There are hundreds of different art styles and movements, but most of us are only familiar with a handful – Cubism, Expressionism and Impressionism being three of the best known. Impressionism in particular has made its mark upon the popular imagination, and can be seen as a midway point between the traditional, realist works of the early 19th century and the abstract art that dominated the 20th century.
But were water lilies and idyllic river scenes all there was to Impressionism? Well, not exactly. Do a little reading and youll find that this movement – though familiar and inoffensive to modern-day eyes – represented a hugely influential shift in the way people thought about art.
The Early Days
Impressionism emerged in Paris in the 1860s, as a response to established opinions about painting and art. At that time, paintings were prized for their realism, and typically depicted very staged historic or religious scenes. That all changed when four painters – Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Frederic Bazille – came together to rock the boat.
All four of these artists found that they had a greater interest in capturing the present moment in their paintings – as opposed to depicting historic or mythological scenes. More often than not, this meant painting landscapes, a subject matter that the French art elite of the time seemed to have little interest in.
Most revolutionary was the style in which these artists painted. When they ventured outside to paint, they didnt simply take sketches that they could return to their studios with, completing the work inside; they painted right there in the moment, out in the open air (the French term is “en plein air”) and under shifting light patterns.
As an interesting side note, this on-the-spot painting method was largely made possible by the invention of paint tubes in 1841 (previously artists had had to mix their pigments and oils themselves) – Renoir famously said that without paint tubes “there would have been no Impressionism”.
At the time, of course, this style of painting was unheard of – which meant that the art world was extremely sceptical.
Breaking into the Salon
In the 1860s, no one associated the word “salon” with hairdressing. Back then, the Salon was an annual art exhibition in Paris hosted by the Academie des Beaux-Arts. Every year, painters would submit their works for consideration by the panel, and during the 1860s, the Impressionists began to do the same. The problem was that their work was routinely turned down because it didnt align with the accepted painting style.
By 1863, the art world was becoming perturbed by the Salons rejection of the Impressionists, and in response, Emperor Napoleon III stepped in to declare that all paintings rejected would be displayed in their own exhibition, known as the Salon des Refuses. Though just a one-off, this exhibition marked a turning point for the Impressionists.
They went on to hold their own independent exhibitions, separate to the Salon, and in 1874, Monets “Impression, Sunrise” was displayed and gave the movement its name. Gradually this led to them winning public acceptance. By the 1880s, Renoir, Monet and fellow Impressionist Camille Pissarro had become financially successful and widely recognised in the art world, and the Impressionist method was commonplace at the annual Salon exhibitions.
It was a triumph for the new breed of artist – one who celebrated the here and now, stood for what they believed in and refused to bow to establishment pressure. Most importantly, Impressionisms movement away from strict realism allowed for the ushering in of increasingly abstract art forms.
The Great Works
The Impressionist movement spawned thousands of paintings. Walk into a big art gallery in Europe and the chances are youll come across one within the first five minutes – if you want to recognise an Impressionist work without peeking at the plaque, look for landscapes or naturalistic group scenes with thick, visible brush strokes, vivid colours and an absence of black paint.
Though Impressionist paintings are commonplace in galleries across the world, we think the five below offer the best summation of this great movement.
Impression, Sunrise Claude Monet, 1872
The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-GarenneAlfred Sisley, 1872
Dance at Moulin de la Galette Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1876
The Boulevard Montmartre at Night Camille Pissarro, 1897
Water Lilies Claude Monet, 1906
From the sunlight-dappled crowd of the Renoir to the smudged streetlights of the Pissarro, these paintings capture the vivid, life-affirming immediacy of the Impressionist movement. And of course, that last painting belongs to the most famous series of Impressionist paintings ever created…
Monets Water Lilies
It was at his home in the village of Giverny that Monet created his best known and most popular paintings. For the last 30 years of his life (from the late 1890s onwards) Monet painted the water lilies in his garden obsessively, churning out around 250 works in total.
Though these paintings, which typically depict a rectangle of lily-covered water, free from any framing landscapes, show off the classic Impressionist style, they also challenge it. The later paintings in particular show a departure from the Impressionist style and a movement into abstraction; the lines and shapes become less distinct and the colours more vivid – something due in no small part to Monet developing cataracts.
Today, these paintings hang in galleries around the world and stand as a testament to the genius of Monet and his fellow Impressionists.
Bringing the Impressionists Into Your Home
Now that youre an expert in Impressionism, why not get hold of some prints of your favourite works and get them hanging in your home? With the help of EzeFrame you can select the perfect picture frame and mount – and because we offer an easy-to-use custom sizing service, we can deliver a picture frame that fits your prints exact dimensions, down to the last millimetre.
EzeFrames picture framing services are also perfect for canvas box prints (if youve been inspired and want to try your hand at painting), or photo prints. We even offer custom-made multi-aperture picture frames, perfect for housing multiple photos – say from a trip to Monets garden at Giverny…
Find out more about our picture frames and picture mounts by visiting our Picture Frames & Mounts page.