Impressionist Art: Characteristics & Artists

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  • 0:01 A New Movement
  • 1:16 A New Name
  • 1:46 New Techniques, New Materials
  • 3:36 New Subject Matter
  • 4:44 The Artists of Impressionism
  • 5:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore Impressionism. We will learn about the founding of the Impressionist movement, the major characteristics of Impressionism, and a few of the primary Impressionist artists.

A New Movement

They were the rebel artists of the 1870s. They refused to conform to the rigid academic standards of painting put forth by France's Académie des Beaux-Arts. Therefore, their work was not accepted at Paris' sole art exhibition, the Salon, which was judged by the members of the Académie according to the accepted standards. So, they struck out on their own, and in doing so, they started a new movement in the art world: Impressionism.

In 1874, a group of 30 of these artists decided to open their own exhibition. Among the works up for exhibit were paintings by such artists as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, and Auguste Renoir. Although some of these names are familiar to the modern era, these artists were relatively unknown at this point and certainly not well-accepted by their contemporaries in the art world. In fact, their exhibition didn't exactly draw crowds. It was mostly ignored, but they didn't give up. The group sponsored seven more exhibitions through 1886, and soon art collectors began to sit up and take notice. Paintings began to sell, and the group established its own place in the Paris art scene.

A New Name

At first, the society didn't name their new movement. They simply wanted to exhibit and sell their work, not label it. Art critic Louis Leroy actually came up with the name 'Impressionist' when, critiquing the 1874 exhibit, he remarked that the artists' paintings looked unfinished, like they were just sketches or impressions rather than completed works of art. Rebels that they were, the artists latched on to the label and embraced the idea of being Impressionists.

New Techniques, New Materials

Impressionist artists experimented with several new techniques and materials that became defining characteristics of Impressionism. First off, they deliberately left their paintings looking unfinished, at least by current artistic standards. Instead of painting detailed scenes with sharp edges and defined shapes, they tried to express their visions of particular moments in time, moments that were always fleeting and subject to the artists' changing perceptions. Impressionist paintings sometimes seem a bit fuzzy and undefined, like a photograph that captures the subject in motion. Impressionists achieved this look through various brush techniques. They used short, quick brushstrokes that touched colors to the canvas in little comma-like shapes one after another. Sometimes, they didn't bother to use a brush at all, applying paint to the canvas directly from the tube.

Color became another major focus for Impressionist artists. They tended toward bright, pure colors that seemed to jump off the canvas in their boldness and strike the viewer with their intensity. Vividness was key, and Impressionists loved to use vibrant blues, greens, and yellows. In fact, they even enjoyed playing with new synthetic pigments, like ultramarine and cerulean blue, and they rarely mixed paints together, which tended to diminish the intensity of the colors. They preferred to allow colors to blend in the eye of the viewer instead.

Finally, Impressionists were nearly obsessed with capturing the effects of light. They hauled their easels, canvases, and paints outdoors to work en plein air and directly observe natural light and shadows, which they then attempted to render in their paintings. Impressionists also paid close attention to phenomena, like reflections of the sun on the water, moving clouds, and swirling fog, which they incorporated into their works in creative and fascinating ways.

New Subject Matter

Impressionists didn't limit themselves to new techniques and materials. They also focused on new subject matter, namely, modern people, modern life, and modern places. Impressionist paintings tend to show ordinary people engaged in the ordinary activities of daily life. Artists captured scenes from cafes, theaters, beaches, and resorts. They depicted dancers rehearsing, people enjoying lunch, a family boating on a lake, workmen engaged in their tasks, and even a couple strolling down a Paris street in the rain. Some artists, particularly female artists like Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, even chose to focus on the ordinary lives and activities of modern women.

Impressionists were also committed to showing modern places just as they were. Artists painted landscapes without hiding the railroads and factories that dotted the countryside. They also concentrated on depicting Parisian buildings, streets, neighborhoods, and public places, many of which had been recently renovated after the destruction brought on by the Franco-Prussian War.

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