What was Impressionism?

What was
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What was Impressionism?
A movement in Art which began in Paris early 1870’s.
Main artists involved:
The Impressionists revolutionised the world of Art and changed the way people painted and
looked at Art; they were new and revolutionary in both their techniques (the way they applied
paint) and in their subject matter (the things they painted).
The “art world” of the time was a very male dominated scene, and women weren’t really taken
seriously as artists; Impressionism was unusual also in that two of the leading Impressionist artists
(Mary Cassat and Berthe Morisot) were women.
The main ideas behind the Impressionist movement were:
Spontaneity and immediacy, painting quickly to capture movement, particularly the fleeting,
changing effects of light throughout the day. Because they painted quickly, their paintings
are not smooth and polished, but show visible brushstrokes etc.
They used bright, primary colours (red, blue, yellow), didn’t use “black”, and applied their
colours directly to the canvas in small dashes of paint, rather than mixing their colours on a
palette (this was based on the idea that your eye registers two colours juxtaposed (placed
next to each other) as a single colour (ie blue placed next to yellow would register as
green). This was known as “Optical Mixing”.
“Plein Air” painting Traditionally, in art of the time, a landscape was merely the setting for
a particular scene – but in Impressionism, the landscape itself was the main thing, the
theme. To be able to accurately portray their landscapes, they went to paint from direct
observation, outside. This was called “Plein Air” painting, and was a new way of working for
artists; previously, an artist would do a few little sketches outside but he would then
produce the finished picture in his studio. Painting outside, directly from nature was made
possible because someone had the clever idea of putting oil paint into small tubes; until
then, paints had to be prepared and mixed up in big tubs in an artist’s studio – not very
practical for taking outside to paint with.
The Response to Impressionism
The French Art establishment at the time was very conservative and they hated the Impressionists
and saw them as young, disrespectful upstarts who were probably revolutionaries and anarchists,
determined to overthrow French bourgeois society and all of its cherished institutions (they were a
bit like the “punks” of their day). Whenever they exhibited their paintings, they were greeted with
an outraged, hostile reaction – the police even had to be called out to prevent riots at their
exhibitions. The term “Impressionist” was originally thrown at them as a term of abuse – they were
accused of merely conveying an “impression”, rather than a detailed, highly finished rendering of a
scene, and their work was considered to be shoddy and unfinished looking.
To understand this hostile reaction, it’s important to understand what French painting was like at
the time; “The Academie” was an institution which ruled painting with an iron rod and they dictated
both the style of painting which was acceptable and also the subject matter of paintings. Academie
painting was dry, boring and traditional; its subjects were taken from Roman or Greek history or
mythology, often utilised to propagate a political or moral ideal (patriotism, heroism etc).
Impressionist art, however, took its inspiration from the contemporary world, celebrating
“everyday” scenes in both Landscapes and Portraits.
Paris at the time of the Impressionists
Paris at this time was a very exciting place to be, and young artists, writers, musicians and poets
would regularly meet together and discuss their ideas in cafes; Science also was making many
new interesting discoveries/inventions. Of particular interest to the Impressionists were new
discoveries in the science of light and colour, photography (photography had a big influence on the
Impressionists, particularly in the way they composed their pictures – their pictures have an
informal look to them, with figures or objects cropped off at the edges; this was a direct influence
of photography), and early inventions in the field of “moving image” such as the “Zoetrope” and the
“Praxinoscope”, which ultimately led to the development of cinema.
It is important to understand the things which happen in art in the context of major historical events
of the time. In 1871, for instance, France went to war with Prussia (Germany); the war really only
lasted for 6 months before the French were defeated, but the working-class citizens of Paris were
so fed up with the hunger, deprivation and suffering which the war caused, that they rose up
against their leaders and had a mini-revolution, taking over the city of Paris. This was known as
the “Paris Commune”. So, the revolution which Impressionism caused in the world of art, came at
the same time as actual, violent political revolution in Paris.
The legacy of Impressionism
It is practically impossible to overstate the importance and effect of Impressionism on the world of
art; despite the hostile reaction of the Art establishment and the Impressionist’s initial lack of
success, they nearly all went on to become financially successful artists. They freed both French
art, and art in general, from the shackles of traditionalism, and made possible new and exciting
directions in art. They were a liberating force, and influenced/inspired the next generation of
artists, who became known as the “Post-Impressionists” (meaning artists who came after and
were influenced by the Impressionists).
Edgar Degas (1834-1917)
Degas was one of the foremost ‘Impressionist’ painters, although he didn’t really like the term, and
preferred to be called a ‘realist’.
He is most famous for his paintings and pastel drawings of dancers, and his female models. He
was fascinated by the depiction of movement which he rendered superbly in his pictures of ballet
dancers, and women bathing, drying themselves, or combing their hair.
Photography had a great fascination for the Impressionist, and you can see its influence clearly in
Degas’ work , particularly in the way he composed his pictures with their unusual viewpoints and
‘cropping’ of figures.
Stage Rehearsal, 1878–1879
The Tub, 1886
Claude Monet (1840-1926)
A founder and leading artist of the Impressionist movement, Claude Monet was primarily a
landscape painter, working from direct observation of nature, painting ‘Plein Air’.
Monet was fascinated by the changing effects of light on the landscape, and to this end he
obsessively painted the same scene many times at different times of the day, in different
atmospheric conditions, and at different seasons in the year (such as his paintings of Rouen
Cathedral, his series of ‘haystacks’, or the water lilies in his garden).
He would work quickly to capture a particular effect in a painting before the light changed, and his
pictures brilliantly capture a feeling of movement and change in nature. He used a light palette of
primary colours (no black), applying paint in small dabs on the canvas.
Coquelicots, La promenade (Poppies), 1873
London, Houses of Parliament. The Sun Shining through the Fog, 1904
Name: _______________________________ Class: _________
Look at these pictures by Edgar Degas; choose 1 image and try to analyse it in detail.
Discuss its:
Subject matter
Use of colour
Mood and atmosphere
What’s your opinion of the picture?
Do you like it?
Give 2 reasons for your opinion.
Look at these pictures by Claude Monet; choose 1 image and try to analyse it in detail.
Discuss its:
Subject matter
Use of colour
Mood and atmosphere
What’s your opinion of the picture?
Do you like it?
Give 2 reasons for your opinion.
Name 5 of the artists involved in the Impressionist movement.
Name 2 things which were new and revolutionary about Impressionism.
Give 2 of the main ideas behind the Impressionist movement.
How were the impressionists regarded by the art establishment of the time?
Describe a major historical event which happened in France at the time of the Impressionists.