Impressionism

The story of Impressionism begins with paintings in the 1860s, but the 1874 Paris exhibition of the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc., was the real turning point for the movement. Some art historians argue that Impressionism represented the artist’s application of scientific principles and color theory to studying natural light through outdoor painting.



Impressionism was widely viewed as a distinct break from the past. As a social group, the Impressionists were rumored to be rejected by French high society, but many artists had a middle class background. Honour and Fleming (2005) note: “eventually Monet was so successful that he could employ six gardeners at his country house at Giverny.”

The name for Impressionism surfaced after the painting “Impression – Sunrise” was exhibited by Claude Monet in 1874. In this article, two artists, Mary Stevenson Cassatt and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, are discussed as examples of Impressionism.

The daughter of a stockbroker and a woman from a banking family, Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844-1926) originated in Pennsylvania. She was a talented female artist who became a close friend of Edgar Degas. Cassatt spent many years in adulthood painting in France. She even exhibited with the Impressionists.

In “The Coiffure” (1891), Cassatt uses color print with drypoint, soft-ground, and aqua tint to portray an elegant female fixing her hair in front of the mirror. There is a graceful, but simple red-and-white-striped chair in the picture that creates a sense of balance. This print understates Cassatt’s visual interpretation of Impressionism. She sticks to the same elegant form and understanding of light. It can be argued that only Cassatt’s lines in the rectangular mirror break with the fuzzy boundaries of “Impression – Sunrise.” Cassatt’s straight edges echo the straight columns in Edgar Degas’ “Women on the Terrace” (1877). This print over monotype on paper looks like a casual scene of women in a café. Honour and Fleming note the influence on both Degas and Cassatt of Japanese art and, especially prints.

Another aspect of Impressionism was superior brushwork, including large strokes. Also, Pointillism (a la Georges Seurat) produced a similar effect in the Impressionist manner without the fancy brushwork.

One artist who excelled at illuminating oil paintings on canvas with fancy brushwork was Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919). He used beautiful brush strokes to depict the natural, shifting light of outdoor scenes. In his famous painting, “Luncheon of the Boating Party” (1880-1881), Renoir portrays casual men and women in a pleasant outdoor environment. This work is memorable especially for the delicate bonnets, sunhats, and top-hats.

Impressionism offers many more artists for consideration. Its effects were still being felt heavily even as the world turned to 20th century art.