1. Impressionism: Origins & Influences

(1) Origins and Influences (2) Early History (3) Impressionist Edouard Manet (4) Impressionist Claude Monet
(5) Impressionists Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne (6) Monet & Pissarro in London
(7) Impressionist Painting Developments (8) Impressionist Exhibitions (9) Group Splits (10) Legacy

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Ville d'Avray (1867)
National Gallery, Washington DC.
By Camille Corot.

For a review of outdoor scenic
works, see Landscape Painting,
and the French Barbizon School.
For a review of Impressionism
and plein-air art, see:
Impressionist Landscapes.

Impressionism: Origins, Influences

Introduction: A Complementary group With a Common Approach

Impressionism is not merely a school of landscape painting, nor even the most famous movement in French painting, but primarily a common attitude among several artists towards the basic problems of their art.

They were led to group themselves together in the face of hostile art critics and a diffident public. The various solutions they found, show new laws for colour and light. It is then that the theory - if theory there be - takes shape. Works conform to it either partly or wholly. Even when the means follow similar lines, the end results remain profoundly individualist, and it is only in short periods of working together, in a given place, that a collective look is created. Although the movement defined scientific phases, as in the Divisionist/Pointillist works of Post-Impressionism, it was to be often difficult to distinguish the works of one or another, and entire groups abroad or far away were able to join in without difficulty.

Living Room with the Artist's Sister
(1847) Bavarian State Art Collection,
Neue Pinakothek, Munich.
By Adolph Menzel (1815-1905).
This highly innovative painting
(unknown until the artist's death)
predated Impressionism by 25 years..

The best collection of Impressionist
and Post-Impressionist paintings
hangs in the Musee d'Orsay Paris.

For a list of great pictures in
oils, watercolours, acrylics,
see: Greatest Modern Paintings.

For a list of the Top 10 painters/
sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.

For biographies and works
of established European
painters, see: Old Masters.
For details of the best
modern painters, see:
Famous Painters.

For more about the evolution
of oils, acrylics, watercolours
and other types of paintings,
as well as famous artists, see:
Fine Art Painting.

One is tempted to say about each painter that he was an Impressionist at one time but not at another, but this is hardly justifiable. It could mean that any artist at all was at sometime or other attached to a movement of which he was never a part. And it would minimise, to the point of disappearance, an ideology for which we none the less claim to ascribe strict and precise limits. The painters who practised Impressionism are not very numerous. In each case the whole of their work must be considered for this can have no significance except in its cohesion, its projection and its own rhythm. The story of Impressionism cannot be told by isolating from the whole, periods which alone were to correspond to rules arbitrarily defined later.

Impressionism is the outcome of a long evolution which definitely put the stamp of the landscape on the 19th century. This movement was accelerated after the French Revolution, particularly on both sides of the Channel. In his famous sketches, Constable, who makes such an impression on Delacroix at the Paris Salon of 1824, is able to forget all subjects: the sky, or a cloud, is sufficient to provide him with all the material for infinite variations. He has a penchant for incessant transformation of the countryside and is primarily insistent on differences of intensity in which things can be presented, before or after the storm, according to whether the leaves are washed by rain and the colours heightened by the light.

For information and examples
of portraiture, please see:
Impressionist Portraits.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.
For important dates & events,
History of Art Timeline.


In the case of landscapes by Turner, the subject is only the basis for reflection of the light and nothing is better than some of his masses, which have no density in themselves and which are in perpetual transformation, such as clouds, smoke, steam or mist, pierced with impunity by the light which only settles in tiny particles as in a rainbow. See also: English Landscape Painting 18th/19th century.

Delacroix, who researched deeply into the masters of the past, particularly the Venetians, senses the laws of division of colours, of complementaries and contrasts. Signac was to succeed in his work in putting his name to the origin of all research in the century. Corot, the apostle of plein-air painting, remains faithful to the landscape he is painting but makes it more harmonious, softer and puts more light into it. Courbet, deeply affected by the natural surroundings of his youth, always recalls it in tirelessly composing the old trees and chalk cliffs of his native Jura. (See also the quasi-Impressionist Italian painting group the Macchiaioli who were active c.1855-65 in Florence).

