The painters of Paris: a history of impressionist art

3 min


Impressionism emerged in the late 1800s as a pioneering artistic movement led by a group of Parisian painters. The style has become incredibly popular, completely transforming the way we think about art. However, despite producing some of history’s most famed painters, Impressionism was not always so well received. Read on to learn more about the history of this radical art movement as well as some of its most notable figures.

What is Impressionism?

In order to go through the timeline of Impressionism, we first need to understand what made it so unique. Unlike ‘academic’ art at the time, this style sought to capture the feeling and experience of its subject matter, rather than an entirely accurate depiction. Impressionist artists had a tendency to paint quickly from perception, leaving hasty, visible brushstrokes.

They would apply colour liberally to construct an image of modern life, instead of creating works inspired by heroes and folklore, as dominated much of the art scene. Impressionists were particularly inspired by the outdoors, with central motifs including the effects of natural light and the passage of time.

The beginnings (1860s)

With the modern invention of paint in a tube, a new world of creation opened up to artists. Using pre-mixed and easily portable paints, work could now be a casual, spontaneous, and even social affair.

A group including Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley would subsequently begin to work outdoors — or en plein air — based solely on what they saw and felt in their surroundings.

This collective would come to mingle with other creative sorts, regularly meeting with writers, photographers and critics to discuss politics and philosophy. Venues like the cafés of Montmartre drew a mixed and diverse crowd, driving the creativity that they would become known for.

How the Impressionists got their name (1874)

The group took on the name of ‘Independents,’ as their work continued to be rejected by the salon exhibitions of Paris. Over time, they became resistant to the stifling academic standards imposed on them, and established their own exhibition series instead. Their debut show was held in 1874 at the studio of photographer Felix Nadar, but was costly for the group and drew little public attention.

At this exhibition, the press reviewer Louis Leroy would comment on the Monet piece entitled Impression, Sunrise (1873) — criticising that the Independents painted only these loose, unfinished ‘impressions’ of their subject matter, and not real academic art. They would come to defiantly adopt the moniker of the Impressionists.

Finding success (1874-present)

The group would host a further seven exhibitions, drawing increased public interest and attracting crowds of thousands. During this period, works like Degas’ Women in Front of a Café (1877) and Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881) were first shown.

Towards the end, many of the original Impressionists started to experiment with new styles. However, Monet achieved particular notoriety for his work, when he met gallerist Paul Durand-Ruel and had pieces exhibited across the USA. Subsequently, Monet gained acclaim and massive commercial sales, eventually making him a millionaire. Impressionist philosophy took hold elsewhere, too — for example, with Australian Impressionists like Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton finding success with plein air painting.

Nowadays, several of the Impressionists are household names, with their work displayed in galleries all over the world. To see many of the iconic pieces in person, visit Paris’ Musée de l’Orangerie, or to invest, inquire at stockists such as London’s Willow Gallery.

Notable figures

Leading the small collective of artists, there were a number of pioneering figures in Impressionism.

1. Édouard Manet

You’d be forgiven for confusing the surnames of two of the most renowned Impressionist painters, but despite some similarities, Manet and Monet were drawn to very different subject matter. Some regard Manet as the father of modern art, a realist painter who came to be strongly influential in the  movement when he adopted a looser, more innovative painting style in the 1860s. Inspired by everyday life, he regularly portrayed domestic scenes of café culture and portraits in boudoirs, notably A Bar at the Folies Bergère (1882) and Olympia (1863).

Manet was known for his spontaneous, hasty brushwork and unique use of colour and lighting. He created unconventional and modern depictions that broke from tradition and were considered anti-academic. This departure from the status quo was initially rejected by the public and influential exhibition circles that Manet was determined to impress — but instead drew the attention of fringe artists that would soon become the Impressionists.

2. Claude Monet

The work of Claude Monet is arguably the most influential and celebrated in the Impressionist movement. Creating classic series of works throughout his life, such as Haystacks (1890-91) and Water Lilies (1919). Monet was known for his free-flowing method that conjured a sense of movement in his subject matter, almost as if the natural scenery he depicted was bustling with life. He layered unmixed colour in small brushstrokes and applied his paint ‘wet on wet’, rarely waiting for the previous layer to dry.

Monet’s method may have been a stylistic choice — but it was also a functional one. He was an early adopter of the Impressionist habit of outdoor painting, and so had little time to waste when capturing a landscape scene. Taking to the natural world, Monet was especially interested in the influence of light and time — portraying transient scenes like the fading glow of a sunset, or the morning clouds migrating over the sea.

3. Berthe Morisot

Morisot is often referred to as part of the collective “three great ladies” of Impressionism, alongside Marie Bracquemond and Mary Cassatt. At a time when it was mostly men who were plucked from obscurity to lead artistic movements, Morisot and her colleagues became big names in Impressionism.

Her work was an intimate portrayal of domesticity through a feminine lens, creating pieces such as The Cradle (1872) that shone a light on maternal relationships. Morisot worked across a number of painting styles and media, but became known for her Impressionist pieces drawn from life. She was known to sketch outside to later finish her pieces indoors, and paint the outline of a portrait — its eyes, mouth and nose — with a single brushstroke.

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