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One hundred and fifty years after the first exhibition of what would be called Impressionism, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary its artists were as they rebelled against the rigid academic style of painting. The Paris exhibition, presented by the loosely organized Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc. opened on April 15, 1874, and included more than thirty artists who had been rejected by the jury-selected Académie des Beaux-Arts Salon for not conforming to its standards. Their exhibited work would be criticized for appearing sketch-like and unfinished; the society itself would soon disband. Still, several of its participants, including Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley, would reshape art by reimagining it to portray life as they experienced it and in turn ignite the modernism of the twentieth century.

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As museums around the world present large-scale surveys on this moment—such as Paris 1874: Inventing impressionism that will be staged at both the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC—the Impressionists also continue to command astounding prices at auctions; a Monet water lilies painting went for $74 million at Christie’s last fall. Yet before they were blockbusters, they were artists attempting to do something new with their work, painting en plein air with recently developed synthetic pigments and oil paint tubes, organizing their own independent exhibitions, and attempting to respond in a modern way to a rapidly changing world. The articles on this JSTOR reading list range from analyses of influential works to broader examinations of how Impressionism changed visual art, while recognizing how it built on the innovations of earlier artists and borrowed from Japanese printmaking.

The cover of the catalog of the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874.
The cover of the catalog of the First Impressionist Exhibition in 1874 via Wikimedia Commons

Ed Lilley, “A Rediscovered English Review of the 1874 Impressionist exhibition,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 154, No. 1317 (December 2012): 843–845.

What did early critics think of the 1874 exhibition? Although many derided the work—the movement famously got its name from a satirical comment lobbed at Monet’s Impression, Soleil Levant—others saw in it something exciting and new. Art historian Ed Lilley highlights English-language reviews of the exhibition published that year, spotlighting one by British art critic Frederick Wedmore. Wedmore wrote that the artists painted things “not just as they are, but just as they appear to be.” Lilley notes that Wedmore was particularly drawn to the scenes of urban Parisian life as well as Renoir’s Dancer: “He is alert to the technical achievement—‘the movement shown in its cascade of hair and froth of drapery’—but it is the mood (the effect rather than the thing itself) that impresses him.”

Martha Ward, “Impressionist Installations and Private Exhibitions,” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 73, No. 4 (December 1991): 599–622.

The April 1874 exhibition was held in a studio belonging to the photographer Nadar, a space notably outside the sphere of the state-sponsored Paris Salon that had rejected the paintings. Art historian Martha Ward explores how the Impressionists, as well as other emerging art societies and artists of the time, were creating opportunities to present their art in new spaces and with new curation that favored their often-small easel paintings compared to the bombastic Salon walls. “By the end of the decade, when groups such as the newly formed Société d’Aquarellistes Français announced that works submitted by member artists to its shows would not reappear at the Salon, the independence of the exhibitions helped to reshape expectations about the nature of the art that would be shown there,” Ward writes.

Susan D. Greenberg, “The Face of Impressionism in 1870: Claude Monet’s Camille on the Beach at Trouville,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (2001): 66–73.

The Impressionists in the watershed 1874 exhibition were influenced by artists who had already been pushing the boundaries of expectations for painting. Claude Monet was mentored by landscape painter Eugène Boudin, who encouraged the young artist to develop the skills he had shown for caricatures by painting along the Normandy shore. As art historian Susan D. Greenberg explores, Monet’s Camille on the Beach at Trouville (1870), which depicts his wife Camille Doncieux, expands on Boudin’s seaside scenes—which were painted outside, a radical choice at the time—as his “perceptive vision manifests itself above all in the distinct touches of color that record the changing forms and shifting light of the scene before him.”

Hidemichi Tanaka, “Cézanne and Japonisme,” Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 22, No. 44 (2001): 201–220.

The Impressionists were not just influenced by shifts away from the traditional constraints and studio-based work of the Salon shows but also by a new international art influence in Europe. In particular, woodblock prints by Ukiyo-e artists depicting everyday life in Japan were popular following the country’s opening to Western trade in 1853. Art historian Hidemichi Tanaka concentrates on how the fascination with “Japonisme” in France influenced Paul Cézanne. “Already a skilful painter, Cézanne renewed his style in the light of his study of the unique compositions and colours of Ukiyo-e prints, thus overcoming the expressionist tendencies of his early period,” Tanaka observes.

Ashok Roy, “Monet’s Palette in the Twentieth Century: Water-Lilies and Irises,” National Gallery Technical Bulletin, Vol. 28 (2007): 58–68.

