Impressions of Impressionism

The complexity and diversity of art in the 19th century parallels the complex changes which occurred during the rise of modernism, particularly the changes which came about because of industrialization and urbanization. It is no wonder that there is some confusion regarding all of the art movements in 19th century France – particularly Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Both of these artistic movements have rather nebulous and shifting definitions. I thought that I would jot down some of the goals and aims of Impressionism today, and later do the same for Post-Impressionism in another blog entry.

Essentially, Impressionism is a painting movement which focuses on capturing a single moment in time. In some ways, it was influenced by the Realism and the invention of the camera; realist painters strove to capture a moment in time, but Impressionists took that aim a step further by depicting a split second in time. This split second effect is heightened on the canvas by the use of loose brushstrokes; they require speed and spontaneity in execution. An example of loose brushstrokes can be seen in the water of Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise (1872, shown above to the right). Impressionists were also interested in the effects of light and color, particularly how the eye could blend different colors together to create optically accurate depictions. This interest in light and color also accounts for the interest in outdoor subject matter. Furthermore, the invention of oil paint in tubes also allowed the Impressionists to go outdoors and paint – they were no longer required to work expressly inside their studios. Since artists at this time were painting outside, we have a fairly good idea of what early urbanization and industrialization in Paris looked like at the time.

In my opinion, there are only two painters which can truly be labeled as impressionists: Monet and Renoir. Really, the only reason for this is because Monet and Renoir were the ones who spearheaded the artistic movement. And (in the opinion of one of my past teachers) Monet is the only one who can be considered a “good” impressionist. I kind of have to agree – Renoir is too interested in painting people and figures (see The Luncheon of the Boating Party (c. 1880) as an example), and this detracts from fulfilling the Impressionistic aims of capturing light and color. Personally, I also don’t think that Renoir was that fabulous of a painter. I think some of his figures are awkward and the colors with which he experiments aren’t that becoming or beautiful.

There are several French painters which also have been labeled Impressionists, largely because they were exhibiting during the same period (c. 1860-1880) and kinda-sorta followed some of the Impressionistic trends (e.g. loose brushstrokes, influence of photography with cropped figures and edges, outdoor scenes, bright colors, interest in light, etc.). These painters were also anti-academic and didn’t follow the traditional rules of painting at the time. Some of these painters are:

  • Degas (I love how the painting Ballet Rehearsal (1874, shown above) captures a split second of a ballet class, and I particularly like how it mimics a quickly-snapped photograph with the cropped figures on the right).
  • Pisarro
  • Manet
  • Caillebotte
  • Morisot

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you have ever been confused about Impressionism and Impressionistic artists before, don’t feel too bad. In some ways, the movement is a nebulous umbrella for paintings and artists that are kinda-sorta similar. In fact, participation in the Impressionism shows was constantly a source of contention and debate among artists at the time.1 If you ever wonder if an artist is an Impressionist, find out if the artist is a) French, b) exhibited between the 1860s and 1880s), c) uses loose brushstrokes, or d) is interested in light or outdoor subject matter. If the artist falls into at least two of those categories, then there is a good chance that you can call the artist an Impressionist.

I like Impressionism alright. There are some beautiful colors and interesting optical effects that can be found in this period. And I really love the idea of capturing a split second on a canvas. The thing that really bothers me about Impressionism is that it has become very trendy, almost kitsch. It bothers me that so many Impressionist works now decorate handbags, umbrellas, mugs, scarves, and pencils. And it seems like every college girl has a copy of one of Monet’s water lily paintings in her bathroom. This is just my opinion, of course, but I doubt that Monet would be pleased to find out that he’s a trendy bathroom decorator.

What Impressionist paintings do you like? Do you like Impressionism? Do you think Impressionism is kinda kitschy?

1 Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, vol. 12 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2005), 869.

  • ixoj says:

    I wouldn’t say Monet is kitsch just because his work is popular. Isn’t kitsch by definition supposed to be tacky or in poor taste? I think it just means that Monet is so aesthetically pleasing that even artistically ignorant people like it.

