In 1874 a group of artists put together an exhibition in Paris. They were calling themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers etc. With branding and name ID like that, you know it was destined to be a hit. While some critics wrote favorably of the show for its depiction of modern life, many were indignant over the sloppy and apparently unfinished work. What separated this show from the Paris Salon, was the salon had a jury of accomplished artists from the Academy des Beaux Arts selecting artworks and awarding medals. The Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers etc. was a ragtag bunch of lovable misfits. They weren’t interested in painting significant figures from history, or mythology. They weren't seeking perfection in their rendering in fact they couldn’t be bothered to even blend their colors. They left that work to the viewer’s eye to decipher these fragmented and somewhat blurry pieces. That is what left Louis Leroy, a frustrated critic, to review the show pointing to Claude Monet’s work saying, that these were not real paintings but mere impressions. He titled his review saying it was the exhibition of the impressionists as a way of putting them down, but the artists embraced it and the movement became known as Impressionism.
The impressionist movement is extremely popular today because the works tend to have a soft focus. They are a blur of happy little trees and casual scenes of everyday life. They have a rich, colorful palette, but today’s audiences the Impressionists seem quaint and non-threatening. Of course, to really understand the work and its significance, it is important to put it in a historical context. The Impressionist movement came out of France in the mid to late 19th century. So did photography, and I don’t think that is a coincidence. Prior to that time, painters served an important role documenting significant people, places, and things. As cameras became available to fill that role, painters began to shift their focus. I should caveat this by saying that I am speaking of European culture at this point. In other parts of the world, the attitude was very different. Broadly speaking, African artists for example would have said if I want to see an elephant, I’ll go look at an elephant. The purpose of art is to show me something I cannot see in the real world; not to copy the things I already see around me. The European approach was the opposite prizing accuracy in representing the figure. Of course, they would long focus on heroes of history or mythology but always trying to be as realistic as possible in the rendering. The Impressionists changed all that. They were more concerned with the lived experiences and perception rather than a highly refined product. They wanted to go out of their studio and paint the landscape exactly as they saw it outside. This move to painting outdoors on location, en plain air painting as they called it, came about because of another 19th century invention: the tube of paint. Before the industrial revolution, artists and their assistants would have to work to gather materials mix pigments, binders and dilution agents that’s the color, the stuff holding it together in a solution and something to thin it out respectively. It was a lot of work to create paints, but then they had a limited shelf life. For a long time, artists would store them in a pig’s bladder, then glass jars which were better but not exactly the most convenient to transport if you are bringing a lot of colors. The tube of paint was convenient and allowed the Impressionists to bring all their paints with them as they traveled outside the studio.
The easy access to conveniently packaged paints in a wide variety of colors opened a new world of possibilities and the Impressionists wanted to make use of everything available to them. They left streaks of unblended color flaunting the rich variety of hues that were now available to them. As I shared in my Who ARTed mini episodes on color, many pigments had previously been extremely labor intensive, rare, and expensive but the Impressionists and post-Impressionists relished the new, cheaper synthetic pigments.
A lot of people will lump the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists together because they are stylistically pretty similar. Both movements tended to focus on an artist’s reaction to the subjects and they left visible brush strokes in streaks of color to give the appearance of a quickly painted, spontaneous response capturing the artist’s first impression. The key distinction is that the Impressionists tended to focus on appearances. They were interested in optics, the way the eye processed color, light, and shadow. The Impressionist movement was a political just focusing on what they saw in the world around them. Of course, doing so was an inherently political act as it was boldly rejecting the ideas of traditional hierarchy and the importance of historical figures as subjects.
The Post-Impressionists were more emotionally driven. They made greater leaps altering elements such as color to make a piece more expressive. A great example of this is Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. While it has the heavy impasto or thick textured brush strokes we associate with Impressionism, he rearranged the composition. Rather than paint the view exactly as he saw it, he moved the cypress tree to the foreground creating more dramatic depth and the scene as he painted it is really more of a composite of different views from his windows from two rooms in the asylum, and different times of night or early morning. The Impressionists sought to paint a reflection of the world around them. The Post Impressionists were trying to put their inner workings out into the world.