The development of synthetic pigments in the nineteenth century allowed artists to vividly portray the world in a way that had been previously impossible. The Impressionists were especially drawn to newly available pigments like the blue-green of viridian and the sky color of cobalt blue. Ashok Roy, formerly the director of science and collections at the National Gallery in London, examines in-depth how Monet used these pigments and others in two of his late career works, Water-Lilies and Irises. Roy considers what the use of these materials reveals about his technique, although, as he cites, Monet himself asked in a 1905 letter, “As for the paints I use, is it really as interesting as all that?”

Nancy Forgione, “Everyday Life in Motion: The Art of Walking in Late-Nineteenth-Century Paris,” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 87, No. 4 (December 2005): 664–687.

Much has been written about how the Impressionists were inspired by the movement of the city around them, from its weather to its cafe crowds, but art historian Nancy Forgione calls attention to another aspect. “Those painters strolled the city, recording their observations of, and, at the same time, their own sensation of bodily immersion in, the urban milieu,” she explains. The artists weren’t just spectators, in other words, but responding to the experience of being a walker in late-nineteenth-century Paris. This thoughtful approach to being a flâneur, Forgione argues, is in the themes of many Impressionist works, such as Degas’s Place de la Concorde (Viscount Lepic and His Daughters Crossing the Place de la Concorde) (1875) and Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street: Rainy Day (1877), showing people walking through the urban landscape.

André Dombrowski, “History, Memory, and Instantaneity in Edgar Degas’s Place de la Concorde,” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 93, No. 2 (June 2011): 195–219.

Art historian André Dombrowski takes an even closer look at Degas’s Place de la Concorde and how it “coincides remarkably with the efforts by other Impressionist painters to elevate Impressionism to the level of more ambitious painting after their first group exhibition of 1874.” The painting has a “grander scale, more carefully crafted compositional arrangements, featuring subjects of greater social and historical import and complexity.” The unexpected way Degas’s figures are cut off and the use of negative space have the spontaneity of a photograph, while Dombrowski proposes that this fragmentation may have a deeper political commentary in reckoning with the tumult and redevelopment of Paris during the Third Republic.

Kathleen Adler, “The Suburban, the Modern and ‘une Dame de Passy’,” Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (1989): 3–13.

While the men whose names still dominate Impressionism were strolling the Paris streets and capturing its nightlife, women artists were depicting domestic life, something that had seldom been painted from a female perspective. Art historian Kathleen Adler focuses on the work of Berthe Morisot, whose dynamic brushstrokes captured intimate scenes in the Paris suburb of Passy, where she lived from the early 1850s until her untimely death from pneumonia in 1895. “One of the most striking aspects of Morisot’s production is the extent to which it is concerned with women’s worlds,” Adler writes, adding that Morisot “commemorates aspects of women’s lives rarely represented in the work of contemporary male artists, such as pregnancy.”

Marni Reva Kessler, “Reconstructing Relationships: Berthe Morisot’s Edma Series,” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring-Summer 1991): 24–28.

One of Morisot’s regular subjects was her sister Edma, showing in portraits her shifting roles from being a newlywed to her pregnancy to becoming a mother. Art historian Marni Reva Kessler highlights how this series demonstrates Morisot’s break with the traditions of painting—including in the “unfinished” quality of her work—as well as the “patriarchal tradition by presenting nonhierarchical, exclusively female images.”

Susan Fillin-Yeh, “Mary Cassatt’s Images of Women,” Art Journal, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Summer 1976): 359–363.

Mary Cassatt, recognized as the first American artist to be associated with the Impressionists, also portrayed the daily lives of women. Her work decentered men in popular Impressionist scenes, like audiences at a theater, and portrayed female companionship and the bonds between mothers and children. “The radical sensibility of Cassatt’s oeuvre is her belief that, as she said, ‘women should be someone, not something,’” art historian Susan Fillin-Yeh concludes. “Her art, which visualizes this belief, extends the definition of avant-garde in art beyond formal innovations to encompass a human view of women.”

Norma Broude, “Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman or the Cult of True Womanhood?,” Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Autumn 2000–Winter 2001): 36–43.

Art historian Norma Broude takes another view of Cassatt through the lens of feminist scholarship, noting that although there has been much discussion of her and Morisot’s work in regard to “conventional notions of feminine respectability that denied these upper-middle-class women artists access to the wider public sphere,” their practices were much more complex. “In the case of Cassatt in particular, we are looking at an art that reflects the shifting ideological constructions of gender and femininity within French and American culture during the later decades of the nineteenth century,” Broude writes, highlighting her now-lost “Modern Woman” mural that was part of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

Whitney Kruckenberg, “Degas’ Etchings of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre and the Aesthetics of Process,” Art in Print, Vol. 6, No. 2 (July–August 2016): 23–26.

