Impressionism

Study the artwork of renowned impressionist artists at museums and galleries from around the world.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Smarthistory, now available on Google Arts & Culture.

Impressionism in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris

We’re in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, looking at paintings by artists known as Impressionists. They broke away from the traditional styles and subjects of painting and instead painted images of modern life in and around Paris.

They were interested in movement, light and bright colors, and they painted in a style that would have seemed very loose and sketchy to someone in the 19th century.

Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) by Auguste RenoirMusée d’Orsay, Paris

Auguste Renoir, Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, 1876

Renoir floods the painting with light. Paris had just become a modern city of cafes and shops and the Impressionists invented a new style of painting in response. Renoir focuses on the light filtering through the trees and figures as they dance and mingle.

An apartment in Paris

Like other Impressionists, Caillebotte found beauty in daily life in Paris and found that light could transform his subjects. Here, we see the floor of his fashionable apartment being refinished. Light pours in highlighting planks of wood.

The Saint-Lazare Station (1877) by Claude MonetMusée d’Orsay, Paris

A Paris train station

Before the 19th century, before planes and cars, people travelled less, and when they did, they walked or traveled by horse. Then the train changed everything. Here Monet painted a train station in Paris, focusing on the shifting mix of steam and light.

The Impressionists in the cafes of Paris

The cafe was a frequent subject for the Impressionists. On the left, Degas depicted loneliness even within the crowds of the city. Manet’s image depicts a waitress serving a man watching a performance—one looks to the left, the other to the right.

Orangerie Museum, Paris: Monet, Les Nymphéas (Waterlilies) room 2

Claude Monet was a celebrated gardener and painter and walking through the Orangerie Museum in Paris is like seeing Monet’s waterlily gardens through the artist’s own eyes.

We are surrounded by sweeping panoramas of light and color that shift as subdued morning light turns clear and sharp in the afternoon, and then showy and brilliant at sunset.

Monet, The Water Lilies: Trees Reflections

Look closely and you’ll see flowering lilypads on the surface of the water. You may make out the soft reflection of the weeping willows trees that arch over the pond. You may even see hints of the plants below the water’s surface.

Monet, The Water Lilies: Morning

We look directly down into the lily pond and blues, reds and greens seem to shift as our eyes move across this massive painting. Step closer and we’re surrounded by color and Monet’s quick brush strokes until the image dissolves entirely.

Monet, The Water Lilies: Setting Sun

The reflection of a brilliant sunset pushes yellows against a field of pink and willow trees crowd in from the sides with deep green shadows. Like clouds, lilypads float across the pond — it’s hard to know if we are looking up or down.

Monet, The Water Lilies: The Clouds

The shadows of trees frame the painting. In the center, we see the blue reflection of the sky and pink, white and yellow clouds. For Monet, painting is about the changing light that the eye sees at a particular moment in time.

Orangerie Museum, Paris: Monet, Les Nymphéas (Waterlilies) room 1

In the second room, trees play a more important role on the huge curving canvases. Where landscape paintings usually portray ground and sky, Monet looks down and gives us reflections, making it hard to read a sense of depth.

And as always, he is concerned with the momentary effects of light and color—but while these paintings may look like they were done quickly, there are many layers of paint, and the artist took considerable time with them.

Monet, The Water Lilies: The Two Willows

Monet’s paintings at the Orangerie are large and immerse us in this lush garden environment. Here in this curved painted, the tree trunks are cut off at the top and bottom and we have no sense of the ground we are standing on.

Monet, The Water Lilies: Clear Morning with Willows

Looking at this painting is like standing behind a waterfall and watching the curtain of water fall before you. We feel protected behind the weeping willow’s branches—its vertical leaves and branches are seen against the reflective surface of the pond.

Monet, The Water Lilies: Trees Reflections

The dense canopy of a willow tree fills the canvas but we can still make out a few flowering lilies. We also see lines that may be the reflection of branches or perhaps plants below the surface of the water — or maybe both.

Monet, The Water Lilies: Morning with Willows

You can clearly see the willow branches, the lilypads below and the clouds and the sky reflected in the pond. Nevertheless they are all so tightly interwoven that the leaves which are close to us and the sky which is far are inseparable.

Getty Museum: Pissarro, Sisley and Monet

Here are examples of the Impressionists Camille Pissarro’s and Alfred Sisley’s interest in the figure in the landscape as well as an early industrial harbor scene by Claude Monet.

