Impressionism: Capturing Life's Vibrancy

Categories: ArtPainting

Impressionism, a captivating genre of art prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, derives its name from the unfinished aesthetic that projects a lasting impression on the viewer's mind. This essay explores the essence of Impressionism, highlighting its emergence as a reaction to the transformative chaos in French life during the latter half of the 19th century.

Historical Context

As Kleiner (2009) observes, Impressionism is a response to the sometimes brutal and chaotic transformation of French life in the latter 19th century.

The paintings within this genre mark a departure from the rigidity of the neo-classical tradition that dominated early 19th-century art. Unlike the earlier period, where themes were drawn from history and religion, Impressionism leans towards real-life subjects, capturing the vitality of everyday life.

During the latter half of the 19th century, France underwent significant societal changes. The impact of industrialization, urbanization, and political upheaval left an indelible mark on the French way of life. In response to these profound shifts, the art world saw the rise of Impressionism as a dynamic and revolutionary movement.

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Impressionism emerged as a break from the rigidity of the neo-classical tradition that had characterized early 19th-century art. The movement's name itself speaks to its unique approach – creating an impression rather than presenting a polished, finished product. This departure from the established norms marked a radical shift in artistic expression, focusing on capturing the immediate moment and the ordinary pursuits of common people.

Influences on Impressionism

Gunderson (2008) points out that Impressionism, centered in Paris, was influenced by Realism and a prominent painter of the time, Edouard Manet.

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The movement emerged as a reaction against the flamboyant opulence and meaningless eclecticism of the Neo-Renaissance Neo-Baroque extravagance that characterized the Third Republic. In addition to these influences, Impressionism also incorporated elements of Japanese art, known as Japonisme, which added a touch of exoticism and beauty to the works.

The roots of Impressionism can be traced to the influence of Realism, a movement that aimed to depict contemporary life and social conditions with truth and accuracy. Edouard Manet, often regarded as a pioneer of Impressionism, played a pivotal role in bridging the gap between Realism and the emerging Impressionist style. The socio-political landscape of 19th-century France, marked by industrialization and social change, provided fertile ground for a new artistic movement that sought to capture the essence of modern life.

Japonisme, the influence of Japanese art, further enriched the tapestry of Impressionism. Artists of this movement were drawn to the aesthetic of Japanese beauty and exoticism, incorporating elements of it into their works. The infusion of Japonisme added a layer of uniqueness and diversity to Impressionist paintings, reflecting a broader cultural exchange that was taking place during this period.

Prominent Artists

The key figures associated with Impressionism include Edouard Manet, Paul Cezzane, Edgar Dégas, Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissaro. According to Gunderson (2008), Manet, often considered the father of Impressionism, played a pivotal role in shaping the movement. While Manet's name is synonymous with Impressionism, he never exhibited alongside other painters of the genre. However, his revolutionary techniques significantly influenced artists like Monet and Renoir.

Edouard Manet, a pivotal figure in the Impressionist movement, is often regarded as the trailblazer who set the tone for the revolutionary techniques embraced by Impressionist painters. While Manet did not exhibit his works alongside other Impressionists, his influence reverberated through the works of fellow artists. The year 1874 is considered a landmark for the formalization of the Impressionist movement when a group of painters, including Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Degas, Cezzane, and Berthe Morisot, exhibited at the Salon in Paris (Rewald, 1961).

The Impressionist movement was a collective effort, with each artist contributing to the evolving style. Alongside Manet, other notable artists like Paul Cezzane, Edgar Dégas, Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissaro added their unique perspectives to the movement. The diversity of artistic voices within Impressionism contributed to the richness of the overall movement.

Impressionist Techniques

The defining technique of Impressionist painting lies in the visible and thick brush strokes. In Manet's "Luncheon on the Grass," for instance, broad brush strokes create depth through the juxtaposition of different colors rather than relying on traditional perspective. This departure from established norms marked a revolutionary shift in the art world, with Manet leading the way.

The technique of Impressionist painting is characterized by bold and noticeable brush strokes. This approach is prominently seen in Edouard Manet's "Luncheon on the Grass," where broad strokes, relying on the juxtaposition of different colors, create depth. This departure from traditional perspective, prevalent in earlier artistic styles, exemplifies the revolutionary nature of Impressionist techniques. The emphasis on brushwork and the thickness of paint application became defining features of the movement.

Manet's name is often associated with the Impressionists, even though he never exhibited his works alongside other painters of the genre. His influence, however, is palpable in the works of Claude Monet and Pierre Auguste Renoir, who adopted short brush strokes and emphasized the play of light on water and other objects. The birth of the Impressionist movement can be formally traced to 1874 when a group of painters exhibited at the Salon in Paris. While Manet may not have exhibited with them, his revolutionary techniques earned him the title of the father of Impressionism.

Plein Air Painting

Impressionist artists broke free from the confines of the studio, introducing plein air painting that depicted scenes from outdoor life. Initially confined to landscapes, this style evolved to include scenes from Parisian cafes, night life, and other public arenas. This shift to the outdoors is a hallmark of Impressionist art, capturing the immediacy of life in various times of the day and seasons of the year (Evans, 2012).

