Today Impressionism is a widely recognized and appreciated movement in art. Impressionist paintings can be found in the world’s most prestigious galleries. Names like Monet, Degas, Renoir, Manet, and more are recognized and acclaimed. There is even a Lighthouse Immersive art experience, Immersive Monet & The Impressionists, celebrating these artists and the works they produced.
However, this was not always the case. When Impressionism first emerged, the movement - and artists - were widely panned by contemporary art critics. Even the name “Impressionism” was meant as an insult.
So, how did Impressionism start?
Up to and in early 19th century France, aspiring artists attended art schools or academies where they were taught the “correct” way to appreciate and create art. These academies were extremely strict when it came to painting techniques and subject matter. At the time, “classicism” was the accepted standard for art. Classical paintings usually depict scenes from mythology, history, religion, as well as portraits, and are characterised by smooth, careful and precise brushstrokes. Classical paintings were done indoors, and painting was only started after many meticulous sketches by the artist to ”perfect” the final scene. Artists would apply to have their artworks showcased at the annual Salon de Paris. Here, the best and brightest were showcased, prizes were awarded and, most importantly, artists’ paintings were seen by potential clients.
This art arena set the stage for a group of radical artists that would later become known as Impressionists. In the later half of the 19th century, a group of artists had become friends and bonded over their interest in painting in a new way. The group included Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Frédéric Bazille, Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and Armand Guillaumin.
These artists were more interested in capturing the world around them, the way it was - naturalistic as opposed to stilted, posed and perfect. They wanted to capture “slice of life” on canvas, so to speak. They were interested in how light and movement could be captured.in paintings. They often painted outdoors, and the invention of portable tubes to transport paint helped with this. Because of the transient nature of light and movement, they painted in quick, “unrefined” brushstrokes. They tended to use bold, bright colors. Also, they often only mixed the colors on the canvas as they were painting - opposed to the then norm of carefully premixing the required colors. When it came to subject matter, this group of painters also diverged from classicism. They strove to capture the beauty and truth in everyday scenes and subjects, ranging from landscapes to still lifes and people. It was new, different, and in terms of contemporary art norms, radical.
So, why the hate for Impressionism?
The 19th century Parisian art establishment was not ready for the new art movement, nor was it very impressed by it. Even the public wasn’t initially swayed by the daring artists.
The new painting style was considered to be poorly defined and unfinished, and the subject matter base and unworthy - it could not be considered art.
The disdain for these artists and their offerings was so commonplace that most of their paintings would not be accepted to Salon de Paris. This meant less acknowledgement and exposure - to the public and potential clients.
Because of their negative reception, many artists in this new movement were unable to make money from their art, and would live and die in poverty.
The turning tide?
After further dismissals from the 1863 Salon de Paris, Emperor Napoleon III decreed that the public should be allowed to judge these “controversial” paintings for themselves. This resulted in the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Refused). It may have been true that most viewers came only to laugh and ridicule, but the Salon des Refusés brought much needed attention to the new tendency in art. It even attracted more visitors than the regular Salon.
In 1872 Monet and his fellow painters decided to take matters into their own hands. They formed a society called the "Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers", and began to organize their own art show. In 1874, 30 artists participated in what would later become known as the First Impressionist Exhibit.
It was at this exhibit that the name Impressionism would originate. The critic Louis Leroy made fun of their art, and wrote an article titled ‘The Exhibition of the Impressionists’ - taken from Monet’s painting ‘Impression, Sunrise’. This painting forms part of the digital Immersive Monet & The Impressionists art experience.
The public who came to the exhibition began to use the term, and soon the artists started calling themselves Impressionists. The public started warming to Impression, but it would be long before the movement was recognized as art by critics.
Between 1874 and 1886, the Impressionists would present eight exhibits.
The legacy of Impressionism
The Impressionists were radical artists who shook up the 19th century French art world. Today they are recognised for their bold vision, capturing a fresh style and paving the way for subsequent art movements. Impressionism is considered the precursor to various painting styles, including Neo-Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism.
Today, you can find Impressionist art in the world’s most prestigious museums and galleries. You can even immerse yourself in iconic paintings at Immersive Monet & The Impressionists. This immersive art experience by Lighthouse Immersive celebrates Impressionism, and brings the art to life on a jaw-dropping scale.