A Lasting Impression: French Painters Revolutionize the Art World

IN THE MID-1800s a new art movement was born in France. (Modern French Masters—The Impressionists 1) A small group of artists banded together and, in the period of a few short decades, completely overthrew the tenets of traditional painting. During its own time, French Impressionism was viewed as a sweeping revolution in painting, a radical departure from the existing traditions of European art. (Griffith) Today, Impressionism is recognized as a major frontier in art history and the threshold of the modern art movement.

The Impressionists lived in Montmarte, a little village overlooking Paris. Together, these painters completely changed the course of art. (Kielty 141) They possessed bold new ideas of how to paint and what to paint. They practiced new techniques and a different style of painting. (Modern French Masters—The Impressionists 1) Who were these men and women who changed the history of the art world? Their names are now perhaps the most recognized names in art, yet they were ridiculed and insulted when they first began. Though other painters followed their style, the primary Impressionists were Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Jean Frederic Bazille, Camille Pissarro, and Edgar Degas. (Welton 8) While the Impressionists’ artistic claims and styles varied (Wright 52), they all wanted to change the way people thought about art and set new artistic standards. (Hayes 25)

In the mid-nineteenth century, Paris was viewed by artists all around the globe as the center of the art world. (Martin 6) The artistic status quo during this time was effectively controlled by the Academie des Beaux-Arts, a state-sponsored institution. (Crespelle 9) To become a successful artist in Paris during the 1800s, one had to be accepted by the Salon, the largest, most prestigious art exhibition in Europe. (Impressionism and Post-Impressionism 9) Artists submitted their works to the scrutiny of the academicians from the Academie, following their strict rules. (Reyburn 10) The Salon and the Academie encouraged, exhibited, and rewarded immaculately finished, large, and conventional paintings. (Welton 18) The French Impressionists challenged these traditional ideas and forged new standards in painting that are still admired today. (Martin 4)

In 1874 this group of young French artists defied the Academie and “[broke] openly with all the traditional conventions,” by presenting an independent exhibition of their works. (Chesneau) The response to their exhibition was both immediate and harsh: “…highly unsuitable for the public…the result of mental derangement….” (Cardon) Summing up the attitude of both himself and the general public, art critic Louis Leroy scathingly wrote that the exhibit was “hostile to good artistic manner, to devotion to form, and respect for the masters.” (Leroy) In his derogatory article, the term “impressionism” was applied to the artists as an insult. (Reyburn 7) Today, the works of these once-scorned artists are among the most valuable pieces of art in the world. (Martin 4) What was so different about these paintings that they created such an uproar among the public and the art establishment?

The Impressionists increasingly believed that art should relate to the real world and reflect modern life. (Martin 8) Though this concept sounds commonplace today, it was a radical one at the time of the Impressionists. Traditionally, paintings were limited to biblical, historical, or mythological subjects. (Landscapes of Light 2) The Impressionists, however, were fascinated with modern-life themes, and they often focused on the contemporary, urban world of leisure and entertainment. (Welton 24) Impressionists painted seacoasts, quiet village streets, picnics in the open air, regattas and horse races, the animation of passers-by on the busy Paris streets, the dance halls, cafes, and theaters. (Herbert 152 Almost every aspect of French life was caught on canvas, providing a true historical portrait of the time period. (Modern French Masters—The Impressionists 2)

The Impressionists were chiefly concerned with ways to express light in a real way on a canvas. They believed that no artist in all the history of European painting had ever really succeeded in painting light. (Modern French Masters—The Impressionists 1) The Impressionists wanted to capture things the way they really were. Monet once wrote, “Paint as you see nature yourself. If you don’t see nature right with an individual feeling, you will never be a painter, and all the teaching cannot make you one.” (Barnes, Monet, 18) The Impressionists realized that, for the painter, it was light that described the objects he or she painted. (Pickersgill 8) Degas shared this opinion, and in his notebook he wrote, “The fascinating thing is not to show the source of light, but the effect of light. That side of art today could become immense—is it possible not to see?” (Barnes, Degas, 44) Monet even wrote, “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but its surroundings bring it to life—the air and the light, which vary continually…. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives objects their real value.” (Barnes, Monet, 36)