One of the defining characteristics of Impressionism is the celebration of outdoor life through plein air painting. While traditional art confined itself to the studio, Impressionist artists ventured into the fields and beaches, sketching nature as it appeared in different settings. This departure from the studio allowed artists to capture the essence of the moment, whether it be the play of light on water, the vibrancy of Parisian cafes, or the liveliness of night life.

The plein air approach was not limited to landscapes, as Impressionist artists expanded their repertoire to include scenes from daily life in public arenas. This shift marked a departure from the conventional themes of art, as Impressionists embraced contemporary subjects and celebrated the ordinary activities of common people. The emphasis on plein air painting became a defining feature of the movement, encapsulating the spirit of the time.

Individual Artist Styles

Each artist within the Impressionist movement brought a unique touch to the style while adhering to common techniques. Manet's sureness in broad brush strokes and strong contrasts of light and dark distinguish his works. Monet's prevalence of sunlight illuminates both landscapes and daily life scenes. Sisley's broken tones and use of oil paint create clarity and transparency reminiscent of watercolor. Renoir, with his typical loose brushwork, pays meticulous attention to details, as exemplified in "The Luncheon of the Boating Party."

Edouard Manet's artistic style is marked by a sureness in broad brush strokes and strong contrasts of light and dark. In works such as "The Dead Christ and the Angels," where he briefly explores a religious theme, the figure of Christ is highlighted with a strong light that guides the viewer's eye to the main subject. Manet's paintings are characterized by lumosity that attracts viewers, in addition to the felicity of his brush technique.

Claude Monet, another luminary of the Impressionist movement, introduced a prevalence of sunlight in his works. His landscapes and scenes from daily life are bathed in the brilliance of natural light, capturing the transient effects of sunlight at different times of the day. Monet's mastery lies in his ability to infuse ordinary scenes with a luminous quality, making them come alive on the canvas.

Alfred Sisley's contribution to Impressionism is characterized by broken tones and the use of oil paint to achieve the effect of clarity and transparency typically associated with watercolor. This innovative approach adds a unique dimension to Sisley's works, creating a visual experience that aligns with the core principles of Impressionism.

Pierre Auguste Renoir, known for his loose brushwork, strikes a balance between spontaneity and attention to detail. In "The Luncheon of the Boating Party," Renoir captures a scene brimming with gaiety and warmth, embodying a sense of idyllic pleasure. The play of light in the painting, emanating from a large opening in the balcony, is especially remarkable and contributes to the overall enchanting quality of the artwork (New World Encyclopedia, n.d.).

Impressionism vs. Paris Salon

Impressionism marked a significant departure from the stringent rules imposed by the Paris Salon, run by the Academy. While the Salon emphasized historical, religious themes, and portraits, the Impressionists celebrated contemporary themes and the lives of ordinary people. The movement challenged the traditional production of landscapes within the studio, as Impressionists took their canvases into the fields and beaches, sketching nature as it appeared in various settings.

The Paris Salon, as administered by the Academy, adhered to strict guidelines that favored historical, religious, and portraiture themes. However, the Impressionists sought to break away from these conventions, marking a shift towards more contemporary subjects. The Impressionist movement became a rebellion against the established norms of the Paris Salon, challenging the elitist nature of the art world and advocating for a broader representation of everyday life.

While the Academy allowed the production of landscapes, it was confined to the studio. In contrast, Impressionists embraced the plein air approach, taking their canvases outdoors to capture nature in its various forms. This departure from the studio allowed for a more immediate and authentic representation of the world, aligning with the movement's focus on the present moment and the lives of common people.

Legacy of Impressionism

Impressionism's impact on the art world extends beyond its technical innovations. The movement became a celebration of ordinary, happy bourgeoisie life, rescuing art from the confines of an elitist society that had previously sponsored it. By shifting the focus to the present moment, Impressionism elevated the daily activities of common people to the forefront of artistic endeavors, marking a transformative period in the history of art.

The legacy of Impressionism is profound and enduring. The movement not only revolutionized artistic techniques but also redefined the thematic focus of art. By celebrating ordinary, everyday life, Impressionism democratized art, making it more accessible to a broader audience. The emphasis on contemporary subjects and the use of plein air painting paved the way for subsequent art movements, influencing generations of artists who sought to break free from traditional constraints.

Furthermore, Impressionism challenged the elitist nature of the art world, democratizing artistic expression. The movement's celebration of ordinary life, vibrant outdoor scenes, and the immediacy of the present moment paved the way for a more inclusive and diverse art scene. Impressionism not only transformed the artistic landscape of the late 19th and early 20th centuries but also laid the foundation for future movements that embraced a more democratic and accessible approach to art.

Written by Lucas Davis
Updated: Jan 18, 2024
Keep in mind: this is only a sample!
Updated: Jan 18, 2024
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Impressionism: Capturing Life's Vibrancy. (2017, Feb 03). Retrieved from

Impressionism: Capturing Life's Vibrancy essay
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