Impressionism was an important artistic movement, first in painting and later on in music, that developed mainly in France during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Impressionist painting comprises the work produced between about 1867 and 1886 by a number of artists who shared a set of related approaches and techniques. The most noted characteristic of Impressionism was an attempt to accurately and objectively depict visual real images in terms of moving effects of light and colour. The principal Impressionist painters were Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Armand Guillaumin, and Fr d ric Bazille, who collaborated together, influenced each other, and exhibited together andindependently. Edgar Degas and Paul C zanne also painted in an Impressionist style for a period in the early 1870s. The established painter douard Manet, whose work in the 1860s greatly influenced Monet and others of the group, also began using the Impressionist style about 1873.
These artists became bored earlier in their careers with academic teaching’s emphasis on depicting an historical or mythological subject matter with literary or anecdotal overtones. They also rejected the established imaginative or idealising treatments of academic painting. By the late 1860s, Manet’s art reinforced a new aesthetic which was to be a guiding force in Impressionist work in which the importance of the traditional subject matter was ignored and focus was moved to the artist’s depiction of colours, tone, and texture as ends in themselves. In Manet’s work the subject became a vehicle for the artistic composition of areas of flat colour, and perspectival depth was minimised so that the viewer would look at the surface abrasions and relationships of the picture rather than into the illusory three-dimensional space it created. About the same time, Monet was influenced by the innovative painters Eugene Boudin and J.R. Jongkind, who painted fleeting effects of sea and sky using highly coloured and texturally varied modes of paint application. The Impressionists also copied Boudin’s practice of working entirely out-of-doors while viewing the actual scene, instead of finishing their paintings from drawings in the studio, as was the conventional practice.
In the late 1860s Monet, Pisarro, Renoir, and others began painting landscapes and river scenes in which they attempted to unemotively paint colours and forms of objects as they showed in natural light at the given time. These artists abandoned the traditional landscape palette of muted greens, browns and grays and began to paint with a lighter, sunnier, more airy palette. They started by painting the play of light on water and the reflected colours of ripples, wanting to copy the manifold and animated effects of sunlight and shadow and of direct and reflected light that they observed. In their efforts to reproduce initial visible impressions as registered on the retina, they abandoned the use of grays and blacks in shadows as inaccurate and used complementary colours instead. More importantly, they learned to develop objects out of discrete flecks and dabs of pure harmonizing or contrasting colour, thereby evoking the broken-hued brilliance and the variations of shade produced by sunlight and its reflections. Forms in their paintings lost their clear outlines and became dematerialized, shimmering and vibrating in a re-creation of actual outdoor conditions. Ultimately, traditional formal compositions were also abandoned in favour of a more casual and less contrived disposition of objects within the picture. The Impressionists extended their new techniques to depict landscapes, trees, houses, and even urban street scenes and famous buildings such as railroad stations.
In 1874 the artists held their first show, independent of the official Salon of the French Academy, which had rejected most of their works. Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise (1872; Mus e Marmottan, Paris) earned them the initially contemptuous name Impressionists from the journalist Louis Leroy writing of them in the satirical magazine Le Charivari in 1874. The artists themselves happily adopted the name as it perfectly described their intention to accurately show visual impressions. They held seven subsequent shows, the last in 1886. During that time they continued to develop their own personal and individual styles. All of them, however, affirmed in their work the principles of freedom of technique, a personal rather than a conventional approach to subject matter, and the truthful reproduction of nature.
By the mid-1880s the Impressionist group had begun to break down as each painter increasingly pursued his own aesthetic interests and principles. In a short time, however, it had accomplished a revolution in the history of art, providing a technical starting point for the post-impressionist artists Paul C zanne, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Georges Seurat and clearing all subsequent Western art from traditional techniques and approaches to subject matter.