The Harbor at Lorient∞ Berthe Morisot 1869 Oil on Canvas National Gallery of Art Washington DC
Orchard in Bloom, Louverciennes∞ Camille Pissarro 1872 Oil on Canvas The National Gallery of Art Washington DC
Paris Street in Rainy Weather∞ Gustave Caillebotte 1877 Oil on Canvas Art Institute of Chicago
Luncheon of the Boating Party∞ Auguste Renoir 1881 Oil on Canvas The Philips Collection Washington DC
Starry Night∞ Vincent van Gogh 1889 Oil on Canvas Museum of Modern Art Philadelphia Museum of Art. Promised gift of Charlene Sussel
Emphasizing light, mundane subjects, and movement as the crux of human perception, the Impressionists gained prominence in Paris during the 1870s and 1880s.
Impressionism did not arise from any specific theory or manifesto. It was more the result of certain artists sharing the same ideas at a particular moment in French history, when the climate helped to spread and establish a new style of painting. The movement, with its distinctive artistic style, evolved in quite a complex way. The first signs of its development appeared in the early 1860s, but a collective consciousness was not evident until the period between 1867 and 1869. The motivating force behind Impressionism was the desire of a small number of artists to approach painting in a way completely opposed to that practised in the official, sacrosanct surroundings of the Parisian institution, the Salon. The artists, who were of widely differing personalities and from a variety of schools, found themselves embarking separately, and quite instinctively, on a new style. The subject matter, techniques, and artistic language of their work were all features that were to set Impressionism quite clearly apart from the traditional world of academic art.
In the late 1860s, three artists – Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro – formed the habit of going to sit on the banks of the Seine and Oise to paint the countryside. Of paramount interest to them was the reflection of light on the river; it seemed to be constantly moving and giving life to the water. The many colors revealed in the reflections gave them the idea of painting light by applying bands of opposing colors, without using dark tones for the shadows. With this in mind, they brightened up their palettes and divided up the different shades, unaware that they were applying the theory of complementary colours. No particular date marks the birth of the Impressionist movement, although the year 1869 was certainly significant. It was then that Monet and Renoir both painted at La Grenouillere, the open-air cafe and bathing resort near Bougival. Each completed works that are now viewed as landmarks of early Impressionism. However, it was not until 1874, after a long and arduous quest to master this new means of expression, that the Impressionists exhibited their work in public for the first time. By 1880, just six years after that first show, the group had already broken up. It is possible that the process of setting down an “impression” of a scene in a spontaneous, clear, and objective way required a naive and enthusiastic approach that was, by its very nature, quickly lost. What is clear is that Impressionism occupies an remarkably short period of time in the history of art. Yet despite its brevity of life, the achievements of its artists in these few years are of incalculable importance.