Claude Monet, Impression: Soleil levant, 1873, Musée Marmottan Monet, Parijs

Nowadays impressionism seems a traditional, middle of the road type of art style. However, following its origination, impressionism was considered groundbreaking and shocking.



Impressionism can be considered the first distinctly modern movement in painting. Developing in Paris in the 1860s, its influence spread throughout Europe and eventually the United States. Its originators were artists who rejected the official, government-sanctioned exhibitions, or salons, and were consequently shunned by powerful academic art institutions. In turning away from the fine finish and detail to which most artists of their day aspired, the Impressionists aimed to capture the momentary, sensory effect of a scene – the impression objects made on the eye in a fleeting instant. To achieve this effect, many Impressionist artists moved from the studio to the streets and countryside, painting en plein air.


Exhibitions in Paris and The Salon des Refusés

In 1863, at the official yearly art salon, the all-important event of the French art world, a large number of artists were not allowed to participate, leading to public outcry. The same year, the Salon des Refusés (“Salon of the Refused”) was formed in response to allow the exhibition of works by artists who had previously been refused entrance to the official salon. Some of the exhibitors were Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, James Whistler, and the early iconoclast Édouard Manet. Although promoted by authorities and sanctioned by Emperor Napoleon III, the 1863 exhibition caused a scandal, due largely to the unconventional themes and styles of works such as Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), which featured clothed men and naked women enjoying an afternoon picnic (the women were not classical depictions of a nude, but rather women that took off their clothes).


Dutch impressionism

In the 1850s, contacts from the Netherlands increased with French painting, including Jongkind and Monet, who regularly traveled from France to the Netherlands to paint.

Groenburgwal with Zuiderkerk Amsterdam, 1874, Philadelphia Museum of Art

More and more Dutch painters themselves moved to France. Striking was also the strong interest that Dutch art trade showed in 1860 for the works of painters from the Barbizon School. Various works of the Barbizons painters came for sale in Dutch galleries and the introduction of their work led to first impulses towards impressionism. In Oosterbeek, a group of art painters settled in the barbizons school. Among them were Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch, Anton Mauve, Joseph Israel, Jacob Maris, Willem Maris, Constant Gabriel and Willem Roelofs, who also visited Barbizon himself. After some of them settled in The Hague later, they went under the name of The Hague School. They mainly painted landscapes. Their process was characterized by pleinism, but mainly by handling a looser brush technique. However, the basic tone of their work remained predominantly grave and realistic, as usual in Dutch painting. The young Van Gogh was strongly influenced by them.
Genuine impressionistly-mentioned works originated from the late 1880s with a second generation ‘The Hague teachers’. Major exhibitors were George Hendrik Breitner, Isaac Israëls, Willem de Zwart, Willem Witsen and Jan Toorop. Under the influence of their French examples, they developed a highly sketchy technique, using bright, often primary colors and a light tone set for Dutch concepts. In their subject choices we see the typical attention for the accidental, passing moment and volatile atmospheres. They often worked in the city (Amsterdam, The Hague), often they painted figures, much attention was paid to everyday life. Nowadays, Dutch impressionists are highly appreciated.


Key ideas of impressionism

The Impressionists loosened their brushwork and lightened their palettes to include pure, intense colors. They abandoned traditional linear perspective and avoided the clarity of form that had previously served to distinguish the more important elements of a picture from the lesser ones. For this reason, many critics faulted Impressionist paintings for their unfinished appearance and seemingly amateurish quality.

Picking up on the ideas of Gustave Courbet, the Impressionists aimed to be painters of the real – they aimed to extend the possible subjects for paintings. Getint away from depictions of idealized forms and perfect symmetry, but rather concentrating on the world as they saw it, imperfect in a miryad number of ways.

At the time, there were many ideas of what constituted modernity. Part of the Impressionist idea was to capture a split second of life, an ephemeral moment in time on the canvas: the impression. Scientific thought at the time was beginning to recognize that what the eye perceived and what the brain understood were two different things. The Impressionists sought to capture the former – the optical effects of light – to convey the passage of time, changes in weather, and other shifts in the atmosphere in their canvases. Their art did not necessarily rely on realistic depictions.

Impressionism records the effects of the massive mid-nineteenth-century renovation of Paris led by civic planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann, which included the city’s newly constructed railway stations; wide, tree-lined boulevards that replaced the formerly narrow, crowded streets; and large, deluxe apartment buildings. The works that focused on scenes of public leisure – especially scenes of cafés and cabarets – conveyed the new sense of alienation experienced by the inhabitants of the first modern metropolis.