Welcome to our introduction to the Impressionist movement. We'll discover some of the defining characteristics of Impressionist art and examine some significant works by notable artists, such as Camille Pissarro, Hay Harvest at Éragny, below.
The Impressionist movement emerged in the late 19th century, primarily in France. It sought to capture the fleeting effects of light, colour, and atmosphere and rebelled against the formal structure of the influential artistic society, Académie des Beaux-Arts. The institution valued academic historical subject matter and refused to include Impressionist landscapes in its annual exhibition. In response, the Impressionist artists created their own show in 1874, which Sotheby's considers the 'formal start' to the movement. But what were the key characteristics of the Impressionist movement? Let's find out.
1. Capturing Light: Impressionists aimed to depict the effects of changing light on objects and landscape scenes. They created colourful, bright paintings with new, vibrant synthetic paint colours. Instead of using darker shades, like black, to create shadows, Impressionist artists were inspired to use complementary colours to depict the contrast between light and dark and build a sense of natural luminance.
2. Visible Brushstrokes: Impressionist artists abandoned the traditional smooth and blended brushwork used in academic art in favour of short, visible brushstrokes. These thick, unblended strokes (a technique known as Impasto) allowed viewers to perceive colour and texture more dynamically, adding a sense of emotion and movement to the paintings.
3. En Plein Air Painting: Impressionists frequently painted en plein air, or outdoors, to directly observe and capture the natural world. This approach allowed them to portray the effects of light and atmosphere realistically. (Read more via Getty.)
4. Scenes of Modern Life: Impressionists often depicted everyday scenes, landscapes, urban settings, and people engaged in ordinary activities. Their focus on mundane subjects was a departure from academic art's grand historical and mythological themes. Socially, this was an era where working and middle-class people had both the time and the ability to explore the countryside, thanks to inexpensive train travel. Hence, railways and trains were popular subjects for Impressionist painters (such as Monet's series of 12 paintings of the Gare St-Lazare.) Below, Edouard Manet - The Railway.
5. Focus on the Moment: The Impressionists aimed to capture specific moments in time, often emphasising the transient nature of their subjects. This focus on fleeting moments gave their works a sense of immediacy and vibrancy.
Prominent Impressionist artists include Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, and Mary Cassatt (her painting, Summertime, is below). Their innovative techniques and approach to painting reshaped the art world and continue to inspire artists today. The Impressionist movement profoundly impacted the trajectory of art; instead of following the established rules of artistic composition, Impressionism focused on showing how light, colour, and atmosphere looked in the moment. It inspired other art styles like Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism, which we will explore in our next article!
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