Let’s face it: most of us haven’t got a clue about art. Such a short word, yet so complicated. I’ve been thinking a lot about art lately (though I’m not sure why!) and so I decided to spend some time learning about art. I thought I’d write about what I’ve learned so far. Maybe it will be helpful to you as well! The first thing to know is that art is like history: it’s divided into different “periods.” In the many parts of this series so far I’ve looked at art up through the 19th-Century Pre-Raphaelites. Today I’m going to look at a movement that was (and is) one of the most polarizing group of artists that have ever painted, men and women that totally changed the art world, and began what many believe was “modern” art.
I’m talking about the Impressionists. Who were these people and what led them to develop such a new style of painting?
Impressionism began in the middle of the 19th century in France. At that time in France, art was controlled by the “Académie des Beaux-Arts” (Academy of Fine Arts) which every year held a national exhibition called the “Salon de Paris“, in which a panel of art critics and experts would judge the works and award cash prizes to the winning artists. An artist’s fortune and reputation could be made (or ruined) at this exhibition.
The Academy, however, was determined to maintain traditional standards of art: historical subjects, religious themes, and portraits. Landscapes and still lifes were not considered “fine” art. Paintings were expected to be very realistic, no matter how closely you looked at them. Colors were muted, with bright colors being avoided.
Four young painters (Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Auguste Renoir and Frédéric Bazille) met at art school, and discovered that they were all more interested in painting landscapes and modern life than in the traditional historical and religious scenes. They started painting outdoors, which was a radical departure from what most painters were doing at the time. The traditional painters might go outdoors to sketch a scene, but they did all their work indoors, in their studios. These four wanted to capture the natural light of the outdoors in their works, and especially wanted to create works that were brighter than those of the traditionalists.
The group was soon joined by other artists, like Edouard Manet, Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne. Throughout the 1860s the group regularly submitted works for the Salon de Paris, and were regularly rejected by the jury of experts. In 1863, the Emperor Napoleon III saw some of the rejected works, and decided that the public should decide whether they were good or not. He allowed a separate exhibition to be staged, called the “Salon des Refusés” (“Exhibition of Rejects”) to be organized, and Manet and the rest of the group displayed their works. The most famous of those works (and one that caused a great deal of controversy in the art world of the time) was Manet’s painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass).
Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, by Edouard Manet, 1863, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
This was the painting that led to the Emperor Napoleon III’s decision to allow the Salon des Refusés, which gave these rebel artists their first public exhibition. In fact the term “Impressionism” was used sarcastically by a Parisian art critic, when he was looking at Claude Monet’s painting, Impression, soleil levant, which was presented at the 1872 exhibition.
Impression, soleil levant (Impression of the rising sun), Claude Monet, 1872, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris
The goal of the Impressionists, rather than to capture the exact image of something, was to create the sensation in the eye that views the subject, to show an impression, a sensation that one experienced. This in turn led to many different techniques and painting styles. This is why many people consider Impressionism to be the forerunner of “modern” art, like Post-Impressionism and Cubism.
Enough of the history! Let’s look at some of the works created by the Impressionists. You might recognize many of them! What’s your favorite Impressionist work?
Dock at Deauville, by Eugène Boudin, 1869, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Boudin was one of the first to paint outdoors, and is considered one of the founders of Impressionism.
L’inondation à Port-Marly, by Alfred Sisley, 1876, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Sisley painted the floods in the little town of Port-Marly. He said later that he felt the floods were like his life: troubled and overflowing with problems.
Summertime, by Mary Cassatt, 1894, Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago
Impressionism quickly spread beyond France, and American artists were some of the first to embrace the new style. Mary Cassatt was one of the most famous, and also one of the best of the Americans.
Mont-Ste-Victoire view from Fauves, by Paul Cezanne, 1906, Basel Kunstmuseum (Switzerland)
The Dance Class, by Edgar Degas, 1874, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Degas painted many subjects, but he is most famous for his numerous paintings of ballet dancers.
Tahitian Women, by Paul Gauguin, 1891, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Paul Gauguin left France early in 1891, hoping to find paradise on the Pacific island of Tahiti. This was one of the first paintings he completed there. Many of his most famous works were done in Polynesia.
The Avenue in the Rain, by Childe Hassam, 1917, White House Collection, Washington DC
Childe Hassam was another American Impressionist. He did a series of six paintings showing New York City’s Fifth Avenue in the rain.
Spring, by Konstantin Korovin, 1917, The Russian Museum, St-Petersburg
Korovin came to Paris just before the Russian Revolution. He wrote later, “Paris was a shock for me … Impressionists… in them I found everything for what I was scolded back at home, in Moscow“.
Meules (Haystacks, white frost), by Claude Monet, 1889, Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington CT
Between 1889 and 1891, Monet created a series of 15 canvases representing a group of haystacks on the outskirts of Giverny, France. Wassily Kandinsky had the opportunity of seeing one of these haystacks in an exhibition in Moscow in 1895, and he was impressed to the point of suggesting it as the first abstract painting in the history of Art: “And suddenly, for the first time, I saw a picture. It was a haystack [or rather, a grain stack], the catalogue informed me, but I could not recognize it. I realized that there the object of the picture was missed. What I had perfectly present was the unsuspected -and until then hidden- power of the palette“.
Nympheas (Water Lilies), by Claude Monet, 1920-1926, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris
No list of Impressionist works would be complete without the Water Lilies of Claude Monet. They are probably the most famous (and most beautiful) of all the Impressionist paintings. Monet mostly painted the water lily pond at his house in Giverny during the last 20 years of his life. He completed over 250 water lily paintings, with the largest (and most impressive of them) housed in circular rooms built especially for some of the large murals in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, and have been (I think justly) called the “Sistine Chapel of Impressionism.” If you ever get a chance to visit Paris, that museum has to be at the top of your list if you love Impressionism!
Moulin de la Galette, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1876, Musée d’Orsay, Paris
This painting was called by one critic, “the most beautiful painting of the 19th Century.”
Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand-Jatte, by Georges Seurat, 1886, Chicago Art Institute
This is perhaps my favorite of all Impressionist works! And the good news for Americans? It’s in Chicago, so you don’t even have to go abroad to see it! Seurat used a method of painting called “pointilism”, in which the whole painting is made up of thousands of tiny dots of color. The painting is huge, and it took him over two years to complete. It’s worth the trip to Chicago just to see this!
Need another reason to visit Chicago? HERE YOU GO! This beautiful Van Gogh painting can be found at Chicago’s Art Institute.
Starry Night, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Perhaps the most famous of all his works, Starry Night is often used as evidence of Van Gogh’s insanity. Yet a recent study made by the Griffith Park Observatory demonstrated that Vincent represented the Moon, Venus, and several stars in the exact position they occupied that clear night.
There are many more paintings I could include here, but hopefully this gives you a better idea about Impressionism and just how cool it is!
Hope you enjoyed the tour!