How Monet and the Impressionists Paved the Way for Modern Art
In 1874, a group of artists known as the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc. mounted an exhibition in Paris that would bring about a radical break from artistic conventions and launch one of the most popular movements in art history.
Displaying their work in a vacant former artist’s studio, outside the confines of the famous Salon, the annual, state-sponsored exhibition juried by members of the Académie des Beaux-Arts (the art establishment that presided over the only official forum for 19th-century artists to exhibit their work), the
Far from the revered
Eschewing both the techniques and subject matter of their predecessors, the Impressionists demonstrated that contemporary life required a new language to represent the radical shifts taking place in society. And critics responded with both horror and awe. Conservative critics denounced the unfinished, sketch-like quality of their paintings, while more progressive ones championed their fresh and innovative depictions of modern life.
The group did not adopt the name “Impressionists” until its third exhibition, in 1877, three years after the critic Louis Leroy, bemoaning the incompleteness of the Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, referred to it as a mere “impression.”
The Leaders of Impressionism
The group of artists who participated in the Impressionist exhibitions fluctuated over time, but in addition to Monet, Degas, and Pissarro, the figures associated with the group included
They often employed short, broken brushstrokes, a technique evident in Monet’s The Bridge at Argenteuil (1874), a scene that he painted seven times to quite different effect. In this version, he layers and juxtaposes various touches of color to give the impression of flickering reflections on the surface of moving water.
Some Impressionists applied paint in thick layers, called
Many of the Impressionists experimented with synthetic pigments, especially vibrant new shades of yellow, blue, purple, and green. Those who focused on landscapes and scenes of everyday life took their canvases outdoors,
In 1853, a vast public works program, commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III and executed by his representative, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, had begun in an attempt to modernize Paris. With renovations taking place until 1870, this program revolutionized the city’s entire structure. Haussmann’s program—frequently referred to as “Haussmannization”—included demolishing crowded medieval neighborhoods, enlarging roads and boulevards, creating parks and squares, and annexing the suburbs.
As the construction began to change Paris, the Impressionists captured the appearance of this modern metropolis. Pissarro and Caillebotte—the latter showed in the Impressionist exhibitions despite painting in a more realistic style than his colleagues—painted bird’s-eye views of the city’s wide, tree-lined boulevards filled with pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages.
In Boulevard des Italiens, Morning, Sunlight (1897), Pissarro hints at groups of people by using closely clustered strokes of color to represent a crowded street bustling with figures in top hats and bonnets. Other Impressionists chose to capture the essence of modern life by documenting the industrial infrastructure—trains, bridges, and factories—of Paris, or detailing leisure activities in and around the city.
The development of the suburbs was just as important to the Impressionists as the transformation of Paris. The expansion of the railroads made areas of the countryside newly accessible to those seeking a respite from the city. Argenteuil, a small suburb fewer than 10 miles from the center of Paris, was one of the most popular retreats. Many Impressionists, including Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and Sisley, immortalized Argenteuil’s river views, bridges, streets, and gardens in their paintings.
Among the best-known images of Argenteuil are those painted by Monet, who spent extended periods of time in the small town. He painted the railroad bridge numerous times, from various angles and at different times of the day, and in 1873 he created The Artist’s Garden in Argenteuil (A Corner of the Garden with Dahlias), a painting of his garden. The two tiny human figures in the background are overwhelmed by the vibrantly colored flowers, painted in a thick impasto that gives the blooms exaggerated prominence as they seem to pop off the surface of the canvas.
These pastoral images of suburban life stood in stark contrast to the busy, and more gritty, scenes of Parisian life, such as Degas’s Dans un café (L’Absinthe), which shows a solitary woman drinking absinthe in a bar, a figure who represents the alienation of modern urban life, viewed from the voyeuristic perspective that the artist was known for.
The group was also deeply influenced by the sudden influx of East Asian visual culture into Europe in the late 19th century. After the Japanese resumed trading with the West in the 1850s, many foreign imports, including Japanese prints, fans, kimonos, lacquers, and textiles, began arriving in Europe.
The aesthetic qualities of these objects, especially Japanese
Others, including Degas, an avid collector of Japanese art, incorporated the asymmetrical compositions and elongated pictorial formats favored by Japanese artists. This interest in Japanese art and culture, referred to as
Why Impressionism Matters
Although the last Impressionist exhibition was held in 1886, the movement remains one of the most popular in the history of Western art. Considered by many to be the first avant-garde movement of the Modernist period, Impressionism served as a springboard for many artistic movements of the 20th century, including Fauvism, and
Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, many Americans, most notably Cassatt and
Although Cassatt spent the majority of her adult life in France, most of the Americans who worked in Paris, including
Several artists of the
Although there are many avant-garde movements that did not take stylistic inspiration from the Impressionists, the group’s rejection of an established, state-sponsored style served as a model for similarly independent exhibition groups throughout Europe during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the
Cover image: Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1916-19. Fondation Beyeler.
Unlinked images via Wikimedia Commons.