Impressionism is a 19th-century art movement that started with a group of Paris-based artists whose independent exhibitions brought them to prominence during the 1870s and 1880s.
Impressionist paintings are characterised by small, thin, yet visible brush strokes. They tend to be bright, vibrant, and intense. Impressionists painted with small touches of mixed and pure unmixed colour rather than broader strokes and blended colours. They were more interested in visual effects. They wanted to capture their images with bold colors rather than detail.
You can see the differences in brush stroke style below…
The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak by Albert Bierstadt, 1863 | Haystacks, (sunset) by Claude Monet, 1890–1891
Because they broke away from earlier styles of painting in Europe, Impressionist painters faced a lot of opposition early on from the conventional art community in France.
The Académie de Beaux-Arts, which dominated French art at the time, valued historical subjects, religious themes, and portraits; not landscapes and still life. The Académie also preferred carefully finished images that looked realistic when examined closely. Paintings in this style were made up of brush strokes that were longer than the Impressionists and carefully blended.
In contrast, the Impressionist painters not only employed shorter brush stokes, they also painted landscapes and realistic scenes of modern life. They often painted outdoors, capturing the momentary and transient effects of sunlight.
The Académie had an annual, juried art show called the Salon de Paris, which based its judgement on the values of the Académie. During the 1860s, the Salon jury routinely rejected about half of the works submitted by the Impressionist painter Claude Monet and his friends in favour of works by artists faithful to the approved style.
In 1873, Claude Monet, Pierre Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Paul Cézanne, Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas and several other artists founded the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (“Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers”) to exhibit their artworks independently.
In 1874, they held their first exhibition that had 30 artists showcase their works. The critical response was mixed. Critic and humorist Louis Leroy wrote a review in the newspaper Le Charivari in which, making wordplay with the title of Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, he gave the artists the name by which they became known.
Leroy wrote in The Exhibition of the Impressionists:
- Impression—I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it … and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.
Some of the greatest impressionist artists were Edouard Manet, Camille Pissaro, Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, and Pierre Auguste Renoir.
Here are our top 21 Impressionist paintings…
If you are interested in a more real-life view of impressionist paintings or if you want to learn more about the movement and its artists, please watch the videos below.