Impressionism is the name used to indicate a common orientation of a group of artists (and not a real school of painting) who worked in France in the second half of the 19th century. The term (which later was extended to other areas of culture, in particular to qualify a trend of modern music) originates from an article by the critic of the “Charivari” L. Leroy, appeared with the title The Exposure of the Impressionists, which so sarcastically designated an exhibition held in Paris in the margins of the Salon of 1874, in the premises of the studio of photographer Nadar.

Among the exhibitors were Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Armand Guillaumin, Berthe Morisot, Camille Jacob Pissarro, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and especially Claude Monet, whose painting entitled Impression. Soleil levant (1872, Paris, Musée Marmottan Monet) had fueled the ironic spirit of the critic. In open contrast to the Academy and in opposition to the official taste of the Second Empire, which favored the great historical reconstructions of Thomas Couture, the eclecticism of Jean Léon Géròme and Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier, the meticulous execution of Alexandre Cabanel, the Impressionists gradually replaced the conception of the “subject” with that of the “motif” drawn from direct observation, which in turn they subjected to the cult of the ephemeral, capturing nature as it changes according to the time of day, the seasons, the light (elements that contribute to dissolving the contours of objects): to this end they relied on a painting technique based on chromatic vibration and the splitting of touch, renouncing the use of grays, ochre tones and earths to juxtapose on the canvas only pure colors, destined to merge in the moment of visual perception.

In this search for a new kind of painting, the Impressionists took advantage of a recent discovery, photography, and the fashion for Japanese prints, encouraged by the resumption of trade relations with Japan (1854). These prints, mostly in the Ukiyo-e style (or “painting of the changing world”), attracted the attention of young painters with the freshness of their light colors and their ability to capture the landscape in its tremors, in its immediacy. Japanese prints and fans did not take long to populate the ateliers; Zola himself kept a Japanese print and screen in his studio (Portrait of Zola by Manet, 1867-68, Paris, Louvre). But it was Degas, more than the others, who was fascinated by the unusual division of space inherent in this graphic style.

Photography, too, benefited from the prestige of the novelty; and some artists tried to replace the “photographic snapshot” (invented in 1863) with the “pictorial snapshot”, a sort of illusory representation of nature captured live. But others were able to take the lead, and saw in the cliché a new, extraordinary means of investigation. Among them there is Degas, who understood with extraordinary intuition all the possibilities: decentralized settings, sharp and unusual cuts, oblique perspectives, angles from top to bottom or vice versa (Woman with Chrysanthemums, 1865, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; L’absynthe, 1876, Paris, Musée d’Orsay).

Impressionism in painting
Chronology and protagonists

Historically, Impressionism is limited to the years 1874-86 (dates that correspond to the group’s first and last exhibitions). However, most of the historiographers of the movement (L. Venturi, J. Rewald, J. Leymarie, J. Lassaigne, K. Cogniat, F. Mathey, G. Bazin) have long debated the problem of these chronological boundaries: on the one hand, as early as 1869, Monet and Renoir intuitively resorted to what were to be its fundamental principles; on the other hand, from 1886, the promoters of the movement themselves modified the elements of their language; Cézanne, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec set out to find new solutions; Seurat and Signac aimed at a sort of codification.

Some historians (Venturi, among them) include in the group of Impressionists only the coryphaei of the movement, while others (e.g. Rewald) admit all the artists who exhibited with the group. In addition to recognizing the influence of Impressionism on music (C. Debussy, G. Paure) or literature (J. Laforgue, M. Proust), most historians rightly recognize a relationship between Impressionism and science. It would be wrong, however, to overstretch the scope of this relationship: the empirical use of colors by the Impressionists agreed spontaneously with the theory of the decomposition of light through the prism formulated by Eugène Chevreul in his Law of the simultaneous contrast of colors (1839); but the first Impressionists never gave themselves a rigorous methodology, unlike the younger Seurat and Signac, who referred to the work of H. L. F. Helmholtz. L. F. Helmholtz (1878) and N. O. Rood (1881), J. C. Maxwell and Ch. Henry.

