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"Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you."  Claude Monet

In the Beginning

The impressionist art movement originated in France in the last quarter of the 19th century as a reaction against traditional art and its strict rules. A group of painters who became known as the Impressionists decided to gain independence from the standards prescribed by the French Academy of Fine Arts and France's annual official art exhibition called The Salon. Impressionism covers approximately two decades, from the late 1860s through the 1880s.

The term impressionist was first used by French art critic Louis Leroy in 1874 based on Monet's painting Impression, Sunrise. Leroy found the term fitting to describe the loose, undefined and "unfinished" style that Monet and several other artists applied to their paintings.

"A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more highly finished than this seascape."
Louis Leroy, 1874, criticism of Monet's Impression, Sunrise

What is Impressionism?

Impressionist painters strove to break away from the traditional rules of subject matter, technique, and composition in painting, and created their own, unique style.

Subjects of Impressionist Paintings

Scenes from Everyday Life
Unlike conservative painters who focused on portraying dramatic, often historical scenes of idealized beauty and moral or religious meaning, the Impressionists chose ordinary scenes from everyday life as the subject matter of their work. They put emphasis on capturing reality and depicting what they saw at a given moment.

Nature was elevated to become the subject of the painting, rather than a backdrop for another scene, as was the case in traditional art. In painting landscapes, the Impressionists tried to put on canvas what they saw in front of them, without idealization. They often made a seemingly ordinary part of nature (a riverside path, a field of haystacks) the focal point of their work.

Camille Pissarro: Pommiers en Fleurs, Eragny


Impressionist artists were interested in portraying people in everyday, informal situations: the middle class during leisure time activities in gardens, parks, or at the seaside, and workmen or rural people at work. One novelty of people portraits was the introduction of nudes who, "at the time, ... were an acceptable subject in allegorical or historical paintings, but not in scenes of everyday life."*

Pierre Renoir: Oarsmen at Chatou


With the 19th century Industrial Revolution and the reconstruction of Paris into a modern city, the city scene became one of the Impressionists' favorite subjects: "women wearing the latest fashions, the airy new streets and suburbs of Paris, modern modes of transportation ..., and the riverside and seacoast resorts where Parisians spent their leisure time."*

Gustave Caillebotte: Paris, a Rainy Day, 1877


Still Life
Painting still life allowed the Impressionists to experiment with the depiction of changing light and to study the effects of light and shadow on the look of ordinary objects.

Paul Cézanne: Natura Morta Con Tenda

Impressionist Technique

The Impressionists distanced themselves from the somber tones of earlier paintings. They generally avoided the use of black and earth colors and instead used light, vibrant colors to give their paintings luminosity and to capture the changing effect of sunlight on the scenes they painted. Bright, contrasting colors were put onto the canvas one next to or on top of each other, often without prior mixing or subsequent blending.

Brush Work
In order to convey the movement and changing nature of a passing moment, the Impressionists used quick, broken brushstrokes that were left without any further smoothing. This method allows the viewer to clearly see the traces of the brush and gives impressionist paintings an unfinished appearance. The Impressionists worked quickly, sometimes in one sitting, in order to capture the fleeting moment and to give their work a spontaneous feel.

Impressionist painters often worked outdoors, not in a studio, to be in close touch with nature and to be able to directly observe the effects of changing sunlight, weather and movement.


The Impressionists broke the traditional rules of composition and opened their style to experimenting. In their attempts to capture a given moment, they omitted detail in favor of the overall effect of the painting. They looked at their subjects from unusual angles and often cropped or framed their work in a way that was new to painting. A scene is often captured as if in passing or through the lens of a camera (a new invention at the time that enabled the Impressionists to study movement and gesture in real-life situations).

Edgar Degas: Blue Dancers

"Impressionism (art)," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2005
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"Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things."  Edgar Degas