French Impressionism necessitates the study of the origins of this artistic style and some famous impressionist paintings. We’ll also discuss some of the most famous impressionist paintings and pioneering painters working in the genre.
Impressionist oil paintings began in France during the nineteenth century. As an art movement, impressionism was devoted to painting outdoors spontaneously; the French Impressionists challenged conventional “studio-based” approaches.
The Musee D’Orsay holds one of the largest collections of Impressionist Art.
Claude Monet's painting, Impression (Soleil Levant), is the inspiration behind the name of this art movement. The work was painted in 1872 and appeared at a legendary Salon des Refuses (“an exhibition of the rejects”). The show’s name referenced the exhibiting artists’ rejection by the traditional Paris Salon.
Held in April 1874 at the studio of the photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (known as Nadar), the show launched the movement. This exhibition brought several young French artists together, including Claude Monet, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Paul Cézanne, Édouard Manet, and Edgar Degas.
Each artist rejected the traditional approach of the conservative French Salon. Instead of mythological works and classical compositions, these young artists wanted to paint modernity in all its wonderful reality.
The exhibition faced scathing criticism, however. One critic, Louis Leroy, wrote a particularly critical review in the famous Le Charivari newspaper. Playing on Monet’s painting’s title, he derisively called the display an “Exhibition of the Impressionists.”
While intended as a slur, the name stuck. Leroy claimed Monet’s painting was nothing more than a sketch. He described “wallpaper in its embryonic state” as more finished than “that seascape.”
Impressionism quickly gained popularity with the French public and the artists themselves. It brought the disparate group of artists closer together, and they went on to organize seven more Impressionist exhibitions between 1874 and 1886.
Impressionist art avoids historical narratives and imaginary mythological scenes. Instead, it draws meaning from the subject matter of everyday modern life.
The Impressionists weren’t trying to paint photographic representations of the world. Instead, they focused on individual “impressions” of people, light, objects, and landscapes. Consequently, the meaning of Impressionist art came from these fleeting “impressions.”
Artists working in the movement wanted to capture life and movement. With their paintings, they communicated specific moments in time to viewers, as if the action was happening before their eyes.
When researching Impressionist oil painting, a common question is how would you describe Impressionism? Unfortunately, for one of the most famous artistic movements on the planet, it’s also a notoriously tricky genre to characterize.
Nonetheless, five consistent characteristics of famous impressionist paintings are:
Impressionist artists worked in various styles, depicting multiple subjects and settings. Consequently, one single definition of Impressionist paintings is nearly impossible.
Nonetheless, Impressionist paintings depict nature spontaneously, freely, and directly. Artists often employed light, intensely vivid color palettes, quick impasto brushstrokes, and close-up perspectives.
As Camille Pissarro once advised his impressionist colleagues, “paint generously and unhesitatingly.” This way, an artist could avoid losing “the first impression.”
Dark browns and blacks rarely appear in Impressionist art. However, they feature in a few paintings, such as La Promenade by Renoir and the highly unusual Pyramid of Skulls by Cézanne.
Impressionist artists often applied their paint directly onto the canvas as a final defining characteristic. Previously, artists used multiple layers of thin paint glazes to build up effects. On the contrary, Impressionist artists opted for a thick, opaque painterly surface.
These combined approaches were incredibly innovative. To some extent, Impressionism artists built on the work of earlier masters such as J.M.W. Turner, Peter Paul Rubens, and Diego Velázquez. Nonetheless, they also created something entirely new and unique.
Five of the most famous Impressionism artists are:
There were many other leading impressionists, including figures such as Alfred Sisley, Gustave Caillebotte, and Paul Cézanne. But, unusually, there were several female impressionists in the late nineteenth-century artistic movement. Notable female artists include Berthe Morisot, Marie Bracquemond, and Mary Cassatt.
While she became a successful painter in her own right, Berthe Morisot’s family never supported her artistic career. Mary Cassatt similarly faced difficulties. Unable to paint from live models in the USA (because she was a woman), she found greater acceptance in France.
Indeed, Cassatt and Edgar Degas were close friends. They often worked together on compositions, most notably Little Girl in a Blue Armchair.
French impressionist artists were incredibly prolific and created thousands of impressionist paintings.
In addition to Impression Sunrise, Monet often produced a series of paintings looking at the same subject over days, months, and years. Monet's water lily paintings, the Houses of Parliament, and the eerily beautiful Haystacks series are just three of his most famous impressionist oil paintings.
While most impressionists focused on landscapes (or figures within landscapes), Edgar Degas zoomed in on human bodies. He mainly painted the female form, including ballet dancers and women bathing.
Degas disliked the “impressionist” label but used its intense color and expressive brushwork in many of his most famous paintings, including The Star Prima Ballerina, aka l'Etoile. Like Degas, Pierre Auguste Renoir also produced impressionist artworks focusing on people, with oil paintings such as Umbrellas (1886).
When discussing examples of impressionist oil painting, it’s impossible not to mention Camille Pissarro. Alongside Monet, he is a movement leader (affectionately known as Père Pissarro). In addition, Pissarro was the only artist who showed in all eight Impressionist exhibitions.
Pissarro often painted rural peasant life and scenes of labor. His vibrant compositions include paintings such as The Harvest Pontoise and The Washerwomen.
Impressionism was a massively influential movement. Consequently, artists working all over the world adopted the “impressionist” mantle. There are no strict criteria for an impressionist artist, only a broad acceptance of their focus on light, expression, and painting outdoors.
Impressionism soon traveled to Britain, adopted by artists like Philip Wilson Steer. It also notably influenced artists from the USA, where “American Impressionism” evolved into an exciting movement in its own right.
Famous American Impressionists included Childe Hassam (who created a beautiful series of American flag paintings) and William Merritt Chase. James Abbott McNeill Whistler also adored the Impressionist approach, though he didn’t identify as an Impressionist himself.
The Australian Impressionist movement included leading artists such as Frederick McCubbin and Arthur Streeton. In Amsterdam, Impressionist exhibitions featured the art of Jan Toorop and Isaac Israëls. It was a global phenomenon with additional German, Hungarian, Russian and Austrian movements (to name a few).
If there’s one most famous impressionist artist, it must be Claude Monet, who rejoices in being known as the founder of the Impressionist movement.
During Monet’s incredibly long and prolific career, he consistently embodied Impressionist ideas. Monet's paintings are “en Plein air” (outdoors) and focus on light and landscapes.
In 1883, Monet moved to the small town of Giverny in northern France. His stunning house and its beautiful gardens sparked the artist's creativity. Monet's gardens at Giverny included the water lily pond with the iconic Japanese bridge floating over its shimmering waters.
In addition to the now legendary water lilies impressionist oil paintings, Monet’s colorful, intensely expressive, and creative paintings inspired a whole generation of later artists. He was beloved by artists, intellectuals, and the French public alike.
Indeed, at Monet’s funeral, a distraught Clemenceau (the former French Prime Minister) removed the black shroud from his coffin. Then, shouting, “No black for Monet!” he swapped it for a bright flower-patterned fabric.
If you love the colorful creations of impressionist oil paintings, explore our catalog of reproductions of famous paintings.
Whether you favor replica paintings from artists such as Monet, Degas, Pissarro, or Renoir, you will discover fine art reproductions to add joy to any home or office.
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