Monet impressionist painting

by Dr. Lori Verderame

What is Impressionism?

What artists are Impressionists? Many people ask me about Impressionism. Some are still convinced that all artists, despite the time period or style, are Impressionists if they use a muted color palette of pink, light blue, and light green. Perhaps, I can offer some clarification with a short definition of Impressionism.

Renoir painting

Many artists work in a style that is reminiscent of the active brushwork of the French artists who were painting  in the late 19th century known as the Impressionists. While Impressionism had a great impact on the artists working in other countries, particularly in the United States, the art movement known as Impressionism is a traditionally French art movement based on the law of optics, the impact of photography, and the interest in capturing scenes of everyday life.

The Artists and the Movement

Some of the famous members of the French Impressionist art movement (Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, and Sargent) worked at the small artist colony of Argenteuil, France in the early years of the 1870s.

The movement’s famous figures included Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Edouard Manet (late in his career), Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, and the expatriates, John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt. These artists were interested in subject matter that related to the rise of the factory society as brought on by the Industrial Revolution, imagery of the city, the steam locomotive, as well as vacation sites, beaches, and the beauty of the countryside. The Impressionists were interested in the law of optics and in optical realism as they produced works of art that captured various images depending on the distance from the work of art and the associated color theory. Impressionism was further influenced by the rise of photography in the late 19th century and by Japanese printmaking and decorative arts of the Orient known as Japonisme.

The association of the word Impressionism has an interesting story.  A painting of a sunrise was in the salon in 1872 and an art critic who was reviewing the exhibition saw the piece and commented, “This painting isn’t finished, it looks like a mere impression”. The comment gave rise to the title for the famous art movement Impressionism. That painting by Claude Monet would become the characteristic example of French Impressionism entitled Impression: Sunrise (image below).

Monet's Impression Sunrise

Impressionism may be characterized by a quick brushstroke and a thick application of paint. Many artists and collectors are still intrigued by the popular art movement and many artists prefer the style and produce works of art in the Impressionist style.