Impressionism: Between Shadow and Light

Legend has it that Impressionism was born at the end of the 19th century from Claude Monet’s painting ‘Impression: Sunrise’. This work gave name to the revolutionary movement that opened itself up to the outdoors, sun, colors, and to contrasts between shadows and light.

Claude Monet, ‘Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise)’, 1872, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. This painting became the source of the movement's name, after Louis Leroy's article, ‘The Exhibition of the Impressionists’, satirically implied that the painting was at most, a sketch. Photo: Wiki Commons
Claude Monet, ‘Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise)’, 1872, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. This painting became the source of the movement's name, after Louis Leroy's article, ‘The Exhibition of the Impressionists’, satirically implied that the painting was at most, a sketch. Photo: Wiki Commons

Presented in Paris at the studio of photographer Nadar, the first Impressionist paintings by artists such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Camille Pissarro initially left the public indifferent, as the tastes of the time favored more academic, romantic or realistic works. Regardless of the scorn and insults of those who deemed these works sloppy and ridiculous, the young artists persevered in their aim to convey fleeting moments and personal emotions through swiftly-made works that were the fruit of deft brushstrokes rather than laborious execution.

Mary Cassatt, ‘Young Girl at a Window’, 1885, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Photo: Wiki Commons
Mary Cassatt, ‘Young Girl at a Window’, 1885, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Photo: Wiki Commons

The painter, incidentally, was well acquainted with long stretches of extreme poverty, unlike other artists with whom he socialized, such as Edgar Degas and Gustave Caillebotte, and those that he met while training at the École de Barbizon or at the gatherings at La Ferme Saint-Siméon in Honfleur. Yet Monet’s personal situation and financial struggles did not prevent him from depicting convivial scenes. He liked to paint outside in natural light, braving the elements, mostly around Paris, along the Seine, or on the coast of Normandy where he lived. In 1870, he wed Camille Doncieux, who gave birth to two sons and posed for many of his paintings, such as The Strollers, Women in the Garden and The Japanese Woman

See also: Berthe Morisot Emerges from the Shadows

Claude Monet, ‘The Luncheon’, 1868, Städel, which features Camille Doncieux and Jean Monet, was rejected by the Paris Salon of 1870 but included in the first Impressionists' exhibition in 1874. Photo: Wiki Commons
Claude Monet, ‘The Luncheon’, 1868, Städel, which features Camille Doncieux and Jean Monet, was rejected by the Paris Salon of 1870 but included in the first Impressionists' exhibition in 1874. Photo: Wiki Commons

Nature and daily life were also favorite subjects of Renoir, another great exponent of Impressionism. This artist had a fondness for depicting open-air dances or strolls along the Seine, and won fame for his Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881) – a waterside scene filled with movement and conviviality. It did not matter that the work did not bear any spiritual or political message, it was enough to simply be a homage to beauty.

See also: How Cubism Changed the World

This was also the approach of Degas, another key Impressionist figure and a prolific sculptor often nicknamed ‘the painter of dancers’. During his life, Degas produced 1,500 paintings of ballerinas in various positions, each portrayed with remarkable accuracy.

Edgar Degas, ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’, 1878-1881, National Gallery of Art. Photo: Wiki Commons
Edgar Degas, ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’, 1878-1881, National Gallery of Art. Photo: Wiki Commons

Many other painters have played a role in the development of Impressionism. Mention can be made of Frédéric Bazille, Alfred Sisley and Édouard Manet. Though these artists were linked to one another, their works were extremely diverse as each artist followed his own artistic journey.

See also: Icons: The Sacred Art

French Impressionism went on to win over other parts of Europe as well, such as in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. The modern ideas promoted by the movement also influenced the perception of British painters like Wilson Steer and Richard Sickert, as well as North American artists including Mary Cassatt and Theodore Robinson.

Theodore Robinson, ‘Nantucket Pump’, c. 1882, oil on canvas. Photo: Sotheby’s
Theodore Robinson, ‘Nantucket Pump’, c. 1882, oil on canvas. Photo: Sotheby’s

It should be noted that it was during the Impressionists’ time that painting underwent its great liberal evolution. When the economy began to take off and the desire set in to break free from the holds of the past, these painters were the first to sell their works to buyers and to gain independence from the power-wielders of the past.

Market logic began to work its way into art, and these artists went out to meet their public. It was thus that Paris gave birth to its first exhibition halls and art dealers. In the mid-19th century, the Salon de Paris became an annual event, which some claimed to be decisive in generating the popularity and success of artworks. Tolerated for a time at the Salon, Impressionist painters were soon turned aside and forced to participate in the Salon des Refusés, a show offering an alternative to official tastes – which was immensely successful when it displayed Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon the Grass)(1863) at its inaugural opening.

Auguste Renoir, ‘Bal du moulin de la Galette’, 1876, oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Photo: Wiki Commons
Auguste Renoir, ‘Bal du moulin de la Galette’, 1876, oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay in Paris. Photo: Wiki Commons

Impressionism was a radical movement for its time, as its proponents openly rejected the long-standing conventions of academic painting in Europe. However, many still believed that “the Impressionists were the first to consciously offer a subjective alternative to the photograph”. Taking the artistic process outside of the studio and into the open air, depicting modern life and merriment, the Impressionists created a sincere appreciation of beauty itself, as well as the desire to transcend conformity and tradition. While it was but a brief moment in the history of art, their influence proved everlasting and came to inspire a legacy of great artists.

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