Everything you need to know about Impressionism: how a group of rebel artists ‘freed painting’

Monet, Morisot, Degas, and others dismantled the rigid artistic standards of 19th-century European painting to found the first avant-garde art movement


The first exhibition to feature Impressionist painting took place at the former Paris studio of the famed photographer Nadar, who offered his space at 35 Boulevard des Capucines to a group of artists looking to show their work to the public.

That group, which included Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas and Paul Cezanne, would boldly challenge the tradition of European painting and change the course of art history. On 15 April 1874, they debuted the Première Exposition of the Société Anonyme, presenting paintings that privileged colour, the movement of light, and spontaneous views of contemporary life. It became known as the First Impressionist Exhibition, after the critic Louis Leroy’s notorious indictment of the exhibition as mere ‘impressions’, and is widely seen as the birthplace of modern art.

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Moulin de Limetz, 1888. Oil on canvas. 36⅜ x 28⅝ in (92.5 x 72.8 cm). Estimate: $18,000,000-25,000,000. Offered in 20th Century Evening Sale on 16 May 2024 at Christie's in New York

The Impressionists went on to stage eight more exhibitions in the next twelve years, freeing themselves from the restraints of convention, including the rigid constraints of the French academy and establishing a new, independent means of exhibiting and marketing their art. In privileging how we see over what we see, they were the first artists to abstract reality through their individual perspectives, heralding later movements focused on the subjectivity of the artistic experience from Fauvism to Abstract Expressionism. By liberating art from its mimetic function, they established the first true avant-garde movement, leaving a lasting impression that set the course for modern and contemporary art.

The movement was a rebuke of the art that came before

Throughout the 1860s and 1870s, the work of the Impressionists and other pathbreaking artists was frequently rejected by the prestigious Salon de Paris, the annual art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, whose jurors favoured the idealised, ‘finished’ compositions and muted colour palette of academic painting. In 1863 when the Salon refused two thirds of its submissions, Emperor Napoleon III said that the rejected works deserved to be seen by the public and established the Salon des Refusés, where controversial paintings by Manet, Whistler and others made waves.

Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), Jeune homme à sa fenêtre, 1876. Oil on canvas. 45⅝ x 31⅞ in (116 x 81 cm). Sold for $53,030,000 on 11 November 2022 at Christie’s in New York

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Berthe Morisot et sa fille, Julie Manet, 1894. Oil on canvas. 32 x 25 3⁄4 in (81.3 x 65.5 cm). Sold for $24,435,000 on 11 May 2022 at Christie’s in New York

The Salon des Refusés paved the way for future exhibitions of avant-garde art outside the official Salon, including the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. Impressionism was a radical shift for the Salon-going audience of the 1870s accustomed to the historical and mythological themes that had dominated painting for centuries. In the words of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, ‘What seems most significant to me about our movement is that we have freed painting from the importance of the subject. I am at liberty to paint flowers and call them flowers, without their needing to tell a story.’

It all began with Monet

Monet’s Impression, Soleil Levant (Impression, Sunrise), from which Impressionism takes its name, was singled out by Louis Leroy in his scathing review of the exhibition for the satirical newspaper La Charivari. He wrote that ‘a wallpaper in its embryonic state is more complete’ than Monet’s seascape.

Indeed the sketch-like, immediate quality of Monet’s painting represents precisely the ingenuity of Impressionism. His depiction of the sunrise reflecting on the water dramatically contrasts with the pastel industrial landscape, with dabs of orange pigment radiating against the glass sea at Le Havre. How he used paint, evident across his preferred subjects — haystacks, the Rouen Cathedral, and waterlilies, for example — can be seen in its nascent form here.

Impressionism changed how painting was viewed

Through dramatic angles and a focus on light and saturated hues, the Impressionists captured the ethereal drama of fleeting moments and brought French painting into the present tense. Trading traditional linear perspective and modelling for loose brushwork and daubs of colour, their approach offered a provocative invitation to encounter the canvas as a surface.

Claude Monet (1840-1926) La Roche Guibel, Port-Domois, 1886. Oil on Canvas. 26¼ x 32½ in (66.7 x 82.5 cm). Estimate: $6,000,000-8,000,000. Offered in 20th Century Evening Sale on 16 May 2024 at Christie's in New York

Émile Zola called Impressionism ‘the study of light in its thousands of decompositions and recompositions’. Impressionists studied the effect of light, and Monet especially explored it by painting the same preferred subjects again and again at different times and in different seasons and weather. His oeuvre, for example, is incomplete without his series that captures the changing shadows on the Rouen Cathedral or the passing of seasons at Giverny, where he painted dozens of canvases of his legendary waterlilies and haystacks.

Others found recurring inspiration at distinct locations within and outside of Paris, which they explored in series. Degas became a fixture at the ballet and race tracks, whilst Mary Cassatt frequently attended operas within the gilded walls of the Palais Garnier.

