At a Glance: Impressionism

At a Glance: Impressionism

Perhaps the most famous fine art movement, Impressionism is everywhere. Impressionist paintings are found on coffee mugs, umbrellas, scarves, and skate decks – my mother even has a Monet sunglasses case. With all of Impressionism’s fame and ubiquity, it is often forgotten just how controversial the movement was at its origin.

A Brief History

Let us go back to the 1860s when Paris was a decade into the Second Empire, and Paris was considered by some as the center of the European universe. At the time, the Académie des Beaux-Arts Salon de Paris was considered the premier art school and cultural taste-maker. Its “Academic” style was considered the height of sophistication and art. The Academic style was known for its carefully rendered, realistic depictions of historical or mythological scenes meant to convey the beauty and knowledge of the world. Paintings were often allegorical in nature, with many thin layers of oil paint applied carefully to create a smooth, illusory surface. A small group of artists working in Paris believed that this style of painting, and the larger Academic approach to artistic production and practice, was no longer in step with modern times – they introduced an entirely new approach and style of art: Impressionism.

While American artists continued to paint in Academic-influenced styles for the majority of the 19th Century, Impressionism as a movement would not have been possible without a clever invention by an American artist living abroad, John Rand. In 1841, Rand introduced tube paints to the world, quickly revolutionizing artistic practices. No longer were artists confined to the studio, but they could now paint in new environments with portable and convenient pre-mixed paints that allowed them to work quickly in any environment. Up until this point, many artists created their own paints by combining dried pigments with binders, stored in jars and canisters that were too cumbersome for travel. In many Academic settings, artists were encouraged to mix paints immediately before using, binding artists to the studio and making the painting process lengthy. Rand’s new technology was quickly embraced by artists throughout Europe and forever altered paint mixing and storage.

Armed with tube paints and portable easels, the Impressionists embraced a transient approach to painting. They had grown tired of the Academy’s emphasis on mythological and historical depictions and wanted to create art that captured lived experiences that reflected the times, not the past. In 1874, these artists exhibited works that had recently been turned down for inclusion within the Académie’s annual Salon, in an exhibition they entitled “The Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers.” On view were around 200 works from many artists we would now recognize, like Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. But it was Claude Monet who stole the show. Painted in 1872, Monet included a work from his latest series of experiments. Inspired by his hometown, Le Havre, Monet had painted scenes of the sea, capturing the light and mood of the city. The most discussed work Monet exhibited was a small work, no bigger than two feet wide. It was painted loosely and depicted two rowboats on the water, with larger vessels and the port roughly visible in the distance. The palette is a bold affair, with blues, greens, and purples giving an overall haze and a bright red sun, with its reflection serving as a visual focal point.

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This Renoir sold for $400,000 in 2017.

To modern eyes, nothing seems amiss – it is a painterly maritime scene, but it was downright scandalous for viewers in the late 19th century. People mocked the painting, saying it looked unfinished since it was stylistically so far from the Academic look to which most were accustomed. Critics widely panned the exhibition, often citing Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” as the worst of the lot. Louis Leroy, a writer for Le Charivari, was so utterly unimpressed by Monet’s work that he derisively called the entire style “Impressionism.” The artists immediately embraced the name, acknowledging and reveling in the reaction the works produced. Impressionism quickly became popular and was the premier trend in French painting for about 15 years. The movement became very influential within British and American circles and continues to be one of the most beloved fine art movements worldwide to this day.

Key Identifiers of Impressionism

Impressionism was a groundbreaking shift in artistic style and intention and has many identifying elements that will help you recognize paintings of the movement.

En Plein Air

Impressionist works often depict scenes you might come across in your day-to-day life, like a sunrise over the port or lilies in a garden pond. Using the newly developed tube paints, they could work quickly, while outdoors or en plein air. This approach allowed the Impressionists to capture the transient qualities of a given time and place, the “impression,” if you will. Shifting the act of painting from within the studio into the lived world was an important choice for the movement, demarcating their artistic practice and ethos from the Académie’s studio-bound historical point of view. Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series of paintings perfectly exemplifies this approach: each of the paintings was done en plein air, at different times of day and within different seasons, so as to capture the different qualities of light. Monet, and many of the Impressionists, believed that light, and thus color, could change your perception of a place or moment and wanted to capture this phenomenon in their paintings.

Bold Colors

The bright, striking color palettes of Impressionist paintings are perhaps the reason for the style’s enduring appeal. These artists wanted to capture the transient nature of light and color through paint, and because they were working en plein air, this meant that color selection and paint application needed to be expedient. Rather than using the traditional palette of the Académie, with its muted grays, inky browns, and mild greens, Impressionists used contrasting colors to produce retinal experiences that mimicked the light. They also commonly applied paint in thick daubs, leaving visible brushstrokes. This painterly application allowed the works to produce the visual impression of light and place and allowed for this illusion to be broken upon closer inspection.

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This Monet reproduction shows the bold colors sometimes used by Impressionist artists to mimic light.

Self-Reflexive

Within Impressionism, the emphasis placed on subject matter by earlier styles was eschewed in favor of the artist’s ability to manipulate texture, tone, and colors as an end in themselves. This shift to recognizing the painted object as a painting and not as a purely illusory, pictorial surface was a historical shift in relating to artistic objects and is often considered the starting point of Modern Art. Up until this point, traditionally recognized and canonical art movements and styles had been primarily concerned with depictions and means of representation. Impressionism was one of the first movements to embrace experimentation and acknowledge painting for what it is, rather than just as a pictorial device.

While it is easy to take for granted how revolutionary Impressionism was in its time, hopefully you can now more fully appreciate, and more easily recognize, the movement next time you come across an Impressionist painting.


Megan Shepherd is a curator, freelance writer, and artist. She has worked in fine art museums for a decade and holds two master’s degrees in the field. When she takes a break from art, she enjoys science-fiction books, antiquing, backpacking, and eating her weight in Dim Sum.

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