One major characteristic of the Impressionists was that they painted outdoors much of the time. (Martin 21) They left the confines of their studios to paint directly from nature. (Welton 12) This technique constituted a radical departure from the established practice. (Seitz 12) Traditionally, landscapes were roughly sketched outside, while the actual painting was completed in the studio. (Martin 21) Painting out-of doors, or plein-air painting was made possible for the Impressionists by two new inventions. (Welton 12) The metal paint tubes that were developed in the 1840s allowed long-term storage of oil paints, making extended outdoor oil painting trips feasible. (Seitz 12) Before their invention, paints had been stored in pouches made from pig bladders. The painter would pierce the skin with a tack, squeeze out the paint, and then use the tack as a plug. (Reyburn 54) This old technique proved a problem, however, in that the paint hardened rapidly with exposure to air, so painting outside proved impractical. (Welton 11) The new invention of the portable easel also made painting outside easier. (Welton 13) With the ability to paint nature directly, the Impressionists created a painting full of life and color, an impression of what they they had seen. They were able to capture a part of nature and transfer it onto a canvas. (Martin 20) Monet even painted from aboard his floating studio boat which was constructed so that he could paint the sailing boats near his home at Argenteuil from an intimate perspective. (Stuckey 12)

Another major element separated Salon art and the art of the Impressionists: the use of color. In fact, in their use of color, the Impressionists made their most significant break with academic tradition. The Impressionists had always loved colorful works of art, so they used more vibrant colors in their art. Their use of bright color was made possible in part by the rapid development of paint technology in the nineteenth century. More pigments became available for the artists to use. (Welton 20) The Impressionists’ works were also created in a much lighter tone than Salon paintings. The Impressionist painters used purer, lighter colors instead of the traditional black and grays. (Modern French Masters—The Impressionists 1) The Impressionists believed that colors were not fixed, but rather were modified by their surroundings. (Hayes 10) Their observation was confirmed by scientific findings. Eugene Cheverul, who published a book on the contrast of colors in 1839, showed how to make certain objects stand out or blend in with the use of his color circle. The Impressionists started a revolution in color that showed the world how amazing pictures could be with color. (Welton 20)

Traditionally, the Salon artists used painting methods that produced very smoothly finished pictures employing very tiny brushstrokes and taking hours to finish. (Martin 7) The Impressionists rejected this style of painting because of their interest in color and light. What was blanketed in shadow one minute, could be bathed in full light the next. The Impressionists had to work quickly to capture the effects that they observed and then paint them on their canvases. In an effort to complete their “impression” before it disappeared or changed, they utilized a freer, broader, or looser brush stroke. (Pickersgill 8) In this new frontier, the Impressionists sacrificed detail for the sake of things more important to them: color and light. (Welton 20)

The Impressionists’ paintings were greatly influenced by the technical revolution that was enveloping Paris. The invention that impacted them the most proved to be the camera. Degas described photography as “[a]n image of magical instantaneity.” (Barnes 24) Ever since details of its discovery were announced in 1838, the camera has greatly affected the visual arts. It is with instant, unposed photography that Impressionism is most closely associated. (Welton 28) Many of the early Impressionists possessed cameras; in fact, Monet owned four, and Degas experimented with one of the early Kodak portable models. The Impressionists’ art took on the odd, unexpected, and unbalanced compositions that were sometimes caught by the camera. (About Impressionism 4) The Impressionists wanted to capture a moment in time on canvas like the camera did when it produced a picture. (Welton 28) Just like in photos, the Impressionists’ paintings were often blurred and figures cropped off to create a sense of movement. Monet noticed that slow shutter speeds blurred moving figures, and he began to smudge his paintings accordingly. However, many did not appreciate this technique. One early critic dismissed Monet’s distant pedestrians as “black tongue lickings.” Even those who many times praised his ability to capture this “ant-like swarming…the instantaneity of movement” often missed the likeness to photography. (About Impressionism 5)

The invention of the train also impacted the Impressionists. There was no more aggressive symbol of modern technology than the new railroads, which transformed life during the time of the Impressionists. The rail system became a large part of many Parisians’ lives, including the Impressionists. They painted locomotives and railroads and stations. The train also enabled the Impressionists to travel easily to the suburbs of Paris where they would paint landscapes. The age of the train was recorded forever in art by the Impressionists. (Welton 32)

