Impressionism was a French art movement that started in the 19th century, from around 1860. It marked a momentous break from traditional European painting. The Impressionists incorporated new scientific research into the physics of colour to achieve a more natural representation of colour and tone. In the past, art and painting focused on pure representation and less on how the light played off of the subject matter. The Impressionists were more interested in this and looked at the way that colour changed and shifted as the light did.
Impressionist art is a style in which the artist captures the image of an object as someone would see it if they just caught a glimpse of it. They painted the pictures with a lot of colour and most of their paintings were outdoor scenes. Their pictures were often quite bright and vibrant yet still captured a quality of subtlety to the colour. The artists aim would be to capture their images without detail but rather with bold colours and loose brushstrokes.
The sudden change in the look and feel of what were more traditional paintings came out of a change in methodology. Instead of focusing on pure blending and exact representation, the Impressionists applied paint in small touches of pure colour rather than broader strokes and painting outdoors was the mode of creation. Brushwork was done in a more rapid manner and broken into separate dabs in order to capture the fleeting quality of light. Although it has been noted that the process of painting ‘plein air’ or outdoors is said to have been pioneered in Britain by John Constable around 1813-17 through his desire to paint nature in a realistic way. Instead of painting in a studio, the Impressionists found that they could capture the momentary and transient effects of sunlight by working quickly. The intent was to catch a particular fleeting moment of colour and light, like when the sun touches the edges of the leaves at dawn or dances over water during a sunset. This resulted in a greater awareness of light and colour and the shifting pattern of the natural scene.
Some of the more prominent Impressionists were the artists like Edouard Manet, Camille Pissaro, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Pierre August Renoir. Manet greatly influenced the development of Impressionism. He was one of the first 19th century artists to paint modern life and was a pivotal figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism. Manet painted everyday objects whereas Pissaro and Sisley painted the French countryside and river scenes. Pissaro’s importance lies in his contributions to both Impressionism and Post Impressionism while Sisley was one of the most consistent Impressionist painters in his dedication to painting landscapes and in a plein air manner. Degas enjoyed painting ballet dancers and horse races. He is often identified with the subject of dance, more than half of his works depict dancers. However, despite being one of the founders of the Impressionist movement he rejected the term, preferring to be called a realist. Renoir loved to show the effects of sunlight on flowers and figures and particularly enjoyed feminine sensuality and beauty as a subject. Monet was one of the key founders of the Impressionist movement and one of the most prolific practitioners of the movement’s philosophy. He was interested in the subtle changes in the atmosphere but also how one expressed their own perceptions before nature.
While the term ‘Impressionist’ covers much of the art of this time, there were smaller movements within that, such as Pointillism, Art Nouveau and Fauvism, although all of these have as much leg to stand on as any other movement. The first group exhibition was in Paris in 1874 and included work by Monet, Renoir, Degas and Cezanne. The work shown was greeted with derision with Monet’s Impression, Sunrise particularly singled out for ridicule. However, the artists persevered and seven further exhibitions were then held at intervals until 1886.
At the time, there were many ideas of what constituted modernity. Part of the Impressionist was to capture a split second of life, an ephemeral moment in time on the canvas. An Impression. They abandoned traditional linear perspective and avoided the clarity of form that had previously served to distinguish the more important elements of a picture from the lesser ones. For this reason, many critics faulted the Impressionist paintings for their unfinished appearance and seemingly amateurish quality. Compared to previous genres of art making it is understandable why this was originally rejected as a mode of art-making. However, despite all of this the Impressionists kept going and it continues to be one of the most well known and popular ways of viewing and making art. They aimed to be painters of the real. To extend the possible subjects of paintings and get away from the depictions of idealized forms and perfect symmetry. They instead saw the world for what it was. Imperfect in a myriad of ways.