Impressionism, is a 19th-century art movement characterised by relatively small, thin, yet visible brush strokes, open composition, emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities (often accentuating the effects of the passage of time), ordinary subject matter, inclusion of movement as a crucial element of human perception and experience, and unusual visual angles. Impressionism originated with a group of Paris-based artists whose independent exhibitions brought them to prominence during the 1870s and 1880s.
The name of the style derives from the title of a Claude Monet work, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), which provoked the critic Louis Leroy to coin the term in a satirical review published in the Parisian newspaper Le Charivari.
The central figures in the development of Impressionism in France, listed alphabetically, were:
Frédéric Bazille (who only posthumously participated in the Impressionist exhibitions) (1841–1870).
Gustave Caillebotte (who, younger than the others, joined forces with them in the mid-1870s) (1848–1894)
Mary Cassatt (American-born, she lived in Paris and participated in four Impressionist exhibitions) (1844–1926).
Paul Cézanne (although he later broke away from the Impressionists) (1839–1906).
Edgar Degas (who despised the term Impressionist) (1834–1917).
Armand Guillaumin (1841–1927).
Édouard Manet (who did not participate in any of the Impressionist exhibitions) (1832–1883).
Claude Monet (the most prolific of the Impressionists and the one who embodies their aesthetic most obviously) (1840–1926).
Berthe Morisot (who participated in all Impressionist exhibitions except in 1879) (1841–1895).
Camille Pissarro (1830–1903).
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (who participated in Impressionist exhibitions in 1874, 1876, 1877 and 1882) (1841–1919).
Alfred Sisley (1839–1899).
A number of identifiable techniques and working habits contributed to the innovative style of the Impressionists. Although these methods had been used by previous artists—and are often conspicuous in the work of artists such as Fran’s Hals, Diego Velázquez, Peter Paul Rubens, John Constable, and J. M. W. Turner—the Impressionists were the first to use them all together, and with such consistency.
These techniques include:
Short, thick strokes of paint quickly capture the essence of the subject, rather than its details. The paint is often applied impasto.
Greys and dark tones are produced by mixing complementary colours. Pure impressionism avoids the use of black paint.
Wet paint is placed into wet paint without waiting for successive applications to dry, producing softer edges and intermingling of colour.
Impressionist paintings do not exploit the transparency of thin paint films (glazes), which earlier artists manipulated carefully to produce effects. The impressionist painting surface is typically opaque.
The paint is applied to a white or light-coloured ground. Previously, painters often used dark grey or strongly coloured grounds.
The play of natural light is emphasized. Close attention is paid to the reflection of colours from object to object. Painters often worked in the evening to produce effets de soir — the shadowy effects of evening or twilight.
In paintings made en plein air (outdoors), shadows are boldly painted with the blue of the sky as it is reflected onto surfaces, giving a sense of freshness previously not represented in painting. (Blue shadows on snow inspired the technique.)
The Impressionists relaxed the boundary between subject and background so that the effect of an Impressionist painting often resembles a snapshot, a part of a larger reality captured as if by chance. Photography was gaining popularity, and as cameras became more portable, photographs became more candid. Photography inspired Impressionists to represent momentary action, not only in the fleeting lights of a landscape, but in the day-to-day lives of people.
Photography inspired artists to pursue other means of creative expression, and rather than compete with photography to emulate reality, artists focused “on the one thing they could inevitably do better than the photograph—by further developing into an art form its very subjectivity in the conception of the image, the very subjectivity that photography eliminated”.
The Impressionists sought to express their perceptions of nature, rather than create exact representations. This allowed artists to depict subjectively what they saw with their “tacit imperatives of taste and conscience”. Photography encouraged painters to exploit aspects of the painting medium, like colour, which photography then lacked: “The Impressionists were the first to consciously offer a subjective alternative to the photograph”