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Impressionism in a Nutshell
by Bob Brooke


Impressionism was a 19th-century art movement that began as a loose association of Paris-based artists exhibiting their art publicly in the 1860s. Its name derived from the title of a Claude Monet work, Impression, Sunrise, which provoked the critic Louis Leroy to coin the term in a satiric review published in Le Charivari.

The Batignolles district of Paris, where many avante-garde artists and writers lived, was the epicenter of this new artistic movement. Painter Edouard Manet presided over evening gatherings at the local Café Guerbois.

Le Salon
At the time in Paris, the Académie des Beaux-Arts—commonly known as Le Salon--dominated the French art scene in the mid 19th century. The Académie was the upholder of traditional standards for French painting, both in content and style.

It's members valued historical subjects, religious themes, and portraits, but not landscape and still life. They also preferred carefully finished images which mirrored reality when examined closely.

In 1863, Emperor Napoleon III decreed that the public be allowed to judge the works themselves and commanded that the Académie organize Le Salon des Refusés or The Salon of the Refused.

Late in 1873, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and Sisley organized Le Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, the "Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers," so they could exhibit their works independently.

Critics had a mixed response to the Exhibit of 1874. Art critic Leroy Louis declared that Monet's painting--The Cliff at Étretat after the Storm (1885)—could hardly be called a finished work. Even though Impression, itself, gained acceptance in Le Salon by the 1890s, the artists, themselves, saw little financial reward from their exhibitions. Edouard Manet, despite his role as a leader to the group, never abandoned his liberal use of black as a color and never participated in the eight Impressionist exhibitions.

Common Characteristics of Impressionist Works
The Impressionists discovered that they could capture the momentary and transient effects of sunlight by painting en plein air. Working in the open air focused the Impressionists' interest on the fleeting effects of light and colors of nature, which could only be captured in the shorthand technique than the laborious process of academic art. Painting realistic scenes of modern life, they emphasized vivid overall effects rather than details.

Encompassing a different way of seeing, Impressionism was an art of immediacy and movement, candid poses and compositions, and the play of light expressed in a bright and varied use of color. Radicals in their time, early Impressionists broke the rules of academic painting by giving colors, freely brushed, primacy over line. They used short, "broken" brush strokes of pure and unmixed color, not smoothly blended, as was customary, in order to achieve the effect of intense color vibration.

The Impressionists used color boldly, focusing on the primary colors—red, yellow, and blue—plus white to create their paintings. They took advantage of the mid-19th-century introduction of premixed paints in lead tubes, resembling modern toothpaste tubes, which allowed artists to work more spontaneously, both outdoors and indoors.

They used short, thick strokes of paint to quickly capture the essence of a subject, rather than its details, often applying paint impasto. Impressionist painters applied colors side-by-side with as little mixing as possible, creating a vibrant surface. The optical mixing of colors occurs in the eye of the viewer rather than in the paint surface, itself.

Painters produced grays and dark tones by mixing complementary colors such as red and green and avoided using black. They placed wet paint into wet paint without waiting for successive applications to dry, producing softer edges and an intermingling of color, unlike traditional in traditional painting where artists used underpainting and thin glazes to achieve the results they wanted. The surface of an Impressionist painting is typically opaque.

Some of the Impressionist painters loved to go out in the fresh air and sunshine to paint the landscapes and seascapes around them. When painting landscapes, they focused on color and light.

Many Impressionists painted in the evening to get effets de soir—the shadowy effects of the light in the evening or twilight. They emphasized the play of natural light, paying close attention to the reflection of colors from object to object.

In paintings made en plein air, they boldly painted shadows with the blue of the sky as it reflected onto surfaces, giving a sense of freshness and openness that traditional painters failed to capture. By painting the scene as they saw it outdoors, the Impressionists gave a freshness to their works that hadn't been seen before.

Impressionist landscape painters sought to express their perceptions of nature, rather than create exacting reflections or mirror images of the world.

The Impressionists relaxed the boundary between subject and background so that the effect of an Impressionist painting often resembles a snapshot, a part of a larger reality captured as if by chance. Japanese art prints, which had originally come into France as wrapping paper for imported goods, contributed significantly to the "snapshot" angles and unconventional compositions which became characteristic of the Impressionists.

Artists focused on the one thing they could inevitably do better than the photograph— capture an image subjectively.

Claude Monet's work clearly represents the aims of Impressionism. He was dedicated to painting in the open air—to capturing nature by observation. The gardens of the Impressionists often appear in their paintings. Monet's second love, after his painting, was his garden in Giverny. Monet is most noted for his series of paintings of the water lilies in his garden.

He also painted a series of haystacks in different light at different times of the year and often made a study in light of favorite landscapes and buildings.

Alfred Sisley's art focused on the riverside villages to the west of Paris. He favored capturing images of the Seine as it meandered through the countryside. Painting bourgeois men and women idling their days away among flower beds didn't appeal to Emile Pissarro. He'd rather paint the local peasants working in vegetable patches and fields near his home in Pontoise. He loved painting people whose lives were tied to the soil.

Paintings of Modern Life
Using the snapshot technique, Edouard Manet often cropped off figures at the edge of his paintings to make them seem like a slice of life that seems to continue beyond the frame.

In the 1870s Paris was the theatrical capital of Europe. People crowded the opera houses and café-theaters nightly. Most had rows of boxes called loges.

Modern Paris was a city of cafés and restaurants whose terraces spilled out onto the pavement. This dynamic café life inspired many Impressionist images. The Impressionists participated in Paris' new café life and at the same time observed it. Initially, they gathered to discuss their creative ideas at the Café Guerbois.

Prior to the Impressionists, other painters, such as 17th-century Dutch painters, had focused on common subjects, but they employed traditional composition, arranging their compositions so the main subject commanded the viewer's attention.

Auguste Renoir loved to paint people. He was a fine draughtsman and captured the life and enthusiasm of his subjects. He combined his interest in painting outdoors with depicting modern life and people in pictures of Parisians enjoying weekends in the country.

Renoir loved the challenge of capturing a large group of people in a variety of poses.
His expertise and artistic craftsmanship shows in his relaxed paintings of people having a good time. He also fantasized about working women and showed them in all their voluptuousness in his works.

Critics called the fluent delicacy and rapid, sketchy brushstrokes of Berthe Morisot slapdash. But her subtle colors show off the elegant bourgeois women she painted.

While Mary Cassatt, an American painter who joined the Impressionist Movement, painted the social and private lives of women.

The Influence of Photography
Photography inspired Impressionists to capture the moment, not only in the fleeting lights of a landscape, but in the day-to-day lives of people. The new medium of photography also encouraged Impressionist painters to exploit color, which photography then lacked.

Photography heavily influenced Edgar Degas who captured ballet dancers in almost snapshot-like poses. He was also intrigued by the social world backstage. Unlike many of the other Impressionists, Degas loved to create structured compositions into which he would breathe life.

Degas also loved to make preliminary sketches in charcoal or pastel and then assemble his compositions in his studio. Many called Degas a painter of dancers. But he said that for him painting dancers was a pretext for painting beautiful fabrics and rendering movement.

Post Impressionism
From the 1880s onward, several artists—Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, Cezanne, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec— began to develop different precepts for the use of color, pattern, form, and line, derived from the Impressionist. They became known as Post Impressionists.

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