Impressionist Art for Dummies: A Beginners Guide

What is Impressionism? Impressionist art grew out of the desire in artists to paint ordinary, modern, subject matter with an emphasis on the fleeting aspects of perceiving.

Nov 14, 2020By Fraser Hibbitt
impressionist art beginners guide
Impression Sunrise by Claude Monet, 1872; with Rainy Day in Paris by Gustave Caillebotte, 1877; and Lakeside Landscape by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1889


Impressionism evolved in the late nineteenth century as a primarily French art movement. After a controversial start, it would become a creative driving force for European artists. Names such as Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Edgar Degas were among some of the first to figure under the title of ‘Impressionist.’ Their Impressionist art would produce a lasting influence into the twentieth century, and even today, for their innovative practice. So what is impressionism?


Introduction To Impressionist Art


The first art exhibition to showcase ‘Impressionist’ paintings took place in Paris, 1874. It was organized by the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers; the title ‘Impressionism’ would soon characterize this new style. These paintings were characterized by small, visible, brush strokes which only hinted at the forms of objects, an acute attention to the nature of light, and rich unblended colors.


impression sunrise claude monet
Impression Sunrise by Claude Monet, 1872, via Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris


The label of ‘Impressionism’ was meant to be an insult, used by an angered art critic, Louis Leroy. The term was used to deride a painting he saw at the 1874 exhibition, the now famous ‘Impression Sunrise’ by Claude Monet. Leroy thought he was looking at a sketch, an impression, implying the painting not finished, and therefore not fit for exhibiting. 


Impressionism stuck, and Leroy certainly lacked foresight, but what is impressionism? Others, who were not so conservative, such as the critic Edmond Duranty, saw what this new vibrant style of painting embodied, namely, the desire to depict contemporary culture. Today, we can appreciate Impressionist art for its delicate scenes of nature, their embracing of modernity, and their stylistic innovations in painting.

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What Is Impressionism?

renoir at the theatre boulevard des capucines monet
At the Theatre by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1874, via the National Gallery, London; with Boulevard Des Capucines by Claude Monet, 1873, in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, via Google Arts & Culture


It is easy for us to appreciate Impressionist art, mainly because of its lasting popularity and praise. To understand Impressionism, historically, supplies this appreciation with admiration. The pioneering painters of Impressionist art, Monet, Renoir, Degas, all had failed to have their work showcased at the Salon in Paris. The Salon was the place for a painter to show their work if they wanted fame and respect for their art. 


However, the Salon was controlled by a panel of judges from the Académie des Beaux-Arts who would welcome or discard the unworthy. These judges had notions on paintings: historical painting was held in high esteem, stylizations to dampen color, blended brushstrokes, compact forms, and linear perspective. Impressionist art opposed all their criteria which explains their exclusion from the Salon. 


ballet edgar degas dancers practicing barre
The Ballet from ‘Robert le Diable’ by Edgar Degas, 1871, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; with Dancers Practicing at the Barre by Edgar Degas, 1877, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


This form of judging art denied creative experiments and forced many to follow rules that were out of touch with the cultural mood. In 1874, When the anonymous society of Painters exhibited their work in explicit opposition to the institutionalized art form, it breathed new life into painting.


A further seven exhibitions were carried out, the last taking place in 1886. Not all work presented at these exhibitions can be labeled as ‘Impressionist art’ and indeed many of the painters never took up the title, Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin, for example. It was the fact that they believed in creative experimentation in depicting life around them that brought these painters together; it was a collective of painters sharing ideas, seeking recognition outside of the Salon. 


The Techniques Of Impressionism

lakeside landscape pierre auguste renoir
Lakeside Landscape by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1889, via The National Gallery, London


The Impressionist painters’ use of unblended color offered a new sensual experience for the viewer. An art enthusiast accustomed to the Salon paintings must have been shocked at the vibrancy of an impressionist painting. The reigning program on painting prescribed thick gold varnish to dampen color and to give the illusion that an object was not made up of brush strokes. Impressionist art, however, was focused on immediacy and, arguably, a truer to life rendition of a scene.


The short, visible, brush strokes of impressionist art gave the viewer the illusion that the work of art was carried out in haste. However, more importantly, it showed emphatically how colors interacted with one another on the canvas to produce depth. The impressionist painters were aware of the recent scientific inquiries into the nature of color, and this is what they were trying to imitate; how the eye and brain receive and process the colors around us.


bal du moulin renoir
Bal du Moulin de la Galette by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1876, via Musée d’Orsay, Paris


These exciting discoveries partly explain the Impressionist obsession with light. The effect of light on an object alters how we perceive the color of that object; shadow, as well, was found to be a color in reference to the color of the object, not just black. This knowledge offered painters a new way of depicting the world, and one which the Impressionists capitalized on. They found that light infused the world with color and that forms were not so pronounced as we may think; it is our brain that contains colors to forms.


