The Impressionists: Painters of Modern Life

The Impressionist movement originated in Paris in the 1860s.  Like the Realists before them, the Impressionists rebelled against the official art of the Academy.  While Academic painting continued to look to the authority of the past, the Impressionists focused on modern urban life; and while Academic painting emphasized idealization and a smooth and polished finish, Impressionist painters introduced a loose and “sketchy” style that offended public taste.  Since the Salon jury regularly rejected their work, they began holding their own independent exhibitions.  There were eight Impressionist Exhibitions between 1874 and 1886, thus establishing an alternative to the authority of the Academy.

Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise, 1872
Musée Marmottan, Paris

This painting was exhibited at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, and it is where the Impressionists got their name.  It depicts a view of the harbor of Le Havre seen from the window of Monet’s family home.   Like most Impressionist pictures, it is an “industrial’ scene, with large ships in the background glimpsed dimly through the smog.  The loose and sketchy style was intended to capture the hazy atmosphere and flickering light of the sun as it filtered through the morning fog, but Monet’s critics thought the work looked “sloppy” and “unfinished.” A hostile critic dubbed the new movement “Impressionism,” taking his cue from Monet’s title.

Modern Art and Modernity:  Haussmann’s Paris
Paris was undergoing rapid modernization in the 19th century, and Impressionist painters chronicled these changes.  Emperor Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) appointed Baron Haussmann to redesign the city, and entire neighborhoods were demolished to make way for new boulevards lined with restaurants, shops, and apartment blocks.  Paris was becoming “modern” almost overnight — but the art of the official Salon reflected none of this reality.  In a famous essay published in Le Figaro in 1863, the poet Charles Baudelaire complained that while modern life was changing rapidly, the art of the official salon was still stuck in the past:

“Casting an eye over our exhibitions of modern pictures, we are struck by a general tendency among artists to dress all their subjects in the garments of the past.  Almost all of them make use of the costumes and furnishings of Rome . . . [or] the costumes of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance or the Orient.”
Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” Le Figaro, 1862

Baudelaire therefore called for a new “painter of modern life” — a painter that could capture the essence of modern urban life — which he defined as “the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent,”  since in the modern world, everything is constantly changing. Impressionist painters answered Baudelaire’s call for an “art of modern life.”  They painted images of the modern city and its suburbs, and captured the fleeting, transitory nature of modern urban life.

Impressionist Technique:  Capturing a Fleeting Moment
Modern life is fast, and always changing — and the Impressionists wanted to make their art modern by portraying an instantaneous moment in time.  They used a variety of techniques to create the spontaneous effect of a candid snapshot, including “cropping,” a technique borrowed from photography, where parts of the picture are arbitrarily cut off by the edges of the canvas to create the effect of an instantaneous snapshot.  They also explored the “un-posed figure,” endeavoring to depict people in their natural poses, rather than in the artificial poses of academic art; and they used a quick, sketchy method of painting to capture fleeting effects of light and atmosphere.  Finally, they often captured people who remain anonymous to the viewer, recreating the “chance encounter” amongst strangers that is the essence of modern social experience.

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877
Art Institute of Chicago

Many Impressionist paintings depicted the new buildings and boulevards designed by Baron Haussman.  In this painting by Gustave Caillebotte, we see pedestrians and carriages making their way through a busy intersection, carrying umbrellas to protect them from the rain.  Dressed in black, the figures do not interact the way they would in a narrative painting (i.e. a painting that tells a story); instead, they each go about their own business, seemingly unaware of their surroundings, and of each other.  It is more like a “random” street scene, than a posed story, and to enhance the candid “snapshot” effect, Caillebotte cropped the picture at the edges, so that the scene seems to continue beyond the edges.  This makes us feel like we are right there on the street, passing through the crowd.  It is a captured moment in time, that will dissolve in an instant.

While this picture is typical of Impressionist subject matter and candid effects, the work does not exhibit the loose and rapid brushstroke that was a hallmark of the movement.

Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day (Smarthistory)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Grands Boulevards, 1875

This painting by Renoir is similar in subject matter to Caillebotte’s, but it is painted in a much looser and sketchy style, more typical of Impressionism.  While the scene may strike us as quaint and picturesque, at the time it was painted it would have been the essence of “modernity.”  Renoir has captured the fast moving ambience of the modern city, with its bustling crowds and glittering newness.

Claude Monet, Boulevard des Capucines 1873-74
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

This painting by Monet depicts one of the new Paris boulevards, as seen from the window of the photographer Nadar’s studio, where the first Impressionist exhibition was held.  Instead of focusing on details (which would have frozen the moment and given it a timeless quality), Monet uses a loose and sketchy style to capture a fleeting moment:

“Typically Impressionist are the blue shadows and bold, individual brush strokes used to indicate pedestrians whose forms become blurred in motion. In the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874, where either this painting or another similar version was exhibited, such marks were described by a critic accustomed to precise outlines and controlled brushwork as “black tongue-lickings.” Most of the general public agreed. The pink dabs of paint at center right in the painting are hard to identify but are most likely balloons.”
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Claude Monet, Gare St. Lazare, 1877
Museé d’Orsay

In the 1870’s Claude Monet did a series on the Gare St. Lazare railway station.  The steam locomotive was one the most significant products of the industrial revolution, and the expanding railway network made travel faster and easier, bringing throngs of people from the country to the city.  Monet’s choice of subject was therefore deliberate, and was meant to capture the essence of “modernity.”