…and how paintings were made

The Impressionists’ unique style owes much to their insistence on painting outside of the studio. While previously artists often began a landscape outdoors and completed it later, painters like Monet, Renoir and Alfred Sisley worked on canvases from start to finish without returning to their studios, en plein air, as it was known.

Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), Les peupliers à Moret-sur-Loing, après midi d’août, 1888. Oil on canvas. 23 ¾ x 28 ⅞ in (60.2 x 73.2 cm). Sold for $4,212,500 on 7 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York

This wouldn’t have been possible without metal paint tubes. Prior to their invention in 1841, oil paint was stored in pig’s bladders, which amongst other inconveniences, were cumbersome to transport. Paint tubes gave the Impressionists the freedom to paint anywhere, cataloguing urban and rural life with unprecedented immediacy.

New technology broadened their world

It was more than paint tubes, however, that brought the Impressionists a new sense of freedom. By their time, the Industrial Revolution had ended and new technology had become accepted and widespread across Europe.

Trains became ubiquitous as the preferred mode of travel across the continent, changing how people interacted with the world, and with travel. Painters like Monet and Camille Pissarro were drawn to the railway — particularly they were fascinated by newly constructed train stations, which represented a liminal space between urban life and pastoral scenes — as exemplified by Monet’s many paintings of the Gare Saint-Lazare.

pissarro monet

Left: Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), La Rue Saint-Lazare, temps lumineux,1893. Oil on canvas. 28 ⅞ x 23 ¾ in (73.2 x 60.2 cm). Sold for $12,350,000 on 11 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York. Right: Claude Monet (1840-1926), Le Pont du chemin de fer à Argenteuil, 1873. 23 5/8 x 38¾ in (60 x 98.4 cm). Sold for $41,480,000 on 5 May 2008 at Christie’s in New York

Smokestacks, which had become ubiquitous in urban environments, also appear throughout Impressionist works. Monet’s landscapes feature them in the background, as do Degas’s. No longer as revolutionary as they were a few decades earlier, these industrial motifs had become part of the daily environment, which the Impressionists sought to portray as they saw it.

The Impressionists paid attention to the everyday

Impressionism broke boundaries by holding a mirror to many strata of society performing daily activities from labour to leisure. Manet and Renoir’s marine paintings, for example, depict the upper and middle classes in leisurely boating scenes. Degas and Gustave Caillebotte often looked to the lives of the working class, such as in Caillebotte’s The Floor Scrapers.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Young Lady in a Loge Gazing to the Right, 1878-79. Pastel, gouache, watercolor and charcoal with metallic paint on paper. 25¼ x 19⅞ in (64.1 x 50.5 cm). Sold for $7,489,000 on 19 October at Christie’s in New York

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Danseuses à la barre, circa 1880. Pastel, gouache and charcoal on paper. 25⅞ x 19⅞ in (65.8 x 50.7 cm). Sold for £13,481,250 on 24 June 2008 at Christie’s in London

For Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, the boundaries imposed by society at the time prevented them from access to spaces enjoyed by their male peers. Allowed neither to participate in life drawing sessions nor to be alone with a man who was not a relative, they had little choice but to paint domestic scenes of women and children in their own milieu. Despite these limitations, their revolutionary adoption of these environments into artistic subject matter, enabled them to become highly successful and respected by their contemporaries. Degas said after seeing Cassatt’s work: ‘There is a person who feels as I do.’

They drew from a variety of influences

Chief amongst the Impressionists’ inspirations was Édouard Manet, who was as much a role model as a peer. In the 1860s he began to experiment with the flat patches of colour and candid depictions of daily life that would become hallmarks of the movement. At a time when painted nudes were idealised in mythological scenes, his Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass, 1863), scandalised visitors to the Salon des Refusés with its frank portrayal of a nude woman in a contemporary setting. Other reference points for Impressionism included Eugène Delacroix’s manipulation of light to heighten emotion, the burgeoning art of photography, and Japanese ukiyo-e.

They were not limited to painting

Perhaps the best-known example of the Impressionists’ experiments beyond the canvas is Degas’s Little Dancer, which extends the movement’s explorations of colour and form to sculpture. The kneaded textures of bronzes by Degas and Auguste Rodin mirror the richly built-up surfaces of the group’s paintings.

Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Petite danseuse de quatorze ans, cast in 1927. Bronze with brown patina with muslin skirt and satin hair ribbon on wooden base. Height (excluding base): 40½ in (102.9 cm). Sold for $ 41,610,000 on 12 May 2022 at Christie's in New York

Mary Cassatt's prints, such as The Letter (1890), exemplify Impressionist work in printmaking. Inspired by the aesthetic of ukiyo-e woodblock prints from Japan’s Edo period, she borrowed their characteristic flatness, bright patterns and lack of single-point perspective as she depicted the private realm of women in the 19th century.