  • M says:

    Ixoj, you’re right about the mass appeal of Impressionist painters like Monet. Perhaps I should clarify that I don’t think Impressionist art is inherently kitsch, but rather that it has kitsch associations because it is so closely tied to cheap commercial items (like tacky notecards, umbrellas, mugs, etc.). Of all of the artistic periods and works of high art (with perhaps the exception of the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s David), Impressionism reigns as the main decorator of kitsch merchandise in museum and tourist gift shops.

    I still can enjoy Impressionist art when I see a reproduction or an actual painting. However, I can’t look at a Monet painting on a mug and think about its aesthetic qualities!

    I guess my issue with kitsch items and art boils down to how art should be used. Is it wrong to decorate things like pencils and erasers with art? I suppose it depends on the viewer, whether they are buying the umbrella because they want to be reminded of their trip to the Louvre or to stare at it and think of the great composition, use of color, etc. Since I would never buy a mug in order to study a work of art, I end up finding such items to be somewhat tacky and silly.

    Does anyone own some item that’s decorated with an Impressionist painting? Speak up and defend yourself! I’d like to hear your opinion and know why you decided to buy said item.

  • Emilee . . . says:

    I'm glad you did this post. While I've heard of impressionism in the basic art courses back in high school, I definitely didn't know the definition of it or the criteria to meet it. That being said, I can honestly say that in the few interactions I've had with it, I'm not a big fan … while I'm absolutely certain it takes skill and talent to produce it, it always just looks sloppy to me (though, I am an untrained eye). I would say, however, that "Ballet Rehearsal" is actually very nice. Maybe it's just the landscapes of impressionism that doesn't appeal to me.

    A question I have, after reading the criteria you listed for impressionism, was impressionism only something that took place in France? Were other artists around the world not participating in it? Perhaps I missed if you said that somewhere …?

    Finally, I think a good debate is in the comments here. I can see both sides of it — certainly it's hard to see beautiful art (or anything really) turned into cheap productions consumed by the masses … but at the same time, for every group of people who buy those products just to have it as a meaningless souvenir, there's also that one person who was so incredibly moved by the experience associated with it, and it becomes more to them than just a poster on the wall.

    One example I can think of is this: when I was in Glasgow, Scotland I bought a black & white postcard of the city. I'm sure there's a level of tacky associated with this well-known image of Glasgow, and what's probably tackier is I put it in a frame where it sits on my bookshelf right now. But, every time I look at that post card, it brings back vivid memories of walking down those city streets and the emotions I felt …

  • M says:

    The term “Impressionism” usually refers to 19th century French painters, mostly because the movement developed and thrived in France. However, there were other branches of Impressionism (i.e. American Impressionism) and artists that were also influenced by this movement. In this post, I just stuck with the main French Impressionists. Thanks for helping me to clarify that, Emilee.

    And you’re right, I know that there are people out there which do have meaningful associations with the works of art that decorate their touristy, commercial items. Perhaps I need to look beyond the tackiness and just be happy that these people have had a positive experience with a work of art! 🙂

  • joolee says:

    I personally don’t like seeing Monet’s works on mugs, umbrellas or mousepads either, but if that’s the only way some people can connect with art, so be it. I’ve bought my share of notecards and posters just to remember a painting or museum that moved me and I knew I’d probably never see in person again. oh well, what can you do? It makes “art for the masses”, right?

    I love Impressionism (and post-Impressionism as well) just because it was such a break away, and so many new advancements (like you mentioned) allowed art to become “plein air” and convey modern subject matter, as opposed to historical. And I love being able to SEE the artist in his/her work – thick impasto and messy brushstrokes are fabulous!!

  • M says:

    Joolee, I totally agree with you about “seeing the artist” through impasto and messy brushstrokes. Isn’t it great?

    You make a good point about “art for the masses.” I wonder what art history would be like if art wasn’t readily accessible through reproductions and the digitization of images.

  • Ashley says:

    I adore impressionism! Seeing the paintings in person is what I REALLY love, seeing all the brushstrokes and paint techniques up close. But it does bug me how the images are all over posters, calendars, mugs, etc. and I definitely don’t own any of those things. 🙂

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.