But the real forerunners of Impressionist painters are: Daumier (1808-79) and the painters of sea and water, Eugene Boudin (1824-98) and Jongkind (1819-1891). They also lived through plein-air painting and practised it throughout their lives. While they were able, they encouraged and aided their young colleagues in a very definite manner: Boudin and Jongkind with Claude Monet, and Diaz with Renoir. Sometimes they painted works which were to foreshadow very accurately their successors. But in spite of these likenesses, they remained, on a more modest level, prisoners of their own themes and methods, hemmed in by a description that was literal and sometimes prodigiously complex (Rousseau), always strictly tied by their material and limited by reality.

Note also the influence of Japonism during the 1860s and 1870s (notably Ukiyo-e woodblock prints by artists of the calibre of Hokusai and the younger Hiroshige) on Impressionist painters like Monet, Degas, Mary Cassatt and others.

Also during the 19th century there were two discoveries so important that artists from then onwards could never again paint as they had done before: photography and the formulation of colour laws by Chevreul.

Impact of Photography on Painting

The invention of photography was considered right away to be an extraordinary means of investigation at the disposal of the painter. It was virtually the outcome of all means used since the Renaissance to allow artists to find accuracy and copy nature in a more precise fashion. Leonardo da Vinci had already used a process for noting on glass the contour and colour of trees seen in transparency, and Albrecht Durer left the design of a drawing machine of this type which he had invented. Since the 15th century the camera-obscura had been used to project on to paper inside the camera the exact image of objects seen through a hole in the side of the box. Vermeer worked with an optical box. Processes for squaring up landscapes or objects were in use. In the 18th century the silhouette was invented.

Niepce had the idea of chemical fixation of images in the dark room to obtain exact reproductions, more accurate than those obtained by engraving, the sole process used up to that time to reproduce works of art.

The artists were the first to become enthusiastic about the new discovery. See also: Greatest Photographers (c.1880-present.) Delacroix joined the Society of Photographers and set about photographing his models himself (his nudes have a look of Ingres about them).

About 1850, the invention of wet collodion allowed photographs that previously required long poses to be taken in a matter of seconds. This made the use of photographs in the open air more easy. About 1860, Adolphe Braun took his material into the countryside and we saw the photographer-landscapist as well as the landscape painter. Often the photographers were former painters, the most renowned being Nadar, a former caricaturist whose photographic portraits were not inferior to any painting. Having become a friend of the Impressionists he played an important role in their success.

Photography was to bring the rapid disappearance of engraving reproduction and even certain forms of painting, such as the miniature, which was replaced by the daguerreotype. But these were only the lesser forms. As a rival to painting, photography loses its prestige. Corot uses photographic bases for strange engravings on glass. But an attempt to use photographic preparation which only has to be coloured afterwards results in nothing but a sorry colour print. It results in unjustified discredit to photography which, if it cannot replace painting, can at least lighten the thankless task of reproduction and, on a quite different level, provides the artist with an apprenticeship in viewing and a means of understanding.

It is in fact the best means of first reducing views of nature to a surface where they assume their proper places. Thus the landscape is reduced to plans and shapes which the artist can take as an irrefutable base on which to set up his system of representation. For him it is a safeguard, a time-saver, a synthetic means of better developing his analysis. The Impressionists were the first to grasp this and took great advantage of it.

In certain cases photographic proofs have been found which served as reference and model for landscape paintings painted later in the open air. It is possible that this practice was much more widespread. After eighty years we can photograph most of the sites painted by the Impressionists and find, despite some superficial modifications, an almost incredible permanency. From this it may be deduced that either the painters achieved a remarkable fidelity of what they saw or that they had recourse to photography as a valuable aid, as a means of seeing better and making progress.

