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Artist movement series: Impressionism

In 1874, a group of artists, dissatisfied with the rigid structure of how the arts were governed in France, banded together to form the Societe Anonyme Cooperative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers). Their frustration stemmed from the domination of the Académie des Beaux-Arts and their grip on what constituted ‘good’ art. These artists included Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro and a few others.

The Académie des Beaux-Arts held an annual, juried art show, the prestigious Salon de Paris. However, their selection was considerably arbitrary, preferring traditional techniques and composition as well as depictions of historical or religious significance. The artists we now refer to as the Impressionists had all been turned away previously and could not afford to sit idly by while they waited for a new Salon in the next year. So, they formed their group in an effort to show their work for sale.

Putting their meagre resources together, they rented a studio owned by the great French photographer, Nadar, and set their date for a month before the Salon in 1874. The critical reception was harsh. One such notable critic, Louis Leroy who wrote for the Parisian newspaper Le Charivari, was particularly scathing in his commentary, going so far as to accuse Monet’s painting, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) of being closer to a sketch, labelling it an ”impression” and not the finished product. The name stuck and eventually become worn as a badge of honour by those who adopted the school’s techniques.

But why did the greater French artistic society at the time eschew this new style of painting? What made it different? Let’s explore these questions and more.

Technique and technology

The Impressionists were excited by new developments and ways of thinking in regard to colour theory, in particular, to how light affected colour. Traditional painting techniques dictated that to make shadow, one simply added black or brown to the object’s colour. However, Impressionism viewed shadow differently, as still being influenced by the environment of light rather than just an absence of it.

Instead of black or brown, Impressionist painters would use the dominant colour of the object and break it up with its complementary colour. For example, in Wheatstacks, End of Summer by Monet, the burnt oranges and yellows of the wheat have blues and greens for their shadow.

Claude Monet painting of "Wheatstacks, End of Summer" from 1890
Claude Monet, Wheatstacks, End of Summer, 1890-91

But the difficulty of capturing light at a specific time meant that Impressionist painters had to work quickly. To do so, their brushstrokes were quick and without the precision and careful blending that was notable of traditional Realist masters. Such techniques gave these paintings a spontaneity and life that lacked in previous movements.

It also meant that Impressionist painters had to go to their subject matter rather than make a quick sketch and work in a studio. They became the first painters to work en plein air, or to paint outdoors. This was made possible by the introduction of paint tubes, allowing artists to carry their materials with them and making the studio mobile. Painting outdoors was essential to the work of the Impressionists because it was the only way to truly capture a particular moment in time, based on its light and weather.


Traditional composition dictated that everything in a painting had to be arranged in a manner that drew the eye into a focal point. But this was boring to the Impressionists, and even lacked the realism of spontaneity they desired.

So, rather than drawing the eye into a central point (usually the centre of the canvas), Impressionist paintings drew from photography as an influence, which was still a very new technology of the day. Photographers would crop their pictures to get the composition they wanted. This often led to unique arrangements where subjects were around the edges or off-centre, more like how they viewed the world with their naked eyes.

To mimic this, Impressionist painters would use asymmetry, disturbing traditional hierarchies of form, line and shape. Subjects would be to towards the edges of canvases, having their backs turned or be looking off-canvas.

Edgar Degras painting of "Four Dancers" from 1899
Edgar Degas, Four Dancers, c. 1899

Subject matter

The Académie favoured historical and religious subjects, but this was not interesting to the Impressionists. Everyday life was interesting. Nature was interesting. The ‘now’ was interesting.

Their subjects ranged from landscapes of farmer’s fields to the newly constructed factory buildings of the growing Industrial Revolution. They captured everyday people doing everyday things, such as people relaxing in a park or walking to work.

From Impressionism to beyond

The heart of Impressionism was short-lived. The last exhibition of the Societe was in 1886, only 12 years after their first. But it is arguably the most influential Western art movement for how it led to what came after. It was the foundation for what we now refer broadly to modern art. Neo-Impressionism ran with their new discoveries in colour theory. The impressionistic view behind Impressionism was the birth of all abstract art, letting artists for the first time, strive for feeling rather than brushstroke precision.

By: Nathan Durec


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