Influence of Photography on Impressionism

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  • 0:00 Photography and Art
  • 0:41 Impacts of Photography
  • 2:20 Impressionism and Art
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will examine the role that photography played in the development of 19th-century artistic styles, most notably Impressionism. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Photography and Art

Imagine you are an artist. Go ahead. Grab some paints and a beret; get into the artistic spirit. Very nice. Now you are an artist, and your success comes from the fact that you are able to present the world around you through your paints and canvas. People come to you to buy landscapes. They come to buy portraits. They come for scenes of daily life. And then, uh-oh, somebody goes and invents something that can capture any image, anytime. That device is a camera.

In the 19th century, artists were suddenly faced with this problem. Photography could produce an exact, scientific copy of reality and this threatened the essence of what it meant to be an artist. So what do you do? Like anything facing possible extinction, you adapt.

Impacts of Photography

As an artist in the 19th century, witnessing the rise of photography, you begin exploring the application of this style to painting. After all, you're an artist, you can draw inspiration from anywhere. One thing that becomes apparent is that, to people of the 19th century, photographs represent reality and are used to capture all of reality, including the daily lives of average people. Photographs cannot take pictures of the past, so they only focused on what was current, visible, and tangible. As an artist, you begin to do the same. And you're not alone. Artists at this time developed a fascination with that which could be seen and experienced. No history. No mythology. Scenes of daily life and average people involved in daily enjoyments and average lives.

As an artist, you start paying lots of attention to daily life. But how should you represent it? Photography managed to help generate another sentiment about art: it should try to capture a single moment. That's what photography does, right? It perfectly preserves a single moment, fixed in time.

Just look at this famous series of prints from 1878 by Eadweard Muybridge called Horse Galloping:

Horse Galloping by Eadweard Muybridge

These photographs were taken to resolve the debate about whether or not all four hooves of a horse leave the ground at the same time while it is running. This is what photography meant to people, a way to stop time and discover truth within a single moment. As an artist, you love this idea and you strive to capture not just daily scenes but also daily moments.

Impressionism and Art

Now, so far, we've talked about the things in photography that you like as an artist. But, you are a painter and you are trying to create artwork that is important, so it needs to be unique, different from photography. This leads you to the style of Impressionism, an artistic style that offered an alternative to photography, searching for truth within a single moment but not as a fixed point in time.

Impressionists used painting to do what photography could not. You see, photographs capture the visible, immobile facts, but they do not capture the essence of the moment. That sounds very artsy, doesn't it? Here's what I mean: Impressionists did not want to represent a fixed moment in time; they wanted to create the impression of a moment passing through time.

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