – Frans Hals, who applied paint with sharp brushstrokes and liked the contrast of bright and dark colors.

The foundament for impressionism was also prepared by English landscapers. During Franco-Prussian was (1870 – 1871) Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Camille Pissarro visited London, where they took a close look at pieces of great masters – John Constable, Richard Parkers Bonington and William Turner. The latter demonstrated in his final works a distancing from academic style, animation with the idea of redenring deeply personal perception of nature.

A significant impact was caused by Eugene Delacroix, who differed local coloring and coloring obtained under the influence of lightning. His watercolors done I Northern Africa in 1832 or in Etretat (commune on the north-west of France) in 1835, and especially his painting “Sea at Dieppe” (1835) give grounds to consider him a predecessor of the impressionists. His romantic expression forced Delacroix to use vibrant strokes.

The final factor that shaped the innovations, was Japanese art. Since 1854, after some Japanese exhibitions in Europe of tremendous success, artists discovered for themselves such geniuses of printing as Utamaro, Hokusai and Hiroshige. Special, unknown before in western art, compositions – off-centered, under peculiar angles; schematic representing of forms; tendency towards artistic synthesis – all that gained meticulous attention of the impressionists and their followers.


The beginning of creative experiments of the impressionists dates back to 1860s, when young and ambitious artists – Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frederic Bazille – met in the Parisian workshop of the academic artist Charles Gleyre. They discovered that all of them were unsatisfied with means and aims of academism. That encouraged painters to search for their own visual language. In 1863 Edouard Manet decided to participate in the annual art show Salon de Paris with his “The Luncheon on the Grass”. The jury of Salon rejected it: it maintained standards of the Academy of Fine Arts. According to them the nude was accepted in historical and allegorical scenes, but Manet showed a contemporary scene with a nude woman and two man having a picnic. But “The Luncheon on the Grass” wasn’t the only rejected work. So, the Salon des Refuses (Salon of refused) was established.

Artists requested a New Salon des Refuses to be held for several times, but their initiatives were declined. In 1873 Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Edgar Degas, Cezanne and several other artists founded the Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers, which target was independence from official institutions in exhibiting their works. All members of cooperation were supposed to abandon participating in the Salon. The first and most important exhibition of the impressionists was held from the 15th of April to the 15th of May, 1874 in the studio of a photographer Nadar. The exposition included 165 works by 30 artists. Among presented canvases one by Monet, “Impression, soleil levant” (“The impression, sunrise”) gave the name to the movement. A journalist of “Le Charivari” newspaper Louis Leroy in his satirical review on the show, depreciatingly called the group “the impressionists”. The artists challengingly accepted this epithet, which later was assimilated, became widely used and lost its primary negative sense.

The name “impressionism” isn’t as clear and exact, as “The Barbizon school”, for instance, where one can find at least a geographical indication. Another confusion is connected with the artists, who formally didn’t belong to the circle of the first impressionists, though their manner and style are fully impressionistic – James Whistler, Edouard Manet, Eugen Boudin and others. Besides, we have already mentioned the fact that their means and technical peculiarities were known long before and used without breaking up with the ruling ideas of their epochs.

There was one more article by Emile Cardon in “La Press” – “The exhibition of the Revoltes”, rather disapprobatory and critical. It formulated a damnatory attitude of the bourgeoisie, which a new movement had to confront for a rather long time. Impressionists were accused in amorality, rebellious disposition and lack of respectableness. Today it seems surprising, what amorality the saw in the landscapes of Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, genre paintings of Edgar Degas or still lifes of Monet and Renoir. Decades have passed before impressionists gained recognition and became classic of French art.

Specific features of Impressionism

French impressionism didn’t touch any philosophical problems and didn’t attempted to delve into any existential issues. Painters instead concentrated on the surface of ordinariness, fluidity of the moment, atmosphere and angle of view.

Like the art of the Renaissance period, impressionism was based on the distinctive traits and skills of building perspective constructions. At the same time, Renaissance view revolutionized culture with proving subjectivity and relativity of human senses that made shapes and colors self-sufficient parts of an image. For impressionism the question of WHAT was depicted wasn’t as important, as a question HOW it was depicted.

Their painting were dedicated only to positive parts of life, without illustrating social problems or such unsettling things as famine, diseases, death. That led to the split inside the group during its decay. On the other hand, impressionism was marked by democratism. In the old way, art was thought to be the privilege of aristocracy, elite. They formed the major part of art buyers. Pieces devoted to peasant labor, tragic historical pages, ugliness of war, poverty, social disorder etc. were condemned and remained undemanded. The criticism of double-standard social morality in the paintings of Millet, Courbet, found appreciation only in a narrow circle of the connoisseurs.

Impressionists in this situation were in compromise, medium position. They proposed for their viewers scenes from everyday life of the contemporaneit. They rejected biblical, allegorical, historical, mythological subjects, typical for academism. On the other hand, they ardently strived for acknowledgment, success. An example of Edouard Manet was indicative in this case, as he was trying to achieve fame and rewards from the official Salon and its jury for years.

Artists often painted people in movement, having fun and relaxing; they were preoccupied with tangible representing of a certain place in a certain lightning, so nature was one of the predominant motifs in impressionism. Flirting, dances, episodes in cafes or theaters, beaches or parks – all this can be seen on their canvases. Looking at them, it may seem for someone that life was a sequence of festivities. Impressionists were the first, who started painting plein air without completing their works in studios.

Impressionistic technique

New movement differed from academic painting both in technique and conseptual aspects. First of all, impressionists refused from contour, clear silhouette, replacing it with tiny separate brush strokes applied according theories of color by scientists Michel Chevreul, Hermann Helmholtz and Ogden Rood. This theories were based on the fact that sunlight is dispersed into the constituent colors – violet, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. Two situated near colors intensify each other, but when they’re mixed they lose their tenseness. Combinations of two oppositional in spectrum colors are especially bright. They’re called “complementary colors”:

  • Blue – Orange
  • Red – Green
  • Yellow – Violet

This way an artist didn’t have to mix paints on a palette, but achieved a needed tint by accurate applying them. This was also the reason for excluding black.

Working on plein air would be impossible without inventing of steel tubes for oil paints (and before leather sacks were common) that made them more transportable and prevented from drying.

Impressionistic picture is similar to a snapshot, fragment of a moving world. This explains the integrity and equality of all parts of a canvas, being elaborated by a master simultaneously.

By the middle of 1880s impressionism had exhausted its potentialities as a unparted system and movement. After break-up of the group, it gave the impulse for the further artistic evolution.

Random Impressionist Artists

Claude Monet

Claude Monet


Camille Pissarro

Camille Pissarro


Alfred Sisley

Alfred Sisley


Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot


Random Impressionist Paintings

Picking Flowers
Lacroix Island, Rouen, Effect of Fog
Two Herrings
The Artist’s Sister at a Window
Study of Flowers
Ice Floes
Portrait of Edma Pontillon
A Cart on the Snowy Road at Honfleur

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