Impressionism

Impressionism was a major artistic movement, first in painting and later in music, that developed primarily in France during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Impressionist painting comprises the work produced between about 1867 and 1886 by a particular types of artists who shared a set of related approaches and techniques. The most noted characteristic of Impressionism was an attempt to realistically and objectively depict 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 collaborated together, influenced each other, and exhibited together andindependently. 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 greatly influenced Monet and others of the group, also took up the Impressionist style about 1873.

These artists had become dissatisfied early 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 idealising 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 focus was moved to the artist’s use of colours, tone, and texture as ends in themselves. In Manet’s work the subject became the vehicle for the artful composition of areas of flat colour, and perspectival depth was minimised so that the viewer would look at the surface patterns and relationships of the painting rather than into the illusory three-dimensional space it created. Around the same time, Monet was influenced by the revolutionary painters Eugene Boudin and J.R. Jongkind, who painted fleeting effects of sea and sky using highly coloured and texturally varied methods of paint application. The Impressionists also used Boudin’s practice of painting entirely outside while looking at the actual scene, instead of completing the painting from drawings in the studio, as was the established practice.

In the late 1860s Monet, Pisarro, Renoir, and their colleagues began painting landscapes and river scenes in which they attempted to abstractly paint colours and forms of objects as they appeared in daylight at any given time. These artists stopped using the traditional landscape palette of muted greens, browns and grays and instead painted in a lighter, sunnier, more brilliant key. They started by copying the play of light on water and the reflected colours of its ripples, working to reproduce the many and lively effects of sunlight and shadow and of direct and reflected light that they saw. In their efforts to reproduce immediate 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 develop objects out of discreet flecks and dabs of pure harmonizing or contrasting colour, thus evoking the broken-hued brilliance and the variations of colour produced by sunlight and its reflections. Forms in their pictures no longer were with clear outlines and became softer, shimmering and vibrating in a re-creation of actual outdoor conditions. Ultimately, traditional formal compositions were abandoned in favour of a more casual and less contrived disposition of objects within the picture. The Impressionists extended their newly discovered techniques to depict landscapes, trees, houses, and even urban street scenes and interesting buildings such as railroad stations.

In 1874 the group held its first show, independent of the official Salon of the French Academy, which had rejected almost all of their works. Monet’s painting “Impression: Sunrise” (1872; Musée Marmottan, Paris) earned them the initially mocking 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 descriptive of their intention to specifically paint visual “impressions.” They held 7 following 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 collaboration began to break down as each painter increasingly pursued his own aesthetic interests and principles. In a short time, however, it had begun a revolution in the creation 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 freeing subsequent Western art from narrow techniques and approaches to subject matter.

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