Impressionism was an art movement from the mid-1800s in France, that had cardinally changed the entirety of art forever. These artists were able to completely overthrow the principles of traditional European art. Because the Impressionists did not conform to the rules of the Salon, their art was seen as radical, shocking the conservative tastes. These artists were Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Edouard Manet, Pierre Aguste Renoir, Jean-Frederic Bazille, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, and Edgar Degas. The movement got its name in 1874 when critic Louis Leroy mocked Monet’s “Impression: Sunrise” in a review title “The Exhibition of the Impressionists”. Despite the judgement of the aesthetic and quality of these paintings, the group liked the term and adopted it. Through their radical techniques and styles, like painting in nature, depicting the contemporary life of the French, using loose brushstrokes and vivid colors, and representing the effects of light, the Impressionists’ impacted the modern world in many ways. Even though their works were not widely accepted, they continued going against the status quo, which left a legacy in the art world. However, Impressionism’s effects were not only seen in the art world, but in music, advertising, cinema, and literary works as well.
Impressionist art was heavily inspired by Japanese art, the Impressionist artists sought to create the simplicity and heavenly quality in their art, as the Japanese had created in their woodblock prints. Utagawa Hiroshige and Katsushika Hokusai were the two key Japanese artists of the Tokugawa period. Both these artists were known for their woodblock prints, created in the ukiyo-e style. The ukiyo-e style highlighted the superiority of nature and the sudden aspect of a moment, this was the foundation of the Impressionist works. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry lead an expedition to Japan, where he forced trading relations upon the Japanese. The threat of naval bombardment laid heavily upon the Japanese if they did not open up their ports to the United States. Perry justified this by declaring that America was clearly more superior to Japan. Almost instantly after this interaction, the artistic exchange between Japan and America began. For artist like Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet, Japanese art was a means of reaffirmation. Hokusai’s “…manga gave the Impressionists a rationale for ‘liberating [themselves] from conventionally stiff portrayals of human and natural forms’ “ (Abou-Jaoude 61). For other artists, such as Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt, Japanese art not only strengthened their views of art, but their works embodied Japanese art. The encounter between Japan and the West was a turning point in the history of art. This cultural exchange allowed for decades of artistic exploration, namely the Impressionist era.
It is said that the Impressionists lived in Montmarte, a small village that overlooked Paris, where they practiced new techniques and different styles and genres of painting. The Impressionists believed that that art should reflect the real world and the modern life of the people. For these reasons, the contemporary world of entertainment and leisure was the main focus of the Impressionists. The Impressionists were interested in expressing light in a real way on the canvas, something they thought no other European artists in history had done. They came to realize that light described the objects that they painted. Degas stated that “ ‘The fascinating thing is not to show the source of light, but the effect of light’ “ (Snider 90-91). Another major feature of Impressionist art, was that they painted outside, or en plein air. They painted directly from nature, and to make this possible, two new inventions were created. The first was metal paint tubes in the 1840s, which allowed the oil paints to be stored for a long time. Before this innovation, paints were stored in pouches that were pierced with a tack to squeeze out the paint, to then replace the tack. However, with this technique the paint dried rapidly when exposed to air, so painting en plein air was not a viable option. The second invention was a portable easel that undoubtedly made painting outside a much easier task. Further, Impressionists loved to use vibrant colors in their works, steering away from the traditional black and grays. They viewed color as changing and corresponding to their surroundings, not something that was fixed. Another element of Impressionist art was their loose and visible brush strokes. Because they had to work quickly to capture the nature of the moment, they could not afford to make precise, detailed works. Thus, they utilized a freer way of painting to truly represent what mattered most, light and color. Impressionists were also greatly influenced by the camera. The Impressionists sought “…to capture a moment in time on canvas like the camera did when it produced a picture” (Snider 92). They even went as far as making their paintings blurry and having cropped figures to create a sense of movement, just like in the photos.
Even though the Impressionists established an enhanced understanding of color and its role in their works, not all painters expressed color in the same way. For instance, some paintings by artists like Monet “… can perceptually disintegrate into meaningless jumbles of color spots as they are approached and their individual color elements become more visible, yet when viewed from a sufficient distance are organized by the brain into vibrant colored surfaces that have a clear and often exquisite scenic meaning” (Grossberg 471). One thing is for certain, to be able to understand an Impressionist painting, one needs to know the role of amodal emergent boundaries. This is because boundaries form more quickly when there are significant distributions of contrast and color. Boundary sensitivity to high amounts of groupings of color and contrast is crucial to forming an Impressionist work, as the canvas is often heavily covered with small spots of color. The Cape Cod school of art promoted painting in nature during the Impressionist era, and was led by Charles Hawthorne. Hawthorne wrote “ ‘Beauty in art is delicious notes of color one against the other…all we have to do is to get the color notes in their proper relation…put down spots of color…the outline and size of drawing you need bother about…Let color make form- do not make form and color it…’ ”(Grossberg 471). The Impressionists did not make sketches and shapes before coloring in their paintings, they allowed the colors to create and represent the objects and subjects before them.
Allee of Chestnut Trees by Alfred Sisley was completed in Sevres, where Sisley and his family and residing in 1878. This is a painting that very visibly shows Sisley’s brushstrokes and movement throughout the piece. The most prominent brushstrokes are within the trees, the grass and the sky, allowing the viewer to see where exactly he was moving his paint brush. Sisley uses bright colors to accurately depict Sevres and the pathway that follows the Seine. Another element within this painting is the feeling of time and movement. The people walking, and the horse pulling the carriage capture the leisurely activity of the French as they are stopped in motion. Further, the light sway of the grass exhibits that there was a gentle breeze at the time the painting was being conceived. Sisley also captures the effects of light which can be seen on the pathway, as the trees provided shaded regions from the sun. This element can be seen all the way down to the end of the pathway.
