Impressionism: A Turning Point in Art History
Updated: Oct 3, 2020
Many of us in this modern world have seen impressionist paintings. Whether you are aware of it or not, it is very likely that you have come across an image by Monet, Renoir, Cassatt, or Degas. When I think of Impressionism as a movement, I picture Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise or Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette, both of which you can see below.
Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise. 1872
These images are familiar to many of us. In a time when art has been pushed to its physical and philosophical limits in all directions, what was bizarre a few decades ago is no longer as strange. Thus, impressionist paintings may look very commonplace to us. They seem to us pretty pictures done with paintbrushes a very long time ago.
Renoir, Bal du moulin de la Galette. 1876
But in the 1860s and ‘70s, impressionism was anything but normal. (Although I will say in one sense, the normality of these paintings was what made them so strange to the public at the time, but I will get to that later.) To know what made this movement stand out and why people stared in confusion, we have to understand the existing precedent for art in 19th century Paris.
What Came Before
Up until the mid-19th century, the art world of Europe was centered around The Royal Academies of Art, which dictated the sort of work successful artists should produce in order to gain prestige and commissions. Every year, The Royal Academies of France and England (among others) held salons, or grand exhibitions, which displayed what was deemed acceptable of the year’s artwork for the general public to view.
Academic artwork focused mainly on history paintings, which had historical, mythological, or religious subject matter, and to a lesser extent, genre paintings, which included landscapes and domestic scenes. Emphasis was placed on drama and emotion, with great enemies being defeated, saints being martyred, and gods overseeing momentous events.
Jaques-Louis David, Oath of the Horatii. 1784
The ultimate goal for most artists at the time was to be trained at their national academy for the arts. This would open the way to receive commissions from wealthy patrons, churches, or sometimes members of the royal family. That was the only way one could find success as an artist back then.
This system worked well for many decades. The old masters trained apprentices, who copied their work and sometimes went on to start new movements or trends. Everything functioned in connection with The Royal Academy (in England) and the Académie des Beaux-Arts (in France).
Classically trained artists would submit their work and hope to be accepted into the salon. If you skillfully followed the traditions of academic art and your subject matter was suitable, there was a good chance your work would be accepted. But when individuals in France began to challenge artistic norms, a conflict began to brew in the art world.
A Rebellion Rising
The impressionists were not the first to challenge classical and academic art styles. The realist movement had arrived about a decade before, with some paintings causing a scandal in the salons, when they were occasionally accepted. As they began the first avant-garde movement, the realists questioned what sort of subjects should be important in art and why. They turned away from painting romanticized characters and events, instead of creating images of dull everyday life or frank depictions of society that often raised moral questions.
“What seems most significant to me about our movement [impressionism] is that we have freed painting from the importance of the subject. I am at liberty to paint flowers and call them flowers, without their needing to tell a story.”
Though the painting techniques and subject matter of realism were considerably different from academic art, the impressionist movement would become even more radical. They would go on to follow the realists' interest in everyday subject matter, but their painting techniques would be what ultimately made them famous.
Artists like Claude Monet and Pierre August-Renoir, who had been classically trained, started using techniques that were different from anything that had come before. They followed the example of past artists like J. M. W. Turner, who had focused on landscapes and atmospheric compositions earlier in the century. They placed value on the painter’s own eye and vision. Making use of new equipment, they ventured outside to make art out of doors, or en plein air, as the French said.
When painting outdoors, there is a very limited time one has before the light changes and the whole scene looks different. So, ones like Claude Monet put paint down on the canvas quickly and expertly, in order to render exactly what the eye saw. It wasn’t about perfect lines and brushstrokes. It wasn’t about idealism or refinement. It was about light and shadow and the beauty of a fleeting moment in time.
Claude Monet, Poplars (Autumn). 1891
It might seem odd to us now that this focus on vision and the quick processes used were so radically back in the mid 19th century. But the norm of the day was to plan out a composition carefully, with many sketches, and to fix anything that wasn’t orderly, refined, and traditionally beautiful.
