Movement of the Month: Part 4 – Impressionism

This week, Hannah continues her movement of the month series by taking a closer look at Impressionism.

Ok so when did Impressionism start?

Generally, we say Impressionism began around 1860 with the ideology floating around until the very first exhibition in 1874. This exhibition (you could even buy the works) was held by the “Anonymous Society of Painters” – however we know them as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and Berthe Morisot plus many more! There were 165 paintings exhibited.

Got it, but where did it come from!

Ok, let’s go back a bit. The term “impressionism” comes from this Monet painting, named Impressionism; Sunrise from 1872. When this was first exhibited in that exhibition, it was deemed absolutely rubbish and a mere sketch of a moment, so the work was unfinished.  The word “impression” is a term which suggests something somewhat unfinished; it was also used in the emerging psychology of the day. The tricky thing with these types of cool nicknames is they stick! Such as with the Fauvist group of artists – we’re talking Matisse – Fauves meaning literally “wild beasts”, (incidentally I think this would be the COOLEST name for a motorcycle gang ever…) so impressionism is same kind of critical name but it really stuck.

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                                      Claude Monet, Impressionism; Sunrise, 1872. Link


I realise that this to our contemporary brain doesn’t seem ground-breaking, but at the time this was really wild! A great example is if we’re to look at Millais, Ophelia of 1852. Ophelia was painted over a long period of time, with the model famously laying in a bathtub, whilst Millais would make various trips back and forth to the waterside to capture the essence of the flora and fauna then go back in the painting when he arrived at his studio. The result is a rather dreamlike mysticism to the paintings, something the Pre-Raphaelites really excelled at, as did the Romantic artists. So painting the whole thing outside meant beginning to paint as the sun was above them, for a lighter and brighter transference through their work.

Let’s get technical for a hot minute…

Impressionism then is showcasing real life nature, as it appears in real time. Less of a story, more the effects of light atmospheric movement in landscapes. It’s important to note Impressionist painters saw themselves as realists! The movement wasn’t what they thought of as abstraction. Whilst they were being very modern, the era wasn’t abstract as we see a little later on.

Expressionism is showcasing the personal response the artist has to that scene. A reaction to socio-political matters that may have occurred, or even a response to another art work.

Here’s a really quick timeline of movement’s, from Impressionism through to Modern Art. Impressionism > Neo-Impressionism > Pointilism > Divionism > Post-Impressionism > Fauvism / Avant-Garde > Expressionism > Dadaism > Abstract Impressionism > Modern Art

Forefathers of Impressionism

  1. J. M. W. Turner for example was a radical impressionist because he gave us images without using solid lines first! This was a couple of decades before what we attribute to Impressionism. Whilst this doesn’t sound really radical in today’s world of contemporary mixed media art, this was serious business! Painting in this way without harsh lines to follow was seen as really wild and it wasn’t until the likes of Singer Sargent that this really took off.

Manet was also a total rule bender.  He wasn’t really in the Impressionist group we mentioned, but similarly to Turner was a bit of a forefather to the impressionists. Take Olympia of 1865. A woman is handed a bouquet of flowers by a maid. The piece quickly had scathing reviews – however, the most shocking part of the painting for critics and the public was how lifelike the lady looked, everyone said she looked dead! So the problem there wasn’t the nudity, it’s the cold harshness of the nudity and the thick contours of her body. Contemporary audiences were so freaked out by this painting; men who would visit the galleries with their ladies complained, as she was so lifelike she looked just like some of the sex workers they had recently been to see and, of course, they didn’t want their ladies to see that!

Similar to this painting, lets quickly look at Titian’s Venus of Urbino of 1534. In this painting, as with Olympia with the cat, this painting has a dog, a sign of loyalty, in a non-threatening pose. Take this against the cat in Olympia, the body is arched in an almost comic angry way as a sort of tongue in cheek reference.  Throughout this era, lone cats represented evil and dark spirits, and in Europe they’re often inserted into images of “fallen women” in plenty of Renaissance works and with artists such as Hogarth – even with the Pre-Raphaelites, again as a symbol of wily femininity.

Here are the two compared:

                                                Titian: Venus of Urbino – 1534. Link

                                               Édouard Manet: Olympia – 1865 Link


So between 1830 and 1850 there was a lot going down in Paris; there were six armed uprisings, so you know those scene in Les Mis with the blockades and barricades? They were possible because of the narrow streets but when Napoleon III took power he made the streets really wide and demolished those little ones partly for beauty and partly to stop those kinds of uprisings, and it worked.