With the exception of Camille Pissarro and Gustave Caillebotte, all the masters of Impressionism were born within a decade or so: between 1832 and 1841. They were, for the most part, Parisians or moved to the capital at an early age, and belonged to the wealthy bourgeoisie. They are Edouard Manet, Edgard Degas, Alfred Sisley, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, and then Armand Guillaumin, Frédéric Bazille, Berthe Morisot and Auguste Renoir. The circle of Impressionists also included F. Bracquemond, the American J. Whistler, Zacharie Astruc, Henri Fantin-Latour and Mary Cassat. To a later generation belong Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri-Edmond Cross, George Seurat, Paul Signac and Henri deToulouse-Lautrec. As chance would have it, all of them, around 1860, met in Paris, either around Monet studying at the Atelier Gleyre (Bazille, Renoir, Sisley), or around Pissarro working freely at the so-called Académie Suisse (Cézanne, Guillaumin), or, finally, copying at the Louvre (Degas, Manet, Morisot).

From the first attempts to the “Salon des refusés” of 1863

Until then, each of these artists had admired on the one hand the masters of the Barbizon school, J.-F. Millet, C. Corot and Ch.-F. Daubigny, who were trying to give the illusion (but painting in a studio) of the “plein air”, and on the other hand the realism of Courbet, the painter from Ornans whom some of them would have known personally. Near Honfleur, E. Boudin and J. Jongkind were already painting “sur le motif” and were attentive to the variations of light on the beaches of Normandy. It will be precisely Boudin who will urge Monet, in the years following 1858, to paint exclusively “en plein air”, stating that “three strokes from life are worth more than two days of work at the easel. From him Monet inherited the passion for the view of the sea beaches, which became fashionable following the development of tourism and he strove (clearing, at the same time, his palette) not to dissociate the preparatory study from the final outcome of the painting, so that the canvas retained the freshness of improvisation.

To remain faithful to the “impression” was the imperative of the moment: already in 1863, therefore ten years before the famous exhibition, the critic J.-A. Castagnary observed about Jongkind: “In him, everything resides in the impression”; and in 1865 he designated Daubigny as the “master of the impression”. And much earlier, at the Salon of 1847, Th. Thoré-Burger observed that the purpose of painting is “to communicate to others the impression made by the artist in the presence of nature”. Another commitment is to paint the figure “en plein air”. Courbet (who preferred to have an ox brought to his studio rather than go and paint it directly in the fields) had tried the experiment, but always without going out into the open air (Demoiselles des bords de la Seine, 1856. Paris, Mus. d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris); and so had Manet in Music at the Tuileries (1860-61, London, Nat. Gal.).

Destined between ’60 and ’70 to play, in spite of himself, that revolutionary role that Courbet had played ten years earlier, Manet (who, according to what Mallarmé reports, often repeated: “The eye, a hand”, thus summarizing with extraordinary conciseness the intimate relationship between perception and pictorial gesture) will polarize on himself the malicious attention of critics and the hilarity of the public at the “Salon des refusés” of 1863, where he exhibited Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Paris, Louvre); From this work, any mythological reference to Giorgione’s Country Concert had been excluded, in homage to “modernity”, the myth exalted by Baudelaire around the middle of the century.

In order to be recognized, it was necessary, at that time, to exhibit at the Salon, but access to it involved the “filter” of a jury that feared the political scope of realism and insisted on defending a hierarchy of genres, in which landscape occupied the last place. Since more than 4000 works were rejected in 1863, arousing a strong discontent in artistic circles, Napoleon III (fresh buyer of the corny Venus by Cabanel) established the “Salon des refusés” in opposition to the official Salon. There exhibited, in addition to Manet, Fantin-Latour, Guillaumin, Jongkind, Cézanne, Pissarro, Whistler, Bracquemond.

From 1863 to the first group exhibition of 1874 New scandal will arouse, at the Salon of 1865, Manet’s Olympia (Paris, Louvre), judged too “impudent”, while the young independents saw in it a manifesto. (And perhaps it was for this very reason that Monet later opened a subscription to make this painting a gift to the Louvre).

Meanwhile, other friends were converting to painting “sur le motif” (Monet’s Women in the Garden, 1867 Paris, Louvre, influenced Bazille’s The Family Reunion, 1867-69, Paris, Louvre). At the Café Guerbois, where the “bande à Manet” met at this time, new ideas were being worked out. Dominated the cenacle two writers: L.-E. Duranty, already a defender of realism (in 1856 he had founded the magazine of the same name) and a close friend of Degas, and Zola, who had the task of giving theoretical consistency to the meetings.

In the group shone Degas with fierce jokes against the landscape painters, also attended the Café Guerbois Cézanne, although in 1867 he was still a tributary of Romanticism and painted in full brushstroke (The Rape (London, private collection). Pissarro, who sometimes still signed himself “Corot’s pupil” and painted in the region of Pontoise (The Hermitage of Pontoise, 1867, London, private collection), was a frequent visitor, as was Renoir, who devoted himself to “plein air” in the forest of Fontainebleau.

