Impressionism History

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Impressionism has its roots in Paris in the mid 19th century.  A group of artists began to show their work in public and it was different than anything seen before.  The name was derived from Monet’s painting entitled Impression, Sunrise.  The precursor to Impressionism was a style of painting that mirrored reality as perfectly as possible and did not exhibit any of the artist’s own emotions or character.  This traditional style of painting was strictly upheld by the Académie des beaux-arts in Paris.

Thus, Impressionism was met with resistance, both by the professional art world and by the public, although both groups eventually came around.  This was because Impressionist painters began to emphasize brush stroke and color.  Instead of using the traditional somber colors of the portrait, historical subjects, or religious themes, they used lighter colors and sought a freer style.

What else set this movement apart from what had come before?  Not only had the brush become freer and the color come alive, but the subjects themselves became less constrained.  It was now a time of capturing candid moments and moving the paintings to the outdoors, experimenting with different times of day and in different weather.  Paintings were now done to capture their subjects as they played and worked.  A more contemporary setting as well as focus on landscapes.

Impressionist techniques included:

  • Short, thick strokes of paint that were used to quickly capture the essence of the subject, side tracking the details.
  • Colors are applied side-by-side with as little mixing as possible.  This created a vivid look to the painting and this way the eye of the viewer could create the optical mix of colors instead of the painter dictating it.
  • They did not use black in pure Impressionism.  Grays and dark tones were produced by mixing complimentary colors.
  • Wet paint is placed into wet paint without.  This certainly cut out the drying time between applications and it produced softer edges and an intriguing blending of color.
  • Impressionist painters did not generally use glazes and opted instead for an opaque surface.
  • Impressionist painters made use of the play of natural light, particularly the reflection of colors from one object to another.
  • In paintings made outdoors, shadows are emphasized while the blue of the sky is depicted as it is reflected onto surfaces.  This gives a sense of freshness and openness that was not captured in painting previously.

While these techniques were not new, they were never used all together and in such a bold way as the Impressionist painters used them.

Previous to Impressionism, it was the way of painters to mix their own paints by grinding and mixing dry pigment powders with linseed or other appropriate oil.  With Impressionism, painters began to buy pre-mixed paints.  These paints came in lead tubes and they gave the artist immense freedom as these pre-mixed paints allowed the artist to work with greater spontaneity.  After all, he had all the colors at his disposal all the time and could then paint what he wanted as he saw it at the time.

As touched upon earlier, the public was none too pleased with Impressionism at first.  They felt that Impressionist paintings were too much like a sketch and, of course, was shocking to the eyes after the more subdued paintings of the previous movements.  But the movement grew in popularity and the public began to see it as a fresh new approach.  After all, with photography on the rise as a new art form, the ability of the painter to catch their subjects in the moment became that much more important.  Photography was indeed a major influence on the movement.  Another important influence were Japanese prints, which were used as wrapping paper for goods that were shipped to France.  These prints again emphasized the “snapshot” aspect of art.

There are several well known painters from the Impressionist movement.  Among these are Claude Monet, August Renoir, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Berthe Morisot, and Mary Cassatt.  Monet and Renoir enjoyed using a small comma-like brush stroke to emphasize the various sensations of light.  Degas was much more objective in his work and his paintings had a coldness about them that was rare among painters in this movement.  Cassatt preferred to work with children and children were a prominent subject for her art.  She tended to capture children in their natural state of being, which was not at all proper most of the time.

Impressionism paved the way for many other movements.  Post-impressionism, Neo-impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism were all inspired by the Impressionist movement.  Essentially, Impressionism brought about the modern art movements of the 20th century.  This is because, like the following movements, the focus was not on the subject of the painting, but was on recreating the sensation in the eye that viewed the subject.

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