Jean-Frederic Bazille’s Porte De La Reine at Aigues-Mortes is one such painting that captures the effects of light in a marvelous way. The southern sun shines brightly through the archway illuminating a sliver of the grassy hill. This contrasts with the afternoon shadows that encase the figures in the foreground. Further, when looking through the archway it is clear that the sun has not yet reached the buildings in the back, as there is a clear shadow along the ground. Bazille demarcates between which areas the sun has hit, and which ones it has not, even in the backgrounds of his paintings. It is the little details of expressing light that truly shows how precise these paintings were when representing light and color. However, regarding the other Impressionist paintings, Bazille’s piece is more toned down in terms of color. He sticks to a more natural palette mainly using browns, greens, whites, blues, and reddish/orange colors. But, this is due to the fact that he was painting directly what was in front of him, as he challenged himself to paint the simplicity of the landscapes or the city and surrounding marshes of Aigues-Mortes in 1867.
Garden at Sainte-Adresse by Claude Monet does a great job at show casing French contemporary life, as Monet’s subjects were his family. This painting was done at Sainte-Adresse, a seaside resort near Le Havre in 1867. His father can be seen wearing the panama hat in the foreground of the painting, sitting in chair, seemingly enjoying the view. The lady next to him with the white parasol is also gazing at either the man and woman speaking near the railing, or all the boats on the water. Monet excellently captures a moment in time in this painting. The two people near the railing having a conversation, the boats in the back with the smoke spewing out of their funnels, the flags waving in the wind, and the sea waves are caught in a moment. Even though this is a still picture, it gives off a sense of movement and fluidity. Due to his elevated position, Monet was able to paint the sky, sea, and terrace using vibrant colors to distinguish between each level. The majority of color in this piece lies within the foreground, on the terrace. Though most of the foreground is covered in a lush green, Monet uses bright reds and yellows to bring the viewer’s eyes to the flowers. Further, Monet does a great job at capturing the effects of light. It is apparent that the Sun is off to the left hand side, by looking at the shadows that are cast by the chairs. Also, one is able to tell that something is obscuring the sun’s light on the left side on the painting near the woman standing in the white dress. There is an evident shadow covering that side, so it can be inferred that there is another building, terrace or object on the left.
The genre of still life has been evolving throughout art history, but the understanding of the term itself changed completely during the Impressionist era. In the second half of the 19th century, an Impressionistic still life emerged, which determined the development of still life in the 20th century. The Impressionists painted still lifes of flowers, but they did not present images of “… flowers, but the process of flowering, the effects of colors, so they are deprived of ‘material substance’. We can say that in still life painting of the Impressionists ‘an object’ is elevated to a higher degree, but at the same time it has lost its ‘materiality’ “ (Kharlan et al. 250). For the Impressionists, the object was to be dematerialized, blurred, deprived of its existence as a material object. Artists like Cezanne used the aforementioned elements in their paintings. Cezanne, however, did not enclose the objects in light, his objects acquired the character of the general material and he leveled them in materiality. In the 20th century there were two new approaches to still lifes. The first was the deobjectification of objects, and the second was the aggressiveness of forms.
Impressionism had lasting effects on both the art world, and the modern world. Impressionism began as a radical new approach to art, and was generally disliked by the public. But then, the view on Impressionism drastically changed. As Impressionism was obtained by museums and collectors, it became the standard of modern beauty, so it remained in the art world. Impressionism “… continues to draw the biggest crowds, generate the most mechanical reproductions, and achieve the highest auction prices” (Saunders). But, Impressionism did not only have lasting effects in art, but in music, advertising, cinema, and literary works. Impression in music was focused around mood and atmosphere awakened by the subject. The culture surrounding Impressionism led to advertising, which attempts to control one’s fantasies to create a desire for the product. Ads draw on the avant-garde potential of undeveloped perceptions, they draw on the familiarity of Impressionism. In French cinema, the notion of photogenie was highly influential, it was used to convey cinema as an art. Early theorists of cinema “… thought they were trying to analyze the new medium, they were also still working through the contradictions of Impressionism: its dual power to evoke reality and the phantasmatic” (Saunders). Some literary works have close relations to Impressionism, some novels such as Michael Cunningham’s The Honrs and Colm Toibin’s The Master even used Impressionist authors as central characters. Impressionism has persisted through time; its effects being seen in many other contemporary works. These works are infused with the ever-changing visuality, the impression of immediacy and fluidity, and the immersiveness of reality, all the foundations of the Impressionist works.
By venturing into new territory for creating art, the Impressionists influenced not only the art world, but the whole contemporary world. Impressionism took a lot of inspiration from Japanese art, as it was all about the superiority of nature and moments in time. They experimented with new techniques and styles of painting, which deviated away from the art pieces that were shown at the Salon. Because the Impressionist artists captured almost every aspect of life in France, their pieces provide a true representation of the time period. Impressionism had lasting effects in both the art and contemporary world. The legacy of Impressionism can be seen in music, cinema, literary works and more. The nine Impressionist artists managed to change the course of history, they used bold ideas and methods in their paintings to change the way people thought about art.