Impressionism

Impressionism was a major artistic movement, originally in painting and then in music, that developed primarily in France during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Impressionist painting is considered the work produced between about 1867 and 1886 by a group of artists who shared a set of related methods and techniques. The most obvious characteristic of Impressionism was an attempt to accurately and objectively record visual reality 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 collaborated 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 greatly influenced Monet and others of the group, himself tried the Impressionist approach about 1873.

These artists had become dissatisfied early in their careers with academic teaching’s emphasis on showing an historical or mythological subject matter with literary or anecdotal overtones. They also rejected the conventional 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 focus 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 artful composition of areas of flat colour, and perspectival depth was minimized so that the viewer would look at the surface abrasions and relationships of the form 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 by means of highly coloured and texturally varied methods of paint application. The Impressionists also copied Boudin’s practice of working totally out-of-doors while in front of the actual scene, instead of completing their paintings from sketches in the studio, as was the normal practice.

In the late 1860s Monet, Pisarro, Renoir, and others began painting landscapes and river scenes in which they attempted to dispassionately record the colours and forms of objects as they showed in natural light at any given time. These artists left the traditional landscape palette of muted greens, browns and grays and began to paint with a lighter, sunnier, more brilliant palette. They started out by painting the play of light upon water and the reflected colours of its ripples, trying to reproduce the manifold and motion effects of sunlight and shadow and of direct and reflected light that they saw. In their efforts to reproduce initial visual impressions as registered on the retina, they abandoned 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, thereby evoking the broken-hued brilliance and the variations of hue produced by sunlight and its reflections. Forms in the paintings no longer had 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 picture. The Impressionists extended their exciting techniques to paint 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 regularly 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 writing of them in the satirical magazine Le Charivari in 1874. The artists themselves eventually adopted the name because it was a perfect description of their intention to accurately paint visual “impressions.” They held seven 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 a short time, however, it had accomplished 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 freeing all subsequent Western painting from traditional techniques and approaches to subject matter.

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