Another bold choice for several artists associated with Impressionism was the display of their process—not just in the loose brushwork that let viewers see the movement of their hands over the canvas but in the presentation of multiple approaches to a single scene or subject. Art historian Whitney Kruckenberg considers how, in 1880, Degas exhibited several versions of his etchings of Cassatt viewing work at the Louvre. “This was an important feature of the artist’s avant-garde aesthetic: works in various stages of becoming showcased the ingenuity and effort of their making, at the same time partaking of the flux and changeability associated with modern life,” Kruckenberg writes.

Nachoem M. Wijnberg and Gerda Gemser, “Adding Value to Innovation: Impressionism and the Transformation of the Selection System in Visual Arts,” Organization Science, Vol. 11, No. 3, Special Issue: Cultural Industries: Learning from Evolving Organizational Practices (May-June 2000): 323–32.

“The rise and eventual success of the Impressionists…depended not only on the stylistic innovations they introduced,” economics scholars Nachoem M. Wijnberg and Gerda Gemser observe. “It was achieved by a shift away from the peer-based selection system to an expert-based selection system.” Their analysis concentrates on how the break from the Salons led to a new system where commercial galleries, art critics, and art museums were powerful arbiters of value. Among the conclusions of their analysis is that the prizing of artistic innovation that can be traced to the movement continues today.

Michael Leja, “Monet’s Modernity in New York in 1886,” American Art, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Spring 2000): 50–79.

As art historian Michael Leja explains, though 1886 held the final independently organized Impressionist shows in Paris, it also saw the first major French Impressionism exhibition open in the United States. Leja assesses the critical response to this show at the American Art Association in New York, particularly Helen Cecilia de Silver Abbott’s pamphlet that concentrated on Monet. She wrote of the artist that he “does not paint what nature is, or as she presents herself to the ordinary mind through the medium of the imperfect senses, but he paints those thoughts which she impresses upon him.”

William Seitz, “Monet and Abstract Painting,” College Art Journal, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Autumn 1956): 34–46.

William Seitz, who was an early scholar of Abstract Expressionism and a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, reflected in 1956 on how the “optical qualities of Impressionism, which appeared so antithetical to abstract painting twenty years ago, are integral to the abstract painting of the forties and fifties.” Modernism had shifted in the early decades of the twentieth century to Cubism and other movements, yet Seitz reflects on how artists like Piet Mondrian with his abstract compositions based on church facades were following in the footsteps of Monet: “The pulsation which Monet achieves by vibrating color, brushstroke, and architectural lines is paralleled, in Mondrian’s studies, by the free rendering of similar horizontal and vertical accents—an effect which he characterized as ‘the emotional restlessness of the Impressionists’ technique.’”

Mark Rollins, “What Monet Meant: Intention and Attention in Understanding Art,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 62, No. 2, Special Issue: Art, Mind, and Cognitive Science (Spring 2004): 175–188.

The Impressionists are now so popular as to no longer be perceived as disruptors of the creative status quo, yet they continue to propel thought about how art engages with our sensory perception of the world. “Through neuropsychological activity produced by his paintings, the perceiver is able to recognize critical components of what Monet meant,” writes philosopher Mark Rollins in this meditation on understanding art. Monet is just part of his investigation of artistic interpretation and intent, a response in part to the artist’s declaration that reflected the bold ambitions of the Impressionists: “I am pursuing the impossible. I want to paint the air.”

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The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 154, No. 1317 (December 2012), pp. 843–845
Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd.
The Art Bulletin, Vol. 73, No. 4 (December 1991), pp. 599–622
Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, (2001), pp. 66–73
Yale University, acting through the Yale University Art Gallery
Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 22, No. 44 (2001), pp. 201–220
IRSA s.c.
National Gallery Technical Bulletin, Vol. 28 (2007), pp. 58–68
National Gallery Company Limited
The Art Bulletin, Vol. 87, No. 4 (December 2005), pp. 664–687
Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (1989), pp. 3–13
Oxford University Press
Woman's Art Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring–Summer, 1991), pp. 24–28
Woman's Art Inc.
Art Journal, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Summer 1976), pp. 359–363
Woman's Art Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Autumn 2000–Winter 2001), pp. 36–43
Woman's Art Inc.
Art in Print, Vol. 6, No. 2 (July–August 2016), pp. 23–26
Art in Print Review
Organization Science, Vol. 11, No. 3, Special Issue: Cultural Industries: Learning from Evolving Organizational Practices (May–June 2000), pp. 323–329
American Art, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Spring 2000), pp. 50–79
The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Smithsonian American Art Museum
College Art Journal, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Autumn, 1956), pp. 34–46
The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 62, No. 2, Special Issue: Art, Mind, and Cognitive Science (Spring, 2004), pp. 175–188
Wiley on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics