10 Chapter 9 – Impressionism

The Communication of a Moment’s Impression

Annika Blair

 

Audio recording of chapter opening segment:


Audio recording of the full chapter can be found here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1gW8vn-Su3zBTe-JhkxZuqG92oA7DjUFD/view?usp=sharing


A small group of artists and their approach to art revolutionized the art world. This group of individuals were later named the Impressionists after the divergent art they presented in their own exhibit. In the eyes of the art Academy in France, these artists were unlikely people to start an art movement. The artist’s work hadn’t had a positive reaction from the Academy or the art critics. Although, would Impressionism be in the history books if it wasn’t mocked at first? New, revolutionary, and often controversial ideas are often scorned before they are accepted. Especially if it goes against the “normal” at that time. Impressionism was the outcome of artists who were influenced by the controversial paintings of the previous art movement, Realism, and focused on capturing and communicating evanescent moments in a still image.

The Impressionists got a lot of their ideas from the Realist painters and especially from the leader of the Realists, Gustave Courbet.[1] Courbet’s personal view on art was to paint the seen and not paint anything he couldn’t see.[2] He’d paint what was real and wouldn’t advertise a false reality in his paintings.[3] Even while doing the same subject as another artist, Courbet would keep his paintings accurate and would compose them in a way to give the viewer the same experience that his subjects would see. He would show the good and the bad in his art while other painters might engineer facts in their paintings and paint things that weren’t historically accurate.[4] Moreover, the Realists painted massive paintings of peasants which was a great controversy in the art world at that time.[5] Paintings of that scale were to be reserved for historical or biblical themes.[6] Not only did the Realists paint huge pictures of peasants, they painted working peasants which was even more controversial as it touched on the politics of the time.[7] By doing this, they paved the way for new ideas to be done in the art world. Just as the following art movement Impressionism did.

Camille Pissarro, Hoarfrost, oil on canvas, 1873

The start of Impressionism can be dated back to the 1860s.[8] Two of the future members of the movement, Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, happened to meet the art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel while they were in London all avoiding the Fraco-Prussian war.[9] Durand-Ruel set them both up with enough finances to live on so they could keep creating art as both of the artists were not doing well financially.[10] The support of the art dealer provided them a way to be able to set up the exhibit in 1874 with their fellow peers from art school.[11]

Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, oil on canvas, 1872

It was the art critic, Louis Leroy, to first use the word “Impression” in his critical review of the Impressionist’s first gallery showing together.[12] Little did he know the name would stick and become the term millions of people would know as one of the most famous art movements in history.

Similar to a lot of revolutionary art movements, Impressionism was not well received at first. The group of artists, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot, rejected the idea that art of importance could only be shown in the Salon run by the Academy and that the art was chosen by a jury for the Salon.[13] The Academy stated that only paintings of history or biblical stories were great paintings.[14] Both the Realists and the Impressionists questioned, challenged and tested that statement.[15] Impressionism was, in a way, a revolt against traditional academic art.[16] Fueled by their anger at the Salon for rejecting their work, their exhibit was a way to stand up to the Academy and have a way for themselves to show their work.[17] This defiance to the Academy risked their artist careers and artist “status” as the Salon had great influence over the success or unsuccessfulness of an artist.[18] They also risked their incomes by doing their own exhibit.[19] By creating their own exhibit, this small group of artists had a huge impact on the art world.[20] Critics came to view their exhibit and thought the work was “absurd” because the paintings looked like “impressions” that the artist would capture and then come back to repaint at a later date.[21] Just like a sketch that an artist would draw in the moment and then revisit later to tonally finish as a drawing or paint in the studio. Monet’s Impression: Sunrise was compared to wallpaper and Pissaro’s Hoarfrost was compared to “paint scraped off of a dirty palette.”[22] In comparison to the realistic rendering of the previous art movements, the Impressionist paintings do look more “unfinished” and “unrefined.”[23] However the aim was to capture the “impression” of the moment and doesn’t mean the paintings are any less important in the message they deliver to their audience.

