Art History 101: Impressionism

Marie Bracquemond
[Public domain]

Take a moment and think of the most famous painter you can recall.

Some of you might have thought of Da Vinci, with his detailed and life-like studies of anatomy and biblical subjects, or even Michaelangelo, who painted the most remarkable set of frescos known to man. More still, someone undoubtedly said Rembrandt, Vermeer, or even Rubens.

But what makes these undoubtedly talented and prolific artists so great?

Is it their life-like depictions of subjects, holy or otherwise, on a massive scale for important patrons?

Is it the subdued and delicate handling of the colors, making every canvas look more like a snapshot than a panel layered with thin coats of paint?

Is it because of the obscene prices that their artworks fetch when they come to auction?

One thing that all these artists have in common is their involvement in some kind of guild system or an upper echelon of the art world that has deemed these artists as superior, virtuosic, or aesthetically perfect. 

Berthe Morisot [Public domain]

For a long time, art was only considered art if it fit into a strict set of predefined categories and followed a very specific creative process, using the same techniques that had been used and studied for generations. 

Reminiscent of the opening scene in a Coppola film, all flashes of memory and soft colors, the Impressionist movement arrived in the art world expressly to challenge the establishment and reshape the meaning and aesthetics of art itself.

This enterprising and free-spirited group of artists arose in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, just at the cusp of a new century and a radically new way of life. These talented painters, sculptors, and print-makers arrived at a time in which the art world was precariously balanced between the old ways of the Salon and the unprecedented artistic and social freedom of the modern world.

Auguste Renoir [Public domain]

Timeline of Impressionism

The set of events that eventually led to the development of Impressionism began in 1863 with a state-sanctioned exhibition of works rejected by the Paris Salon

More than 700+ works of art were displayed at what was known as a Salon des Refusés or the Exhibition of Rejected or Refused Artworks. Among those rejected by the Salon and on display at the Salon of Rejects were now-famous artists such as Courbet, Manet, Cezanne, Pissarro and many more. 

These artists had their works routinely refused by the Salon jury who cited an apparent lack of composition and their heavy brushwork as unfinished and sloppy.


Édouard Manet [Public domain]

The works on display that day in the Salon were radically different, with subject matter ranging from portraits to landscape paintings, and was met with much derision. The public outcry only fueled the infamy of those on display, and would later embolden future artists to lean further into controversial subject matter and techniques. 

It wasn’t until 1874 that the Impressionists, known then as the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc., got their own exhibition. 

With the support of famous Parisian photographer Felix Nadar, these artists held their first solo exhibit that Spring to limited success on the top floor of his studio. 

Three years and three exhibitions later, they adopted their official name, forever cementing themselves in the history of Western art. 

Claude Monet [Public domain]

The Impressionists took their name from a scathing review of their exhibition published in Le Charivari, by critic Louise Leroy.

What does impressionism art look like?

Just what sets the Impressionists apart from their predecessors? Aside from being easily visually identified, there are a number of revolutionary characteristics employed by this sect of artists that were all but unique to them.

En Plein Air

Claude Monet [Public domain]

The invention of tubes of paint freed artists from the confines of the studio, providing them greater freedom of movement and improving portability.

Artists, for their part, took advantage of the new innovation, regularly electing to paint in their gardens, on beaches, in parks, and on the very streets of Paris. 

Painting in nature, en plein air or outdoors, allowed artists to focus on new concepts such as color and lighting instead of composition and technique as the Salon had previously preferred.


Claude Monet [Public domain]

The above painting by Claude Monet, for example, features four women as they lounge in a garden, enjoying the sun and the flowers around them. 

Though we can’t quite demonstrate this painting’s size the canvas itself is massive, coming in at about 8’ x 6’. This size was traditionally reserved for “high art”—art with biblical, mythical, or allegorical themes—and was almost always done in the studio. Painting at this scale required Monet to get creative with how he went about accessing the canvas during the creative process, necessitating his use of pulleys to raise and lower the canvas into a trench he dug himself as he went along. 

Loose, broken brushwork

Paul Cézanne [Public domain]

The Impressionists were infamous for their relaxed, “broken”, brushwork that lent their pieces an airy and transient quality. 

By swapping carefully planned and languid brushstrokes for rushed and broken ones, Impressionist artists were able to explore themes and subjects that no artist before them had been able to. This style of painting allowed artists to capture a scene quickly and made it possible to convey times of day, weather conditions, and even emotions. 

While this often gave pieces a lively sense of movement and vitality, conservative critics felt that these effortless swipes of color left their compositions looking unfinished, slapdash, and even childish. 

Berthe Morisot [Public domain]

This characteristic of Impressionism, however, allowed artists to portray the look of light and shadow in a given scene as the artist perceived it, and paved the way for future artists to further dissociate the connections between what their eyes saw and what their minds perceived.

Frenetic use of bright color

Marie Bracquemond [Public domain]
Creating colors that were true to what the artists’ eye perceived was of primary concern to the Impressionist artists.

To achieve a faithful reproduction of their reality, artists began implementing new theories of color, like those explored by Charles Blanc and Ogden Rood.
Using complementary colors, these artists found ways to imitate the natural brilliance of light and shadow.

The Impressionists’ persistent interest in achieving brilliant, true-to-life colors meant that they took a vested interest in the use of new paints; as the world discovered synthetic pigments the Impressionist artists began using them. These new pigments allowed for more vibrant, opaque, colors at a fraction of the cost, further democratizing the art world and making art even more accessible. 

Edgar Degas
[Public domain]

Lighting was an equally distinct characteristic of all Impressionist art and was intimately tied to their preoccupation with color and emotion.
Lighting for the Impressionist became a powerful tool by which they could capture time of day, emotion, and atmosphere made all the more attainable by their new brushwork and plein air techniques.

Ordinary subjects

Mary Cassatt [Public Domain]

Another criticism commonly leveled against the Impressionists was that their paintings suffered from an apparent lack of subject matter. Critics were often more conservative in their tastes and, like the Academy, prized classical and biblical subjects over all else. 

The Impressionists rebuked such elitism in their art and insisted on painting subjects from their daily lives. This new subject matter could be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of formal education, and catered to the rising middle class.

This took many forms, emerging as scenes from the garden, full of ripe fruits and colorful blooms, or compositions full of lively conversation between friends and family. 

These scenes of domestic tranquility were especially popular with the women artists of the period, who leaned heavily on painting their friends, sisters, and children as they went about their lives.

Berthe Morisot [Public domain]

Berthe Morisot, whose work was routinely accepted into the Salon, was famous for her paintings depicting intimate domestic moments. Her compositions included such scenes as mothers tending to their children, young ladies reading, sewing, or getting ready at their toilette—anything and everything that was common in feminine circles, Morisot graced with the gift of her astute draftsmanship and distinct coloring.

Repercussions and Influence of Impressionism

Auguste Renoir [Public domain]

Impressionism was a style cultivated in a fundamental rejection of the Academy. The Impressionist movement embraced imperfect and sometimes unconventional beauty, finding the sublime in the natural and modern world. 

The lasting importance of Impressionism, the first modern art movement in the history of Western art, is evident in all of the proceeding movements and in the extant pieces of art that we can freely admire in museums around the globe today. 

The Impressionists cleared the way for artists to experiment and create freely without arbitrary restrictions their creative outlets. To this day, these artists continue to encourage others to explore subjects outside what is considered conventionally “artistic” and to discover new ways to share the realities of their imagination.


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