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Art History Primer #2: Impressionism



Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment. – Claude Monet

Impressionism was a 19th-century art movement that originated in France with artists that were interested in making work that more closely resembled the way the world was perceived rather just as it appeared. It was an art of immediacy and movement, of candid poses and compositions, of the play of light expressed in a bright and varied use of color.

Frederick Carl Frieseke (American, 1874 - 1939), Before Her Appearance, 1913, oil on canvas, 61 1/8 x 61 1/8 in., Purchased with funds from The Cummer Council, AP.1985.2.1.

Impressionism was also a movement that emerged as a reaction against the established way of making art at the time. In the mid 1800’s the Académie des Beaux-Arts dominated French art. The favored subject matter was typically either a religious or historical scene, the compositions were carefully planned, and the colors were often somber in tone to match the theme of the work. Paintings emerging from the Académie were also highly polished, with emphasis placed on realism even under close examination. All traces of the artist were essentially repressed.

Childe Hassam, (American, 1859 – 1935), Afternoon in Pont-Aven, Brittany, 1897, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in., Bequest of Ninah M. H. Cummer, C.0.162.1.

The Académie des Beaux-Arts also held an annual juried exhibition which upheld these values called the Salon de Paris and it was for their show in 1863 that Édouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe was not only rejected but also severely criticized for its content. That, in addition to the unusually large number of rejected works that year prompted Emperor Napoleon III to hold a Salon des Refusés (Salon of the refused) to showcase this work. This exhibition drew attention to the burgeoning movement and garnered the participating artists the impetus to organize independent exhibitions to showcase their art.
It was at such a show in 1874 that the term Impressionism was coined. Used in a derisive way to review the exhibition, the term is a play on the title of Claude Monet’s painting Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise). Unfortunately for the reviewer the term stuck and was embraced by the artists and the public alike and this movement, which now had a name, only continued to grow in popularity.

Radicals in their time, early Impressionists violated the rules of academic painting. They began by constructing their pictures from freely brushed colors that took precedence over lines and contours. They also painted realistic scenes of modern life, and often painted outdoors. The Impressionists found that they could capture the momentary and transient effects of sunlight by painting en plein air, or painting outdoors, in nature rather than in the studio; a practice that was facilitated by the invention of the lead paint tube. They portrayed overall visual effects instead of details, and used short “broken” brush strokes of mixed and pure unmixed color, not blended smoothly or shaded as was customary, in order to achieve the effect of intense color vibration.

Even though they were a diverse group in style and temperament, unified primarily by their spirit of independence, the artists that made up the

Impressionists present a critical moment in art history. This movement, as shown in the works of Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and others is showcased this month in The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens exhibition, Impressionism and Post Impressionism from the High Museum of Art running from February 16th through May 6th.

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