Art Term Tuesday: Impressionism

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Assocaite

You are standing, looking out at the sun rising over the ocean. What is your first impression? The blue shimmer of the ocean waves that meet the reddish-orange of the rising sun? Do you squint to make out the boats on the horizon, obscured by the gauzy, grey mist hanging over the water? The orange and pink streaking the sky and water, flashing off the boats? Do you feel the breeze as it moves the clouds? These first moments, the initial ideas and feelings about a scene or a person, are what the Impressionist painters attempted to capture with their brushes.

A painting of a sunrise over the ocean. Using thick brushstrokes to mimic movement, Monet captures fishermen and boats. The rays of the sun are reflected on the water, and the boats in the back are hazy, as if covered by a morning mist.
Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926. Impression, soleil levant (Impression, sunrise). Oil on canvas, 1872. Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris. Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Originating in 19th century Paris, the movement took its name from the above work by Monet, entitled Impression, Sunrise, a scene of the port of Le Havre, in northwestern France. Painting en plein air, or outdoors away from the studio, challenged artists to capture real scenes, instead of the previously imagined, perfect landscapes from their minds. To catch these fleeting moments, the artists used quick, “messy”, and thick brushstrokes. The immediacy of the brushstrokes are visible, and their texture incites movement on what is a static canvas. Enfolding the viewer into the scene instead of placing them outside it, Impressionists turned the experience of looking from passive to active. When we look at a landscape or crowd, we don’t instantly see every leaf or facial expression. Instead, we are engulfed by a mass of color and light, with some forms taking shape while others fade into the background. This is what the Impressionist painters sought to create on their canvases: informal, candid snapshots of both public and private moments of everyday scenes of urban and suburban life. What prompted this new style to emerge? Two technologies: paint tubes and the camera.

Instead of mixing their own paints from scratch, which was time-consuming and required an indoor space, painters took advantage of a new technology: paint tubes. Shaped like toothpaste tubes, these ready-made, pre-mixed paints in vivid color permitted spontaneity and outdoor creation. To detail their transitory scenes, the painters did not mix their colors, but instead placed them next to each other to preserve their intensity. They had to paint quickly, as their subjects were literally changing before them, and this meant painting multiple elements at once. As Pissarro stated, they worked “at the same time on the sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis” and he suggested “Paint[ing] generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression”. Why were Impressionists so focused on catching that fleeting first impression? Thanks to a second technological development, the camera, artists were freed from the constraints of producing perfect renderings and opened up to a different way of seeing. They pursued a new means of creative expression to offer an alternative to the photograph, as early cameras could not capture motion in the way their brushes could.  

Bright, vibrant colors create this seaside composition. The foreground is made up brown, orange, and red rocks with varying tones of green moss overlaying them. Farther in the background, a wave crashes over and rises above the rocks. The blue water darkens as it fades into the horizon line in the background.
John Sloan, American, 1871-1951. Gully at Low Tide. Oil on canvas. On loan from the Huntington Museum of Art, Gift of Ruth Woods Dayton. Photo courtesy of the Huntington Museum of Art.

This new view was not, initially, well received. Though today we love Impressionism, buying prints and calendars of the masterpieces, it was originally scorned by the academies that promoted line, contour, and form over freely brushed colors. Approached by institutions as a devaluing of the artist’s skills, they were rejected from Parisian salons, and this rejection gave them something to talk about. A revolution to the art world, these artists were not held together by their characteristic approach to painting but instead by their close friendships and rivalries that instigated the sharing of ideas. Though we can broadly characterize Impressionism as compositions that depict ordinary, everyday subject matter; avoid using the color black; investigate the play of natural light on their subjects; place colors side by side instead of mixing; employ thick, short, and visible brushstrokes; and portray unusual visual angles or perspectives; no single artist followed all of these rules. This leads many to question if there were Impressionists practicing outside of France, as pinpointing the style becomes fuzzy outside the masterpiece works of Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro, Cassatt, and Morisot.

A portrait of a pale woman in black, clasping a baby in her arms. In the background is a blurry fort, or ship, with the flag flown at half-mast. The entire palette is dark, with only the blue-green sky offering color.
Charles Webster Hawthorne, American, 1872-1930. The Widow. Oil on panel, before 1913. On loan from the Huntington Museum of Art, Gift of Ruth Woods Dayton. Photo courtesy of the Huntington Museum of Art.

 Yes, of course! Various regional impressionist groups flourished, inspired to capture the scenes of everyday life, including the Hoosier Impressionists here in Indiana. Currently on display at FWMoA, on loan from the Huntington Museum of Art in West Virginia, are a group of American Impressionist painters. Mixing Realism with Impressionism, these artists cherrypicked the predominant stylistic traits of the French movement to serve their purpose. Most painted en plein air and chose everyday people as their subjects. Many favored the thick, textured brushstrokes and stayed away from using black, but not all did, such as Charles Webster Hawthorne. The investigation of light runs through their artworks, but each is distinctly their own, as one wouldn’t view a John Fulton Folinsbee and think it a John Henry Twachtman, despite them sharing first names. (Yes, there were also women Impressionists. See Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot. Unfortunately, they were not as plentiful as it was unseemly for women to sit in cafes alone, for example, so the majority of their scenes are of the domestic sphere they ruled: women and children at their everyday activities.) This group of painters, akin to the French Impressionists, each handled their style in their own way, and were brought together in the institutional rejection of their works which, today, has reversed to recognition.

Want to learn more? Check out our Facebook Live event on Thursday, November 19th at 7:00pm with FWMoA CEO Charles Shepard, Executive Director of the Huntington Museum of Art Geoff Fleming, and Senior Curator and curator of the American Impressionism exhibit Chris Hattan. Come view the different impressionist styles in American Impressionism: Treasures from the Daywood Collection, on exhibit through March 21, 2021.

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