Impressionism was a crucial artistic movement, originally in painting and later on in music, that developed chiefly in France during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Impressionist painting comprises the work produced between about 1867 and 1886 by a number of artists who shared a set of related methods and styles. The most conspicuous characteristic of Impressionism was an attempt to accurately and objectively record 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 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, himself adopted the Impressionist approach about 1873.

These artists became bored earlier in their careers with academic teaching’s emphasis on producing images of 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 force in Impressionist work—in which the importance of the traditional subject matter was downgraded and attention was moved to the artist’s manipulation of colours, tone, and texture as ends in themselves. In Manet’s painting the subject became the vehicle for the artistic composition of sections of flat colour, and perspectival depth was minimized 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 innovative painters Eugene Boudin and J.R. Jongkind, who created fleeting effects of sea and sky by means of highly coloured and texturally varied modes of paint application. The Impressionists also used 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 familiar practice.

In the late 1860s Monet, Pisarro, Renoir, and various colleagues began painting landscapes and river scenes in which they began to realistically show colours and forms of objects as they showed in natural light at the given time. These artists left the traditional landscape palette of muted greens, browns and grays and rather painted using a lighter, sunnier, more brilliant key. They started out by copying the play of light on water and the reflected colours of ripples, attempting to reproduce the manifold and animated effects of sunlight and shadow and of direct and reflected light that they observed. In their efforts to reproduce immediate visible 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 paint objects out of discreet flecks and dabs of pure harmonising or contrasting colour, thus evoking the broken-hued brilliance and the variations of colour produced by sunlight and its reflections. Forms in the paintings lost their clear outlines and became softer, shimmering and vibrating in a re-creation of actual outdoor conditions. And finally, traditional formal layouts were also abandoned in favour of a more casual and less contrived positioning of objects within the painting. The Impressionists extended these newly discovered techniques to depict landscapes, trees, houses, and even urban street scenes and famous buildings such as railroad stations.

In 1874 the artists held their first show, separate from the official Salon of the French Academy, which had regularly 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 eventually adopted the name as their intention to specifically show 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, 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 had begun 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 making 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 traditional techniques and approaches to subject matter.

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