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Impressionism was a 19th century art movement, that began as a private association of Paris-based artists who began publicly exhibiting their art in 1874. The name of the movement is derived from Claude Monet's Impression, soleil levant (Impression: Sunrise). Critic Louis Leroy inadvertently coined the term in a satiric review. Impressionism is also a movement in music.

Characteristic of impressionist painting are emphasis on light in its changing qualities (often accentuating the effects of the passage of time), ordinary subject matter, and unusual visual angles.



Radicals in their time, early impressionists broke the picture making rules of earlier generations. They captured a fresh and original vision that seemed strange and unfinished to their viewing public.

Until the impressionist movement, artists predominately depicted historical and religious subjects. Rejecting attempts to portray ideal beauty, the impressionists looked instead to beauty in candid day-to-day living.

Sometimes they painted outdoors rather than in a studio as was the custom. Working outdoors enabled them to more directly observe nature, and to capture the fleeting characteristics of the moment, especially the momentary and transient aspects of sunlight.

Impressionist paintings feature short, "broken" brush strokes of pure, untinted and unmixed pigments that give an appearance of spontaneity and vitality. The surfaces of the paintings are often textured with thick paint, a characteristic setting them apart from their predecessors in which smooth blending minimized the perception that one is looking at paint on canvas. Compositions are simplified and innovative, and the emphasis is on overall effect rather than upon details.


The Académie des beaux-arts (Academy of Fine Arts) dominated the French art scene in the middle of the 19th century. Art at the time was considered a conservative enterprise whose innovations fell within the Académie's defined borders. The Académie set the standards for French painting .

In addition to dictating the content of paintings, the Académie commanded which techniques artists used. They valued somber, conservative colors. Refined images, mirroring reality when closely examined, were esteemed. The Académie encouraged artists to eliminate all traces of brush strokes — essentially isolating art from the artist's personality, emotions, and working techniques.

The Académie held an annual art show — Salon de Paris. Only art selected by the Académie jury exhibited in the show. The standards of the juries about suitable art for the salon was quite rigid.

Young painters, painting in a lighter and brighter style than the generation before them, submitted their art to the Salon. A core group of them, Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley, studied under Charles Gleyre.

In 1863, the jury rejected Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) by Édouard Manet primarily because it depicted a nude woman with two clothed men on a picnic. According to the jury nudes were acceptable in historical and allegorical paintings, but to show them in common settings was forbidden. Manet felt humiliated by the sharply worded rejection of the jury, setting off a firestorm among many French artists.

To retaliate against Académie dominance, in 1863 a group of artists formed an independent show which they dubbed Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Refused).

For years art critics rebuked the Salon des Refusés. In 1874, critic, Louis Leroy (an engraver, painter, and successful playwright), visited the show and wrote a scathing review. Taking his cue from the title of a painting done by an obscure artist he titled his article, "The Exhibition of the Impressionists". He wrote the review in the form of a dialogue and derided the show. With the title he targeted the painting, Impression, soleil levant (Impression: Sunrise), by Claude Monet. Leroy declared the painting was at most a sketch and could hardly be termed a finished work.

The term "impressionists" gained favor with the artists, not as a term of derision, but as a badge of honor, and a new movement was born. The techniques and standards within the movement varied, but the spirit of rebellion and independence bound the movement together.

Impressionist techniques

  • Short, thick strokes of paint in a sketchy way, allowing the painter to capture and emphasize the essence of the subject rather than its details.
  • Colours with as little pigment mixing as possible, allowing the eye of the viewer to mix the colors as looked at the canvas, and providing a vibrant experience for the viewer.
  • Impressionists did not tint (mix with black) their colours in order to obtain darker pigments. Instead, when the artists needed darker hues, they mixed with complementary colours. (Black was used, but only as a colour in its own right.)
  • They left brush strokes on the canvas, adding a new dimension of familiarity with the personality of the artist for the viewer to enjoy.
  • Impressionists discovered or emphasized aspects of the play of natural light, including an acute awareness of how colours reflect from object to object.
  • In plein air (outdoor) paintings, they boldly painted shadows with the blue of the sky as it reflected onto surfaces, giving a sense of freshness and openness that was not captured in painting previously. (Blue shadows on snow inspired the technique.)
  • They painted wet paint into the wet paint instead of waiting for successive applications to dry, producing softer edges and intermingling of color.
  • Impressionist avoided the use of thin paints to create glazes which earlier artists built up carefully to produce effects. Rather, the impressionists put paint down thickly and did not rely upon layering.
  • They painted what and how they wanted to paint.

Previous artists occasionally used these techniques, but impressionists employed them constantly. Earlier examples are found in the works of Frans Hals, Peter Paul Rubens, John Constable, Theodore Rousseau, Gustave Courbet, Camille Corot, Eugene Boudin, and Eugène Delacroix.

Impressionists took advantage of the introduction, in the 1870s, of premixed paints in tubes (resembling modern toothpaste tubes) which allowed artists to work more spontaneously both outdoors and indoors. Previously, each painter made their own paints by grinding and mixing dry pigment powders with linseed oil.

Content and Composition

Even though, historically, painting was viewed as primarily a way to depict historical and religious subjects in a rather formal manner, painters portrayed everyday subjects. Many 17th century Dutch painters, like Jan Steen, focused on common subjects, but their works showed the influences of traditional composition in arrangement of the scene.

When impressionism began, there was interest among the artists in mundane subject matter, and a new method of capturing images became available. Photography was gaining popularity, and as cameras became more portable, photographs became more candid. Photography inspired impressionists to capture the moment, not only in the fleeting lights of a landscape, but in the day-to-day lives of people.

Photography and popular Japanese art prints combined to introduce to impressionists odd "snapshot" angles, and unconventional compositions.

Edgar Degas' La classe de danse (The Dance Class) shows both influences. A dancer is caught in adjusting her costume, and the lower right quadrant of the picture contains empty floor space.

Painters in 19th Century Exhibitions

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