The Impressionist Movement

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Impressionist painting by Sisley
Snow Effect in Louveciennes by Alfred Sisley

How does one define Impressionism, or categorize a piece of art as a part of the Impressionist period? Through the study of paintings by Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Armand Guillaumin, Frédéric Bazille and others of this period, who worked together, influenced each other, and exhibited together, a few common characteristics have emerged that defined their work. It is not fair to say that their work was ‘similar’ but there were a number of defining points that characterized their work, and prompted the move away from Realism and Baroque paintings. 

Their brush strokes were quick and fairly loose, unlike those of earlier artists. The focus of Impressionist art was not on the finer details of their subjects, rather they were the ‘impression’ that the moment created in the mind and eye of the painter. On close inspection, one can see the individual brushstrokes and pigments they used, to create the overall impression. This technique was at that time seen as ‘sloppy’ and unfinished, by the patrons of art, and the Impressionists’ work was often criticized as lazy and amateurish. It took a long time for the establishment to appreciate this form of painting.

Water lilies brush stroke closeup
Brushstrokes in closeup of ‘Water lilies’ by Claude Monet

Impressionist paintings were suffused with color and light, unlike the somber dark hues of classical painters. Artists of the ‘Realism’ genre and those who belonged to the ‘Baroque’ period used blacks and greys and browns to create shadows, whereas the Impressionists used much lighter tones of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet to create shaded areas, believing in creating tonal differences rather than the absence of light. They used light base colors, sometimes painting on unprimed canvases. Rather than blend the colors on the canvas, they often used complementary colors next to each other to create a more vibrant effect. Earlier periods saw artists often painting their canvases with a base in dense brown or even black before creating their paintings. They also covered the entire finished canvases with a brownish varnish, to create a rich hue using mostly dark red, greens, blues and deep and luminous earth tones. The darker colors were applied to add texture and a glow to silk, velvet, gold and jewels. 


Also read: Water Lilies, Boats and Haystacks: Claude Monet


Not only were the subjects of earlier paintings more formal and posed, they portrayed the wealthy upper classes and glorified visions of historical events and mythological subjects   rather than the common folk. Painters were commissioned to create formal portraits by rich patrons of the arts, rather than being encouraged to paint from ‘life’. Impressionists painted “En plein air”, literally in the open air, rather than in studios. From painting scenes at the seaside or informal picnics in public gardens, to creating canvases depicting ordinary people going about their lives, the Impressionists moved art from the private salons, open to the select few, to the masses. The exhibitions put up by the Impressionists were made more accessible to the common man. Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot, and other artist friends transformed the concept of art through eight historic exhibitions held between 1874 and 1886. Impressionism was the first movement in the canon of modern art and had a massive effect on the development of art in the 20th century.

Luncheon of the boating party painting
Open air painting of ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party’ by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Another characteristic of Impressionist art is the use of ‘relative’ colour, rather than  ‘local colour’. ‘Local colour’ refers to the colour of an object as it appears in neutral white light, making grass appear green, snow look white and the sky blue. The Impressionists depicted objects as they saw them, at the time of day they were painted. So water could be purple, if it was seen as a reflection of a purple toned sky, grass might appear blue in certain light, a mountain might look red or orange during sunrise or sunset, even blue or green if it were seen through a fog. This was known as ‘relative’ colour.

Use of relative colour in ‘Grain stacks At Sunset, Snow Effect’ by Claude Monet
Use of relative colour in ‘Grain stacks At Sunset, Snow Effect’ by Claude Monet

The interesting thing about Impressionist paintings is that to truly appreciate them, they are better viewed from a slight distance, so that the canvases can be seen in their entirety, rather than the individual brushstrokes of the artist. Close up one sees the detailed, often seemingly chaotic use of a multitude of colours and strokes, almost like viewing a person’s skin, hair, pores and all, rather than seeing the expression, posture and mood of the subject, or the emotion depicted by the artist. The commonly used phrase comes to mind…of not being able to see the forest for the trees.