“When he painted The Saint-Lazare Station, Monet had just left Argenteuil to settle in Paris. After several years of painting in the countryside, he turned to urban landscapes. At a time when the critics Duranty and Zola exhorted artists to paint their own times, Monet tried to diversify his sources of inspiration and longed to be considered, like Manet, Degas and Caillebotte, a painter of modern life.”
Museé d’Orsay

Monet’s Gare St. Lazare 

Pierre Auguste Renoir, Le Moulin de la Galette, 1876
Musée d’Orsay

Another common theme of Impressionist painting was middle class leisure.    Before the industrial revolution, most people had to work all the time – only the aristocracy could enjoy “leisure” time.  But the industrial revolution created the work week that is familiar to us today, and new forms of commercial entertainment were created to cater to workers seeking leisure activities on their days off.  Scenes of dining, dancing, and commercial entertainments like the café-concert, the opera, and the ballet, became the mainstay of Impressionist pictures.  These subjects captured a new kind of experience that did not exist before.

This painting by Renoir depicts a popular dancehall in Montmartre, just outside Paris.  An orchestra can be seen playing on the stage in the background, while the figures in the foreground (some of them Renoir’s friends) enjoy a relaxing afternoon under the shade of the trees.

Unlike “classical” paintings, Renoir’s picture has a “candid” effect.  The figures are not “posed” (no contraposto here), but seem to be caught “off guard” in a candid moment of relaxation; the cropping of the picture at the edges also contributes to the candid effect, creating the impression of a casual slice of life, rather than a carefully composed composition.  Finally, the loose brushstroke that captures the fleeting effects of dappled sunlight contributes to the candid and momentary effect of the painting.  As Gardner’s Art Through the Ages sums up:

“The painter dappled the whole scene with sunlight and shade, artfully blurred into the figures to produce just the effect of floating and fleeting light the Impressionists cultivated . . .  Whereas classical artists sought to express universal and timeless qualities, the Impressionists attempted to depict just the opposite – the incidental and the momentary.”
Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, p. 366

Renoir’s Moulin de la Galette, Smarthistory 

Charles Garnier, Paris Opéra, 1861-1864

One of the most spectacular places of entertainment in Paris was Charles Garnier’s Opéra, which was part of Baron Haussmann’s urban modernization plan.  The Beaux-Arts style building was lavish and ornate, proclaiming “through its majesty and opulence, its function as a gathering place for glittering audiences in an age of conspicuous wealth.” (Gardner, p. 356)

Honoré Victorin Daumier French, 1808-1879 “- Mr. Colimard, if you don't stop immediately ogling the dancers in such an unseemly manner, I will take you home before the end of the performance!,” plate 4 from Croquis Pris Au Théatre par Daumier, 1864
Honoré Victorin Daumier
French, 1808-1879
“- Mr. Colimard, if you don’t stop immediately ogling the dancers in such an unseemly manner, I will take you home before the end of the performance!,” plate 4 from Croquis Pris Au Théatre par Daumier, 1864

The Opéra was a place where fashionable people went to see and be seen; it was also where middle class men went to “hook up” with the young ballerinas who often doubled as prostitutes.  After the performances, the gentlemen would gather in the famous “green room” to mingle with the girls, and often solicit their services.

In this caricature by Daumier the woman remarks to her husband:  “Mr. Colimard, if you don’t stop immediately ogling the dancers in such an unseemly manner, I will take you home before the end of the performance!”

Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, 1874. Metropolitan Museum
Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, 1874. Metropolitan Museum

In his ballet series, Edgar Degas focused on the backstage lives of the ballerinas.  This picture portrays a dance class taught by the famous dance instructor Jules Perrot.  While one of the dancers performs a graceful arabesque for the instructor, the others assume a variety of casual poses, making the picture a kind of study of the posed and unposed figure.  One girl awkwardly adjusts her tutu, while another tugs at her choker, and a third bites her nails.  Many of the ballerina’s came from the working-classes, and their mothers can be seen against the back wall.  As the Metropolitan Museum explains:

“The women in the background on the right are the dancers’ mothers, who chaperoned their young charges during the rehearsals and were there to either protect the girls from or introduce them to the wealthy male subscribers who visited the dance halls and often watched the rehearsals.”
Metropolitan Museum

Degas’ the Dance Class, Smarthistory 

Click here for a fascinating video:  Ballet Mistress Ursula Hageli explores the evolution of Classical Ballet with reference to the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement. With Royal Ballet (14:11)

Edgar Degas, Ballet Rehearsal, 1874
Glasgow Art Galleries

In this scene of a ballet rehearsal, Degas daringly crops the image at the edges to create a candid effect.  The center of the composition, normally the focal point, is empty, while the floor tilts upward creating a flattening effect.