Berthe Morisot, La Coiffure, oil on canvas, 1894

In the Impressionist’s paintings, the paint on the canvas speaks more towards the light and the atmosphere then it does towards the objects in the painting.[24] These artists weren’t just creating art, they were capturing moments that their viewers could visit by looking at their art. They did this by manipulating the emphasis that light had in the painting.[25] “These are paintings to be experienced and not just looked at.”[26]

The goal of the Impressionists was to paint the effects of light and because of that, their style was especially painterly.[27] They aimed to create paintings that reflected how they saw the world.[28] They did this by emphasising the use of light and using colour to show this emphasis. [29]

Claude Monet, La Gare Saint-Lazare, oil on canvas, 1877
Claude Monet, La Gare Saint-Lazare, Arrival of a Train, oil on canvas, 1877

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The subject in the painting is the light making an “impression” on the senses at different moments in time.[30] Monet would make paintings in the same spot at different times of day or in different seasons to explore the specific light that is within each season and moment in time.[31] The most famous of these sets of paintings is his Haystack series.[32] However, this technique can be noted in many of his other paintings such as his Gare Saint-Lazare series.

Audio recording con’t:

Claude Monet, The Thames Below Westminster, oil on canvas, 1871

Monet also painted his famous, The Thames Below Westminster and the aim for that piece was to capture an essence of life in the painting. The viewer’s imagination can release as they step into the moment through the hazy atmosphere the painting suggests and the harmonious colour palette.[33] These paintings, by Monet and the other Impressionists, give a window into the world that the artist saw at that given moment. The brushstrokes suggest enough to give an idea of the subjects but leave enough to the imagination so the viewer is sucked into the story of the painting and the subjects in it. These aren’t just paintings, they’re snapshots of moments. These are breathing paintings full of life. They hold that life through the suggestion of the subject and the imagination of the living breathing viewer.

Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, oil on canvas, 1874

Edgar Degas communicated a similar feeling in his painting, The Dance Class, which he painted in 1874. He composed the painting in a way that looks like a captured moment, or snapshot, in time. Degas preferred to work in his studio over painting en plein air.[34] He made hundreds of sketches in preparation for a finished piece and spent hours on planning it.[35] He was advertently focused on giving the viewer what he called, an “Illusion of movement.”[36] He studied photographers and their photographs for anatomy practice.[37] He declared his ambition was to capture “movement in its exact truth.”[38] Even though Degas was associated and showed with the Impressionists, he disliked being called an Impressionist.[39] However, he made paintings that too, captured the impression of the moment and were aimed to do so.[40]

Will Gompertz, the author of What are you looking at? The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 years of Modern Art, said it best in his chapter on Impressionism:
“Degas’s intention was to communicate to us that what we are seeing is a fleeting moment that he has frozen in time.”[41] I believe the highlight on communication in this quote showcases the emphasis on what is important to remember about in all art. Art is a visual language to make the viewer feel something and it can be a way of expression for the artist. Either expressing ideas or expressing how they see the subjects they paint. Art, communicated clearly, can be an influential and powerful tool. Art is often critiqued, examined, and analysed. However, sometimes the reminder that art can be a way to communicate the artist’s view is important. These artists, while great artists, were people. Any person has the desire to be able to clearly communicate their ideas or views. The Impressionists were able to use light to communicate what the essence of their subjects were. How do you capture the essence of a place or object? Through capturing the impression that a place or moment or person makes on you. Capturing that moment. Because, what is life but moments? And if you capture those moments, you capture the essence of life.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Le moulin de la Galette, oil on canvas, 1876

Bibliography

Bernier, R.R. “The Subject and Painting: Monet’s ‘Language of the Sketch.’” Art History 12, no. 3 (September 1989): 298. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8365.1989.tb00360.x.

Denvir, Bernard, et al. Modern Art: Impressionism to Post-Modernism. edited by David Britt, London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd, 1989.

Dombrowski, André. “Impressionism and the Standardization of Time: Claude Monet at Gare Saint-Lazare.” Art Bulletin 102, no. 2 (June 2020): 91–120. doi:10.1080/00043079.2020.1676129.

Gersh-Nesic, Dr. Beth. “A Beginner’s Guide to Impressionism .” Khan Academy. Accessed October 12, 2020. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/becoming-modern/avant-gard e-france/impressionism/a/a-beginners-guide-to-impressionism.

