The Impressionist exhibitions

Claude Monet, Impression Sunrise,1872
Claude Monet, Impression Sunrise,1872

Due to their frustration with the Paris Salon, a group which was later to become known as the Impressionists organised the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (Co-operative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers) in 1873, with the intention of exhibiting their artworks independently.

The idea of an independent exhibition was radical. No group of artists  had previously organised a major self-promoting show outside of the official French Academy’s annual Salon or the short lived Salon des Refusés.

However, this group, which included Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and Alfred Sisley, had all had experienced rejection by the Salon jury in recent years and were also frustrated with having to wait a whole year in between exhibitions.

They needed to show their work and they wanted to sell it. So, in an attempt to gain recognition outside the official channel of the Salon, these artists pooled their money and rented a studio that belonged to the famous photographer Nadar.

The organisers invited a number of other progressive artists to join them in their inaugural exhibition, including the older Eugène Boudin, who had influenced Monet in adopting plein air painting some years before.

Members of the Association, which soon included Cézanne, Berthe Morisot, and Edgar Degas, were expected to forego participation in the Salon.

However, Édouard Manet refused to participate even though the group regarded him as their inspiration and a leader. He had set up his own pavilion during the 1867 World’s Fair, but he was not interested in giving up on the Salon jury, as the status of being accepted by the Salon was important to him, even if he had to endure the ridicule of the jury in the process.

In total, thirty artists participated in their first exhibition, held in April 1874 at Nada’s studio. Not surprisingly,  the first exhibition was not a financial success.  Many of the critics derided the work as it was too  ‘sketchy’ and wasn’t considered to be finished, and the subject matter of landscapes and portraits of ordinary people was too commonplace.

Dubbed the Impressionists by the critics that year (based largely on Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, which he completed in 1872) the group didn’t adopt the name until 1877.

Eight exhibitions were held from 1874 through to 1886 in different locations in Paris.

The Association had a fluid membership over this period  with the number of participating artists ranging from nine to thirty,  with philosophical and political differences leading to heated disputes and fractures. Pissarro, the eldest, was the only artist who exhibited in all eight shows, while Morisot participated in seven.

The last of the independent exhibitions in 1886 also saw the beginning of a new phase in avant-garde painting. By this time, few of the participants were working in a recognisably Impressionist manner. Most of the core members were developing new, individual styles that caused ruptures in the group’s tenuous unity.

However, the Impressionist exhibitions mark a turning point for art promotion in the modern era, and led to a gradual acceptance of the fluid Impressionist style which remains popular today.


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