After the Revolution in 1832, he set France up as an empire for trading and what not. So he was elected as president but cause he couldn’t be re-elected possibly to do with French law regarding number of terms, he seized power and became emperor. Napoleon III instructed Haussman – the famous city construction architect – to bring air and light to the centre of the city, to unify the neighbourhoods with boulevards, and make the city more beautiful and less congested by getting rid of those little streets! Napoleon III was responsible for the reconstruction of Paris, a negotiated free trade deal with Britain, the expansion of women’s education, advocated for the Suez Canal to be built essentially doubled the French oversees empire, so a LOT was going on for artists right now. This emperor was also Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew.


Artists became influenced by Japanese art after the Japanese were forced to reopen ports to trade with the West by the American Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 . Woodcut prints, along with decorative items from Japan started to crop up in popular artists scenes like those produced by John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler

Japanese aesthetics, such as elongated pictorial formats, focus on singular decorative motifs

Suburban leisure outside of Paris became a popular subject, as new railways made travel more convenient for people. Paris became the prime example of modernity because of heavy renovations with Napoleon III. The Siege of Paris in 1870 meant that there was a lot of reconstruction anyway; that’s why Paris was the first city’s to have those super Art Deco metro stations. Monet is the king of leisure scenes. He abandoned traditional techniques of perspective to retain spontaneity – he looked at something and threw it on the canvas – kinda like spending a lot of time getting that “I woke up like dis” look, when actually it took you like an hour and your arms hurt from perfecting every strand of hair.


Women were really involved with Impressionism. Mary Cassatt trained in Philadelpia and met Degas when she moved to Paris in 1877. She exhibited for the next ten years. She was known for representations of mothers and children. New buildings became a favourite subject with impressionists, especially opera houses. These were one of the only public places women could go to freely without being in the company of a man. The best places for people watching… everyone went! Artists could examine observer and observed. They were elitist in that young women would be sort of judged if they were super cute; essentially the opera was a place for the male gaze. The below painting (In the Loge – woman in black at the opera – 1880) is of a woman by herself. It’s mature but striking – the observer becoming the observed. There are people in the background but as a viewer we can’t make out faces. The artist’s brushwork blends the man that gazes directly at the main figure BUT she’s not looking at him -she doesn’t care, she’s cool; she doesn’t know he exists as he almost hangs out at the balcony trying to get a look at this complete babe = MALE GAZE!

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                                      Mary Stevenson Cassatt. In the Loge, 1878. Link.



Pointillism and Divisionism come under the same umbrella as Impressionism and it’s when artists use tiny little dots to create a scene, such as Georges Seurat. Pointillism is focused on brushstrokes to achieve scenes through small markings like dots, Divisionism is focused on the colour theory of the dots together to make the scene.

There was a brief moment with Neo-Impressionism, which gave birth to pointillism and Divisionism, then there was post Impressionism. Post Impressionism is your Van Gogh, Cézanne and Gauguin (vibrant, thick paint, urban, geometric). Later came the Fauvists and Matisse, then Dadaism, Cubism and Duchamp and we have modern art!

Impressionist artists produced mellow paintings that were rooted in deeper topics. They scandalised people and galleries went into meltdown at the very idea of no harsh lines and works that kinda looked unfinished. Not only that but the artists painted outside, without being in a studio for months; so this movement really caused a lot of outrage. Ruskin and other critics were scandalised at first because it didn’t follow traditional “rules” of art.

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Luncheon of the Boating Party was exhibited at the 7th Impressionist exhibition in 1882 and was considered the best in show. Famous for its richness of form and masterful use of light, this painting is a romanticised portrait of Renoir’s friends enjoying an afternoon on a balcony along the Seine River. Among the people in the painting are Renoir’s future wife and another famous Impressionist painter, Gustave Caillebotte. The painting represents the changing character of French society in the late nineteenth century as a result of the industrial revolution; when restaurants welcomed people of many classes.

Gustave Caillebotte is seen leaning against the rail. He rented the boat for said party. One of his works can be seen below.

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The Floor Scrapers was exhibited at the 2nd impressionist exhibition in 1876 . The observer is standing above the three workers, who are in conversation with one another. It’s widely presumed Caillebotte was gay, due to his fascination with the male nude form, however this was a popular subject amongst many artists of this period. Instead of heroes of antiquity, these are heroes of modern life. It was rejected by the most prestigious art exhibition at the salon in 1875 for showing working class people partially clothed and deemed a “vulgar subject matter”. In fact lots of other artists found it vulgar, except for one art critic Louis Énault who said he didn’t have a problem with the subject, but they weren’t handsome enough!

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                                   The Absinthe Drinker – Edgar Degas (1875-76) Link.