These meetings at the Café Guerbois will give the group a certain cohesion, and in the paintings painted side by side by Renoir and Monet in 1869, at the famous baths of the Grenouillère on La Seine, Paris near Bougival, we can see the first paintings fully exemplifying what will be Impressionism; the accent is placed on the vibration of the reflections on the water, the touches are elongated, dense of matter, juxtaposed respecting the alternation of light and dark areas, while the light unites figures and landscape in a single atmosphere.

At the moment when the research was taking shape (cite Pissarro again; The Stagecoach at Louveciennes, 1870, Paris, Musée d’Orsay), the Franco-Prussian war broke out. Nourished, at least some of them, by ideas of opposition, by the republican and humanitarian spirit that had spread in the years preceding the conflict, exasperated by conventionalism and by official doctrines (defended by the Salons and, indirectly, by power), they developed the conviction that the war affected a society to which they did not belong and even that it could determine a perhaps even healthy break. Only Bazille enlisted immediately and died in combat. Renoir was called to arms in spite of himself; Degas and Manet waited to enlist at the fall of the empire; Cézanne retired to Estaque; Monet left Le Havre and moved to London, where he found Pissarro, Sisley and Daubigny, who introduced them to Paul Durand-Ruel, the art dealer whose name will remain indissolubly linked to that of Impressionism.

In London Monet and Pissarro discovered Constable and Turner’s magical light (Rain, steam, speed, 1843, London, National Gallery). Modern theme par excellence, the railroad will interest Pissarro (The stop at Penge; Upper Norwood, 1871, London, Courtauld Institute of Art), and later all the Impressionists, especially Monet (La Gare Saint-Lazare series, 1896-97).

Around 1872 they all found themselves in Paris, now preferring the Nouvelle Athènes to the Café Guerbois. In the meantime, Monet had moved to Argenteuil; he lived there for six years, receiving frequent visits from Renoir from Paris and Sisley from Louveciennes (Argenteuil Square, 1872, Paris, Musée d’Orsay). As Cézanne and Guillaumin in turn met with Pissarro in the vicinity of Pontoise, the two groups that had formed ten years earlier at the Atelier Gleyre and the Académie Suisse were partially reconstituted. The two leaders, Monet and Pissarro, were now masters of the new technique. While Cézanne tried, along with Pissarro, to assimilate the Impressionist lesson, Monet and Renoir renewed the experience they had lived in 1869 at La Grenouillère working alongside each other.

In The Duck Pond, 1873 (Renoir’s exemplar in Roquebrune, Coll. Reves; Monet’s in Paris, private collection) and Sails at Argenteuil, 1873-74 (Monet’s exemplar in Paris, Louvre; Renoir’s in Portland, Oregon, Art Mus.) each intensity of color, each change of light, are rendered through minute “comma” touches. Thanks to Monet’s influence on the whole group, Manet himself in 1874 painted outside Paris his Monet working in his bàteau atelier in Argenteuil, 1874 (Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemaldesammlungen). Only Degas (who, however, had also applied himself in 1869 to landscape painting from life) remained essentially tied to the city (The Dance Redoubt at the Opera, 1872; The Box, 1874, both in Paris, Louvre) and left Paris only to make sketches of racing courses, then transposing them onto canvas in the atelier. But he too, concerned with the “rendering” of light, was able to draw excellent effects from the artificial lighting, now violent now softened, of the scene, using both a game of fading colors and a sort of light dust, and new technical procedures (tempera, pastel, monotype, etc..). Monet’s painting underwent a further evolution in 1873-74 (The Poppies, 1873, Paris, Louvre); and it was a group finally quite homogeneous that founded the “Société anonyme cooperative” and that in 1874 faced the public for the first time. It was a real scandal; the following year the group organized, with catastrophic results, an auction at the Hôtel Drouot.

Other exhibitions [1876-86]

The second exhibition of the group took place in 1876 at the merchant Durand-Ruel and attracted very few visitors, although the judgment of the critics was more favorable: Philippe Burty, J.-A. Philippe Burty, J.-A. Castagnary, Georges Rivière (who published the magazine “L’impressioniste”) and others began to defend them; more than any other, Duranty supported them in his New Painting (1876). The third exhibition (1877) presented to the public the most splendid Sisley’s (The Flood at Port-Marly, 1876, Paris, Louvre) and Renoir’s dazzling, dazzling Ball at the Moulin de la Galette (1876, Paris, Louvre).