Impact of Laws of Colour

The discoveries of the chemist Chevreul are of major importance. Director of the Gobelins tapestry factory, he published his lessons on chemistry (as applied to colouring [1828-31]) - and then in 1839 his report on the law of simultaneous contrast of colours and on the matching up of coloured objects considered according to this law in its links with painting. Finally in 1864, already very aged (he was more than 100 years old when he died), his report on colours, and their application to industrial arts with the aid of chromatic circles. The chromatic circles, designed by Chevreul for the purposes of representation, classified colour in painting in an exact and practical manner and were seventy-two in number for definite colours, followed by twenty other circles for intermediate shades.

He divided the colours into primaries - yellow, red and blue - and binaries, those formed of two colours, orange (red and yellow), green (yellow and blue), violet (red and blue). A binary colour is lifted up when alongside the primary colour not contained in it, which is called complementary - orange with blue, green with red or violet with yellow.

Having observed that juxtaposition of coloured objects modifies their optical nature, he formulated the "Law of Simultaneous Contrasts of Colours."

If two strips of paper with the same plain colour but different shades are placed parallel with one another on the same level, the part of the lighter-coloured strip nearer the darker strip will appear lighter than it is, while the corresponding part of the darker strip will seem to be darker.

Studying one after another of the seven prismatic colours, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, combined with white, black and grey, Chevreul shows that two strips placed as above are always modified so that each colour tends to take colour from its complementary colour; and, if the two juxtaposed strips are coloured by a common element, whatever its shade, the common element tends to disappear.

Thus the law of simultaneous contrast makes it possible to see the effect on each coloured object of placing another coloured object near it. It may be summed up in two points: each colour tends to give its complementary colour to neighbouring colours, and if two objects contain a common colour the effect of putting them alongside one another is to diminish considerably the common element.

Chevreul also studied the different states of visual consciousness. He called successive contrast the phenomenon which occurs when the eyes, after resting for a certain time on one or more coloured objects, see each object modified by its complementary colour, and mixed contrast that, when the eyes fix on a first series of coloured and then a second, they find vision diminished in the second series, neutralised by the effect of the first.

The Impressionists are not scientists but they understood and took note of these transformations of vision and the new means which they offer: sometimes in a fragmentary way but for others in a very systematic manner. They apply these means and discoveries in their own interpretation, but undoubtedly they find in them an added guarantee. They are interested in them to the extent that they confirm their own empiric discoveries and if they feel they are supported by correct scientific theories, they under-take new research. In fact, this rational experimental method of creating light by decomposition of tones interests them and helps them to the extent that it permits them better to depict "a world of emotions that are personal, subjective, magic". See: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting 1870-1910.

What makes for the originality of the Impressionists and results in their group being strictly limited with no possibility of admitting anyone else to it, is this unique fusion of science and freedom. From the time of Neo-Impressionism it was to be quite different. Thus our study will be limited to several individuals of dominant personality, Edouard Manet (1832-83), Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Claude Monet (1840-1926); to those who are grouped with them, either individually like Berthe Morisot (1841-95) or, by chance from the studios, the group from the studio Gleyre, Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), Frederic Bazille (1841-1870), Renoir (1841-1919); and that of the Academie Suisse, Armand Guillamin, and Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). There is no minor Impressionist and no name to add to these except possibly that of Gustave Caillebotte (1848-94), Those who took part haphazardly or through the goodwill of Degas in the exhibitions of the group remain absolutely outside it. It is impossible to cite the names of imitators or followers: they would be on an entirely different level.

Note: For biographical details of the French art critic who gave the Impressionists their name, please see: Louis Leroy (1812-1885).

