The 19th Century French Impressionist Movement – The Most Important Movement in the History of Art

The 19th century French Impressionist Movement is considered by many to be the most important movement in the history of art. This movement started with a group of painters centered in Paris in the 1860s and lasted for about 30 years. Up until this time French art was dominated by the French Academie des Beaux-Arts. The Academie valued ‘realism’ in paintings, which stressed carefully finished realistic-looking images, often with subdued colors (which were mixed and ‘blended’ rather that ‘pure’), and of traditional style and content. The paintings were often done in studios, and the traditional subjects for them included portraits, and religious and historical scenes. They were made up of brush strokes that were carefully laid down in a manner so that the individual strokes could not be discerned in the finished work.

The Impressionist painters broke with the Academie’s methods, and were considered radicals in their time. They stressed open composition of scenes from daily life, rather than the traditional peintre 94 subjects favored by the Academie, and often painted outdoors, rather than in a studio. Their paintings represented overall visual effects, instead of details, and were often composed of thin, small, brush strokes that were visible in the finished painting. They were constructed in such a way that the images in them were defined more from their colors (which tended to be pure and unmixed, rather than blended), than from clearly defined contours and lines. Often they had unusual visual perspectives, stressed the realistic depiction of light in a scene (sometimes showing its effects over time), and composed images in a way that gave the impression that they were in motion.

In the beginning the Impressionists faced severe opposition from the French art community. The French Academie held yearly exhibitions of paintings at the Paris Salon. Each year artists would submit their paintings to the Academie, and the paintings to be exhibited would be selected from them. The Academie did not favor Impressionist works, and many such works were rejected, and not displayed at these exhibitions. In response to this, some of the Impressionist painters of the time (including Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Cezanne, Morisot, Degas, and several others) formed a loosely organized group that they named the Societe Anonyme Cooperative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (‘Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers’) to put on its own exhibitions.

Eight such exhibitions were held, from 1874 to 1886. The critical response to the works in the first exhibition was mixed, with some critics harshly attacking the exhibition. Claude Monet’s painting ‘Impression, Sunrise’ (‘Impression, soleil levant’) received a particularly harsh review. This review, however, in drawing attention to the word ‘Impression’ in the painting’s title, inadvertently gave the artists the name by which they subsequently became generally known – Impressionists.

Over time other artists joined the group, and their art gradually gained public support and acceptance. By the last exhibition, Impressionism had become firmly established as an important artistic style. Its influence continued to spread throughout Europe and, later, the United States, and can still be seen in much of today’s art. It is considered by many to be the precursor of ‘Modern Art’, including Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, and Dada.

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