Emergence of Impressionism
Late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century

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Origins of Impressionism

In the mid 19th century, the predominant style of painting was of mythological and religious subjects. Not surpisingly, the patrons providing support for the arts were members of the State and Church.

Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople completed by Delacroix in 1840 and Jacob Wrestling with the Angel completed by Gustave Dore in 1855 demonstrate the popularity of these genres.

Due to economic and social changes in the late 19th century, the circle of art patrons grew to include mercantile traders. With a wider audience capable and interested in purchasing art, the expectations of the subject matter portrayed in paintings changed. There was an increased interest in artwork that celebrated man and the natural world, as opposed to learned fictions that only a select audience could appreciate.

Impressionism largely originated and centered in France between 1867 and 1886. At that time, the social and political climate was very volatile, and eventually led to the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. A rampant sense of rebellion provided quite a verdant, fertile backdrop for an art movement that went against the grain of tradition. The first large exhibition of Impressionism was held in 1874. The Exposition des Impressionistes was comprised entirely of Impressionist paintings rejected by the formal Salon.

Initially Impressionism represented the pinnacle of realism. This was in direct opposition to the conventional Salon style of painting where the finished piece would have little to do with reality and the lighting would appear artificial. Members of the Salon typically made several preliminary studies, some outdoors and others with posed models indoors. The final painting would be completed in their studio and the brushstrokes smoothed to reduce the impression of a painting.

The Impressionist artist was faced with the difficult challenge of trying to record an intense, fleeting impression of nature in true color and light. The paintings were completed where natural lighting was available, usually outdoors. A painting was typically completed in a very short timeframe to capture the true essence of light. The brushstrokes were left as applied emanating beauty and spontaneity within the painting. These characteristics are fully embodied in Claude Monet's landscape entitled Impressions. It was this painting that inspired the label impressionism to become attached to the painters represented in the Exposition des Impressionnistes.

Monet's series of water lily paintings demonstrate the diversity of mood possible by changing environmental conditions and emphasize the importance of capturing the essence of a fleeting moment in time. He captures the same image showing the atmosphere and light reflected from the lily pond in his back gardern during several different times of day and season.

As the Impressionist movement matured, however, many artists became more focused on shape, form, and color for its own sake and drifted from "truth to nature". Cezannes' paintings of the Chateau-Noir effectively demonstrate this. Although he toyed with the potrayal of light in the spirit of Impressionism, his lingering concern for solidity and structure showed in his use of shape, form, and color.

New research and advances in technology in the nineteenth century made feasible innovations that directly enabled the Impressionist painting style. A lighter palette was made feasible by the accessibility and affordability of new synthetic, lighter pigments. The availability of paint tubes for storage and portable easels made painting en plein air (out of doors) convenient for the first time. Artists were also increasingly enticed to experiment with color. They gained a new understanding of the way the eye perceives light based on color research that culminated in color theory that is still of relevance today. This understanding impacted the way they handled their palette when trying to recreate the natural effect of atmospheric light.

For the artist, Impressionism was novel and liberating. Painting became more spontaneous. Painting subjects more 'true to nature' did not require in depth scholarly knowledge of learned fictions.

Although the movement was not sustained in France in the twentieth century, it did continue to spread in many other European countries and America. For additional information on French Impressionism, visit the Web Museum.

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