Reactions to Impressionists

Jules Laforgue, having seen an exhibition of the Impressionists in Germany, gave a definition of them which, although restrictive, seems none the less remarkably prophetic. In his estimation the Impressionist is the painter who uses the sensitiveness of his eye in direct contact with nature to perceive brilliant scenes in the open air, to the point of achieving a sort of instinctive vision unhindered by all the prejudices and convention of his education. With these words, published in his Melanges posthumes in 1903, he joins the sharpest definitions by other great minds. Mallarme spoke of Manet's eye as "new, on an object or persons, steady, pure and abstract", and there is no need to recall the famous remark of Cezanne on Monet: "He was only an eye, but what an eye!" It is certain that Monet's eye had exceptional excitability. But what Laforgue certainly saw was that this development of a sense helped better to serve a mental attitude. Henceforward Impressionism is able to go beyond the traditional conventions of the art of painting-drawing, painting, studio lighting: it suggests shapes and distances by vibration and colour contrasts; it considers the subject only in its luminous atmosphere and in the changes of lighting. A landscape bathed in light is made up of a thousand vibrant clashes, of prismatic decompositions, of irregular strokes which from a distance melt with one another and create life. "The Impressionist eye", Laforgue concludes, "is the most advanced eye in human evolution, that which up to now has seized upon and rendered the most complicated nuances known." But what is important is that the means permit of a closer approach to the heart of nature. The Impressionists are certainly the heirs to that sensitiveness, that belief in progress and a better world that the 19th century inherited from Rousseau. Each of the Impressionists could have uttered himself the famous words of Constable, "I have never seen anything ugly." It is finally incompatible with realism and naturalism defined by Zola. And that is why the latter, remaining shackled by his heavy formulas, was to end up by breaking all contact with the painters who had been his friends when he was a youth.

Impressionism should evoke for us an intimate participation in worldly life. Pantheism, unanism and pluralism are hardly strangers to it. It becomes a fusion of the vegetable kingdoms and an extension to cosmic proportions of their peculiarities. In the dark and austere forests of Barbizon it blossoms out suddenly like flowers blooming; nature is transformed into intangible particles, density melts into luminous blotches. The same coloured magic surrounds objects and figures whose skin is coloured by other reflections. Water lends itself to all the reflections.

D'Ors wrote about Monet completely filling five or six canvases and changing them every half-hour to reproduce the changes in the Cathedral at Rouen (or in haystacks) and the transitory, fleeting moment.

However, the accomplishment of individual works by the greatest Impressionist painters, Cezanne and even Renoir and Monet, carries its own indispensable antidote. This cult of the ephemeral, in which images from the passing hours, from variations of the light of the day, from the intensity of emotions aroused, could not hide the fact that durable reality remains, in structures, framework and also ideas. The water flows on, never the same, but the river remains. For more, please see: Best Impressionist Paintings.

For the Impressionists everything is landscape, even objects from fruit to the most concrete structures and all the elements that are assembled in still-life. Paul Cezanne, who goes farthest in organising a new painting form, when he paints figures in innumerable sittings, is not interested in the character of his model but in the extraordinary richness and variety of the coloured facets of the face, which are divided up and superimposed like those of a mountain. There is a constant exchange between the appearance of the person and the air which surrounds him, the light which strikes him. The structure he pursues relentlessly and finds is that of nature. A head is like a rock, a body like a tree. The result is that those men or women bathing are like pines inclined in his own forest. Cezanne always succeeds in mastering his own effusiveness. To exhaust all the possibilities of his few themes, to which he returns incessantly, he creates a hierarchy, an order, and sets up a rhythm. This is expressed in the treatment of essential shapes and recourse to elongation and deformation. Cezanne thus creates a new appearance, more lasting and significant than that of the moment, but always subservient to nature.

To see how Monet's 'naturalism' paradoxically paved the way for 20th century abstraction, see: Realism to Impressionism (1830-1900).

Yes, Impressionism is a great body of which all the members have developed harmoniously. The most eminent historian of the movement, Lionello Venturi, was right in considering the Impressionists as complementing one another, each with his own particular virtues: "joy, animation and the spirit of the picture expressed by Renoir; the soul of things by Monet; the mastery, no less of the unsophisticated world, by Degas; grandeur, refinement and enormous knowledge by Cezanne; rural religiousness and epic breadth in Pissarro; finesse and tranquillity in Sisley".

Read about Impressionism's greatest supporter: Paul Durand-Ruel.

NEXT: (2) Early History of the Impressionists.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of an excerpt from Impressionism, by Jacques Lassaigne (1966).

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