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In this short series, we’ll review the history of modern art , starting from Impressionism and going through the years to reach back at today. Following the journey will also make you understand better contemporary art and why art history is an important knowledge for designers and artists alike.

You might object how modern are really art movements over 100 years old. Still considering the timeline of art history that dates back to the first cave drawings, then i think a mere 100 years are more than modern! I hope you join me to this journey, and enjoy it as much as i do.

Impressionism was a 19th-century art movement that originated with a group of Paris-based artists whose independent exhibitions brought them to prominence during the 1870s and 1880s in spite of harsh opposition from the art community in France. The name of the style is derived from the title of a Claude Monet work, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), which provoked the critic Louis Leroy to coin the term in a satiric review published in the Parisian newspaper Le Charivari.

Characteristics of Impressionist paintings include 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; the inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience; and unusual visual angles. The development of Impressionism in the visual arts was soon followed by analogous styles in other media which became known as Impressionist music and Impressionist literature.

Claude Monet - Tulpen von Holland

Claude Monet – Tulpen von Holland

Although the emergence of Impressionism in France happened at a time when a number of other painters, including the Italian artists known as the Macchiaioli, and Winslow Homer in the United States, were also exploring plein-air painting, the Impressionists developed new techniques that were specific to the style. Encompassing what its adherents argued was a different way of seeing, it was an art of immediacy and movement, of candid poses and compositions, of the play of light expressed in a bright and varied use of colour.

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The public, at first hostile, gradually came to believe that the Impressionists had captured a fresh and original vision, even if the new style did not receive the approval of the art critics and establishment.

Claude Monet - Jeanne Marguerite Lecadre in the Garden Sainte Adresse

Claude Monet – Jeanne Marguerite Lecadre in the Garden Sainte Adresse

By recreating the sensation in the eye that views the subject, rather than delineating the details of the subject, and by creating a welter of techniques and forms, Impressionism became a precursor of various styles of painting, including Neo-Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism (which we’ll explore in future articles).

Impressionist techniques include:

  1. Short, thick strokes of paint are used to quickly capture the essence of the subject, rather than its details. The paint is often applied impasto.
  2. Colours are applied side-by-side with as little mixing as possible, creating a vibrant surface. The optical mixing of colours occurs in the eye of the viewer.
  3. Grays and dark tones are produced by mixing complementary colours. In pure Impressionism the use of black paint is avoided.
  4. Wet paint is placed into wet paint without waiting for successive applications to dry, producing softer edges and an intermingling of colour.
  5. Painting during evening to get effets de soir—the shadowy effects of the light in the evening or twilight.
  6. Impressionist paintings do not exploit the transparency of thin paint films (glazes) which earlier artists manipulated carefully to produce effects. The surface of an Impressionist painting is typically opaque.
  7. The play of natural light is emphasized. Close attention is paid to the reflection of colours from object to object.
  8. In paintings made en plein air (outdoors), shadows are boldly painted with the blue of the sky as it is reflected onto surfaces, giving a sense of freshness that was not represented in painting previously. (Blue shadows on snow inspired the technique.)
Painters throughout history had occasionally used these methods, but Impressionists were the first to use all of them together, and with such consistency. Earlier artists whose works display these techniques include Frans Hals, Diego Velázquez, Peter Paul Rubens, John Constable, and J. M. W. Turner. French painters who prepared the way for Impressionism include the Romantic colourist Eugène Delacroix, the leader of the realists Gustave Courbet, and painters of the Barbizon school such as Théodore Rousseau.

The Impressionists learned much from the work of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Eugène Boudin, who painted from nature in a style that was similar to Impressionism, and who befriended and advised the younger artists. Impressionists took advantage of the mid-century introduction of premixed paints in lead tubes (resembling modern toothpaste tubes), which allowed artists to work more spontaneously, both outdoors and indoors. Previously, painters made their own paints individually, by grinding and mixing dry pigment powders with linseed oil, which were then stored in animal bladders.

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Prior to the Impressionists, other painters, notably such 17th-century Dutch painters as Jan Steen, had emphasized common subjects, but their methods of composition were traditional. They arranged their compositions in such a way that the main subject commanded the viewer’s attention. 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. Photography was gaining popularity, and as cameras became more portable, photographs became more candid. Photography inspired Impressionists to represent momentary action, not only in the fleeting lights of a landscape, but in the day-to-day lives of people.

The development of Impressionism can be considered partly as a reaction by artists to the challenge presented by photography, which seemed to devalue the artist’s skill in reproducing reality. Both portrait and landscape paintings were deemed somewhat deficient and lacking in truth as photography “produced lifelike images much more efficiently and reliably”

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Another major influence was Japanese art prints (Japonism), which had come into France originally as wrapping paper for imported goods. The art of these prints contributed significantly to the “snapshot” angles and unconventional compositions which would become characteristic of the style.

Claude Monet - Die Seine am morgen im Regen

Claude Monet – Die Seine am morgen im Regen

Edgar Degas was both an avid photographer and a collector of Japanese prints. His The Dance Class (La classe de danse) of 1874 shows both influences in its asymmetrical composition. The dancers are seemingly caught off guard in various awkward poses, leaving an expanse of empty floor space in the lower right quadrant. His dancers were also captured in sculpture such as The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer

The central figures in the development of Impressionism in France, listed alphabetically, were:

Pierre-Auguste Renoir -  Sur la terrasse

Pierre-Auguste Renoir – Sur la terrasse

Claude Monet  - Woman with a Parasol

Claude Monet – Woman with a Parasol

Édouard Manet - Frühstück im Atelier

Édouard Manet – Frühstück im Atelier

Pierre-Auguste Renoir - By the Water

Pierre-Auguste Renoir – By the Water

Alfred Sisley - Bords du Loing à Saint-Mammès

Alfred Sisley – Bords du Loing à Saint-Mammès

Paul Cézanne - Kartenspieler

Paul Cézanne – Kartenspieler

Édouard Manet - Das Frühstück im Grünen

Édouard Manet – Das Frühstück im Grünen

Berthe Morisot - Eugene Manet and His Daughter in the Garden

Berthe Morisot – Eugene Manet and His Daughter in the Garden

Berthe Morisot - The Harbor at Lorient

Berthe Morisot – The Harbor at Lorient

Édouard Manet - Le Bar des Folies-Bergère

Édouard Manet – Le Bar des Folies-Bergère

Claude Monet - Boulvard Saint Denis in Argenteuil im Winter

Claude Monet – Boulvard Saint Denis in Argenteuil im Winter

Camille Pissarro - Hay Harvest at Éragny

Camille Pissarro – Hay Harvest at Éragny

Pierre-Auguste Renoir - The Luncheon of the Boating Party

Pierre-Auguste Renoir – The Luncheon of the Boating Party

Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Photo of painting Oarsemen at Chatou

Pierre-Auguste Renoir – Photo of painting Oarsemen at Chatou

Painting by Edgar Degas

Painting by Edgar Degas

Painting by Edgar Degas

Painting by Edgar Degas

Hope you enjoyed our short journey through Impressionism and are willing to explore more the individual artists!

In the meantime i’d love to hear what you think of impressionism as a movement, and which of the above artists were the more influential in your opinion?

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