The term Impressionism originated in 1874. When discussing Claude Monet’s painting Impression, soleil levant, one art critic used the word Impression contemptuously in his article on the exhibition. From then on the term Impressionism was used to describe the work of this new circle of artists. The main figures in the group were: Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley and Edgar Degas.
To understand what the Impressionists were trying to achieve, we have to understand the style of painting before this radical group. The art schools of the day, such as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts taught their aspiring artists traditional techniques. The majority of the work produced was in the studio, the models were in classical, unnatural poses, and the palette was dark and the themes often historical. It was the influence of artists such as Eugène Delacroix, Gustave Courbet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Jean-François Millet that helped to lay the foundations for Impressionism. These artists painted with a more natural use of light and colour and without historical grandeur. In addition to this they painted en plein-air, a technique that was made increasingly easier during this period due to the invention of paint in tubes. Édouard Manet then added a lightening of palette and a freer, rapid use of brushwork, this was then taken a step further by the artists who became known as the Impressionists.
After the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the subsequent political upheavals, the artists that had left Paris, returned (minus Frédéric Bazille who was killed in the war). The artists regularly met in the Café Guerbois and passionately discussed art and society. It was then that they became convinced it was time to organise their own exhibitions. Therefore in 1874, the first Impressionist exhibition took place in the studio of photographer and journalist Nadar.
There were eight Impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1886, not all the artists exhibited in every exhibition. It is therefore difficult to label an artist an Impressionist, so certain stylistic and technical factors are considered, including subject matter and the application of paint. Subject matter was generally modern life or the atmospheric effects on a landscape or seascape. The application of paint was rapid and loose creating a ‘sketchy’ effect. Another important factor was the practise of plein-air painting, depicting exactly what they saw in front of them and not recreating it back in the studio. They were interested in the way light fell on snow or water and the way in which light and colour can change so rapidly and dramatically during varying times of the day. They wished to catch the fall of light at any one given moment before it changed, hence the rapid technique of painting they adopted.
In addition to the main core of Impressionism - Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pissarro - there were many other influential figures, for example and Bazille and Sisley. Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt were also influential but suffered artistic restrictions due to nineteenth century ideologies concerning women. Another notable figure was Armand Guillaumin who abandoned his career as a civil servant to devote all his time to painting. Along with Degas, Manet, is always discussed in relation to the Impressionist group. However, both were somewhat separated from the others by a number of factors such as social status, education, artistic aims and age.
By the eighth and last exhibition of the Impressionists (1886), nearly all of the forerunners had moved on. Their work became increasingly popular and well received by the public and the critics. However, a new generation of artists began to attract attention, for example Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, Paul Signac and the Symbolist painter Odilon Redon. Impressionism began to give way to Post Impressionism and a new chapter in art history began.