Impressionism was one of the first really big shifts in approaches to art, that signified the beginning of the Modern Art period. By today’s standards, Impressionist paintings look quite traditional and old-fashioned, but the artists were the radicals of their time, the equivalent of today’s political street artists or NFT creators.
Impressionists never tried to hide their painting, adopting a style of layered short brush strokes in mixed and pure colours, to allow emotion to emerge from the colours, to emphasise the changing qualities of light, and the movement inherent to any scene. To many at the time, these paintings looked more like a rough sketch compared alongside the careful blending and shading of classic styles, but something different began to emerge in Impressionist paintings; a movement, an energy, an atmosphere that was never quite there before.
Art of the mid-19th century focused on historical and religious subjects, toned down colours and precision brushwork bordering on photo-realism, but some young artists wanted to break free from that. Artists like Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Bazille were looking instead to landscapes and painting outside in the fresh air, where inevitably they began to notice the changing of light and the importance of movement to truly capture a moment. Whilst many artists would sketch ideas in this way, these artists felt their sketches better captured the scene than a careful studio composition; it captured the complete impression of the moment.
The Impressionists fight for recognition and a new, Modern Art, period
The art establishment was not impressed, refusing a vast number of entries to the Salon de Paris art exhibition, which ultimately led to the young Impressionists, extending now to Pissarro, Cézanne, Berthe, Morisot, and Degas as well as the four above, putting on their own exhibitions. Gradually, the public began to warm to the ideas and paintings of the Impressionists, and even though many art critics still derided the works as being little more than sketches, change had clearly come to the art world.
Like many groups of artists, the Impressionists had their disagreements, some moved on to other styles, and arguments raged over which newly emerging painters should be included in their exhibitions which soon extended to art galleries in London and New York, but by the turn of the century, Impressionist influence was creeping into a vast range of paintings, and the moment for Modern Art had clearly come.
Technology also played an interesting role in this shift in painterly style; pre-mixed paints including a large range of very vivid synthetic colours became available which had simply never been there before. Such change greatly enabled the outdoor painting which helped inspire Monet and others, and thanks to that brighter ranges of paint colours light, bright, summery colours and compositions began to appear after decades of dark, brooding, chiaroscuro and traditionalist artworks.
Impressionism’s legacy as the trigger of the Modern Art period
It is impossible to look at Modern Art without tripping over Impressionism every few steps, whist visually it looks tame compared against many contemporary artists, it signifies a crucial moment when artists realised there could be more to their representations of light. Impressionism freed their way of thinking in a way that would eventually lead to abstracts, surrealism, and art happenings in the contemporary era, which would be unrecognisable to the Impressionists themselves.
As such it has considerable legacy, triggering or inspiring post-Impressionism, neo-Impressionism, Pointillism, Divisionism, Fauvism, Abstract Expressionism, and everything that followed on from them all owe considerably to the Impressionists. Their philosophy and mindset, which would mix with ideas from other movements like Symbolism to fir off an incredible amount of creativity after the turn of the century, was heavily responsible for our modern comprehension of what art is and can be.
Though once the art gallery rejects, the Impressionists were the first step in changing the world of art, responsible for freeing artistic expression far beyond simple Biblical or mythological motifs and characters, in a way that has impacted almost all kinds of art today.