Impressionism: An Exploration in PerceptionLight; water; spontaneity; transience; vibrancy. Before the 19th century art movement Impressionism, the full potential of these concepts remained somewhat untapped, and certainly laced into tight forms. Originating in Paris, it began in the 1870s and was pioneered by a number of independent artists who were all – as these things often go – artistically radical and rebellious for their time. The painting Impression, Sunrise (1872) by Monet ended up “inspiring” the term by which the movement is known: an art critic coined it in his 1874 satiric review of Monet’s work. Encompassing the works of famous artists such as Renoir, Rodin, Manet, Degas and Cézanne, this movement is now widely accepted as the main artistic revolution of the 19th century.
OriginsAt the time, the French art scene and the subjects, techniques and artists it supported was dependant on the Académie des Beaux-Arts: an institution which upheld work that was traditional and academic in nature. This usually meant scenes from classical mythology, history, or religion, painted in techniques which were realistic. When an alternative art show, Salon des Refusés, was opened in order to exhibit the works which were rejected by the Academy’s Salon de Paris show, a group of young, innovative painters who preferred nature, scenes from contemporary life, and vivacity had found a springboard. Although the Salon was later discontinued, Monet, Renoir and others had already set up an independent association of like-minded artists who exhibited Impressionist works throughout the 1870s and 1880s.
Impressionist art is daring in colour and texture, aiming to provide a snapshot of a quotidian scene or landscape rather than a minute reproduction of it. In exactly the way one remembers only certain colours, light or feelings about a scene they saw momentarily, an Impressionist painting is just that: full of fluidity and encompassing an instant that will never occur again. Colours are mixed as little as possible, while the brush strokes are short, bold dabs known as impasto. The blending doesn’t happen on the canvas, where previously artists would tirelessly apply meticulous glazes of translucent paint. The blending happens in the eye of the viewer: the dabs of vivid colour come together to make a coherent gradient, with the added bonus of exciting and organic textures. Impressionism is also characterised by working en plein air, or outdoors, in order to appreciate the effects of natural light at different times of the day.
There were many different opinions and styles among the artists who are now considered Impressionists – in fact, many of them wavered between being greatly influenced by it to avidly refusing their work being considered so. However, Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) is regarded as the artist who most clearly embodied their aesthetic – his work is sometimes called “pure” Impressionism. His 1875 painting Woman with a Parasol completely encapsulates the characteristics they were going for in its everyday subject, natural sunlight, and spontaneous composition. The bold, textured strokes get the idea of movement across so well that we know that at that moment, the wind is blowing her skirts about fiercely and she has just turned her head to find us observing her.
Impressionism can also stylistically stretch out from these core ideas as far as Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917), who is considered an Impressionist despite disdaining painting en plain air and arguing his works were anything but spontaneous. One can still see the tone of Impressionism in his off-centre compositioning and scenes of ordinary life. His 1873 painting The Ballet Rehearsal is very much an impression – the focal point of the painting is seemingly random and the majority of the figures are on the left, unbalancing the composition. Yet there is something natural and unintruding about this: it is precisely how our eye may take in the scene if we were watching casually and distractedly from one end of the room. A room where light, in true Impressionist style, becomes an element in its own right, claiming as much of the picture as the human figures.
Evolution and Continuation
In its breaking of Academism, it wouldn’t be unfair to say Impressionists paved the way for the many freer art forms which came next. Post-Impressionism stemmed directly from it, flowing into the 20th century with Vincent Van Gogh’s Pointillism and Paul Gaugin’s Primitivism. Post-Impressionism took Impressionism’s concepts further, this time using colour and form arbitrarily and unnaturally so long as it projected the desired emotive effect. Although heavily disrupted by World War I, the idea of the movement echoes in post-WWI works such as Virginia Woolf’s, with its flashes of mental and emotional moments. Of course, like any geniune artistic revolution, it also sparked a reaction in the form of another major art movement; Expressionism.