We now begin to see what the Impressionist painters were doing. They were trying to paint the world as it comes to us before we process it. Their paintings have an airy feeling of spontaneity, as though we just glanced up for a moment and are bombarded with color. Their brushwork, after the initial controversy, would become accepted as commonplace, even in the Salon.  


Impressionism And Modernity

rainy day paris gustave caillebotte
Rainy Day in Paris by Gustave Caillebotte, 1877, via the Art Institute of Chicago


The Impressionists were not interested in painting historical, or even overtly narrativized scenes. They wanted to take their knowledge of color and light to the ordinary, everyday sights. We still find landscape as one of the primary genres of impressionist paintings, however, it is less romanticized as can be seen in the early nineteenth century. Landscape offered a great study for the fleeting aspects of light and the whims of color, but it was with modernity that fascinated the aesthetic of the Impressionist painters.


Modernity, for the Impressionists, offered somewhat of a comparison to their painting style. It was fleeting and fast-paced, a confusion of color and form. The city of Paris figured heavily in the repertory of Impressionist art because it offered this rich variety of scenes. The thick crowds, streetlamps, and imposing buildings all helped to create an aesthetic that appealed to the Impressionists. 


boulevard montmartre gare saint lazare
The Boulevard Montmartre at Night by Camille Pissarro, 1897, via the National Gallery, London; with The Gare Saint Lazare by Claude Monet, 1877, via the National Gallery, London 


In the late nineteenth century, life in Paris offered a means to wealth and therefore leisure; the new railway offered Parisians easy access to the countryside where they would flock to on the weekends. This way of life had been neglected by painters attune to art history and notions of traditional painting until the Impressionist movement. Painters like Gustave Caillebotte took pleasure in depicting the newly renovated city of Paris from interesting viewpoints; Monet was fascinated with the expansion of industry into the countryside. Modernity seemed only to offer impressions for the person living in the fast-paced environment. 


Scenes of leisure became an integral part of the Impressionist scope. Renoir, Monet, and Pissarro took to painting boating and bathing scenes. It stemmed from this interest in the ordinary, unsophisticated people that modernity had made, and the life that modernity proffered to them. The Impressionist’s way of depicting these scenes gave interest and beauty to the modern way of living.


Legacy Of Impressionist Art

le bec du hoc georges seurat
Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp by Georges Seurat, 1885, via Tate, London


The Impressionist exhibitions spanned over ten years, but that is not to say it was a short-lived movement. In fact, Impressionism painting offered the perfect transition into twentieth-century modernism. The confidence to showcase their own work, against the Salon, provided a swell of excitement for new artists who would take inspiration from the Impressionists.


Impressionist art became popular outside of France, especially in the UK and the United States of America. The exhibitions stopped because the artists began to diverge in ideas, aesthetic and philosophical, not because they stopped being produced. Monet would go on to become very rich from his paintings. 


harvest le pouldu paul gauguin
Harvest: Le Pouldu by Paul Gauguin, 1890, via Tate, London


By the 1890s, new styles of painting were being produced. Georges Seurat and Paul Signac founded Pointillism, which was directly influenced by the Impressionist color theory, subsequently called neo-impressionism. In fact, Signac had decided on becoming a painter after viewing an exhibition of Monet’s work. Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin were pioneering a new phase in Impressionism, retrospectively called Post-Impressionism which directly took from the Impressionist way of looking at the world.  


farms near auvers vincent van gogh
Farms near Auvers by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890, via Tate, London 


Impressionist paintings set the baseline for contemplating modernity, but they also brought to the viewer’s attention the beauty of the fleeting aspects of life. In this, they taught us to contemplate how we view the world; how the world is constantly in flux and how we can never fully detain the world. These aspects, which the Impressionists chose for their subjects, gave the impetus for the burgeoning art movements of the early twentieth century; it was through Impressionism that modernism was born.  


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By Fraser HibbittI received my BA in English literature. I enjoy reading and writing on literature, philosophy, cultural studies and art. I am a self-taught guitarist with an interest in music theory and composition. I have travelled widely having grown up in both the UK and Norway. Currently, I am based in Brighton, UK, where I finished my degree.