Impressionism

Impressionism was a major artistic movement, first in painting and later on 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 group of artists who shared a set of similar approaches 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 collaborated together, influenced each other, and exhibited together andindependently. Edgar Degas and Paul Cézanne also worked in an Impressionist style for a period 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 became dissatisfied earlier 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 established imaginative or idealising treatments of academic painting. By the late 1860s, Manet’s art reinforced a new aesthetic—which became a guiding style in Impressionist work—in which the importance of the traditional subject matter was downgraded and attention was moved to the artist’s depiction of colour, tone, and texture as ends in themselves. In Manet’s work the subject became a vehicle for the artful composition of sections of flat colour, and perspectival depth was reduced so that the viewer would look at the surface abrasions and relationships of the depiction rather than into the illusory three-dimensional space it created. Around the same time, Monet was influenced by the innovative painters Eugene Boudin and J.R. Jongkind, who painted fleeting effects of sea and sky by means of highly coloured and texturally varied techniques of paint application. The Impressionists also copied Boudin’s practice of working entirely outside while viewing the actual scene, instead of finishing up his paintings from drawings in the studio, as was the conventional practice.

In the late 1860s Monet, Pisarro, Renoir, and others began painting landscapes and river scenes in which they began to realistically record the colours and forms of objects as they appeared in natural light at a given time. These artists left the traditional landscape palette of muted greens, browns and grays and began to paint in a lighter, sunnier, more airy palette. They began by copying the play of light on water and the reflected colours of its ripples, wanting to copy the manifold and motion effects of sunlight and shadow and of direct and reflected light that they observed. In their efforts to reproduce actual visible impressions as registered on the retina, they gave up 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 harmonizing or contrasting colour, thus evoking the broken-hued brilliance and the variations of hue produced by sunlight and its reflections. Forms in their paintings lost their clear outlines and became softer, shimmering and vibrating in a re-creation of actual outdoor conditions. Ultimately, traditional formal layouts were also abandoned favouring a more casual and less contrived positioning of objects within the picture. The Impressionists extended these exciting techniques to paint 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 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 writing of them in the satirical magazine Le Charivari in 1874. The artists themselves quickly adopted the name because it perfectly desribed their intention to accurately 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 realistic 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 a short time, however, it had accomplished 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 conventional techniques and approaches to subject matter.

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