Impressionist Art and Its Greatest Artists

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Claude Monet, Woman with Parosol

Impressionist art, or "Impressionism" was first identified as such in 1874 by a French art critic talking about Claude Monet’s painting, “Impression, Rising Sun”.  Judging by the repeated extensions of the Giverny gardens surrounding Monet’s old art studio here in France over the decades, there is no doubt that this is one of the most appreciated movements in the history of art.

In fact, several seemingly unconnected events paved the way for its development.  The first was the advent of photography, that these painters considered a most wonderful tool for helping them explore the world.  Next came the commercialization of tubed paint on the nineteenth century market.

Until then, artists had worked in their studios like chefs in their kitchens, concocting their own paints to suit their own needs.  Tubed paint gave them the freedom to get out and paint in the open air.

Next came publication of a work by a French chemist called Chevreuil.  Working with the Gobelins tapestry works in Paris, Chevreuil had contrived a new system for classifying color, explained in detail in his treatise “De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs” (literally, “the laws of simultaneous color contrasts”).  Impressionist artists, and post-Impressionist artists from Seurat to Signac, used it to go to work “splitting up” color into little bits and trying to understand how the viewer of an artwork “mixes” them in his eye and mind.

Looking for the translation of this 1880 cartoon by the popular French caricaturist Amédée de Noé, also known as Cham?  See below.  In case you're wondering, he just couldn't take the Impressionists seriously. 


- What are you doing?

- They told me there was a lot of talent in this painting...I was looking to see if they weren't showing the wrong side.

Last, the rise of the modern city created cityscapes to be explored in these new ways; the Industrial Age also brought the advent and extension of railways, extending even further where artists could go for subjects.  Indeed, the Impressionists gladly went abroad in their hunger for material even when political circumstances didn’t force them to, and fruitful influences came from Monet’s and Pissaro’s discovery of Constable and Turner in England, or Monet’s trip to the Netherlands.

Impressionism is the French art movement, par excellence.  The name of the game is finding how to convey a “fleeting impression” created by the way light falls on the subject at a given moment - even better, painting the same subject as it appears in different moments of the changing light.  This was how Monet came to paint so many versions of the same thing, such as the Houses of Parliament below.

It is commonly accepted that Monet founded Impressionism; in reality, he was greatly impressed by the explorations of landscape painting by the Frenchman Eugène Boudin (there was a recent exhibition in Paris on just this subject) and the Dutch Johan Barthold Jongkind.

In some ways, the subject was almost unimportant – the Impressionists painted anything from people to landcapes, it didn’t matter, as long as it gave cause for studying and exploring the effects of the atmosphere – in other words light and air - on color.

So what makes Impressionist art Impressionist?

The brushstrokes varied by artist, but was free and very much visible, so much so that the Impressionists were accused of not finishing their paintings.  The precision of the drawing was secondary to achieving color, and the paint was often thick on the canvas.  The palette was in the pale to pastel colors, countering the dark colors of earlier paintings. 

The most important characteristic, however, is the fragmenting of the colors on the canvas, rather than mixing them together on the palette.  It is that defines Impressionist art.

These artists weren't looking to make a statement about society or to tell a story, even if they likd to draw the landscapes and people around them.  If a beautiful wealthy woman had her portrait done by an Impressionist, it would be a study of the light falling on her robe, more than anything else; better, the woman posing for a portrait would be a nude in the open air, for the artist to do a study of the effects of sunlight on her skin.

What's the fascination with Impressionist art?

When the young artists Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot and Claude Monet arranged the first sale of Impressionist art in 1875, it was a disaster - most of the public in the hall were there to loudly mock them and hoot (see Cham's cartoon above), which soon turned to fisticuffs and police intervention.  Only a few shy collectors bought anything at all, the hammer falling for most part at no more than about 60 francs (according to 2013 currency conversions, that makes about 100 euros or 130 dollars a painting)!

And to think that a little more than a hundred years later, in 2008, one of Monet's Water Lily paintings went at Christie's for over 80 million dollars...

What's going on here?

It was all about starting to get good press.  It started with a new generation, with big names in the new avant-garde like Picasso and Matisse, vaunting Impressionist art.  Important French men of State like Clemenceau and major art historians (like the French Henri Focillon) contributed as well to making Impressionism's former detractors appear like uncultivated fools.  Over the course of time, this all contributed to changing perceptions of what was once the art you loved to hate.

Today Impressionist art is often considered to have heralded abstraction, but it has the advantage of still maintaining enough of a picture for us to know when we are looking at a lily pad or the Houses of Parliament.  And not only that - with its lovely light-drenched palette, it speaks of fresh air and bright sunlight to lighten the heart.

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