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Impressionism and Post-Impressionism - Art History Information

Impressionism is an art-movement that originated in the late 19th century with a group of Paris-based artists. Their independent art exhibitions brought them fame in the 70s and 80s of the century despite the strong opposition from the established academic artists. The name of the movement derives from the work of Claude Monet "Impression, Sunrise" ("Soleil Levant") which provoked Louis Leroy to publish a strongly disapproving review in the newspaper Le Charivari entitled "The Exhibition of the Impressionists". The artists themselves did not like this name as it was intended to mock them. Instead, they would rather call themselves "independent".

The impressionist paintings are distinguished by thick and more visible brush strokes, an open composition, and a special attitude to the depiction of light in its multiple daily variations and states. The subject matter includes everyday themes, movement is present as a key element of the composition, and non-standard perspectives and visual angles are used. The development of Impressionism in art soon led to the emergence of analogous styles in music and literature.

Radicals in their time, the impressionists violated the rules of academic painting. Following the example of Delacroix and Turner, they constructed their paintings from colors, which took precedence over lines and contours. Furthermore, the impressionists painted realistic scenes from modern life, and they would often paint in open air. Previously, still lifes and portraits as well as landscapes were usually painted in a studio. The impressionists found out that they could capture the momentary and fleeting effects of light by painting en plein air. Thus, they painted visual effects rather than details, and would use short brush strokes with mixed or pure unmixed colors in order to achieve the effect of intense color vibration.

French Impressionism emerged at a time when many other artists, including the Russian, Italian, ad American realists, were also exploring plein-air painting. The impressionists, however, developed a new technique which was specific to them. Encompassing what its adherents considered a different way of seeing things, Impressionism is an art of immediacy and movement, of natural poses and compositions, of the play of light depicted by various bright tones.

Initially hostile, the public gradually became conscious of the fact that the impressionists had captured a new and original vision, even though the art critics and the institutions refused to give their approval to the new style.

Recreating what the eye really sees rather than the delineated details of the object, and creating a mixture of techniques and forms, Impressionism was the forerunner of various artistic styles, including Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism.

In the middle of the 19th century (a time of change for France when Napoleon III made reconstructions in Paris and waged military campaigns), The French Academy of Fine Arts was the preserver of the tradition and the imposer of standards in French art. Historical and religious paintings, and portraits were valued, but landscapes and still lifes were not. Darker colors and fine and realistic images were preferred. The Academy encouraged artists to remove all traces of "rougher strikes with the brush". Once every year, the Paris Salon was held where the works of the applicants were assessed by a jury consisting of academician painters. The approved works were then examined again by the same academicians who would award medals of the first, second, and third degrees to some of the paintings. Their standards were the standards of the Academy, the best embodiments of which were the works of Jean Leon Gerome and Alexandre Cabanel. An artist of that epoch could make a career by participating in the Salon, winning the approval of the jury, and being awarded a medal. The government would then buy his work, and this would be followed by orders from aristocrats and well-to-do members of the bourgeoisie. An artist who would pursue his own artistic quests was destined to fail. A number of young artists were either repeatedly rejected by the jury, or even if their works were approved, they were treated with contempt.

Some of the younger artists would use a lighter and brighter manner of painting than the artists of the previous generation. Among these were such artists as Gustave Courbet and the realists of the Barbizon school. They were more interested in painting landscapes and contemporary life scenes than in recreating historical or mythological scenes. A group of young artists, namely, Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frederic Bazille, while studying under Charles Gleyre, became friends, and would often paint together. Their meeting place was Café Guerbois were the discussions were most often led by Edouard Manet who was greatly admired by the other artists present. They were soon joined by Camille Pissarro, Paul Cézanne, and Armand Guillaumin.

During the 1860s, the Salon jury followed an unwritten rule of rejecting about one half of the works submitted by Monet and his friends, while favoring the paintings of those artists who were faithful to the established style. In 1863, the jury rejected "The Luncheon on the Grass" by Manet. The unusually big number of rejected paintings that year led to wide-spread discontent. After the emperor Napoleon III saw the paintings rejected in 1863, he decreed that the paintings should be judged by the public, and organized the Salon of the Rejected. Even though many of the visitors came only to mock, the Salon of the Rejected drew the attention of the public to the new trend in art, and attracted more visitors then the regular Salon.

The artists' requests for a new Salon of the Rejected in 1867 and 1873 were turned down. At the end of 1873, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and Sisley established the Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers in order to be able to exhibit their works independently. It was expected from the members of the organization, which was soon joined also by Cézanne, Berthe Morisot, and Edgar Degas, to desist from participating in the Salon. The organizers invited many progressive artists to take part in the exhibition, among which was also Eugene Boudin whose example of painting plein-air had been followed several years earlier by Monet. Another artist who had a great impact on Monet was Johann Jongkind, but like Manet, he refused to participate. In total, thirty artists took part in the first exhibition which was held in April, 1874, at the studio of the photographer Nadar.

The response was mixed. Monet and Cézanne received the most vicious attacks. The art critic and humorist Louis Leroy wrote a sarcastic article in which he called the artists "impressionists" taking occasion of the title of Monet's painting "Impression, Sunrise" from which derives also the name of the movement. The term became popular among the public. The artists as a whole also accepted it, even though they were in fact a rather diverse group in terms of style and temperament, exclusively united by their spirit of rebellion. The impressionists organized a total of eight exhibitions between 1874 and 1886, with different participating artists. Due to its spontaneity, the impressionist style soon became synonymous with modern life.

Monet, Sisley, Morisot, and Pissarro may be considered the "purest" impressionists due to their incessant quest for light and color, and their typical manner of painting. Degas rejected many of these quests, believing in the preeminence of drawing over color, and belittling painting outdoors. Renoir separated himself from the impressionists for some time during the 1880s, never committing himself entirely to their ideas again. Edouard Manet, although considered to be the leader of the impressionists, never abandoned the use of the black color, and never took part in any impressionist exhibition. He kept exhibiting his works at the Salon where his "Spanish Singer" had won a second class medal in 1861. Manet urged the rest to follow his example, affirming "The Salon is the real battlefield" where a reputation could be achieved.

The core group of artists (with the exception of Bazille who was killed during the Franco-Prussian war) was also deserted by Cézanne, followed later by Renoir, Sisley, and Monet. These abstained from participation in the exhibitions of the group to be able to submit their works to the official Salon. Degas invited Mary Cassat to exhibit her own paintings at the exhibition in 1879, insisting also on the inclusion of Jean François Rafaelli, Ludovic Lepic, and other realists that were not followers of the impressionist practices. This caused Monet to accuse the impressionists in 1880 of "opening the doors to first-come daubers". The group was also divided on the question whether they should invite Paul Signac and Georges Seurat to the exhibition in 1886. Pissarro was the only one to have participated in all eight impressionist salons.

The individual impressionists did not gain from the exhibitions much in terms of financial rewards, but their art won the approval and support of the public. A significant role for its acceptance was played by art works dealers such as Durand-Ruel, Ambroise Vollard, and Theo van Gogh. Durand-Ruel organized impressionist exhibitions in London and New York. Even though Sisley died in poverty in 1899, Renoir achieved great success at the 1879 Salon. Monet became financially secure in the early 1880s, and Pissarro in the early 1890s. At that time, the manner of impressionist painting occupied a central place in the art of the Salon.