It’s easy to forget that technology drastically affected prior generations, too.
An ideal example is the introduction of portable easels and oil paints in tubes, an innovation of the 1870s that facilitated creation of impressionist paintings.
Liberated from painting solely in studios, artists – particularly those in France – began working outdoors, where their subject matter turned to the urban world of cafes, boulevards, visions of cities themselves, racetracks, cabarets, and pursuits of the upper classes.
The pioneer of what we now call “impressionist painters” was Claude Monet (1840-1926).
Although he was trained in a Realist style during the 1860s, he was less influenced by the Old Masters than by his contemporaries. Monet often claimed that it was Eugene Boudin who taught him the wonder of nature and the possibilities inherent in landscape painting. He was also heavily influenced by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), Edouard Manet (1832-1883), and Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851).
Like his contemporaries, Monet struggled financially, even after two Monet paintings were accepted to the Salon of 1865. He was nearly destitute until the brother of Vincent van Gogh, art dealer Theo, sold a painting for 10,350 francs, an astonishing amount for a contemporary work of art.
At this time, taste in art was largely adjudicated by the French Salon, the Royal Academy of Art in France established in 1648 (England’s version was founded in 1768). Its annual or semi-annual art exhibition offered artists the opportunity to have their paintings vetted by a jury, exhibited, and subjected to critical review, with the implicit goal of obtaining patronage and commissions.
The Salon system worked satisfactorily until artists began veering away from traditional academic art. For the Salon of 1863, for instance, the jury rejected nearly 3,000 works. After strong public protest, Napoleon III arranged an exhibition of these works in the Salon des Refuses, or the Salon of the Rejected Ones.
But these painters were not so easily mollified, and formed an alternative exhibition in April 1874.
Organizing as the Societe Anonyme des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, etc. (Corporation of Artists painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc.), the exhibitors included Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Monet, Berthe Morisot (who exhibited an amazing nine paintings, including The Cradle, below), Pierre-August Renoir (1841-1919), Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Alfred Sisley (1839-99) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917).
Retrospectively, it was a veritable “Who’s Who” of impressionist painters.
All participants agreed not to submit to the Salon that year, intending to introduce the public to a new, non-juried version of art in contrast to France’s official, traditional version.
Critics were unkind to this new mode of outdoor, or en plein air, painting that shattered historical artistic conventions. Louis Leroy, a critic for the magazine, Le Charivari, used the title of one of the Monet paintings, Impression, Sunrise, to label the entire show “The Exhibition of the Impressionists”.
Impression, Sunrise uses a high vantage point that eliminates the foreground and most of the horizon. Traditional content or subject matter is missing here – the subjects of Impression, Sunrise are the atmosphere and light, a sketch-like recording of a fleeting sunrise.
Claude Monet painted it at dawn from a window overlooking the harbor of Le Havre. The ephemeral nature of a sunrise necessitated quick, broken loose brushstrokes, leading critics to contend that the work was “unfinished.”
The newly minted Impressionist painters were pleased with their name, as it aptly described their intent to capture the constantly changing panorama of light and shadow at a moment in time. Indeed, many impressionist painters would go on to paint the same scene at different times, portraying a different reality in each.
This first show by the French Impressionists is usually considered to be the starting point for modern art. That’s another reason Impression, Sunrise is the crown jewel of impressionist paintings.