It constituted perhaps the most homogeneous exhibition of the group: Th. Duret openly supported it in his book on Impressionist Painters (1878). But from the fourth exhibition (1879) until the eighth (1886), disagreements surfaced, along with the desire of some to succeed at the Salon. Pissarro introduced Gauguin, and Degas imposed his friends F. Zandomeneghi and J.-Fr. Raffaelli. Renoir and Sisley, Monet and Cézanne gradually moved away from the group. Disagreements arose that foreshadowed the now imminent break: each seemed to tend towards a hardening of their methods; this became evident at the 1883 exhibition, the year of Manet’s death, and was confirmed by later production.

As Venturi observes, “Monet showed that he opted for a symbolism of colors and light” (the series of The Cathedral of Rouen, 1894, Paris, Louvre; the views of London, 1904 and Venice, 1908; the Water Lilies, 1915, Paris, Jeu de Paume); “Pissarro was attracted by the “pointillisme” (L’Ile Lacroix, Rouen, Fog Effect, 1888, Philadelphia, private collection); “Renoir wanted to be a painter, but he did not want to be a painter. priv.); “Renoir wanted to assimilate elements of academic form” (Les grandes baigneuses, 1884-87, Paris, Louvre); finally, “Cézanne focused his attention on problems of structure” (Rocks in the Woods, 1896-98, Zurich, Kunsthaus); and “Sisley resolved his problem in mannerism” (Moret, the banks of the Loing, 1892, Paris, Louvre).

It was thanks to Pissarro, the only one always present at the eight collective events, that the last one, in 1886, took place. But of the initial group there were now only Degas, Guillaumin and Berthe Morisot, submerged or almost submerged by those who already showed their reaction to Impressionism, both in the name of idealism and spirituality (O. Redon, Gauguin, the initiators of Symbolism), and in the name of science and physiology of vision (Seurat, Signac, protagonists of the last aesthetic subversion of Impressionism).

The critical consecration
Impressionism between continuity and rupture

Nonetheless, at the very moment when the Impressionists seemed most disunited, the first signs of consecration appeared. Of course, the hostility of official circles persisted with the refusal to exhibit Manet’s Olympia at the Louvre and the scandal of the Caillebotte bequest (1894): the Institut claimed to oppose the bequest of this collection, which included 65 of the painter’s paintings; but Renoir, in his capacity as executor of the estate, succeeded in having about forty of them accepted at the Musée du Luxembourg. The first amateurs were, among others, V. Choquet, G. Charpentier, Count Doria; at the same time, the market began to organize itself, which was to be so important for the affirmation of Impressionist painting: Paul Petit, Boussot & Valladon, Bernheim and especially Durand-Ruel, who in 1886 presented more than 300 canvases in New York, where the critics expressed themselves in very favorable terms. Around 1900, the public laughed less. The auctions began.

All of this, however, is very little when compared to the critical success that the movement experienced during the twentieth century, a success crowned by the opening, immediately after the Second World War, of the Museum of Impressionism in Paris (at the Jeu de Paume building) and, more recently, by the Centennial Exhibition. The reasons for such a great fervor on the part of the public are manifold. Impressionism is recognized as the first pictorial revolution that made a clean break with the tradition of the past, and therefore the birth of modern art. Moreover, we are often pleased to associate Impressionism with the magical notion of “avant-garde”, born with the 20th century. In fact, the beginning of Impressionism underlined one of the crucial phases of the contrast between bourgeois taste and free artistic creation: a conflict that was resolved, for many of its promoters, in an existence of misery and in the condition of “cursed artists”, another exquisitely modern myth.

The reality is however much more complex, and lies perhaps in the fundamental bivalence of continuity and rupture, inherent in the movement. Continuity, first of all: considered individually, the members of the group did not present anything revolutionary; and when they depicted the city, despite the events of the Commune, they did not paint according to the innovative spirit that inspired Delacroix in painting Liberty on the barricades, but rather illustrated the festive and fairy-tale scenario: think of Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines (1873, New York, private collection), the Ball at the Moulin de la Galette, or the Music at the Tuileries. While it is true that the aristocratic Degas was interested in the microcosm of the milliners and washerwomen, painting “en plein air” cannot simply be explained as a city fashion favored by the spread of public transportation.

On the other hand, none of them hid their desire to be accepted at the Salon (and in time almost all of them were admitted, and in 1883 Manet was even awarded the much sought-after Legion d’Honneur). In their efforts to get closer to nature, the Impressionists remained steeped in the very realism they thought they were fighting. In fact, what they sought was still the “faithful copy of nature”, the “objective truth”, a new “imitation” of the ephemeral and of the world “in the act of creating itself”. From this point of view, Impressionism fits in perfectly with the tradition of French landscape painting in the 19th century, since for it the painting is still an “open window” on the world, heir to the “vedute”. Its importance does not lie, therefore, in having broken with, but in having splendidly concluded, a tradition that is centuries old.

On the other hand, Impressionism also has a value of rupture; and in these terms it has been understood from the moment it began to spread, in France as well as abroad. In France, where certain provincial museums (Le Havre, Lyon) showed, at times, more eagerness to acquire Impressionist paintings than the Louvre, the Salon d’Automne played an important role, presenting in 1904 33 works by Cézanne and 35 by Renoir, in 1905 31 by Manet, in 1907 again Cézanne with 56 paintings. It would be easier, from that moment, to understand what Matisse’s early works owed to Manet and Signac; what Bonnard foresaw in Renoir; what the Cubists would learn from Cézanne.

Impressionism in other European countries

It is not possible to speak in the same terms about French Impressionism and the numerous Belgian, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish or Russian Impressionist emulators. With the major exhibition organized in 1883 at the Gurlitt Gallery in Berlin, Germany proved to be one of the European nations most receptive to the new aesthetic. J. Meier Graef published Modern Impressionism (Berlin, 1903) at the same time that the conservative Rugo von Tschudi was purchasing numerous Impressionist paintings for the National Gallery of Berlin: a gesture that will have, as a consequence, the resignation imposed by Kaiser Wilhelm II, but that did not prevent him from continuing his policy of purchases at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich. In 1904, the Libre Esthétique in Brussels presented a rich complex of Impressionist paintings. The following year it was the turn of London and Berlin, in 1908 of Zurich, in 1910 of Leipzig.

As for Italy, its participation in the Impressionist movement has often been misinterpreted. Undoubtedly, Giuseppe de Nittis participated in the first exhibition of the group, in 1874, and five years later Federico Zandomeneghi participated in the fourth. But they were new recruits to Degas. If they exhibited, they owed it to him: to him who, undoubtedly, during his stay in Florence in 1858 could not ignore the activity of the Macchiaioli: Silvestre Lega, Giovanni Fattori, Telemaco Signorini, Nino Costa. But it would be wrong to confuse the technique of the Macchiaioli, still a tribute to chiaroscuro, or that of the sculptor Medardo Rosso, with the intentions of the “bande à Manet”, attentive to the chromatism and the light of the open air.

Moreover, it appears that the two paintings by Pissarro, which the critic D. Martelli managed to expose at the Promotrice Fiorentina, did not meet any appreciation by the Tuscan painters. We had to wait until 1903 and 1905 for the Venice Biennial to welcome a still limited number of works by Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley, thanks to the pressure of V. Pica, who in 1908 published in Bergamo Gli impressionisti francesi, the only important study to have appeared in Italy before Impressionism by Ragghianti (1947) and the translation of Histoire de l’impressionisme by J. Rewald (1949) with a preface by Roberto Longhi, to whom we also owe the first great retrospective of Impressionism organized in Italy (Venice Biennale, 1948). Let us finally remember that Lionello Venturi, before publishing in Paris and New York his Archivi dell’impressionismo (1939) had defended the cause of the Macchiaioli. With all this, when the collection of E. Fabbri was sold, in the Thirties, not a single painting remained on the peninsula; and consider that it included 28 canvases by Cézanne alone.

The wealth of Impressionism,” wrote Leymarie, “was to carry within itself the germ of its own overcoming.”

Taken as a whole, Monet’s work in itself illustrates this bipolarity between continuity and rupture (which, we stress again, is an essential characteristic of Impressionism): in his insatiable yearning for visible reality, Monet ended up distorting reality itself and pushed his own research to a kind of unrealism, in a clear break with the tradition of landscape. Already in 1873, when he painted his Poppies (Paris, Louvre), the flowers in the foreground, pictorially entrusted to large red patches, preannounce the tachisme. And later, his Water Lilies are placed at the limits of informal art and abstraction: that of Delaunay, for example, who in his Windows, his Simultaneous Contrasts or his Endless Rhythms shows that he has inherited Monet’s passion for sunlight.