As the dancers in the background adopt a graceful arabesque pose, Degas draws our attention to the seated girl in the foreground, whose knees are awkwardly splayed in an unladylike pose.  Degas once wrote in his diary:  “It is among the common people that you find grace.”

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, by Edgar Degas (Clark Art Institute)
Ballet Mistress Ursula Hageli explores the evolution of Classical Ballet with reference to the Royal Academy of Arts exhibition Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement. With Royal Ballet dancers Leanne Cope and Lauren Cuthbertson.

Impressionist Landscape:  Suburban Nature
The Impressionists also painted “landscapes” — but their outdoor scenes were very different from the landscape paintings of their predecessors (such as the Barbizon School).  While Corot and Millet typically portrayed rural scenes inhabited by peasants and shepherds, the Impressionists painted the new suburban tourist locations made accessible by the expansion of the railway.  In place of Millet’s peasants, Monet and Renoir depicted Parisians on holiday.  As the critic Théodore Duret wrote:

“Monet is not at all attracted by rustic scenes; you scarcely ever see uncultivated fields in his canvases; you won’t find any cattle or sheep there, still less any peasants.  The artist feels drawn toward embellished nature and urban scenes.  He prefers to paint flowery gardens, parks, and groves.”

Plein Air Painting
For their outdoor scenes, Impressionist painters practiced plein air painting – painting out of doors, and completing the picture on the spot.  This allowed them to see color and light in a completely new way.  Impressionist pictures look more natural because they are brighter than traditional pictures.  They truly captured the essence of outdoor light –How did they do this?

  • They primed their canvas with white gesso rather than brown bitumen
  • They discovered that shadows are not colorless, and eliminated black from their palette (Vermeer)
  • They applied new scientific theories of color
  • They painted in dabs of pure color rather than mixing them on their palette (Velazquez; Delacroix)
  • They employed a “divisionist technique” – dabs of color that mix in the eye (Delacroix)

Manufactured Paints
The invention of manufactured paints was an important factor in the development of plein air painting.  As Pierre-Auguste Renoir observed:  “Without colors in tubes, there would be no Cézanne, no Monet, no Pissaro, and no impressionism.”

Paint What You See, Not What You Know
Monet once told a student:

“When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you — a tree, a house, a field, or whatever.  Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene before you.”

Rather than “filling in the blanks,” and painting clearly defined people and costumes, Monet composed his figures with blotches color.  He extracted from the scene before him discreet components of perceived data:  the flickering play of light and color became his subject, rather than people, things and stories.

Claude Monet, La Grenouillere, 1869
Metropolitan Museum

This painting represents a popular bathing resort outside of Paris.  Monet and Renoir painted several pictures of the scene, working side by side.  The painting illustrates Monet’s dedication to painting only what he could “see.”  The figures are not painted in detail, but are rather composed of splotches of color.  The water is not painted a generic blue or green (the way we might paint it if we were using our minds); instead it is composed of a myriad of blues, greens, ochres, and whites – all colors that are reflected from the surrounding sky and foliage.  This represented an entirely new way of seeing that detached what we “see” from what we “know”:

“When we look at a landscape, or a crowd of people, we do not instantly see every face, or leaf in detailed focus, but as a mass of colour and light. Impressionist painters tried to express this experience.”
National Gallery of Art 

Up close, Monet’s picture looks like a mess!  It is an abstract arrangement of shapes and colors.  But as we step away from the picture the separate strokes begin to merge in the eye, creating a remarkably lifelike effect.

Monet’s The Argenteuil Bridge (Smarthistory)

Claude Monet, Grainstack (Sunset), 1891
Museum of Fine Arts Boston

In the 1880’s Monet began painting in series.  His Haystack series shows haystacks under changing lighting and atmospheric conditions:

“Monet painted at least twenty-five wheatstack canvases through the fading of fall into the snows of winter 1891 . . . The pioneer of the instant glance, the quick look, came to realize that he needed to work much more slowly, more deliberately, in order to capture the moment. As he wrote to Gustave Geffroy in October 1890: “I have become so slow in my work that I am exasperated, but the further I go, the more I see that one has to work a lot in order to express what I am looking for: ‘instantaneity,’ especially the atmosphere, the same light diffused everywhere, and more than ever I am disgusted by easy things that come at once.””
Art Institute of Chicago

Claude Monet, Poplars, 1891 (Smarthistory)

Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral: The Portal (Sunlight), 1894Metropolitan Museum
Claude Monet, Rouen Cathedral: The Portal (Sunlight), 1894
Metropolitan Museum

Monet also did a series on the façade of Rouen Cathedral.  He painted the same subject at different times of day and under different lighting and atmospheric conditions:

“In 1892–93, Monet painted more than thirty views of Rouen Cathedral. Moving from one canvas to another as the day progressed, Monet painted the facade with highly textured brushstrokes that both convey the aspect of sculpted stone and make the atmosphere and light palpable.”
Metropolitan Museum

Monet, Rouen Cathedral Series (Smarthistory)

See the series arranged according to the different times of day:


Web Resources:

Impressionism:  Art and Modernity (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History) 

Impressionism (Natioanl Gallery of Art) 

Impressionsim (Smarthistory)

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