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What Is Impressionism?

Impressionism is, without a doubt, one of the most continually popular painting styles of our times.  But this has not always been so.  It evolved in France in the 1860s to 1900s with a group of artists whose names you know well – Monet, Manet, Renoir, Cassatt, Degas, Pissarro, etc. In an act of rebellion against the strict styles of the time of realistic, classical-based story-telling, this group of artists burst onto the scene with a new style which emphasized the beauty of nature. 

It is generally agreed that the invention of paints in tubes provided artists the freedom to begin painting outdoors. Before this time, paints were hand ground from pigments, mixed with oil and turpentine, and used only in the studio.  There was a possibility of using paints stored in pig blatters or glass syringes, but the Winsor Newton company patented the metal tube and added a screw cap.  This gave artists the portability of leaving the studio for the open fields and forests.  In other words, they began painting en plein air (out of doors). 

Impression Sunrise by Claude Monet. This is the painting from which the movement derived its name. The painting itself isn’t very large, only about 19 x 25 inches.

The freedom of painting outside allowed artists to capture a “snapshot” or impression of what they saw at the time they saw it.  This new style was labeled impressionism after Claude Monet exhibited his painting, Impression Sunrise.  The label was meant to be derisive but as fate would have it, it stuck.  After the initial shock of the crude paintings by this group of rebels, in a short time the public’s tastes were changed to one of acceptance and regard.  This big change was as revolutionary as going from classical music to rock and roll overnight.

American collectors were the first to embrace this style and began snapping up the paintings of the notable impressionsts and shipping them back to the United States.  Even today, many French musems relegate the impressionist paintings to some dim, out of the way spot while they are often featured in American museums.

Impressionism continues to be one of the most popular painting styles both among collectors and painters.  So how can you recognize what denotes an impressionist style? Here are a few guidelines.

  • Painters express feelings more than capturing a specific place or event.  How does the sun feel?  Can you see the glint off the water?  Express the coolness of the shady trees?
  • Thick brush strokes are another indication of impressionism.  The brush strokes are visible and the paint is not over-worked. 
  • The colors are mixed with the eye, i.e., they are laid down next to each other instead of being mixed to death on the palette.  If you look at an impressionist painting up close, it will often appear fuzzy and unclear.  However, if you step back a few feet (or several) the bold strokes and colors come together to form the image.  Think of Monet’s water lily paintings.  The paintings are huge and up close they appear to only be a loose collection of swirls and paint blobs.  However, from a distance of about ten feet, the whole painting comes together and the beauty of the scene is striking.
  • The subjects are often common place, found objects or still lifes. People in ordinary circumstances.
  • There is an asymetrical cropping of the paintings.  Parts of the scene are allowed to go off the edge.  Many times the scenes are captured exactly as they are found. Landscapes often have a very high or very low horizon line.

These are just a few of the main points defining impressionist style.  It continues to be popular with both painters and viewers.  However, there are now many finer branches of impressionism – contemporary, nouveau, outsider, open, etc.  Some use very bold colors and others are more muted.  Frankly, it’s all good. 

One of Monet’s many waterlily paintings. He painted over 250 images of these. Up close, it appears to be swirls or patches of paint. The composition doesn’t come into focus until you step back several feet.

If you would like to see more artwork, I suggest that you visit one of the many free museum exhibits online.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a breathtaking collection of work by the impressionists.  There are few things so humbling than sitting in a room full of Monets or VanGoghs.  Especially if you calculate how many millions (billions) of dollars worth of paintings are just in that one room.

There are more than 6,000 books on the subject listed on Amazon and more than 600,000 links about impressionism listed on Google search.  Yep, still pretty popular. Here are a few links to museums with online exhibits.

https://ecobnb.com/blog/2020/03/online-museums-free/

https://www.travelandleisure.com/attractions/museums-galleries/museums-with-virtual-tours