At the Cafe painting detail
Detail of At the Cafe by Edouard Manet
At the Cafe Edouard Manet
At the Cafe seen from a distance

Degas amongst others of this period often painted not just the superficial beauty of Parisian life, with its pretty ballerinas and colourful street performers. He took the viewer behind closed doors to shine a light on the seamier side of the entertainment industry. The young impoverished cabaret artists, the underage ballerinas exploited by their rich ‘patrons’ and ‘ordinary’ people working in fields or on boats eking out a meagre living from the land and sea. Impressionism moved art away from the drawing rooms of the rich and famous, to encompass a wider spectrum of life in Europe, both in its depiction of natural beauty and ‘real life’.

Impressionist painting by Degas
Young ballerinas with old men onstage in ‘The Rehearsal Onstage’ by Edgar Degas

This was the time of the Industrial Revolution, and the development of railway lines connecting major cities to the countryside. It became easier for the growing middle class to travel to the outskirts of cities for leisure, and for painters to set up their easels away from the bustle of urban landscapes. This gave them the freedom to make quick trips to the countryside, paint nature in the open air amongst the fields or riverbanks and try their best to capture the fleeting glints of sunlight reflected by water, farm labourers bent to their tasks or Parisians enjoying a lazy Sunday by the sea. Painting en plein air in the countryside required the artists to work quickly but allowed them to capture the fleeting impressions of light. The artists used short, visible dabs of paint to capture the overall impression of their subject, choosing not to pay particular attention to the finer details, as they sought to finish their paintings before the light changed. 

The interesting thing about Impressionist paintings is that to truly appreciate them, they are better viewed from a slight distance, so that the canvases can be seen in their entirety, rather than the individual brushstrokes of the artist. Close up one sees the detailed, often seemingly chaotic use of a multitude of colours and strokes, almost like viewing a person’s skin, hair, pores and all, rather than seeing the expression, posture and mood of the subject, or the emotion depicted by the artist.

The development of synthetic pigments around this time gave them a greater variety of colours in vibrant hues to choose from, and the appearance of Japanese prints in Europe further influenced their art. The artists often applied paint to wet paint, softening the boundary between figures and the background, making the figures a part of an overall view rather than the main subject. The figures themselves appeared to be captured in a single moment – as if in a snapshot – rather than formally posed. This new approach coincided with the advent of photography and drew inspiration from Japanese style ukiyo-e art prints known for their flat colours and depictions of pleasure seekers.

Ukiyo-e, often translated as “pictures of the floating world,” refers to Japanese paintings and woodblock prints that originally depicted the cities’ pleasure districts during the Edo Period, when the sensual attributes of life were encouraged amongst a tranquil existence under the peaceful rule of the Shoguns. These idyllic narratives not only document the leisure activities and climate of the era, they also depict the decidedly Japanese aesthetics of beauty, poetry, nature, spirituality, love, and sex. The ukiyo-e style used foreshortening (angling an object toward a viewer to change the illusion of three-dimensional perspective on a two-dimensional surface) asymmetry to invoke movement and action within a scene. For the Impressionist artists, this technique from the East was a crucial tool in their exploration of a new, modern painting style.

Impression, Sunrise by Monet
‘Impression-Sunrise’ by Claude Monet

Impressionism, in other words, describes the style of painting developed in France during the mid-to-late 19th century with visible brushstrokes offering the bare impression of form, in unblended colors and an emphasis on the accurate depiction of natural light. The founding Impressionist artists were united by their desire to cast off the existing restrictive rules of painting, promoted by the Académie des Beaux-Arts and its annual Salon (which was, at the time, considered the greatest art show in the Western world).

 

The artists themselves did not choose to call themselves the “Impressionists”. The origin of the term can be attributed to a satirical review written by French art critic Louis Leroy (1812 – 1885) in an article on the inaugural exhibition of the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (‘Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers’). Held in the spring of 1874 in Paris, the exhibition included works from 30 Impressionist artists, and is considered the formal start to the movement. In his review, Leroy poked fun at Monet’s 1872 painting ‘Impression, Sunrise’, writing that: “‘A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.” Accusing it of being a sketch or “impression,” rather than a completed painting.

Images used in this article are from public domain and the author’s collection.

 

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