Introduction to Impressionism

A impressionistic ocean scene-scape. The painting is entirely composed of muted pale blues, except for a row boat—which is dark blue—and the rising sun, which is orange. The sun gives its orange light in a reflection on the water and radiating into the clouds.

Figure 1. Claude Monet, Impression Sunrise, 1872 (exhibited at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874)

Establishing their Own Exhibitions—Apart from the Salon

The group of artists who became known as the Impressionists did something ground-breaking, in addition to their sketchy, light-filled paintings. They established their own exhibition—apart from the annual salon. At that time, the salon was really the only way to exhibit your work (the work was chosen by a jury). Claude Monet, August Renoir, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Alfred Sisley, and several other artists could not afford to wait for France to accept their work. They all had experienced rejection by the Salon jury in recent years and knew waiting a whole year in between each exhibition was no longer tenable. They needed to show their work and they wanted to sell it.

So, in an attempt to get recognized outside of the official channel of the salon, these artists banded together and held their own exhibition. They pooled their money, rented a studio that belonged to the famous photographer Nadar and set a date for their first exhibition together. They called themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Printmakers. The show opened at about the same time as the annual Salon, May 1874. The Impressionists held eight exhibitions from 1874 through 1886.

The decision was based on their frustration and their ambition to show the world their new, light-filled images.

The impressionists regarded Manet as their inspiration and leader in their spirit of revolution, but Manet had no desire to join their cooperative venture into independent exhibitions. Manet had set up his own pavilion during the 1867 World’s Fair, but he was not interested in giving up on the Salon jury. He wanted Paris to come to him and accept him—even if he had to endure their ridicule in the process.

Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Sisley had met through classes. Berthe Morisot was a friend of both Degas and Manet (she would marry Édouard Manet’s brother Eugène by the end of 1874). She had been accepted to the Salon, but her work had become more experimental since then. Degas invited Berthe to join their risky effort. The first exhibition did not repay them monetarily but it drew the critics who decided their art was abominable. It wasn’t finished. They called it “just impressions.” (And not in a complimentary way.)

The Lack of “Finish”

Remember that the look of a J.A.D. Ingres or even a surly Delacroix had a “finished” surface. These younger artists’ completed works looked like sketches.  And not even detailed sketches but the fast, preliminary “impressions” that artists would dash off to preserve an idea of what to paint later. Normally, an artist’s “impressions” were not meant to be sold, but were meant to be aids for the memory—to take these ideas back to the studio for the masterpiece on canvas. The critics thought it was insane to sell paintings that looked like slap-dash impressions and consider these paintings works “finished.”

Landscape and Contemporary Life (not History Painting!)

Also—Courbet, Manet and the Impressionists challenged the Academy’s category codes. The Academy deemed that only “history painting” was great painting. These young Realists and Impressionists opened the door to dismantling this hierarchy of subject matter. They believed that landscapes and genres scenes were worthy and important.


In their landscapes and genre scenes of contemporary life, the Impressionist artists tried to arrest a moment in their fast-paced lives by pinpointing specific atmospheric conditions—light flickering on water, moving clouds, a burst of rain. Their technique tried to capture what they saw. They painted small commas of pure color one next to another. The viewer would stand at a reasonable distance so that the eye would mix the individual marks, thus blending the colors together optically. This method created more vibrant colors than those colors mixed on a palette. Becoming a team dedicated to this new,  non-Academic painting gave them the courage to pursue the independent exhibition format—a revolutionary idea of its own.


An important aspect of the Impressionist painting was the appearance of quickly shifting light on the surface. This sense of moving rapidly or quickly changing atmospheric conditions or living in a world that moves faster was also part of the Impressionist’s criteria. They wanted to create an art that seemed modern: about contemporary life, about the fast pace of contemporary life, and about the sensation of seeing light change incessantly in the landscape. They painted outdoors (en plein air) to capture the appearance of the light as it really flickered and faded while they worked.

Mary Cassatt was an American who met Edgar Degas and was invited to join the group as they continued to mount independent exhibitions. By the 1880s, the Impressionist accepted the name the critics gave them. The American Mary Cassatt began to exhibition with the Impressionists in 1877.

For a very long time, the French refused to find the work worthy of praise. The Americans and other non-French collectors did. For this reason, the US and other foreign collections own most of the Impressionist art. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a good portion of the Havermayer Collection. Louisine Havermayer knew Mary Cassatt, who advised Louisine when she visited Paris.)