Impressionism was a 19th century art movement that marked a momentous break with traditional European painting. It can be considered as the first distinctly modern art movement. With its genesis in Paris in the 1860s, its influence spread all over Europe, eventually reaching the United States. It was started by artists who rejected government-sanctioned exhibitions, and were consequently shunned by powerful academic art institutions. The Impressionists wanted to capture the momentary effect of a scene, the impression that objects made on the eye in a flying instant.
These artists used short, broken brushstrokes that barely conveyed forms, and emphasized on the effects of light. Rather than using white, grays, and blacks, Impressionists often displayed shadows and highlights in bright hues. They abandoned traditional linear perspective by sacrificing much of the outline and detail of their subject. Many of these artists even chose not to apply the thick golden varnish that was customarily used to tone down their works, and instead used more vivid paints. Their technique of painting put them at odds with the conservative art academies who valued subtle colours and precise detail in their artwork.
Impressionists began using synthetic pigments such as vibrant shades of blue, green, and yellow that painters had never used before. Édouard Manet’s 1874 Boating, for example, featured the new Cerulean blue and synthetic ultramarine. The boater and his companion embody modernity in their form, subject matter, and the very materials used to paint them. Impressionist portraits with identifiable individuals, and depiction of suburban and rural leisure outside of Paris were painted by Edgar Degas and Pierre Auguste Renoir.
Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, exhibited in 1874, gave the Impressionist movement its name when a critic accused it of being a sketch or “impression,” rather than a finished painting. Claude Monet’s characteristically loose painting style complements the leisure activities that he portrays. Landscapes were brought up to date with innovative compositions, and use of color and light effects. Monet, in particular, depicted modern life and the incorporation of new technology by including railways and factories in his paintings, that were signs of industrialization. These depictions would have certainly seemed inappropriate to the artists of the previous generation.
Many critics faulted these form of paintings for their unfinished appearance and seemingly amateurish quality. They called the Impressionists ‘untalented lunatics’, and the name of the movement itself was labelled as derogatory. This is why many believe that the impressionist era was a way for untalented artists to earn a living. Prior to the Impressionists, artists documented appearances of people in portraits and places. However, Impressionists not only looked at the physical aspect of the world, but also the abstract part of it. As the saying goes, “There is no great art. There are only great artists”. This implies that the artist and their personality is more of a factor than the art they produce. These artists wanted to be painters of the ‘real’ – concentrating on the world as they saw it, imperfect in a number of ways, rather than depicting idealized forms and perfect symmetry. Needless to say, Impressionism embraced modernity, making it the springboard for later avant-garde art in Europe.