The impressionist art movement originated in France in the last quarter of the 19th century as a reaction against traditional art and its strict rules. A group of painters who became known as the Impressionists decided to gain independence from the standards prescribed by the French Academy of Fine Arts and France's annual official art exhibition called The Salon. Impressionism covers approximately two decades, from the late 1860s through the 1880s. The term impressionist was first used by French art critic Louis Leroy in 1874 based on Monet's painting Impression, Sunrise. Leroy found the term fitting to describe the loose, undefined and "unfinished" style that Monet and several other artists applied to their paintings. With the 19th century Industrial Revolution and the reconstruction of Paris into a modern city, the city scene became one of the Impressionists' favorite subjects: "women wearing the latest fashions, the airy new streets and suburbs of Paris, modern modes of transportation ..., and the riverside and seacoast resorts where Parisians spent their leisure time." It’s a mistake to think that the Impressionists banded together for a singular aesthetic purpose, or indeed, that there was a guiding artistic principle that gave them a common bond. Nor did they perceive themselves as revolutionaries with the goal of upsetting the old order and replacing it with something radically different. If anything, what came to be called Impressionism was a natural consequence of confluent forces, social, technological, and economic, as well as aesthetic. More than any other factor, Impressionism took root as a reaction against the government sanctioned academic painting that dominated French art in the first half of the 19th century. It grew from the interaction of artists who were angered by the establishment. In 19th Century France The Academie des Beaux Arts with its annual juried exhibit, the salon, established the standard for artists. It was more than simply a badge of honor to be accepted, it was required for anyone wishing to pursue a serious career in art. The accepted academic style was neo-classicism, as exemplified by the work of Jean Jacques David and exemplified in “The Death of Marat.”1 But it was content that was most rigidly regulated. Subject matter was to be based primarily on historical events, mythology, and religion. Man was to be presented as an ideal, nature was to be celebrated and romanticized. It was realistic, but not realism as we see it and experience in our everyday lives. Rather it was realism as imagined through the prism of a quest for classical perfection. Among other things, technology was developing rapidly and dramatically. Industrialization had taken hold, and the steam engine was becoming practical, facilitating rail and ship travel. Most important to the history of art, photography had made enormous strides since its introduction by Niepce and Daguerre in 1839,2 and it contributed to the rise of Impressionism in a surprising way.
For the Impressionist painters photography could tell them what something looked like, but not how one saw it. It’s easy to think of photography vs. painting in terms of reality vs. a transformed version of reality, but that’s deceptive. For the Impressionist painters photography could tell them what something looked like, but not how one saw it. Early black and white photographs were a record of what was at the moment the photo was taken, but it couldn’t come close to replicating the experience of seeing. There was another critical technological advance as well. The invention in 1840 of oil paints in metal tubes allowed artists to work outdoors, en plein air. Previously artists drew, sketched, or did watercolor studies from nature with the idea of laboriously completing finished paintings in their studios. For the first time paintings could be completed quickly, often in a single session, on location, allowing the artists to focus their attention on their...
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