The Lasting Impression of French Impressionism
Learn what made French Impressionism so radical in the late 19th century and so influential in subsequent times.
Idea One: Strokes of Genius
By looking closely at this painting by the Dutch artist Johan Barthold Jongkind, a forerunner to Impressionism, the viewer can see each brushstroke, especially in the clouds and water. The Impressionists often used water imagery in their paintings, because of its ability to show the fleeting nature of the visual experience.
Impressionism has become perhaps the most popular movement in the history of European art. The French Impressionists explored new ways of expressing the world, leaving a lasting impression on the world of art.
The Impressionists—including Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Berthe Morisot—shocked the Parisian art world with their new style of painting, which rejected both traditional artistic techniques and the religious, historical, or mythological subjects favored in 19th-century France. They also rejected the Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, choosing instead to hold eight independent exhibitions from 1874 to 1886. Inspired by a newly rebuilt and modern Paris, discoveries in science, the burgeoning art of photography, and popular interest in Japanese art, the Impressionists explored radical techniques, capturing colors and moments in time, different points of view, and modern topics.
Originally critics applied the term “impressionism” as an insult to the paintings they believed were unfinished or even sloppy. Many reviewers were critical of the new artists’ use of bold, visible, “painterly” brushstrokes. The Impressionists felt the traditional techniques of smooth surfaces and fully developed forms were inadequate for expressing the energy of the modern world. Thick brushstrokes (a technique called impasto) quickly applied to canvas helped capture the feel of a world in motion. Some Impressionists even bypassed the palette altogether and mixed paint directly on the canvas. They emphasized brushstrokes to call attention to the idea of what makes a painting “art.”
Claude Monet was at the vanguard of Impressionism. The Japanese Bridge clearly shows painterly brushwork, where each large stroke reveals a different part of the scene: bridge, water, and trees. The brushwork captures what Monet said was “the instability of a universe transforming itself every moment before our eyes.
Monet felt the influence of the artist Eugène-Louis Boudin, who specialized in beach scenes. This early Monet seascape, painted before the Impressionist movement had taken hold, shows the beginnings of an open-brushwork style, especially in the short, rhythmic brushstrokes of the water.
This work is an example of the enduring influence of the Impressionists. Painted almost 50 years after the Impressionist exhibitions, it shows a moose family, painted with photographic realism, materializing out of an impressionistic landscape.
Idea Two: Lighten Up!
Pierre Auguste Renoir’s sketch of Venice, Italy, is an example of the lighter palette typical of the Impressionists. The rainbow colors of this rough sketch are bright, relatively unmixed, and complementary.
In addition to painterly brushwork, many of the Impressionists were known for using white and lighter colors, called a “lighter palette.” They were also interested in new scientific theories about light, optics, and color, such as the idea that the actual color of an object is modified by the intensity of light surrounding it and the reflections and colors next to it. These artists studied light and paid careful attention to detail based on their direct observations.
This painting by Monet is one in a series of 25 canvases he painted from the summer of 1890 through the following spring. Monet worked en plein air (outdoors), in the fields near his home in Giverny, France. He painted grainstacks to show how light changes at different times of day, in different weather conditions, and throughout the seasons. Each day Monet worked on different canvases according to the time of day, and corresponding change in light. He might work on as many as 12 canvases in a day, each showing a slightly different aspect of light. This process would be repeated over days, weeks, and months. He then fine-tuned the paintings in his studio.
The idea of repeatedly painting a simple grainstack, a symbol of France’s agricultural wealth, was revolutionary. Fifteen of the canvases were displayed together in a gallery in Paris in 1891. The grainstacks represented Monet’s experiments in capturing the effects of light.
Typical of the Impressionists, the shadows on the house in the foreground of this painting by Renoir are shown not by using thinned black paint, but by using colors, in this case a wash of blues, yellows, and browns.
Idea Three: Painting in the Great Outdoors
Although Robert Koehler was not technically an Impressionist, there are impressionistic qualities in this painting, showing Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. The closed umbrellas and shiny street capture the outdoors just after a rain. Koehler was the first director of what is now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD).
Camille Pissarro was the oldest of the Impressionists, and the only one to participate in all eight exhibitions. He firmly believed in freedom of thought and expression, and viewed Impressionism as a kind of emancipation from tradition. Rather than making art to satisfy public tastes, the Impressionists made art to please themselves.
In Place du Théâtre Français, Paris: Rain, Pissarro painted a cityscape of a newly rebuilt Paris. Characteristic of many Impressionist works, the palette is light and bright, and the brushwork is painterly. Pissarro chose an unconventional, asymmetrical view from above the street, creating a strong diagonal through the painting, toward the building in the background. The subject is not the city’s buildings, but rather the transitory movement of the horses, buggies, and people transecting the wide boulevard. The pavement glistens and Paris seems exciting, even on a rainy day. This painting is one of nine similar views by Pissarro, and part of a series of 32 views of Paris.
Like other French Impressionists, Pissarro was very interested in painting en plein air, to capture the immediacy and ever-changing effects of light on the scene. The invention of a squeezable metal paint tube to hold and dispense pigments replaced the previously employed pig’s bladder, making it easier for painters to carry their materials out of the studio to paint on location.
Because Pissarro had an eye ailment when he painted this picture, he actually worked from a hotel room, looking out and down through its window to observe this scene.
The gray light of twilight is captured in this ‘snapshot’ of the Luxembourg Gardens. Although John Singer Sargent was not technically an Impressionist, this painting shows the influence of Impressionism in that it was painted en plein air.
Impressionist Alfred Sisley lived in Fountainebleau, near this medieval town of Moret. The artist painted en plein air to capture the feeling of fresh country air, the sight of the puffy clouds, and the ambience of a tranquil river town.
