The Impressionists and Expressionists of Post-Realist Art

The Impressionists and Expressionists of Post-Realist Art
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  • 0:02 Impressionist and…
  • 0:23 Impressionism: Definition
  • 2:32 Impressionism: Examples
  • 3:40 Expressionism: Definition
  • 5:14 Expressionism: Examples
  • 6:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the two main artistic movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Impressionism and Expressionism. Both significantly broke with artistic norms of previous generations.

Impressionist and Expressionist Art

Have you ever tried to look at something without your glasses or with someone else's glasses on? Chances are the world looked distorted, fuzzy, and the experience may have even made you sick to your stomach! Fuzzy pictures are not something we tend to like to look at, but a little over a century ago, painters and artists turned blurry lines and indistinct imagery into popular art.

Impressionism: Definition

Impressionism is an art form that focuses on painting scenes and people as they really are. Impressionism began in the second half of the 19th century in France. The Impressionist movement was engineered by a group of artists who called themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, et cetera. The group largely coalesced due to their exclusion from the powerful contemporary artistic salons and organizations in Paris, which rejected the work of the Impressionists.

Critics of Impressionist work generally considered the art form to look unfinished, with its broad brushstrokes and lack of fine lines and borders. Ironically, it was this very same characteristic that gave Impressionism its name. The art critic Louis Leroy claimed Monet's work was only an 'impression' of a completed painting.

In response to the criticism and ostracism, several Impressionist artists, including Degas, Renoir and Monet, set up their own art exhibition in 1874, exposing the public to impressionist art for the first time. While some remained critical, others praised the new art for its depictions of everyday life. Impressionist artists focused on subjects and scenes that prior painters had considered too unimportant or mundane to paint seriously.

Rather than idealized landscapes, many Impressionists took to the suburbs and city parks to paint everyday landscapes as they really appeared in real life, at times even completing an entire painting outdoors. Similarly, whereas prior artists had considered middle class life too mundane to paint and the lower classes only suitable for use as caricature, Impressionists excelled in painting scenes of everyday people going about their lives.

Impressionist artists also utilized far more vibrant colors than their predecessors. Many abstained from using the finishing varnish so popular among earlier painters that not only gave the entire painting a glossy look but significantly muted the brightness of the painting. Additionally, many Impressionists began taking advantages in the advances of painting science, which produced brighter shades and hues using synthetically created pigments.

Impressionism: Examples

In order to truly understand and appreciate these characteristics of Impressionist painting, we should really look at a couple examples. The first example is by arguably the Impressionism movement's most famous painter, Claude Monet. Monet is considered one of the founders of modern Impressionism, and he was a key participant in the original 1874 exhibition. His later 1916 work, Water Lilies, is generally considered one of the finest examples of Impressionist art. The broad brushstrokes he used along with the vibrant colors portray the ever-changing nature of a lake or pond, while still maintaining the semblance of water lilies.

Claude Monet - Water Lilies
Water Lilies Monet

Another incredibly famous Impressionist piece is the 1876 Bal du Moulin de la Galette by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. As you can see, the style of painting is similar to the first Monet painting, with its broad brushstrokes and lack of distinct lines. Renoir's piece also displays another important aspect of Impressionism: the depiction of everyday life. Indeed, the scene Renoir depicts is a typical Sunday afternoon in Paris in the late 19th century.

Renoir Moulin

Expressionism: Definition

A second art movement, which also strayed from the exact lines and definite objects of prior artistic norms, was Expressionism. Expressionism evolved a little later than Impressionism in the early 20th century, both before and after WWI. However, whereas Impressionism attempted to paint everyday scenes, Expressionism did the opposite.

Expressionist painters were not concerned with representing reality; instead, they painted jarring images or scenes intending to evoke certain emotions and elicit a certain reaction in the audience. Painters often utilized familiar objects or images that the audience would recognize, but then distorted or exaggerated certain features in order to convey meaning.

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