Gersh-Nesic, Beth. “A Beginner’s Guide to Realism.” Khan Academy. Accessed October 13, 2020. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/becoming-modern/avant-gard e-france/realism/a/a-beginners-guide-to-realism.

Gompertz, Will. What Are You Looking at?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art. New York, NY: Plume Books, 2012.

Eisenman, Stephen. From Corot to Monet: the Ecology of Impressionism. Milano, Italy: Skira, 2010.

King, Ross. Art. Over 2,500 Works from Cave to Contemporary. 1St American Editioned. New York, NY: DK Pub, 2008.

History.com Editors. “Impressionism.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, August 3, 2017. https://www.history.com/topics/art-history/impressionism.

Wolfe, Justin. “Impressionism Movement Overview and Analysis”. TheArtStory.org. February 1, 2012. https://m.theartstory.org/movement/impressionism/


  1. Ross King, Art. Over 2,500 Works from Cave to Contemporary. (New York, NY: DK Pub, 2008), 340
  2. Dr. Beth Gersh-Nesic, “A Beginner’s Guide to Realism,” Khan Academy, Accessed October 12, 2020, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/becoming-modern/avant-garde-france/realism/a/a-beginner s-guide-to-realism
  3. Gersh-Nesic, “A Beginner’s Guide to Realism,”
  4. Gersh-Nesic, “A Beginner’s Guide to Realism,”
  5. King, Art. Over 2,500 Works from Cave to Contemporary, 340
  6. King, Art. Over 2,500 Works from Cave to Contemporary, 340
  7. King, Art. Over 2,500 Works from Cave to Contemporary, 340
  8. King, Art. Over 2,500 Works from Cave to Contemporary, 340
  9. Will Gompertz, What are you looking at?: The Surprising, Shocking, and Sometimes Strange Story of 150 Years of Modern Art (New York, NY: Plume books, 2012) 39
  10. Gompertz, What are you looking at? 41
  11. Gompertz, What are you looking at? 42
  12. Gompertz, What are you looking at? 34
  13. Dr. Beth Gersh-Nesic, “A Beginner’s Guide to Impressionism,” Khan Academy, Accessed October 12, 2020, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/becoming-modern/avant-garde-france/impressionism/a/a-b eginners-guide-to-impressionism
  14. Gersh-Nesic, “A Beginner’s Guide to Impressionism,”
  15. Gersh-Nesic, “A Beginner’s Guide to Impressionism,”
  16. King, Art. Over 2,500 Works from Cave to Contemporary, 340
  17. Gompertz, What are you looking at? 33
  18. Gompertz, What are you looking at? 32
  19. Gompertz, What are you looking at? 31
  20. Gersh-Nesic, “A Beginner’s Guide to Impressionism,”
  21. Gersh-Nesic, “A Beginner’s Guide to Impressionism,”
  22. Gersh-Nesic, “A Beginner’s Guide to Impressionism,”
  23. Gompertz, What are you looking at? 35
  24. Gersh-Nesic, “A Beginner’s Guide to Impressionism,”
  25. History.com Editors, “Impressionism,” History.com, A&E Television Networks, August 3, 2017, https://www.history.com/topics/art-history/impressionism
  26. Gompertz, What are you looking at? 35
  27. King, Art. Over 2,500 Works from Cave to Contemporary, 340
  28. History.com Editors, “Impressionism,”
  29. History.com Editors, “Impressionism,”
  30. Justin Wolfe, “Impressionism Movement Overview and Analysis,” The Art Story.org, February 1, 2012, https://www.theartstory.org/movement/impressionism/https://www.theartstory.org/movement/impressi onism/
  31. Wolfe, “Impressionism Movement Overview and Analysis,”
  32. Wolfe, “Impressionism Movement Overview and Analysis,”
  33. Gompertz, What are you looking at? 45
  34. Gompertz, What are you looking at? 48
  35. Gompertz, What are you looking at? 48
  36. Gompertz, What are you looking at? 49
  37. Gompertz, What are you looking at? 49
  38. Gompertz, What are you looking at? 49
  39. Gompertz, What are you looking at? 50
  40. Gompertz, What are you looking at? 48
  41. Gompertz, What are you looking at? 48

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