Art Movements in Art History - Impressionism
Art Movements > Impressionism > Introduction to Impressionism
Introduction to Impressionism*
On April 15, 1874 an exhibition of paintings opened in Paris at studios vacated by the
photographer Nadar. The gallery space, on two floors, consisted of a series of large rooms
with red-brown walls, illuminated by natural light. The group exhibiting was called the
Societe anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs et cetera. The neutral title was
chosen to prevent the group being seen as a "new school".
One hundred and sixty-five works by thirty artists were displayed. The eight most
important exhibitors were Cezanne (1839-1906); Degas (1834-1917); Guillaumin (1841-
1927); Monet (1840-1926); Morisot (1841-1895); Pissarro (1830-1903); Renoir (1841
1919) and Sisley (1839-1899). A catalogue, edited by Edmond Renoir, listed the titles of
Monet recalled that he had chosen to exhibit a painting done in Le Havre, from his
window. He said, "I was asked to give a title for the catalogue; I couldn't very well call it a
view of Le Havre, so I said: 'Put Impression' ". The work was catalogued as Impression,
Ten days after the exhibition opened, a review by a critic, Louis Leroy, was published in
Charivari. The hostile tone can be established from an excerpt in which he discusses
Monet's Impression, Sunrise.
"Impression -- I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed,
there had to be some impression in it ... and what freedom, what ease of workmanship!
Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape."
If it requires imagination to understand why Courbet's Burial and Manet's Dejeuner
were controversial subjects in their day, it requires even more effort to grasp why
landscapes by Monet, Pissarro and Sisley drew outraged comment from Leroy, other critics,
and members of the public. The subjects were relatively innocuous; the reason for the
unfavourable reaction must be sought in the methods rather than the iconography.
The Realists had considered what might be painted; the impressionists considered how
their perceptions might be painted. It is ironic that the artists who exhibited together in
1874, but had wished to avoid being seen as a new school, were stigmatised because a single
word in a title was used abusively to characterise an entire pictorial method. The method,
which is the subject of a separate discussion below, was certainly not original -- the study,
or etude, having long been employed by painters as a means of making visual notations,
capturing observations rapidly, or translating ideas into paint.
The Impressionists were seen as radical and against tradition because they dared to
show work publicly which flouted conventions regarding the process of making a painting. It
was acknowledged that studies and preparatory paintings could be executed; but they were
to be considered as preliminary to the final undertaking. This was to be built up gradually in
layers of impasto paint and glazes, with due concern for the interaction of shapes and tones,
all which were to be manipulated within an illusionist system.
Such a painting was serious work, and the merit of the labour tended to be equated with
the time taken to bring an image from conception to completion. The idea that a painting
might exist as an autonomous entity, and be presented for public scrutiny when it had been
created rapidly and still bore the signs of its creation in the brushwork, made a mockery of
academic rule and tradition. The Establishment was offended.
The great majority of published reviews attacked the Impressionists on the basis that
they did not know how to paint. This has become the standard response of the 20th century
public when confronted with new works which suggest alternative approaches, not
established procedures, for the creation of two-dimensional images.
Next: The History of Impressionism >>
* Drawn from notes compiled by M. Arnold for the University of South Africa