Your guide to the 19th century art movement
Impressionism is an art movement that took off during during the 19th century in Paris, and originated with a group of city-based artists whose independent exhibitions brought them fame and criticism in equal measure during the 1870s and 1880s.
Paintings belonging to the movement are characterized by small, yet still visible, brushstrokes, an emphasis on capturing changing light and everyday subject matter, and an open composition to convey a sense of movement.
Impressionist works broke all the rules of academic painting, as freely-brushed colors took precedence over lines and contours. Artists also captured realistic, ordinary scenes from modern life often outdoors and unplanned, in contrast to still lifes, portraits and landscapes previously being painted in studios.
Painting "en plein air” (AKA outside) allowed impressionist painters to capture the transient nature of sunlight, which became a huge focus for painters who adopted the style. Favoring loose representations over concrete details, Impressionism became a precursor for other movements including Neo-Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism.
Though the movement started in Paris, it’s possible to see Impressionist paintings all over the world. So come with us as we take a virtual tour of Impressionism and the painters that made the movement famous.
Meules, milieu du jour, Claude MonetNational Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia
Claude Monet is cited as one of the founders of Impressionism and the most consistent practitioner of the movement. The term Impressionism derived from the title of one of Monet's paintings, Impression, soleil levant, which was exhibited in 1874 – the first of the exhibitions held by Monet and his contemporaries.
In this 1890 painting, which you can see at Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia, Monet depicts haystacks in field. One in a series of haystack works, this painting was created in a field adjoining Monet’s property in Giverny, a village in the Seine Valley. This particular work is depicted in the midday sun, highlighting the Impressionist penchant for capturing the same subject at various times in the day to really understand it's beauty.
Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, Pierre-Auguste RenoirMusée d’Orsay, Paris, France
This painting by artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir can be seen at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, which houses around 100 Impressionist paintings. This work is one of Renoir’s most important and was first exhibited in 1877. The painting sees the artist portray typical Parisian life and is a shining example of the Impressionist style.
Though many of Renoir’s friends are present in the painting, his focus is more on conveying the joyful atmosphere of this garden on the Butte Montmartre. Renoir captures the busy scene bathed in natural light and offers the viewer an almost blurred interpretation of the crowd. Though celebrated now, at the time the painting prompted many negative reactions from contemporary critics.
Swaying Dancer, Edgar DegasThyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid
Edgar Degas was fascinated by the world of dance, specifically ballet, and it featured heavily in his paintings. Though Degas rejected the Impressionist label, preferring to be called a realist, he used his skills as a technical drawer and his academic training to capture modern life with an emphasis on movement.
In this piece, at Madrid’s Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Degas depicts a group of dancers mid-performance. The interesting crops, which see some dancers half-featured and off-centre combined with rapid pastel strokes and seemingly unfinished markings, allows Degas to convey a real sense of motion and energy.
In the Loge, Mary CassattMuseum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA
Mary Cassatt was the only American to exhibit with the Impressionists in Paris after befriending Degas. Cassatt favored pastels and often created images based around the social and private lives of women, with particular emphasis on the intimate bonds between mothers and children.
This particular painting is one of several that focused on the theater, a popular pastime in Paris at the time. Unlike Degas, who she often painted with sat side-by-side, Cassatt focused on the spectators rather than the performers, showcasing the dramas within the audience. In the piece a man watches the woman in the foreground who stares through her opera glasses at someone else. Her dismissal of the man’s gaze highlights her independence and alludes to Cassatt’s own increasing social freedom at the time.
The Rue Mosnier with Flags, Édouard ManetJ Paul Getty Museum, LA, USA
From his second-floor window, Édouard Manet captured the Fête de la Paix (Celebration of Peace), a national holiday declared on June 30 1878 to celebrate the recent Exposition Universelle (the 3rd World's Fair in Paris). The painting is full of staccato brushwork in a plethora of reds, whites and blues of the French flag.
The street was a principal subject of Impressionist painting, with many artists like Manet aiming to show not only the transformation and growth of the industrial age but also its effect on society. This painting and many other Impressionist works can be found at The J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Girl in Rose Dress, Berthe MorisotTokyo Fuji Art Museum, Tokyo, Japan
Berthe Morisot worked in oil paint, watercolors and pastel and worked on small-scale canvases. Her style developed from short, rapid strokes to long, graceful sweeps that defined the form of her subjects. She was the one who convinced Manet to paint en plein air, after being shown the method by influential painter Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.
In this painting, which you can find at the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, Morisot uses bright, swirling colors to depict a young girl in a rose-colored dress. The outer edges of the artist’s paintings, including this one, were often left unfinished, allowing the canvas to show through and increase the sense of spontaneity seen in many Impressionist works.
Molesey Weir, Hampton Court, Alfred SisleyNational Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland
Impressionist landscape painter Alfred Sisley was fully committed to the impressionist movement consistently painting en plein air. Some of his most important works are a series of paintings of the River Thames, mostly around Hampton Court.
This painting from 1874, is one from that body of work and can be found at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. Intense with color, Sisley depicts the view of the river upstream from Hampton Court Bridge to the west of London. The group of bathers gives the painting scale and adds human interest, which was a key element in the artist’s work.
Apple Harvest, Camille PissarroDallas Museum of Art, Dallas, USA
Camille Pissarro was a big advocate of Impressionism yet by the 1880s the artist began to broaden his style in a bid to break out of his creative rut. It was then that he turned towards Neo-Impressionism, a movement founded by Georges Seurat. While it has similarities to Impressionism, it is characterized by a more scientific and disciplined approach to color and light.
This work titled Apple Harvest, which can be found at the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas uses points of red, blue, green, pink, lavender, orange and yellow for a stylized scene of apple picking in the French countryside. The dabs of color have been placed close to one another, forcing the eye to blend them together, a technique also known as pointillism. As one of the key figures of Impressionism, Pissarro’s move away from the movement was thought to have signaled the end of it, encouraging artists to develop new approaches and techniques.