What is impressionism?

The Road Bridge at Argenteuil (1874)

Impressionism began in France in the mid 1800's. It was a style in which the artist captured the image of an object as someone would see it if they just caught a glimpse of it. The pictures were painted with a lot of color, and mostly consisted of outdoor scenes. They were very bright and vibrant, that captured images without detail but with bold colors.

Impressionist painting characteristics included:

  • Relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes
  • Open composition
  • Emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities (often accentuating the effects of the passage of time)
  • Common, ordinary subject matter
  • Inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience
  • Unusual visual angles

The artists

Impression Sunrise (1872)

The name of the style derived from the title of a Claude Monet work, Impression, Sunrise (Impression, Soleil Levant). He displayed it at a Paris art show and because of the patchy texture, it caused one critic to call the whole show impressionist, which gave the movement it's name. Monet had a fascination with light and that led him to paint several others showing the same effect on different objects. Manet influenced the development of impressionism and mostly painted landscapes and everyday objects.

Some other great impressionist artists were Camille Pissaro, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot and Pierre Auguste Renoir. Pissaro and Sisley painted the French countryside and river scenes. Degas enjoyed painting ballet dancers and horse races. Morisot painted women doing everyday things. Renoir loved to show the effect of sunlight on flowers and figures and enjoyed painting boulevards of bustling Paris life. Monet was interested in subtle changes in the atmosphere.

From the late 1880's, public perception gradually changed and the Impressionists received reverence, paving the way for their followers Cezanne, Gauguin, Seurat and Vincent van Gogh.