Impressionist Oil Paintings

In 1874, a group of young artists whose work had been rejected by the stuffy Salon survey that the Paris art would mounted every year decided to go it on their own. From April 15 to May 15, 1874, they held their own exhibition at the studio of the photographer Nadar, which had become a well-known hangout for bohemian celebrities. The artists in this first official Impressionist exhibition were Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas, Arman Guillaumin, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissaro, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley. They name themselves the Societe Anonyme, but the satirical journalist Louis Leroy, writing in the April 25 issue of the magazine Le Charivari, mockingly called the artists “impressionists,” after Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise (1872).

When the Impressionists came along, the Paris art scene was dominated on the one hand by pictures of phony Neoclassic nobility and on the other by corny Romantic melodrama. It was all soap opera as subject matter, and the Impressionists were having none of it. They tossed out literary subjects, mythology, and the grand themes of history. They abandoned contour, modeling, and precise detailing. They even gave that celebrated mainstay of art, imagination, the old heave-ho, or so they said, concentrating instead on the close observation of nature. They didn’t just look at stuff. They were scientists examining visual phenomena.

And instead of faking it in the studio with models and sketches, the Impressionists took their easels out and painted in the open air (called plein air in French). They painted in the forests of Fontainebleau, at the Seine, and on the Channel beaches. In this they were following the example of the earlier Barbizon School landscapists, a group of painters who rejected the by-then tired classical stylistic formulas in favor of the direct study of nature.

While the Barbizon school landscapes expressed the solitude and quiet of nature in misty shades of gray, green, and earth tones, the Impressionists favored highly colored, light-filled scenes, often popular with picnickers, boaters, and a range of everyday people, frequently seen relaxing on their day off. The painters Renoir and Monet, in their attempt to capture the visual effects of sparkling sunlight in the open air, discovered the technical secret of Impressionism: marks of pure color placed side-by-side to achieve brilliance and luminosity. The Impressionists all but banished brown and gray from their palettes and went so far as to use color to create shadows. What’s more, they didn’t smooth over the marks of their brushes but emphasized bold and forceful brush-strokes to give their pictures the dynamism of nature.

The Impressionists exhibited together eight time from 1874 to 1886. But long before the group broke up, its individual members had matured and begun to travel their own particular artistic paths.