The term impressionism was first used in 1874 when a journalist ridiculed a painting by Claude Monet called: Impression – Sunrise (above).
That very famous painting now hangs in the Musée Marmottan Paris.
Monet exhibited his work independently of the official Salon in Paris along with artists such as Renoir, Cezanne and Pissarro.
‘Impressionism’ subsequently became widely used to describe the type of painting practiced by this group of artists, who exhibited together eight times up until 1886.
Impressionist art is a style in which the artist captures the image of an object as someone would see it if they just caught a glimpse of it. Sometimes the work appears to be slightly out of focus.
This is why most impressionist art is best viewed from a distance, to allow the characteristic broken, dotted or flickering brush work – so effective in capturing the quality of light – to merge into a cohesive image.
When Monet finally exhibited 8 paintings of the Notre Dame – each in different lighting conditions ranging from fog, rain, sunrise, sunset, snow etc – the art world was left breathless at the stunning accuracy of each rendition.
Far from being the work of an incompetent artist, when all different paintings of the same subject were seen side by side – they realised he was a genius who captured light like it had never been seen before – and collectors stormed to own an Impressionistic painting.
Manet preferred to paint everyday objects. Pissaro and Sisley painted the French countryside and river scenes. Degas enjoyed painting ballet dancers and horse races. Morisot painted women doing everyday things. Renoir loved to show the effect of sunlight on flowers and figures.
Monet, as mentioned, was interested in subtle changes in the atmosphere.
While the term Impressionist covers much of the art of this time, there were smaller movements within it, such as Pointillism, Art Nouveau and Fauvism.
Pointilism was developed from Impressionism and involved the use of many small dots of colour to give a painting a greater sense of vibrancy when seen from a distance. The equal size dots never quite merge in the viewer’s perception resulting in a shimmering effect like one experiences on a hot and sunny day. One of the leading exponents was Seurat to whom the term was first applied in regard to his painting ‘La Grand Jatte’ (1886).
Seurat was part of the Neo-Impressionist movement which included Camille Pissarro, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Signac. The word Divisionism describes the theory they followed while the actual process was known as pointillism.The effects of this technique, if used well, were often far more striking than the conventional approach of mixing colours together.
The Neo-Impressionist movement was brief yet influential. The term Divisionism was also the name of an Italian version of Neo-Impressionism in the 1890s and early 1900s, and one can trace a line to Futurism which was founded in 1909.