How Did Impressionism Get Its Name?

Impressionism is one of the most celebrated art movements of all time, but how did it actually get its name?

Jun 18, 2024By Rosie Lesso, Managing Editor & Curator

how did impressionism get its name

 

Think of the word Impressionism today and the art of French, late 19th century painters Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (and many more) will most likely come immediately to mind. The term seems perfectly suited to the radical and rebellious painters whose art sought to capture the fleeting impression of nature by painting en plein air, with swift, feathery brushstrokes and light, bright, airy colours. But do you know how the movement actually got its name? While the painters are now firmly rooted in the canon of art history, their name was in fact the result of a disparaging review, which criticised their sketchy and non-academic approach to making art. We delve into the history of the term Impressionism to find out more.

Monet’s Impression: Sunrise

Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet, 1872. Source: Marmottan Monet Museum, Paris

 

Monet’s early career painting Impression: Sunrise, 1872, is often cited as the source of the name ‘Impressionism.’ Its title made reference to the painting’s intention – to capture the essence, or the impression of the sunrise he saw before him, rather than a detailed, topographical view. The painting marked a significant departure from the traditional, carefully painted art of the Academie Des Beaux Arts and the Parisian Salon that the public were accustomed to seeing. As such its loosely rendered depiction of fading sunlight falling across water attracted a great deal of derision from art critics and viewers who first came to see it on display in the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874 in Paris, held in the studio of the photographer Felix Nadar. 

 

The exhibition was organized by a collective of artists who called themselves The Anonymous Society of Artists, Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, Etcetera, a collective who were united by a desire to move beyond the strict academia of French art establishments. It featured around 200 paintings of varying styles and approaches by a wide pool of artists.

 

Louis Leroy: A Scathing Review

Art Critic Louis Leroy. Source: Radio France

 

One such critic who came to visit the first Impressionist exhibition and responded with great disdain was Louis Leroy. Building on the title of Monet’s painting, he scoffed, “Impression! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished!” In his disparaging review, he referred to the exhibiting artists as the ‘Impressionists’, attacking them for producing sketchy and unfinished ‘impressions’ of the real world, which he regarded as puerile, pointless, and lacking in skill. However, his words did little to discourage the group from pursuing their practices, and continuing to exhibit together over the following decade in order to push forward their agenda. 

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The Impressionists Adopted the Name

Notice of the first-ever Impressionist exhibition

 

The group of artists first ridiculed by Leroy (and a great many others) in 1874 went on host a further eight exhibitions between 1874 and 1886. It wasn’t until the third (and arguably the most ‘impressionistic’) exhibition, curated by Gustave Caillebotte, that they officially adopted the name of the Impressionists, and in the years that followed the name became widely recognized and accepted amongst art circles and eventually the wider public. 

 

The first few Impressionist exhibitions were poorly attended and attracted widespread ridicule, costing the artists more money than they actually earned. But by the later exhibitions they had begun to attract much larger audiences which reached into the thousands, even though many of them still struggled to actually sell their art. Yet the determination the artists displayed in the face of adversity, their inclination to take on the art establishment, and their willingness to adopt what was intended as a disparaging moniker, set a precedent into the next century, paving the way for modernity, the avant-garde, and the plethora of rebellious and boundary-pushing art -isms that followed.

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By Rosie LessoManaging Editor & CuratorRosie has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly and Scottish Art News. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can enrich our experience of art.