During the early years of Impressionism, the Impressionists struggled to find buyers for their works, and many of them lived hand-to-mouth. (About Impressionism 5) The rejection of the Salon made it even more difficult for the artists to sell their paintings…if the Salon disapproved, so did many art buyers. The Impressionists depended upon the sale of their paintings to make a living. Even though some patrons bought their pictures and gave them loans, the Impressionists still suffered great financial hardships. (Welton 42) Although many did not appreciate Impressionism at the time, one visionary Paris art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, recognized the greatness of Impressionism. “A true picture dealer should also be an enlightened patron; he should, if necessary, sacrifice his immediate interest to his artistic convictions,” he wrote. (About Impressionism 5) Durand-Ruel bought and sold paintings for the Impressionists’ works starting in 1870 when he met Monet and Pissarro in London. (Welton 42) Finally, after so much rejection, the world began to embrace Impressionism in the 1880s and ’90s. This reversal of fortune was brought about largely due to American patrons who bought many Impressionist paintings. The Impressionists began to be recognized and regarded in their work, and, in time, the world came to view Impressionism as a wonderful, refreshing style of art. (About Impressionism 5)

The Impressionists made a large contribution to art and history. They boldly painted the people and world around them, redefining “proper” subjects for art. As Bazille noted, “I have chosen to paint our own age because that is what I understand best, because it is alive, and because I am painting for living people.” (Modern French Masters—The Impressionists 14) These French painters emancipated art from the dull and dark colors to bright ones, while they effectively captured the changing effects of natural light as it fell upon an object. They rescued paintings from the cluttered life of too much detail in which they formerly resided, and brought them into a new frontier that recorded only an “impression.” By bringing their canvases outdoors, the Impressionists greatly advanced the use of plein-air painting. In addition, the Impressionists developed a radical new painting technique with busy brushstrokes that set the stage for the modern art of today. Putting their convictions ahead of convention, they bravely rebelled against tradition and broke down barriers in pursuing their artistic expression. The French Impressionists dominated the artistic changes during this revolutionary era of art and passed on its special freshness of vision around the world. (Martin 45) These painters left a lasting impression that impacted art history forever.

