Impressionism was the first really popular artistic movement to diverge from traditional and classical art. It was a small step, freeing up artists to use more expressive brush strokes and colours, but most importantly it changed perspectives; art could be more than romanticised realism. It is also a movement linked to a vast number of artists, many well known; Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse, and Toulouse-Lautrec are often referred to as impressionists, though they truly belong to the post-impressionist movement that took modern art to the next step. Here we focus on the true impressionists, the masters of the form.
Often seen as the precursor to impressionism and modern art, Monet was known for painting nature as he perceived it, a philosophy that would become fundamental to modernism. He was friends with Renoir, Bazille, and Sisley, often painting with them to develop what would become impressionism, and the foundation of a group of impressionist painters who would organise their own exhibitions after rejection from the Salon. Monet was recognised as the best landscape artist of the group, and would regularly paint the same scene over and over to explore the effect of different lighting and colour palettes. With a legacy that cites him as the leading force behind impressionism, Monet’s ideas were the catalyst for the entire modern art movement.
A pivotal artist in the evolution of realism to impressionism and the foundation of the modern art period through works like The Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia in 1863. Manet was interested in art from a young age, spending spare time copying masters at The Louvre, developing a realist style but always with loose, simple brush strokes. Like many impressionists, his original artwork was often referred to as unfinished or sketchy, and when he added unusual juxtapositions, such as the nudes and odd perspective of Luncheon, he was also labelled controversial. He would go on to connect with many of the great impressionists, and established the fundamental alla prima method of painting that would be used by many modern artists who followed him.
Famous for his pastels as well as paintings, Degas also produced sculptures and art prints but is best known for depicting dancers often in his work, setting him apart from much of impressionism which focused on nature. Initially interested in historical subjects he shifted first towards equestrian subjects and later dancers, found inspiration in the work of Manet, and soon found himself alongside the other impressionists seeking to hold independent exhibitions of their developing movement. Highly dedicated to the exhibitions he nevertheless argued often with the other artists and isolated himself as he grew older. Degas was unique amongst the impressionists, and though his style doesn’t fit entirely, his documenting of everyday life and remarkable talent for capturing movement made him an important part of the early modern art period.
Important to impressionism and the post-impressionist period, Camille Pissarro worked with Seurat and Signac, and was a key figure in bringing together the 15 impressionist painters that drove the movement, supporting and inspiring them. He had tried to follow conventional artistic study but found it stifling, and began painting outside where he found the importance of expressing nature as it truly was, and quickly, so you didn’t lose the impression of it. Like all of the impressionists he struggled to be appreciated at first, but tastes came round, and continued to be impressed by Pissarro’s ability to evolve as he diverged into neo-impressionism and pointillism. He acted also as a father figure to Cezanne, Seurat, Gauguin, and van Gogh as they built on his foundations in the post-impressionist world.
Showing an early talent for drawing, Pierre-Auguste Renoir spent much of his time in The Louvre, which was close to his home, and studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, meeting Sisley, Bazille, and Monet. Inspired by Manet and Pissarro he exhibited alongside the other impressionists, and quickly built a reputation for sublimely vibrant light and colour, often capturing women in both intimate and candid compositions. He spent a period painting in a more classic Renaissance style after taking in works by Raphael, da Vinvi, and Titian, but soon returned to a lighter brushstroke, producing prolifically throughout his life to leave several thousand modern art paintings after his death.