More than a century ago, Impressionist artists attempted to capture the depth, senses, and motions of everyday life through colors, loose brushstrokes, and blurry figures.
“Impressionism is only direct sensation. All great painters were less or more impressionists. It is mainly a question of instinct”
Capturing moments has become an easy task for us since the invention of photography. However, nowadays things have gotten even easier for us. Every time we want to take a picture or record a video, we just have to take our cellphones, open the camera, click, and that’s it. But do all those photos or videos we upload on social media really capture the complexity of the moment? That is, the background, the colors, and the lighting of the actual scene, the smells, the sounds, and the perpetual movement and animation of everyday life. You might think that sounds like an ambitious task, but more than a century ago, an artistic movement attempted to capture the depth, senses, and motions of everyday life through colors, loose brushstrokes, and blurry figures that in detail might look like deformed images, but as a whole compose dreamlike landscapes of real life. This group was the French Impressionists.
Edouard Manet, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, La Yole (1875)
This movement began in Paris around the 1860s, but it quickly spread throughout Europe and the United States. However, right now we’re going to focus on the birthplace of this movement, where the most important artists created their masterpieces and gave eternal life to the everyday scenes of Parisian lifestyle. By the time Impressionism was born, painters used to display their works at Paris’ “official” exhibition, called the Salon. As you might imagine, if your artworks were chosen for the Salon, it meant that the official art institutions of the country, and the government to a certain degree, recognized you as an artist, so it was one of the greatest honors and ambitions for many artists to be exhibited at this place, as it was a sure ticket to fame and recognition. However, one of the first acts that marked the Impressionists as a rebellious group of artists was their decision to create their own gallery to display and sell their works.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Bal du moulin de la Galette (1876)
Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise (1873)
Some of the most famous Impressionists, like Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas, had previously attempted to exhibit their paintings at the Salon. But they couldn't do it, especially because getting there meant having contacts in the jury that decided which painters would exhibit their paintings. So, to defy the Salon, the artists decided to buy a studio to show their works and organized their first exhibit around the same date of the 1874 Salon. They decided to call themselves the Société Anonyme des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, etc. (Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, Inc.) This move was seen as openly defiant of art authorities. Nonetheless, this wasn’t the first time a group of artists defied the Salon like that. A similar situation happened in 1863, when the Salon rejected several renowned artists, Édouard Manet being among them, because they explored themes that were considered scandalous at the time. Then, Manet, along with other artists like Paul Cézanne and Camille Pissarro, decided to create the Salon des Refusés (‘Salon of the Refused’) to defy the censorship they were subjected to.
Claude Monet, The Water-Lily Pond (1899)
Edgar Degas, The Dance Class (1874)
Manet’s stylistic and thematic defiance of the academy became one of the main influences over this new group of painters that would later be known as the Impressionists. The name came from a derogatory comment about Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, which according to critic Louis Leroy, was just a bunch of impressions and nothing else. Rather than being bothered by the comment, the group decided to use it, because ironically, they believed it described quite well what they wanted to achieve with their paintings: the representation of the short-lived impressions of everyday scenes and the perpetual motion of life.
Edgar Degas, The Star (1878)
Berthe Morisot, The Cradle (1872)
To achieve that goal, Impressionists created “sketchy” paintings. In other words, paintings that seemed unfinished, with blurry lines and fast brushstrokes that give a sense of movement that they wanted in their works. This was seen by the harshest critics as an insult to art, because previously, they thought paintings should not look like sketches or undefined figures. On top of that, instead of focusing on sublime concepts or ideas, Impressionists started to focus on the French middle class, their hobbies, and day-to-day activities, not to mock them or diminish them as previous artistic currents did, but as a way to celebrate their lifestyle and to highlight the beauty of everyday life.
Berthe Morisot, Summer’s Day (1879)
Camille Pissarro, The Boulevard Montmartre at Night (1897)
Another important aspect to understand Impressionism is the fact that these painters worked outdoors, unlike previous artists, who secluded themselves in studios with their models or their own ideas to create a piece. You might think this isn’t that big of a deal, but it was a great innovation at the time. Doing it before that time was difficult because artists had to mix and create their pigments themselves at home. But then, with the creation of ready-made paint, artists were able to leave their studios with the paints they needed and capture the scenes that were happening right before their eyes.
Camille Pissarro, Boulevard Montmartre Afternoon, Sunlight (1897)
Marie Bracquemond, Three Ladies with Parasol (The Three Graces), (1880)
Last but not least, the scientific advances of that era also influenced painters, so there was one more reason why their paintings look so blurry. With the new studies on the functioning of the brain, artists wanted to depict how the human mind takes its time to perceive its whole environment. What do I mean with this? Take for instance the moment you find a person you know on the other side of the street. Your brain will take a few seconds to recognize them, and once you do and say hi to them, your brain, despite being aware of the rest of the faces and scenes occurring around you, will not see them as clearly as you focus on the person you’ve met. Impressionists wanted to depict all those mind processes to make their paintings even more realistic, as if you were actually seeing that scene developing in front of you. Then, they used those quick brushstrokes to represent the swiftness with which the brain perceives outer stimuli and attempts to focus on a particular aspect of the environment.
Marie Bracquemond, Afternoon tea, (1880)
Paul Cézanne, The Basket of Apples, (1893)
Perhaps, attempting to depict all the processes and images that happen around us sounds like an impossible feat not even the best camera could accomplish. However, as these Impressionist paintings show, the artists belonging to this current were aware of the ephemeral pace of those valuable moments in life, so they created beautiful works that invite us to be aware of those moments worth remembering. They happen right in front of us, and there’s so many processes behind them. Therefore, there’s a whole world of possibilities of how to depict them. Like Monet said, maybe deep within every artist, is the soul of an Impressionist.
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