Camille Pissarro, Houses at Bougival (Autumn), 1870

Like the other Impressionist artists, Pissarro painted this outside. He wanted to capture the momentary interaction between a woman carrying a pail and a young boy on his way to or from school, but he was also interested in the changing effects of light.

Alfred Sisley, The Road from Versailles to Saint-Germain, 18

Like Pissarro, Sisley paints his scene at a distance—he’s not interested in the faces or the specific kind of tree, instead he uses quick brushstrokes and bright colors to capture the fuller experience of a warm breezy summer day in the countryside.

Sunrise (Marine) (1872 or 1873) by Claude MonetThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Claude Monet, Sunrise (Marine), 1873

In this painting, Monet portrays working boats in a port in France. The Sun is rising and the boats are mere shadows against the choppy water. Monet was criticized for his sketchy “Impressions”—in fact, critics thought his canvases were incomplete.

 In a gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago has an outstanding collection of Impressionist masterpieces, including the famous (and large) painting of Paris on a rainy day by Caillebotte.

As we look around the room, we see the landscapes that the Impressionist painters are mostly known for, but we also see portraits and still lives.

Claude Monet, On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt, 1868

Monet depicts his future wife sitting beside the river. Here are the hallmarks of the Impressionist style: brilliant colors, rapid loose brushwork, scenes of leisure (not too far from Paris), and a concern for the atmosphere, and the light at a particular time of day.

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Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877

If you removed the 19th century fashions, this street would look like very much like Paris does today. When Caillebotte painted this though the wide streets were new. Though this might look like a casual snapshot this was carefully composed by the artist.

Edgar Degas, The Little Fourteen–Year–Old Dancer, c. 1879–80

Ballet was popular in Paris. The girl in the original version wore an actual bodice, tutu, ballet slippers, and silk ribbon. Degas was not interested in a perfectly beautiful ballerina but in the way a young ballerina might really stand.

Mary Cassatt at the Art Institute of Chicago

Although Mary Cassatt was American, she lived in Paris and was a leading Impressionist artist. She was a close friend of the artist, Edgar Degas.

It wasn’t easy for women to become artists in the nineteenth century since they were banned from the official art schools, and their lives were to be centered around the home. Cassatt is best known for her intimate images of family life, and for her bold use of color and pattern.

The Child's Bath (1893) by Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926)The Art Institute of Chicago

Mary Cassatt, The Child’s Bath, 1893

Both faces look down and draw our eyes with them. Together we watch the child’s foot enter the water. This is a private moment that reminds us of the experiences of childhood. Patterning creates a contrast against the tones of the child’s body.

Mary Cassatt, On the Balcony, 1878-79

A woman sits in a garden chair surrounded by flowers and reading a newspaper. Her hair and skin reflect all the colors of the flowers. Even her white dress upon close examination is made of blues and yellows, pinks and greens.

The Degas room at the Art institute of Chicago

Edgar Degas was a leading Impressionist. He is best known for his images of the ballet, hat shops, and portraits of his friends and family.

Unlike Monet, Degas was interested in the human figure (not the landscape), but like many other Impressionists, light and color and the experience of modern city life are also of paramount importance.

The Millinery Shop (1879/86) by Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917)The Art Institute of Chicago

Degas, The Millinery Shop, 1879/86

A woman in a shop examines a hat. She may be a milliner (a hat maker) or a customer. Degas was interested in odd points of view. Here, we look down at the woman who is pushed to the right and turned away from us.

Edgar Degas. Yellow Dancers (In the Wings), 1874/76

Degas dancers are rarely shown performing. We stand among the ballerinas backstage at the Paris Opera. Behind the three figures adjusting their costumes, we see a backdrop lifted to reveal the feet of even more dancers waiting in the wings.

Degas, Spanish Dance, Arabesque, Woman Seated in an Armchai

This little case holds three bronze sculptures of the dozens of small figurines that Degas sculpted. The figurines express Degas’s careful observation of the form, line, and movement of the human body.

Henri Degas and His Niece Lucie Degas

Degas often painted portraits that contain a sense of emotional tension. Here, both figures wear black. The girl’s father had recently died and she was now in the care of her uncle who drops his newspaper to gaze at us.

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