Impressionism

Impressionism was a major artistic movement, first in painting and then in music, that developed mainly 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 noticeable characteristic of Impressionism was an attempt to accurately and objectively depict visual real images in terms of transient 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 and alsoindependently. Edgar Degas and Paul Cézanne also worked 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 took up the Impressionist style about 1873.

These artists had become bored earlier in their careers with academic teaching’s emphasis on depicting 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 reinforced a new aesthetic—which was to be a leading style in Impressionist work—in which the importance of the traditional subject matter was ignored and focus was shifted to the artist’s use of colour, tone, and texture as ends in themselves. In Manet’s painting the subject became the vehicle for the artistic composition of areas of flat colour, and perspectival depth was minimised so that the viewer would look at the surface abrasions and relationships of the picture 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 painting totally outside while viewing the actual scene, instead of completing his painting from drawings in the studio, as was the established practice.

In the late 1860s Monet, Pisarro, Renoir, and others began painting landscapes and river scenes in which they attempted to unemotively depict the colours and forms of objects as they showed in natural light at a given time. These artists stopped using the traditional landscape palette of muted greens, browns and grays and began to paint with a lighter, sunnier, more airy key. They began by painting the play of light upon water and the reflected colours of ripples, trying to reproduce the many and animated 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 reduced the use of grays and blacks in shadows as inaccurate and used complementary colours instead. More importantly, they learned to create objects out of discreet flecks and dabs of pure harmonizing or contrasting colour, thereby evoking the broken-hued brilliance and the variations of hue produced by sunlight and its reflections. Forms in the pictures no longer were with clear outlines and became dematerialized, shimmering and vibrating in a re-creation of actual outdoor conditions. And finally, traditional formal compositions were also abandoned favouring a realistically casual and less contrived positioning of objects within the picture frame. The Impressionists extended these exciting techniques to paint landscapes, trees, houses, and even urban street scenes and well-known buildings such as railroad stations.

In 1874 the artists held their 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 derisive name “Impressionists” from the journalist Louis Leroy who wrote of them in the satirical magazine Le Charivari in 1874. The artists themselves quickly adopted the name as their intention to accurately convey visual “impressions.” They held 7 following shows, 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 realistic reproduction of nature.

By the mid-1880s the Impressionist collaboration began to dissolve as each painter increasingly pursued his own aesthetic interests and principles. In its short existence, however, it had begun a revolution in the study 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 subsequent Western painting from conventional techniques and approaches to subject matter.

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