They had strong ties to the literati

Immersed as they were in the rich cultural scene of Paris in the late 19th century, the Impressionists maintained a particularly strong connection to the literary sphere of the time. In his naturalist works Émile Zola wrote with the same incisive attention to everyday life with which the Impressionists painted. As an art critic, he was one of the few to praise the Salon des Refusés and emerged the movement’s most adamant defender. Notably, he anticipated Impressionism with his remarks against the Salon of 1865, saying that ‘an artist should express his personality and his temperament, and not reproduce reality.’

Edouard Manet (1832-1883), Le Grand Canal à Venise, 1874. Oil on canvas. 22⅝ x 18⅞ in (57.5 x 47.9 cm). Sold for $51,915,000 on 9 November at Christie’s New York

The Impressionists have also long been associated with literary Symbolism, pioneered by poets like Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine. With a penchant for free verse and evocations rather than descriptions, they used symbolic, often synesthetic imagery to craft their works. This closely parallels the physical, free way that the Impressionists applied their paint, as well as the vibrance of their colours.

They relied on private patrons

One of the biggest challenges the Impressionists faced early on was a lack of consistent funding. Monet and Renoir lived in poverty in the 1870s. Exhibiting at the Salon was critical to an artist’s financial success, and without the academy’s endorsement, the Impressionists came to rely on individual patrons.

An Impressionist artist in his own right, Gustave Caillebotte inherited significant wealth that allowed him to purchase works from his colleagues to keep them afloat. Pissarro, Renoir and Monet all benefitted from this, and in the case of Monet, Caillebotte even helped pay for his studio for a time.

Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), Lilas dans un vase, 1883. Oil on canvas. 25⅝ x 21¼ in (65.1 x 54.1 cm). Estimate: $600,000-800,000. Offered in 20th Century Evening Sale on 16 May 2024 at Christie's in New York

Dealers like Ambroise Vollard, Pére Tanguy and Paul Durand-Ruel also bought paintings directly from the Impressionists, investing in these works long before they were popular. Their efforts chipped away at the Salon system in France, essentially decentralising the French art market in the 19th century. Additionally, the innovative approaches taken by the Impressionists and their friend and dealer, Durand-Ruel, would lay the foundation for the gallery system that we know today.

Upon Caillebotte’s death in 1894, his will stated that all 68 works from his collection were to be left to the French State, of which 38 were accepted, albeit somewhat reluctantly as the government had little interest in the non-academically trained Impressionists. This action, known as the Caillebotte Bequest, landed Impressionist works in French museums — many are now housed in the Musée d'Orsay — both legitimising and preserving their work for future generations.

The Impressionists took America by storm

Durand-Ruel proved instrumental in promoting the Impressionists abroad. In the 1870s, European tastes were still sceptical of Impressionism, but when Durand-Ruel took around 300 works by boat to the United States for a traveling exhibition in 1886, open-minded American collectors embraced this new form of painting. While visiting New York City the following year, he opened a new gallery on 5th Avenue, lending an air of professionalism to the artists for their American audience as they could be found in a dealer’s establishment. By the time of Durand-Ruel’s death in 1922, he had helped dozens of artists establish successful international careers.

Clause Monet (1840-1926) L'église de Vernon, 1894. Oil on canvas. 26 x 36¾ in (66 x 93.2 cm). Estimate: $2,500,000-3,500,000. Offered in 20th Century Evening Sale on 16 May 2024 at Christie's in New York

Mary Cassatt would also go on to play an instrumental role in advising American collectors on what to purchase. Additionally she encouraged them — much to the benefit of museum-goers today — to eventually donate much of their collections to American museums.

Their legacy is immense

Since that intrepid first exhibition 150 years ago, Impressionism remains one of the most influential art movements of all time. The Impressionists shattered the aesthetic norms of the time, while their dealers and supporters dismantled the system that had cast them out.

Impressionism marked the great first step toward pure abstraction, something which was unfathomable prior to them.

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Saint-Georges Majeur, 1908. Oil on canvas. 23⅝ x 28⅞ in (59.9 x 73.2 cm). Estimate: $12,000,000-18,000,000. Offered in 20th Century Evening Sale on 16 May 2024 at Christie's in New York

Soon after, Fauvism, Expressionism and Pointillism built on that foundation, further venturing in to abstraction. By the early 20th century, Surrealism, Cubism and Dada had solidified the arrival of modernism. The legacy of the Impressionists continues to make waves, having inspired many early avant-garde movements and subsequent contemporary art styles through to the present. Those rebel artists of 1874 fundamentally changed the premise of art, prompting audiences to consider not just what we see but how we see the world around us.

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