When you think of art in the 1800s you might imagine grand historical subjects, mythological scenes, and traditional themes, lots of them! Well, that’s what art used to be before impressionists changed the course of it forever!
In 19th century Paris the main art exhibition was called the Salon. This annual exhibition was organized by the Academy of Fine Arts. And the Academy loved grand historical subjects, mythological scenes and traditional themes. We can even say that the jury of the Salon had quite a conservative taste. The jury got to choose whose works were to be exhibited and those who didn’t make the cut, got a dramatic R for Rejected stamped on the back of the painting! But then came the impressionists who didn’t just want to sit around and wait for the Salon jury to accept them. They wanted to become independent from the Salon and its artistic expectations. They called themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Printmakers! And they decided to organize their own exhibitions. Their very first exhibition was held in Paris in 1874 at a studio of the French photographer Nadar. And so, the famous modern art movement called Impressionism was born! The movement was led by artists like Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and Berthe Morisot. And during the next 12 years, until 1886, impressionists held 8 of their own exhibitions in total. Take that, Paris Salon!
Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet (1872)
The term Impressionism came from Claude Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise. This famous work shows the harbor of the city of La Havre in Northern France. An art critic called Louis Leroy called this painting an impression, but he meant it in a bad way, and described the work as unfinished! Little did he know how popular Impressionism was going to get! Imagine his face if he knew the prices of Monet’s works at auctions today! Compared to academic painting exhibited at the Paris Salon, impressionist works looked different indeed, they seemed more casual and informal, with loose brushstrokes and a tendency not to copy everything realistically from nature.Impressionists rejected showing historical, biblical, mythological, or allegorical subjects. They, in fact, loved showing modern life. Paris was rebuilt during the 19th century and it became a real urban center. The population grew and public places were filled with people. And impressionists found inspiration in the new beauty urban experiences could offer. Monet made a whole series of paintings of the St Lazare Train Station fascinated by these technological innovations happening in the world.
Many impressionists ditched the studio and went outside. They loved painting outdoors, or should we say - “en plein air”. This is one of the reasons why their canvases weren’t too big. Smaller canvases were easier to carry and transport around. Impressionists also loved playing with light and color in their paintings. We can see best how light can affect the mood and the atmosphere of a place when looking at impressionist works. Let’s look at the Rouen Cathedral series by Monet where we have the same place painted over and over again but in different ways. The time of the day and the weather affects the light, the color and the atmosphere of the place and it makes it a bit different each time.
Synthetic paints in tubes developed during the 19th century also made it possible for impressionists to use new shades of colors. These artists tended to show complementary colors like red and green, violet and yellow, and blue and orange, painted next to each other and not blended together. This way the colors seemed more intense. And you can probably notice that the impressionists didn’t use a lot of dark tones or a lot of black. During Monet’s funeral, the French statesman Georges Clemenceau even removed the black cloth that was draped over the coffin and said “No! No black for Monet! Black is not a colour!”.
Bal du moulin de la Galette by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1876)
A number of impressionist works show leisurely activities of middle-class French society. We can see scenes of swimming and boating, sitting in cafes, or going to the Opera. In works like the colorful Bal du Moulin de Galette by Renoir, we see people interacting, dancing, talking, flirting, and enjoying themselves in the bohemian Montmartre district in Paris. Wherever we look, we see urban life happening. Renoir used loose brushstrokes and colors that make the whole scene look sunlit and lively. The artist often painted scenes from modern life. We can also look at his work La Loge where a man and a woman are sitting in the theatre. It’s good to know that these Parisians often went to the theatre and the opera not just for the show, but to be seen and to see who else will be there.While painters like Renoir and Cassat showed us what the audience looked like, the famous impressionist Edgar Degas often painted what was happening on stage. Degas spent many years painting ballerinas. Back then, most ballet dancers came from working class backgrounds and many of the young teenage ballerinas in training, also known as petit rats, were sexually exploited. Degas himself also wasn’t always nice to these young ballerinas, making his models pose for hours in uncomfortable positions. He even called them the little monkey girls.
You might be wondering, were there any women impressionists? And the answer is yes! Women Impressionists like Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassat focused on depicting the upper classes of the French Society and they both came from wealthy families themselves. In their paintings, the two artists showed the lives of Bourgeois women. They painted the private spaces that they had access to because of their gender. They often depicted domestic subjects since women had restricted access to other places that men painted. Morisot’s work The Cradle was exhibited at the first impressionist exhibition in 1874. The work shows her sister with a baby, so a very intimate moment indeed. Mary Cassat also painted scenes from domestic life. In her work Little girl in a Blue Armchair we see a fashionably dressed child during her private moment and within a private space looking bored while sitting next to her dog.
As you can see, impressionists embraced modernity and moved away from biblical, historical or mythological scenes. They celebrated the topics taken from everyday life. They took the freedom to show scenes from Parisian cafes or nearby bathing spots. These artists also showed the world that things didn’t always have to be represented realistically. They wanted to depict their own way of looking at things and show the atmosphere of a place. During their time, the impressionist way of looking at art was considered revolutionary. In many ways, Impressionism was defining for many modern art movements that were yet to come. And it is safe to say that it affected the course of modern art greatly.
Hey muses, so what’s your impression of impressionism? Which artist or artwork did you enjoy most? Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments and don’t forget to subscribe to our channel for more great content like this one. Also find us on Instagram for your daily dose of culture from Curious Muse!