The way the impressionists painted could be seen as one of the initial steps an academic painter would take if they were trying to render a landscape. They would often venture outside to do a few sketches and create small, loosely painted images of the scene for later use. They would then return to the studio and draw out the final composition, beginning work on a large canvas or board for the final product.
Claude Monet and his contemporaries challenged this process by showing that those initial oil sketches could be works of art in themselves. They did not attempt to make their artwork polished and perfect or try to create a perfect illusion. Rather, they valued the eye's initial impression and the skilled hand's immediate brushstrokes on a canvas. These artists wanted to emphasize the paint and the process, embracing the medium rather than pretending it wasn't there.
How Photography Changed the World of Art
One of the influencing factors that led to the birth of the Impressionist movement was the invention and popularization of photography. Until the creation of the photograph (and the earlier daguerreotype), paintings and drawings were the only forms of visual documentation. They were used as propaganda, family heirlooms, religious images, and records of history. But in the mid 19th century, things changed.
It was a time of enlightenment and technological advances. Amid the industrial revolution, it is no wonder that members of the human race found a cheaper and more efficient way to create an image. Once portrait photography became more widespread, paintings became less and less practical.
People now had the ability to produce a perfect image, a depiction, using light, a process that took only minutes. In the past, if you wanted a family portrait, you would’ve had to pay an artist and wait several months. But now, all one needed was a photographer and a much smaller budget.
Louis Daguerre, Boulevard du Temple (Photograph). 1838
Which brings us back to the relevance of impressionism. Now, photography claimed to be the best method of visual representation, and most regarded it as the most accurate tool one would use for the task. Therefore, the use of paintings became blurred and shaky.
But painters like Claude Monet had a different way of seeing things. They believed that, though photography may be accurate, pictures painted by hand had the potential to reach an even higher level of accuracy, in their own way. A photograph may depict the exact angles, shapes, shades, and lines of the thing it represents, but the impressionists knew that their artwork could achieve what photos could not.
Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines. 1873-74
These paintings conveyed a sense of energy, of emotion, of movement. In a way, they were the closest thing there was to actually seeing something with one’s own eyes, and not simply the act of sight, but the whole experience that comes along with it. Their artwork could make viewers feel and react the same way they would if they were actually in the scene. People were transported into a bright, colorful, painterly world that was much like their own.
Why I Love Impressionism
This is what is so thrilling about the impressionist movement - these individuals were some of the first to free art from the centuries-old routine of classicism and rules and regulations. They painted freely, with excitement and enjoyment. They knew what pigment on a canvas could become, what affect it could have on people.
All of a sudden, art was not only valued for its perfection and accuracy or its noble subject matter. Paintings were being made in whatever style the artist chose, and people’s expectations for what art would look like were beginning to broaden. It was the beginning of a new age, one where innovation would be celebrated and the unique vision of each artist would be praised. It was a liberation, and though classical art will always have its value and beauty, the beginnings of modern art are simply fascinating to study.
Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol - Madame Monet and Her Son. 1875
By looking back at decades of paintings done in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we are watching history unfold. And not only that, but we are watching as countless artists take steps into the unknown, into a beautiful realm of creativity, intellect, and emotion.
To me, impressionism represents some of the earliest blooms in the enormous rose bush that would become modern art. It is wonderful to ponder and admire the beauty, which was new and foreign back then, of the paintings which are so dear to us in the present. Through this art form, we can learn so much about the value of one person’s unique vision and interpretation of the world around them.
Samu, Margaret. Impressionism: Art and Modernity. Oct. 2004, www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/imml/hd_imml.htm
Richman-Abdou, Kelly. How Impressionism Changed the Art World and Continues to Inspire Us Today. 12 June 2019, mymodernmet.com/what-is-impressionism-definition/