Idea Four: The Modern and the Everyday
Renoir captured a quiet, everyday moment when a young girl interrupts her meal while an older girl secures the child’s hat pin.
Rather than paint scenes from mythology, history, or the Bible, the Impressionists chose to depict modern subjects they could observe firsthand. They felt art was subjective, and each artwork reflected the artist’s unique perception of the world. Pissarro painted a modern Paris. Monet painted grainstacks. Berthe Morisot painted a family album of daily life.
Because she was a woman, Morisot was barred from enrolling in state-sponsored art schools. She was privately tutored by male painters, including Eduoard Manet, who would become her brother-in-law. Despite being a founding member of the Impressionist group in 1874, she was prevented from painting scenes such as café life, then considered inappropriate for a woman. Instead, she painted many autobiographical scenes of her home life, featuring family members and friends. As the poet Paul Valéry wrote, Morisot was “living her painting and painting her life.” (Anne Higonnet, Berthe Morisot’s Images of Women. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1992, p. 227).
In this painting—one of more than 125 portraits of her daughter over a period of 16 years—Morisot captured a tranquil domestic scene. Instead of a traditional mother-and-child composition, Morisot the mother positioned herself outside the painting, as an observer of her daughter, who in turn observes her nanny, Pasie, sewing. Rather than showing the intimate physical connection between mother and child, Morisot reveals a psychological connection, and focuses on the child’s independent life. Julie’s father and Morisot’s husband, Eugène Manet, is depicted in the background.
Morisot and her daughter often created art side-by-side, Morisot with her paints, and Julie with her colored pencils, and perhaps they inspired each other. Morisot was more controversial than the male French Impressionists because her energetic and painterly brushwork was even more sketchy than theirs, anticipating the totally free abstraction of mid 20th-century painting.
Edgar Degas has captured his friend’s child in a candid moment, eating an apple. In keeping with the idea of the everyday, Degas painted this picture on a piece of mattress ticking, because no canvas was available!
Pissarro was interested in showing the daily lives of peasants, as can be seen in this drawing, The Beet Harvest. Notice the strong diagonal line created by the furrows, reminiscent of Place du Théâtre Français, Paris: Rain.
Idea Five: Radical Compositions
This is an example of the Japanese prints that inspired the Impressionists.
Utagawa Hiroshige, Japanese, 1797–1858. Playing Football, 19th century, Edo period. Color woodblock print. Gift of Louis W. Hill, Jr.
A birthday boy should be at the center of the picture, but here he is off to the right. Sargent chose to crop the painting on the right, cutting off the scene, as one might do in a candid photograph.
In addition to painterly brushwork, interest in light and color, painting en plein air, and choosing modern subjects, the French Impressionists were known for their radical compositions and interest in the budding art of photography and the techniques and subjects of Japanese prints. American Impressionist John Henry Twachtman was inspired by his French counterparts’ new techniques, especially radical compositions.
Photography liberated painting from its traditional role of describing a scene realistically. Now artists could paint scenes as they saw them. Painters borrowed photographic techniques, such as cropping to alter a composition. Photographs could capture the effects of motion and light, which were critical to the Impressionists.
Japanese prints also exerted an influence on the French Impressionists. In Japanese prints, the space is compressed. Objects on the bottom of the print are in the foreground, those at the top are in the background, and there is often a strong diagonal, such as in Pissarro’s Place du Théâtre Français, Paris: Rain. The subjects of Japanese prints are often small moments in a simple day, rather than a grand historic event.
Twachtman greatly admired Monet, and like Monet chose to live in the country and pursue his art in nature. Like Monet with his local grainstacks, Twachtman depicted a white bridge over the Horseneck Brook on his property in Connecticut in at least five paintings, taking advantage of different times of day, light, and vantage point.
The composition of this painting, with its strong diagonal and compressed space, owes its inspiration to Japanese prints. The tree on the left, the evergreen on the right, the shadow on the water, the bridge and its reflection, and the obscured background stack up to flatten the image and push it toward the surface of the canvas.
Eugène-Louis Boudin was as an early inspiration for many Impressionists, especially Monet. Boudin composed the picture to emphasize the vast sky, dwarfing the beach-goers in the foreground. This is the first painting purchased by the Minneapolis Institute of Art after it opened in 1915.
Needle in a Haystack
The Surrealists enjoyed the poetic effects of chance combinations in a game called Exquisite Corpse. To play, form a group of four to six people. Cut blank sheets of paper in half lengthwise and give every player one of the half-sheets. Each person writes a few words at the top and folds the paper down just far enough to hide the writing. The papers are passed along to the next person, who adds some words without seeing what came before, and folds the paper down again. When the papers have gone around the circle, and everyone has written something on each one, open them all up and read the resulting poems.
En Plein Air
Go outside to paint! Try to capture the color and light of the day on your canvas or paper. What made your outdoor art-making experience most enjoyable? What were the greatest challenges you experienced?
Up Close and Personal
Visit the Minneapolis Institute of Art and get up close (but stay at least one foot away) to the paintings of the French Impressionists and their followers. Notice the brushwork, the colors, the use of shadow and light. Look for impressionistic techniques throughout the museum. Then, keeping in mind that despite rejection by the Paris Salon, the art of the French Impressionists became extremely popular, look through the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) Galleries at Mia. Which of these contemporary artworks do you think will be the next big thing?
Berthe Morisot created a family album of paintings, recording the daily activities she observed in her household. Observe your family and write a diary of daily activities where you live for a week. Focus on specific small events, like eating breakfast, walking to the bus stop, or playing a game.
Learn more about how the French Impressionists developed their compositions. Use a camera to take candid pictures from odd angles, from above, below, or the side. Use a computer program to crop photos in different ways. Or, clip photos from magazines, and then crop them in different ways.