Impressionism (late 1800s)

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Periods and Styles in Western Art

In Paris during the late 1860's, a small group of artists began to produce paintings that were beautiful to look at, but that were very different from most art of the period. The new paintings were lighter and more colorful than traditional paintings. And their subject matter often was informal. Many depicted scenes of sidewalk cafés, seaside resorts, and other popular spots. Others showed tranquil views of the French countryside. Most unusual of all was the artists' painting technique. They did not mix paint on a palette to create a range of color combinations. Instead, the artists daubed pure, unmixed pigments directly onto the canvas in what seemed to be a hodgepodge of brightly colored dashes.

The new form of painting came to be called impressionism. It was the first modern art movement. Misunderstood at first, it later was widely accepted. And it changed the way artists painted and the way people looked at art.

French Impressionism

Although impressionism later became an international art movement, it originated in Paris. Paris was the major European art center of the late 1800's. The first group of French impressionists consisted of about thirty artists. Among them were Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, and Berthe Morisot. A better-known and slightly older artist, Édouard Manet, worked with the group but did not exhibit with them. All the artists shared similar beliefs about art. However, their individual styles differed.

The artists held their first exhibition in 1874, calling themselves an "anonymous group." The show drew a storm of criticism from the press and the public. One critic mockingly called the artists' work "impressionism," taking the term from the title of Monet's painting Impression: Sunrise. The critic meant that the paintings were only impressions, sketchy and incomplete. Later, supporters of the movement also adopted the name.

Style and Techniques

Impressionist paintings were unpopular at first mainly because they were so different from the paintings people were used to seeing. Traditional paintings often depicted people and scenes that were familiar to everyone. They included subjects from myth and legend, famous historical events, or biblical stories. Artists usually worked in their studios and made many preliminary drawings before producing a finished painting.

Impressionists, in contrast, chose to paint ordinary people and everyday scenes. To them, the subject of a painting was not as important as the portrayal of light and color. For this reason, they preferred to work outdoors, painting quickly to capture rapidly changing qualities of light and atmosphere. Shapes were no longer carefully modeled and clearly outlined. Instead, they were painted as masses of vibrating color. Even shadows, usually painted gray or black, were tinged with color. Using what is called a "broken-color" technique, impressionist painters applied pure color to the canvas in many small brushstrokes. When viewed from a slight distance, the strokes of color seemed to merge, forming a complete image.

Each of the French impressionists used these techniques in different ways. Monet was especially interested in the effects of changing light on color and form. He frequently painted the same scene at different times of day. The changes in light and atmosphere caused the subject to look different in each painting.

Renoir portrayed the effects of flickering light by painting softened forms that appeared slightly out of focus. Manet did not use the bright colors of the impressionists. But his preference for everyday subjects greatly influenced the younger artists. Degas, too, painted informal subjects, such as women bathing and dancers stretching. Unlike other impressionists, he painted indoors and used outlines to define the shapes of his figures.

Impressionism was considered to be a revolutionary art movement. But earlier artists had experimented with similar techniques. The English painters John Constable and J. M. W. Turner skillfully portrayed light and atmosphere. The Spanish painters Diego Velázquez and Francisco Goya used color and brushwork to create the appearance of movement. The French artist Eugène Delacroix had observed that shadows contain elements of color. The work of all these artists influenced the impressionists. So did the forms and composition of Japanese woodblock prints.

Spread and Influence of Impressionism

After 1875, impressionism became widely accepted and began to influence artists in other European countries. Prominent painters outside France added elements of impressionism to their work. They included Germany's Max Liebermann, Italy's Giuseppi De Nittis, and England's Wilson Steer.

By the end of the 1800's, impressionism had spread to the United States. Many American artists visited France and became closely associated with French impressionists. They included Theodore Robinson, William Glackens, and Mary Cassatt. Cassatt, who studied with Degas, specialized in portraits of mothers and their children. Among other American impressionists were Childe Hassam and John Henry Twachtman.

Postimpressionism
By 1890, impressionism had begun to fade as a movement. Differences in individual styles increased as artists moved in separate directions. Some artists wanted to preserve the bright color of the impressionists but create art with more structure, using strong outlines and solidly modeled forms. Others wanted to use color not just to capture an image but to express emotion. Together, the various styles that grew out of impressionism are called postimpressionism. Many important ideas in modern art developed from postimpressionism.

One of the postimpressionists, Georges Seurat, developed pointillism. This was a much more scientific version of the impressionist broken-color technique. His paintings were composed of many small dots of different colors calculated to produce an exact color effect. Another artist, Paul Cézanne, tried to demonstrate the solidity of objects by showing that they were made up of many intersecting planes (flat surfaces). Cézanne's technique led directly to the modern art style called cubism. It also influenced the development of abstract art. Abstract paintings may consist only of lines, planes, and other shapes.

Other postimpressionists were particularly interested in expressing emotion with color and design. These artists included Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Paul Gauguin. Their work looked forward to the art movement known as expressionism. In expressionism, artists tried to reveal their inner feelings through their art.

Impressionism in Literature and Music
Impressionist ideas also appeared in literature and music. Like impressionist artists, impressionist writers, such as Stéphane Mallarmé, and composers, such as Claude Debussy, tried to capture and portray in their work a fleeting moment in time. Elements in their works often seem disconnected and unformed. The parts are brought into an integrated whole by the imagination of the reader or listener, just as the separate strokes of color in an impressionist painting form a complete image in the eye of the viewer.

Howard E. Wooden
Director Emeritus, The Wichita Art Museum

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