Impressionism – The transition from Realism in the 1860s.

Berthe Morisot On the Balcony 1872
Berthe Morisot On the Balcony 1872

Impressionism (1870 – 1890), which can be considered to be the first of the Modern Art movements, had its immediate roots in the traditions of Realism. Realist painters such as Courbet, Millet and Corot were capturing scenes from the ‘natural’ world and people going about their everyday lives, particularly in the countryside.

The Impressionists  also developed an interest in contemporary subject matter, but of an informal and pleasurable kind, especially aspects of the social life of Paris and its surrounds.

A key difference in style between the Realists and Impressionists was that whilst the Realists focused more on the detail of their subject matter, the Impressionists were intent on capturing the most fleeting aspects of nature – especially the changing light of the sun. Most Realist artists made sketches or studies to be completed back in the studio, and often used models and other props to help them finalise their works. The Impressionists also went out into the countryside but chose to paint outdoors (en plein air), often returning to the same spot on several occasions, at the same time of the day, to complete their work. This was made possible because of the increasing number of train routes from Paris to the nearby countryside, and new inventions such as portable and collapsible easels, paint in tubes, a greater range of colours and paintbrushes which were  stronger and thicker.

Other artists who influenced the Impressionist style included Édouard Manet, Eugéne Delacroix and  English painter J. M. W. Turner.

Édouard Manet’s was developing a new approach to painting, with innovations in both colour and brushwork.

Traditionally artists had begun painting their canvases with a layer of dark paint and then built lighter layers of paint on top, waiting for each layer to dry before adding the next one. Finally, they glazed the painting to give the surface a smooth finish. The whole process could take weeks or months.

Manet preferred to complete his portraiture paintings in one sitting whilst his models were sitting in front of him. He did this by painting in  a single layer and leaving the final product unglazed. When he made a mistake, he scraped off the paint down to the bare canvas, and then repainted that area.

Manet also painted in patches of colour to make sharper contrasts. Instead of painting a range of progressively lighter or darker shades of an object to indicate how close it was to a light source, he would simply apply a patch of pure colour.

The Impressionists adopted and modified Manet’s alla prima (at once) painting technique to enable them to capture the shifting effects of light, and also modified his method of applying colour patches by breaking them up into much tinier patches, flecks, and dabs of colour. Impressionists  also “loaded” the paint on the surface, when the accepted tradition of the time was to paint shadows thinly. They also used white, or very lightly tinted colours, to add to brilliance of colour and luminosity to their work.

The Impressionists were also indebted to Romanticist Eugéne Delacroix for his use of  intense colours and pure undiluted pigment. He also began placing pure colours next to each other noticing they would mix in the eye.

J.M.H. Turner’s abstract portrayal of light and the elemental forces of nature also laid the ground work for impressionism.

Impressionism can be identified by the following features:

  • Contemporary social life of a middle class in the cities and suburbs usually at leisure as the main subject;
  • Painting in the evening to get effets de soir – the shadowy effects of the light in the evening or twilight.
  • The composition implies a glimpse or fleeting impression of a scene;
  • Painters experimented with varying  elements such as light and viewpoint;
  • Painters observed nature in natural light;
  • Figures and objects have no outlines, contrast of colour and value create shapes instead;
  • Compositions are cropped, partial figures, unusual  points of view above or below the scene, awkward poses suggesting imminent movement;
  • In paintings made en plein air (outdoors), shadows are boldly painted with the blue of the sky as it is reflected onto surfaces, giving a sense of freshness and openness that was not captured in painting previously. (Blue shadows on snow inspired the technique.)
  • The Impressionists relaxed the boundary between subject and background so that the effect of an Impressionist painting often resembles a snapshot, a part of a larger reality captured as if by chance.
  • Short, thick strokes of paint are used to quickly capture the essence of the subject, rather than its details. The paint is often applied impasto. (Paint is laid on an area of the surface (or the entire canvas) very thickly, usually thickly enough that the brush or painting-knife strokes are visible. Paint can also be mixed right on the canvas. When dry, impasto provides texture, the paint coming out of the canvas.)
  • Colours are applied side-by-side with as little mixing as possible, creating a vibrant surface. The optical mixing of colours occurs in the eye of the viewer.
  • Grays and dark tones are produced by mixing complementary colours. In pure Impressionism the use of black paint is avoided.
  • Wet paint is placed into wet paint without waiting for successive applications to dry, producing softer edges and an intermingling of colour.
  • Impressionist paintings do not exploit the transparency of thin paint films (glazes) which earlier artists built up carefully to produce effects. The surface of an Impressionist painting is typically opaque.
  • The play of natural light is emphasized. Close attention is paid to the reflection of colours from object to object.

Consider the images in the gallery below. The first three paintings are by Manet, Turner and Delacroix. Can you see how they may have influenced the brushwork and colouring of the following Impressionist works?

In my next blog, I’ll talk some more about the Impressionist style and introduce a few of the key artists; Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas, and Mary Cassatt.

This is an excerpt from my online modern art appreciation program

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