READ MORE: How 18th Century France Made The Modern Media Circus

Primary Sources

Barnes, Rachel.
Degas by Degas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990. This wonderful book is filled with letters from Degas as well as some of his sketches and paintings. It allowed me to get inside the mind of Degas to see what he was thinking and feeling.
Barnes, Rachel.
Monet by Monet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990. This great book contains many letters that Monet sent to his friends and family. It also replicates many of Monet’s paintings. The letters allowed me to understand what Monet was feeling and the things that he experienced.
Bazille, Frederic.
Auguste Renoir. Musee des Beaux Arts, Algiers, 1867. The Impressionists often painted each other, as is shown in Bazille’s portrait of his friend and fellow Impressionist, Renoir.
Cardon, Emile.
“The exhibition of the Revoltes.” La Presse. April 29, 1874. Online posting. artchive.com/galleries/1874/74critic.htm. freei.net. September 8, 2000. Cardon’s review of the Impressionist painters and their first exhibition was really interesting to read. It describes the Impressionist’s paintings and their techniques. It also mentions how the paintings were scorned and rejected.
Chesneau, Ernest.
“Le plein air, Exposition du boulevard des Chapucines.” Paris Journal. May 7, 1874. Online posting. artchive.com/galleries/1874/74critic.htm. freei.net. September 8, 2000. Chesneau’s article on the first exhibition of the Impressionists was very interesting and helped me a lot. It talks about how the artists painted and how their new style was a completely different way of painting.
Chevreul, Eugene.
“1er. Cercle Chromatique de Mr. Chevreul.” Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, 1839. Chevreul’s color wheel demonstrates how powerful visual effects can be obtained by placing colors next to each other—the theoretical basis for the use of color by the Impressionists.
Degas, Edgar.
Jockeys in Front of the Grandstands. Musee d’Orsay, Paris, 1866-1868. Degas’ painting of some jockeys and horses before a race is a good example of how the Impressionists liked to utilize modern subjects in their paintings. The races were a common part of French leisure during the late 1800s which the Impressionists were able to capture on canvas.
Gleyre, Charles.
Lost Illusion. Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, Maryland, 1843. Gleyre’s painting is a wonderful example of the traditional style of painting that the Salon so admired and that the Impressionists rejected.
Lefranc & Company.
Metal paint tube. Le Mans: Lefranc & Bourgeois, 1842. This metal paint tube is an example of the kinds of paint tubes that were produced in the 1840s. These paint tubes facilitated the outdoor painting that the Impressionists loved.
Lefranc & Company.
Outdoor painting kit advertisement. Le Mans: Lefranc & Bourgeois, 1888. This advertisement of a portable outdoor painting kit helped me to show how the invention of portable painting tools made outdoor painting easier.
Leroy, Louis.
“Les Impressionnistes.” Le Charivari. April 25, 1874. Online posting. artchive.com/galleries/1874/74critic.htm.freei.net. September 8, 2000. Leroy’s negative article about the first Impressionist exhibition was very interesting to read, and it helped me to get a feel for what many people were thinking at the time about the Impressionists. He wrote quite a bit about how horrible he thought the Impressionists’ paintings were—how they were unfinished and just an “impression.”
Manet, Edouard.
Berthe Morisot with a Bunch of Violets. Ernest Rouart Collection, Paris, 1872. This painting of Morisot by Manet was one of Manet’s finest paintings. The Impressionists often painted portraits of each other, showing their closeness.
Manet, Edouard.
Monet in His Studio Boat. Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen, Munich, 1874. This painting by Manet shows Monet painting in his studio boat. Monet often used this boat to gain access to rivers so he could paint water scenes outdoors.
Monet, Claude.
Boulevard des Chapucines. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, 1873. Monet’s painting of this street scene demonstrates how the Impressionists sometimes blurred and cropped their figures to create an effect that resembled many early photographs. Also, this painting is of an every-day scene, a common Impressionist subject.
Monet, Claude.
Gare Saint-Lazare. Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, 1877. Monet’s painting of this train station helped me to show what an impact the train had on both the Parisians’ lives and the Impressionists’ lives. The train was important to the Impressionists because it helped them to get out of the city and into the French countryside to paint. Monet especially liked painting the trains and effectively captured the age of the train on canvas.
Monet, Claude.
Haystacks (Late Summer). Musee d’Orsay, Paris, 1890-1891. This painting by Monet is one of several series paintings that he composed to show the effect that light had on an object. Monet was one of the best at showing how light modified the subject that he painted.
Monet, Claude.
Haystacks (Snow Effect). National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1890-1891. Monet’s Haystacks (Snow Effect) is another of Monet’s series paintings. This painting helped me to illustrate how the lighting as well as the season can dramatically change an object’s appearance.
Monet, Claude.
Haystacks (Thaw, Sunset). Art Institute of Chicago, 1890-1891. Monet loved to show how much light impacted the way an object looked. His “haystack” series clearly demonstrates how dramatically light and season can change a picture, especially when viewed together.
Monet, Claude.
Regatta at Argenteuil. Musee d’Orsay, Paris, 1872. The small section from Monet’s painting shows the shorthand technique that the Impressionists employed to capture the ever-changing effects of light.
Morisot, Berthe.
Lady at Her Toilette. Art Institute of Chicago, 1875. Morisot’s painting of a woman in her dressing room is a good example of the modern day subjects that the Impressionists liked to paint. During the Impressionists’ time period, it was considered improper for women to paint in public, so the women Impressionists painted pictures of life at home. This painting also shows how the Impressionists liked to use broad brush strokes.
Pissarro, Camille.
Peasant Girl with a Straw Hat. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 1881. Pissarro’s painting of a peasant girl is another good example of how the Impressionists liked to paint modern subjects. This painting also exhibits the vivid colors the Impressionists loved.
Renoir, Auguste.
Alfred Sisley. Art Institute of Chicago, 1875-1876. This portrait of Sisley by Renoir is typical of the kind of paintings that the Impressionists did of each other during their early years.
Renoir, Auguste.
The Dance at the Moulin Delagalette. Louvre, Paris, 1876. Renoir’s painting of a dance at the Moulin Delagalette is one that exemplifies many of the Impressionists’ goals. The painting is of a modern, every day subject, and many colorful pigments were used to create the painting. Also, the painting shows the effect that the sunlight had on the dancers.
Renoir, Auguste.
Oarsmen at Chatou. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 1879. This beautiful painting by Renoir is a perfect example of how much the Impressionists loved to use color. Also, this painting shows a modern subject and shows the effect of the sunlight on the water.
Renoir, Auguste.
The Place Clichy. Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, 1880. This painting by Renoir is a good example of how some of the Impressionists tried to make their paintings look like the early photographs that were produced. Renior blurred and cut off many of his figures in this painting; mimicking the photos that were created at that time.

