Impressionism and the Impressionists are the basic starting point that any student of Western Art History will be taught. This movement really is defined as a corner stone in Western Art History, its an undeniable need to know.
Before we get to the Impressionists we firstly need to understand the formal dogma and constraints that controlled fine art and artists prior to the mid to late 1800s. Art was a serious business and high study, skill and execution that obediently delighted the desires and egos of wealthy commissioners and stuffy institutions, was how artists became successful.
In the second half of the century the Realists, notably Gustave Courbet, began to alter convention by shifting paintings' subject matter from the traditionally acceptable themes of religion, mythology, Romanticism or history to normal folk in unidealised, truthful settings (basically reality, the clues in the name) The Impressionists, however, went a step further and rebelled against what fine art could actually look like. They liberated subject matter beyond that of the Realists and in addition changed how artists would physically paint.
Impressionism is said to be the point when Western fine art first began to break away from the traditional, highly skilled and re-worked, structured paintings and sculptures of the old masters. It eventually led (following many more avant garde "radical" art movements) to the variety of modern and contemporary art that we see today. What today would seem like rather unremarkable ideas on style and technique, created a new found freedom and the ideas that this group began to generate, led to artists questioning convention and starting to experiment in a manner previously unseen.
The forefather and ardent supporter of Impressionism is Édouard Manet, he was the bridging gap between the Realists and the Impressionists and is supremely important as a figure who contributed to what is termed Modern Art. If we look at one of his iconic paintings, we can see how things were beginning to change.
Courbet struck back with such ferociously real and honest works as the infamous L'Origine du Monde but, although the subject and composition are pretty disturbing even today, the style of painting with the meticulously smooth surface hiding the brushwork, is actually still traditional and old fashioned...as is the hairstyle...
Manet had already exhibited in the Salon and came from a very wealthy family and so could afford to be confrontational, he had chosen his subjects and was also beginning to deviate on accepted style. We can see the Olypmpia uses flatter colour on her body and diminishes detail, highlighting the effect of light, and the brush strokes are bolder and more fluid than Courbet's. The painting has a more stylistic, looser feel that critics would view as unfinished.
With artists such as Manet painting against the convention of the Paris Salon, the fine art exhibiting establishment of the time, a new space know as The Salon De Refuses was set up to exhibit works that had been rejected by the former, allowing new art to be publicised. If Manet's style was considered outlandish it becomes simple to see a radical departure when we view this emblem of Impressionistic painting.
It is clear to see that there is a huge difference in style here from what has gone before. This work, that in fact came to name the movement following an hostile comment from critic Louis Leroy, may look unremarkable and lacking the talent of Courbet, but in fact it shows the boldness of the artist to paint, not just what but, how they desire and not to show off their talent for photographic realism, which Monet most certainly could have achieved. In fact the development of photography was one of the catalysts of Impressionism that led the artists to develop art further, what need was there to replicate the camera? Art had to go beyond photography.
What Monet's painting demonstrates is everything that the Impressionists came to stand for. A convenient thing about the Impressionists is that they are easy to identify and understand, this makes them a good starting point for a budding history of art student.
We see in Monet's painting some obvious departures from the traditionally accepted conventions. Firstly the brushwork, it is hurried and visible, there is no attempt to pretend that this is not a painting. Secondly the subject, it is a landscape but not traditional, as the focus is movement and light and not a composed view. The painting is executed en plein air, in the open, Monet is capturing a fleeting moment, this is fundamental to Impressionism. Gone are the hours in the studio perfecting and refining an image, for the Impressionists it is all about capturing the fleeting moment (the impression, once again the clue is in the name). Prior to this artists would do studies outside and then rework them in the studio, the Impressionists were claiming the well captured studies as fine art.
Another two notable Impressionists who define the movement are Alfred Sisley and Camille Pissaro. If we look at a Monet followed by a Sisley and then Pissaro; the open air, the joyous capturing of light and the dappled brushwork are clear.
The Impressionists achieved brighter results by not mixing the paint on the palette but instead liked to dab on pure colours close together, allowing the eye to blend them together, resulting in a new freshness. They stuck to naturalistic colour, trying to faithfully represent nature and avoided black and outlines as was present in Manet's earlier works.
Countrysides, peaceful happy scenes, water, sky, snow, were all popular subjects used to master their understanding of the perception and representation of light, Monet in particular drew the same scene over again recording the effects of different light on buildings, haystacks, stations, the subject becoming irrelevant in itself.
In 1874, known as the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc., a group of thirty artists staged, what history would later revere as, the first independent exhibition of the Impressionists. Held at the modern, former studio of the painter Nadar, the exhibition displayed 165 works and revealed to the public the exciting and bold contemporary style that would come to mark the beginning of Western modern art.
The exhibition featured works (most famously Impression Sunrise) by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley. The public and critics alike were shocked by the radical loose brushwork and seemingly unfinished depictions of informal subject matter.
All of these artists have gone down in history as great masters and their works are desired by many and owned by few. Each artist has become instantly recognisable with their own distinct styles and chosen subjects. Edgar Degas used pastels to apply the pure colour and endlessly studied women and ballerinas, capturing intimate moments and momentary poses.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir opted for romantic gatherings or sentimental depictions of women and children, creating fluffy soft focus images.
Many of them went on to develop the ideas further, such as Georges Seurat with his Pointilism or Divisionism that took the mixing of the colours by the eye to the extreme delving into intricate theories on the effects of colour and line on our subconscious.
The Impressionists paved the way for the greatness to follow from such artists as Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, their bravery to swim against the tide and put their ideas above their careers (Monet lived in poverty with his wife and young child for much of his life) ignited a passion that would reverberate for generations to come.
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