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Impressionism: The Movement That Went Against The French Art Academy

By Shira Wolfe

When we think of Impressionism, images of pastel-coloured water lilies and ballet dancers are immediately conjured up. It might seem hard, then, to imagine that the Impressionists were considered controversial, boundary-breaking artists in their time. Today, after all, their art is some of the most universally beloved art out there, selling for some of the highest prices. However, back in their day, artists like Monet, Degas and Renoir were shunned by the art establishment and caused quite a stir with their radical new style of painting. Delve into the history of this widely-adored art movement…

Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise. Photo courtesy of Musée Marmottan

What is Impressionism?
Impressionism is a 19th century avant-garde art movement which originated in France and reacted against the established art of the French Academy and the government-sponsored annual exhibitions (Salons). The aim was to accurately portray visual impressions by painting scenes and subjects on the spot, using visible brushstrokes to record the changing qualities of light and movement.

Key dates: 1867-1886
Key regions: France, and later England.
Key words: anti-academy, painting en plein air, nature scenes, urban everyday life
Key artists: Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley

In the spring of 1874, a group of unacknowledged French painters, who at the time called themselves Le Societé Anonyme des Artistes and organised exhibitions that were not controlled by the reigning Paris Salon, organised an exhibition in the former studio space of one of their friends, the notorious photographer Nadar. The exhibition included works by Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley and Berthe Morisot. Approximately 200 works were exhibited, and seen by about 4000 people. As the well-known story goes, art critic Louis Leroy gave a seething review of the exhibition, mockingly naming the group Impressionists, after Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise which was particularly ridiculed by critics. “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,” were the mocking words of Leroy.

The artists, however, co-opted the term and were from then on to be known as the Impressionists. The exhibition made history. This was the first time that Paris had witnessed a large-scale independent exhibition of avant-garde art, a direct challenge to the salon, the academic tradition’s historical subject matter and methods, and the official art world.

The greatest difference between the style and method of the Impressionists compared to the art of the established Académie des Beaux-Arts was that these artists moved away from completely realistic depictions of historical subject matter. They were interested in nature and landscape scenes (like Monet’s harbor views, seascapes and garden impressions), as well as urban everyday life scenes (think of Degas entering dance halls, opera houses and ballet classes to paint these everyday subjects then and there, or Renoir’s keen eye for Parisian leisure-seekers). The Impressionists preferred to work en plein air (in the open air) or on the spot, rather than in the studio. They found that they could better capture the fickle, ever-changing effects of sunlight, the transient effects of light and colour, and the essence of their subject matter, by painting quickly, with their subjects right in front of them. Their brushwork became rapid, more broken up into separate strokes and dabs so as to capture the fleeting quality of light.

Claude Monet, Water Lilies Green Reflection. Photo courtesy of Musée de l'Orangerie
Edgar Degas, The Dance Class. Photo courtesy of the Met Museum
Pierre Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival. Photo courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Monet is arguably the most famous of the Impressionists – after all, when you think of Impressionism, aren’t his water lilies the first image that comes to your mind? He is also the only one who continued to fervently paint nature scenes throughout his life. Monet’s early period also included many scenes from everyday modern life, but his main passion was depicting his radical, passionate view of nature. One could say this culminated in his most famous and beloved series, the Water Lilies. In 1893, Monet bought a strip of marshland across the road from his house in Giverny, where he cultivated a water lily garden. For the last 20 years of his life, this is where he pioneered a new type of spatiality in painting with that open composition in his paintings of his water lilies and Japanese bridge. Monet’s large Water Lily cycle was offered to the French state by Monet himself as a symbol for peace after the armistice in 1918, and were hung in the Orangerie Museum in 1927, a few months after his death. André Masson described this as the “Sixtine of Impressionism”, referring to the Sistine Chapel.

By the mid 1880s the group had started to dissolve, as each artist started to pursue their own principles and interests. Impressionism had paved the way for Post-Impressionism, which reacted against Impressionism by rejecting Impressionism’s concern with a naturalistic rendering of light and colour. Their focus was on more symbolic content, formal order and structure. They also believed in using colour as an expression of emotions and meaning. The main proponents of this movement were Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, and former Impressionist artists Cézanne and Degas.