Argenteuil’s townscape can be recognised in the background, the flamboyant autumn colours and the effect of light and wind on water. The fluttering orange leaves contrast with the blue water, rendered as thick parallel lines.

5 things you didn’t know about… Impressionism

15 Apr 2024
by Karen Serres, Senior Curator of Paintings

Read time: 5 minutes

Who were the Impressionists? How did they work, and what made them different? We now know all about Monet, Cézanne, Pissarro, and many more, and how their approach to art changed art history. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the First Impressionist Exhibition, held in Paris in April 1874, read on to find out some things you may not know about the Impressionist movement.

The term was originally an insult

The group of artists we now know as the Impressionists came together to show their work in Paris in 1874, after having been rejected from the annual state-sponsored exhibition where artists’ reputation had typically been made. They wanted to promote a new way of painting and rented a small studio to display their work. Critics initially dismissed it as unfinished and too sketchy, giving only the impression of things, and not a finished, accurate depiction. This is in fact what the painters sought to do, with Monet calling one of his paintings Impression, Sunrise. The artists adopted the insult as their own and organised seven more ‘Impressionist’ exhibitions over the next decade.

Front cover of the 'exposition catalogue' of the First Impressionist exhibition, written in French.
Exhibition catalogue of the First Impressionist Exhibition, taking place at 15 April to 15 May 1874, 35 boulevard des Capucines, in the former workshops of photographer Nadar. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

A simple technical innovation made the movement possible

Up until the middle of the 19th century, artists were a bit stuck in their studios because the paints they used had to prepared right before they started to work (many artists had assistants do this, mixing ground pigments with oil to create a thick coloured paste). The invention of the small tin tube allowed oil paint to be stored without drying and squeezed out in small quantities as needed. Paint could be carried around easily, thus allowing artists to leave the studio and work out of doors. They could also use many different colours at a time.

A painting of a bright sea scene, with blue skies and water. A mountainous skyline is in the background and a single tree, leaning towards the water from the foreground, has green leaves.
Claude Monet (1840-1926), Antibes, 1888, The 鶹Ƶ, London (Samuel 鶹Ƶ Trust) © The 鶹Ƶ

Working out of doors could be challenging

Painting landscapes was an important part of the Impressionists’ mission. It enabled them to study the changing light on the same feature at different times of day for example, or to render reflections on the water with their characteristic short brushstrokes. Earlier painters had made sketches in nature but finished their landscape paintings in the studio. The Impressionists most often painted theirs entirely outside; bits of sand or insects are regularly found embedded in the paint. Monet even had a small boat fitted as a studio so he could paint views of the river. He was also one of the few Impressionist painters who continued to paint outside in winter, creating beautiful snow scenes.

A snowy scene of a road leading into a town, with barren looking trees lining a long path and snow-covered grassy sides on each side. Snow-topped houses are visible at the end of the path, with four small people visible walking around the mid ground of the painting.
Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), Snow at Louveciennes, circa 1874, oil on canvas. The 鶹Ƶ, London (Samuel 鶹Ƶ Trust) © The 鶹Ƶ

The Impressionists were excited to represent modern life

In their formal training, painters were usually taught that certain themes were more worthy of being represented than others. These included religious or historical scenes (preferably from ancient Rome) and portraits of statesmen for example. The Impressionists argued that life around them was more interesting and set out to paint their surroundings and their friends, documenting the exciting developments that Paris was experiencing in the late 19th century. New cafés and places of entertainment were opening, department stores encouraged a new society of consumers, people spent more leisure time in parks, along riverbanks and on the coast, which they could reach thanks to the expanding railroad. Paris was an exciting place to be at that time, although the Impressionists also painted those exploited by this boom, such as impoverished factory and service workers.

Lady looking at Pierre-Auguste Renoir's La Loge in the renovated 鶹Ƶ Gallery
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, (1841- 1919) La Loge, 1874, The 鶹Ƶ, London (Samuel 鶹Ƶ Trust) © The 鶹Ƶ

England played an important role in the development of Impressionism

In 1870-71, many French artists settled in London, fleeing the Franco-Prussian war that had left Paris isolated and starving. In London, they were able to start painting again and expand their networks. It was in London for example that two Impressionist painters, Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro, met the French dealer that would become their champion, Paul Durand-Ruel. Thanks to him, Impressionist works were regularly exhibited in London throughout the 1870s and beyond. However, no gallery was buying these works and it wasn’t until the 1920s that Impressionism was properly represented in public collections in the UK, thanks to Samuel 鶹Ƶ’s purchases and support.

A promotional poster reading 'Meet them Face to Face', with Van Gogh, Modigliani, Cezanne, and Seurat works shown behind. The tagline reads 'The Great Impressionists at The 鶹Ƶ Galleries, Somerset House on The Strand'.
Archive poster from when The 鶹Ƶ Gallery moved to its new home in Somerset House in the 1990s. Image © The 鶹Ƶ

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