Secondary Sources

“About Impressionism.”
http://www.impressionism.org/teachimpress/browse/aboutimpress.htm. 2000. The internet document entitled “About Impressionism” was a great source that gave me a better idea of how my paper should flow. It also included some good information about how Impressionism was a frontier.
Crespelle, Jean-Paul.
Monet/The Masterworks. New York, New York: Portland House, 1986. Crespelle’s book about Monet was a great help to me in learning about the artist as well as his fellow Impressionists. The book also contained many of Monet’s paintings.
Griffith, Mari.
“The Impressionists at Argenteuil.” National Gallery of Art: Washington D.C., Board of Trustees, 2000. “The Impressionists at Argenteuil” was a short brochure which I received during a guided tour of an incredible exhibit at the National Gallery of Art last summer. It briefly described what Impressionism was and who the Impressionists were. It also talked about their painting styles, as well as what and where they painted, including Argenteuil.
Hayes, Colin.
Renoir. London, England: Spring Books, 1961. This wonderful book about Renoir contained many great pictures that Renoir painted, as well as a great deal of information about Renoir and the other Impressionists.
Herbert, Robert.
Impressionism Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1988. Herbert’s amazing book about Impressionism helped me understand more about the Impressionists and their goals as well as the history of Impressionism. The book had detailed information about every aspect of the Impressionists along with many of their paintings.
Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.
Leningrad: Aurora Art Publishers, 1986. This wonderful book had many useful paintings by various Impressionists. The book had pictures of almost every aspect of Impressionist painting. It also contained some good background information about the Impressionists.
Kielty, Bernadine.
Masters of Painting. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964. This reference guide to art contained a lengthy discussion of the history of the Impressionist movement.
“Landscapes and Light.”
Art and Man. September/October 1987:2. This article talked about how controversial some of Monet’s paintings were. It also talked about what the Salon expected paintings to be like.
Martin, Judy.
Impressionism. East Sussex, England: Wayland Limited, 1995. Martin’s book about Impressionism was a great book from which to get some beginning information. It was easy to read and short and had many pictures.
Modern French Masters—The Impressionists.
New York: The McCall Publishing Company, 1970. Modern French Masters—The Impressionists is a wonderful book that had many Impressionist pictures in it. It also contained brief information on each of the Impressionist artists, their new ideas, and their techniques.
Pickersgill, Howard.
The Impressionists. Secaucus, New Jersey: Chartwell Books Inc., 1979. This book was great for getting some general information about the Impressionists and their new styles. It also gave information about each individual artist and how each of them liked to paint. The book also contained many pictures by the Impressionists.
Reyburn, Scott.
The Impressionists. Stamford, Connecticut: Longmeadow Press, 1985. Reyburn’s book, although difficult to read, contained much good information. It talked about the old traditions, as well as how the Impressionists broke those traditions.
Seitz, William.
Monet. New York, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1982. This great book about Monet has a lot of background information on Monet. It also contains many of Monet’s paintings and a description of each one.
Stuckey, Charles.
Claude Monet: 1840-1926. New York, New York: Thames and Hudson and Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1995. This book about Claude Monet contained lots of background information about the artist, as well as many of his beautiful paintings.
Welton, Jude.
Impressionism. London: Dorling Kindersley, 1993. Jude Welton’s book on Impressionism was a great book that had good information about all of the Impressionists in it. It talked about how Impressionist painting was a frontier and how the Salon rejected the Impressionist painters. It had many different and unusual pictures too.
Welton, Jude.
Monet. London: Dorling Kindersley, 1992. Welton’s book about Monet was a wonderful book that contained useful information about every part of Monet’s life. This book also contained many of Monet’s paintings, as well as other unusual pictures.
Wright, Patricia.
Manet. London: Dorling Kindersley, 1993. Manet by Patricia Wright was a wonderful book about Manet that contained many pictures and unusual information. It talked about how Manet liked to paint, how he was rejected by the Salon, and his influence on the Impressionists.

By Lindsay Snider