In celebration of the current star of the show on at the Royal Academy, Monet, we’ve put together a beginners guide to impressionism; with everything you might need to know.

What is Impressionism?

Impressionism is often characterized today by its technique and its subject matter, both of which at the time (1880-90), were revolutionary. The style appears sketchy, filled with light, and was painted with oil and hogs hair brushes. It is literally an ‘impression’ of what is being painted. It’s achievement is in the atmosphere the light and colours bring about, rather than being a detailed copy of something.

Impressionists would often squint their eyes to help get the effect of blurring the lines of detail; and Monet, like many Old Masters, was noted for applying a block colour (often a muted one) on the canvas, taking away the white glare of the canvas. They painted little commas of colour, one next to the other, and when the viewer stood back these commas and strokes would blend optically to form a whole.

Impressionists would often paint ‘en plein air’, giving immediacy to their paintings as the light would change rapidly, the whether would change, clouds would move; but the immediacy, and the momentary light were what they were trying to capture. Monet’s favorite time was when the light was warm, when the sun was low in the sky either at sunrise or sunset, compared to the slightly bluer, more penetrative light of the sun high in the sky.

In regards to subject matter, only high-society and history paintings had been deemed as high art, so when the Impressionists began painting landscapes and scenes from modern urban and suburban life, this was quite a step. The Impressionists wanted to create a more modern art form, by capturing the fast pace of modern life and the varying atmospheric conditions.

The Origins of Impressionism 

The Impressionists came from a group of artists who created their own exhibition having been rejected by the Paris Salon –  the one official exhibition for artists, that the state sponsored (few galleries sponsored living artists either).

So the Salon was only way to get seen and create a reputation.
Art was chosen for Salon by a jury once a year; and Renoir, Degas and Sisley (among others) had all had their work rejected by the salon and were unwilling to wait an entire year before they could submit again, they also couldn’t afford to wait an entire year. So they collectively rented a studio that belonged to the photographer Felix Nadar.

Next they set a date for their exhibition, calling themselves the Société Anonyme des Artistes – or the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Printmakers – Impressionists is certainly less of a mouthful.

Manet was their main source of inspiration but Manet didn’t fancy joining their group. He had set up his own pavilion in the 1867 World Fair, and was not prepared to give up on the Salon jury.

So the rest of the group held their first exhibition in 1874, around the same time as the Salon. They would go on to hold eight exhibitions from 1874 to 1886. Degas, Renoir, Monet and Sisley had met through art classes. One of the females of the group Brethe Morisot was a friend of both Degas and Manet (and would go on to marry Manet’s brother Eugène), she was the only one who had been accepted to the Salon previously, but since then, her work had become more experimental; which is probably why Degas invited her to join their collective effort. Mary Cassatt would be invited to join later.

Their first exhibition was not a conventional success, they made no money, and though they garnered critics, most of them thought their art was terrible, one reviewer of the first exhibition described them as “lunatics”.

The critics were of the belief that the works were unfinished, that they were just “impressions”.  This was because previously artists would make sketches, impressions; similar to those of the impressionists to preserve the memory of what they would paint in more detail at a later date – and these artists “impressions” were not meant to be sold. The Neoclassical and Romantic artists who were still being venerated had a much more finished appearance and critics thought it was ridiculous to be selling paintings that looked like half finished impressions of a masterpiece, as a finished work.

These painters were, however, fascinated by recent scientific discoveries and inventions, and that was more important than what the critics thought. New research from Goethe among others, and his theory of colours encouraged artists to experiment with complimentary colours .i.e. the use of cobalt blue with orange in Renoir’s The Skiff (La Yole) to make each colour look deeper and brighter.

Of equal, if not more import to the artists were recent interests in the way in which the human brain processes what it sees –  when our mind sees a landscape or a group of people it does not instantly see every leaf, blade of grass or face individually, in focus; but as a collection of colour and light – this is what the impressionists tried to emulate, that experience. Ready-made paints in tubes also contributed to the style. They meant artists could work outdoors and at greater speeds, rather than grinding up pigments in a studio. Some would even apply paint straight from the tube without even the use of a brush.

The painters, known as Impressionists at the time were not necessarily united by style, Cezanne – who is known as a Post-Impressionist and Courbet who is known as a Realist were also a part of the group. It was not a unity in style that held the group together but more the age-old French adage of ‘fraternity’, the close friendships and rivalries that encouraged the sharing and development of styles and ideas.

By the 1880s the Impressionist accepted the name the critics had initially given them in a not-so-flattery article titled Exhibition of the Impressionists, six years earlier.

Subject Matter 

All those in power in the art world, certainly in France, at the time believed that there was a hierarchy to subject matter; and works that were to be revered and respected were often historical or religious paintings, and those of members of royalty or high society – occasionally a peasant would make its way in as a timeless figure of contrast.

The middle classes were not considered fitting subjects for painting. But modern life, or just, life, as they knew it, with the ordinary people they met and saw was worthy enough for Impressionist painters.

Renoir, Monet and Degas depict cafes, theatres, dance classes and popular resorts of the late 19th century. This lead to novelists such as Flaubert to write about the lives of middle and lower classes, finding heroic and tragic characters in the bars. Writers took as much joy from describing those of the every day as the artists did painting them.

However France was not quick in accepting a re-modeling of the hierarchy of artistic subject matter and their reception there remained frosty for a while – which is why a large proportion of the Impressionist’s work exists outside French collections as Americans and other nationalities purchased most of their works.

Most famous impressionist painters

You will find that the most famous Impressionists are also some of the most famous painters in history: Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet (who would also become famous as a pioneer of Realism), Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Camille Pissarro to name but a few. Cezanne, though part of their early exhibitions would later become known as a post-impressionist painter, and join the likes of Van Gogh and Sorolla.