Impressionism was a crucial artistic movement, originally in painting and later in music, that developed chiefly in France during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Impressionist painting is defined as the work produced between about 1867 and 1886 by a particular types of artists who shared a set of related approaches and styles. The most obvious characteristic of Impressionism was an attempt to accurately and objectively record visual actual scenes in terms of moving effects of light and colour. The principal Impressionist painters were Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Armand Guillaumin, and Frédéric Bazille, who worked together, influenced each other, and exhibited together andindependently. Edgar Degas and Paul Cézanne also painted in an Impressionist style for a time in the early 1870s. The established painter Édouard Manet, whose work in the 1860s influenced Monet and others of the group, also began using the Impressionist approach about 1873.
These artists had become bored earlier in their careers with academic teaching’s emphasis on painting an historical or mythological subject matter with literary or anecdotal overtones. They also rejected the established imaginative or idealizing treatments of academic painting. By the late 1860s, Manet’s art reflected a new aesthetic—which became a leading style in Impressionist work—in which the importance of the traditional subject matter was downgraded and focus was moved to the artist’s manipulation of colours, tone, and texture as ends in themselves. In Manet’s painting the subject became a vehicle for the artistic composition of sections of flat colour, and perspectival depth was reduced so that the eye would look at the surface patterns and relationships of the painting rather than into the illusory three-dimensional space it created. About the same time, Monet was influenced by the revolutionary painters Eugene Boudin and J.R. Jongkind, who created fleeting effects of sea and sky using highly coloured and texturally varied techniques of paint application. The Impressionists also copied Boudin’s practice of working entirely out-of-doors while in front of the actual scene, instead of completing his paintings from drawings in the studio, as was the normal practice.
In the late 1860s Monet, Pisarro, Renoir, and their colleagues began painting landscapes and river scenes in which they tried to realistically record the colours and forms of objects as they showed in natural light at any given time. These artists abandoned the traditional landscape palette of muted greens, browns and grays and rather painted using a lighter, sunnier, more brilliant palette. They began by painting the play of light upon water and the reflected colours of its ripples, working to reproduce the many and motion effects of sunlight and shadow and of direct and reflected light that they observed. In their efforts to reproduce initial visual impressions as registered on the retina, they gave up on the use of grays and blacks in shadows as inaccurate and used complementary colours instead. More importantly, they learned to create objects out of discrete flecks and dabs of pure harmonising or contrasting colour, thereby evoking the broken-hued brilliance and the variations of shade produced by sunlight and its reflections. Forms in the pictures no longer had clear outlines and became dematerialized, shimmering and vibrating in a re-creation of actual outdoor conditions. Ultimately, traditional formal compositions were also abandoned favouring a more casual and less contrived positioning of objects within the painting. The Impressionists extended their newfound techniques to paint landscapes, trees, houses, and even urban street scenes and well-known buildings such as railroad stations.
In 1874 the group held its first show, separate from the official Salon of the French Academy, which had consistently rejected most of their works. Monet’s painting “Impression: Sunrise” (1872; Musée Marmottan, Paris) earned them the initially disdainful name “Impressionists” from the journalist Louis Leroy who wrote of them in the satirical magazine Le Charivari in 1874. The artists themselves eventually adopted the name as it perfectly described their intention to specifically show visual “impressions.” They held 7 subsequent exhibitions, the last in 1886. During that time they continued to develop their own personal and individual styles. All of them, however, affirmed in their work the principles of freedom of technique, a personal rather than a conventional approach to subject matter, and the truthful reproduction of nature.
By the mid-1880s the Impressionist group began to disperse as each painter increasingly pursued his own aesthetic interests and principles. In its short existence, however, it had begun a revolution in the history of art, providing a technical starting point for the Post-impressionist artists Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Georges Seurat and clearing all subsequent Western painting from conventional techniques and approaches to subject matter.