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5 things you need to know about Impressionism 

Posted on 30 Oct 2019

Five need-to-know facts about the movement that shocked 19th century French society.

A new edition of Art Essentials reveals the lesser known figures and dimensions of Impressionism, the movement that appalled 19th century Parisian society and went on to become one of the most recognisable and popular painting styles in the world.

Most students and lovers of art can recognise an Impressionist painting – the lively dabs of paint, the fresh colours, the “on the spot” rather than studio setting, and the shift from grand mythological or historical narratives to everyday scenes, most notably the boulevards and cafes of Paris, or idyllic boating and picnic spots outside the city. Today, the once renegade modernist movement is beloved around the globe, summoning flocks of gallery-goers from Shanghai to Seattle, not to mention top dollar at auction.

But the familiar ideas we have about Impressionism are still only a partial story, honouring certain artists and themes, to the detriment of the bigger picture – not least its female practitioners. With the release of Art Essentials:Impressionism, we take a look at five often of the movement’s lesser-known painters and dimensions.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt Woman Sitting with a Child in her Arms, c.1890 Oil on canvas, 81 x 65.5cm (32 x 25 ¾ in) Bilbao, Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao

Most of the adventurous ideas associated with the Impressionists were first discussed in Parisian cafés. By 1866, their favourite meeting place was the tiny, noisy Café Guerbois, where Manet reserved tables for their informal salons. This was not, however, an all-inclusive forum. Most notably, Berthe Morisot was unable to participate in these early group discussions, since social mores dictated that ‘respectable’ women could not frequent city cafés or bars. Morisot had to rely on male friends visiting her studio in order to discuss her latest paintings and future plans.

Mary Cassatt was the first American painter to become a committed Impressionist in Paris and the only American formally invited to join the French Impressionist group, exhibiting in their shows four times. Like Renoir, she painted a number of canvases of young women in sunlit rooms and lush gardens, but also produced striking still lives. Based in Paris for much of her adult life, Cassatt became something of an Impressionist expert for wealthy friends and collectors back home. Many important Impressionist canvases entered public and private collections in the United States thanks to her advice. Despite this, Cassatt was long under-estimated by art history, typically cast as a mere “pupil of Degas”, rather than the talented artist and key Impressionist spokesperson she was.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt Lilacs in a Window (Vase de Lilas a la Fenêtre), c.1880-83 Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 51.1cm (24 ¼ x 20 ¼ in) New York (NY), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A common perception – and criticism – of Impressionism is that its “everyday” scenes were true only to a well-heeled middle class, eschewing the rougher realities of Parisian life for pretty frivolity and affluent leisure. Though true that many Impressionist artists had a certain milieu bias, both Degas and Manet depicted several scenes in working class bars and cafes. Degas embarked on several series documenting working class experience, including a number of pastel drawings of prostitutes, as well as a series on laundresses.

Edgar Degas The Rehearsal, c.1877 Oil on canvas, 58.4 x 83.8cm (23 x 33in) Glasgow, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries

Many of the Impressionists, and particularly Claude Monet, excelled in a variety of techniques to depict light on water – one of the most challenging technical feats in painting. The paintings Monet produced of the waterlily pond he created at Giverny, outside Paris, mark an apogee of the Impressionist movement, and an obsession for Monet himself. But it was by the powerful sea, rather than serene ponds, that the artist felt most at home, declaring that ‘the sea . . . really is my element.’ In this, he was inspired by the dramatic seascapes of Courbet. In 1868, he made a trip to one of Courbet’s favourite coastal locations, Étretat in Normandy, and produced his own canvas of a stormy sea.

Claude Monet Water Lilies, 1917 Oil on canvas, 100 x 200cm (39 ¼ x 78 ¾ in) Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts

By the 1880s, Paris was a major magnet for ambitious American and Australian artists of independent means. John Peter Russell was born and raised in Sydney, but enrolled in art classes in Paris in1884. In 1886, he met Monet while painting on the clifftops of Belle-Île, off the coast of Brittany, and went on to build a large house and studio in the same region, producing many Impressionist seascapes. Russell remained profoundly influenced by Monet for much of his career, but strove to add a clarity of composition to the Impressionist light and colour, believing that many Impressionist canvases lacked formal strength. Russell returned to Australia after the First World War, but has only been properly recognised for his contributions to the global Impressionist story in the last decades. Today, his work is displayed in all major Australian institutions, while 21 of his paintings are with the Musee Rodin in Paris.

John Russell A Clearing in the Forest, 1891 Oil on canvas, 61 x 55.9cm (24 x 22in) Adelaide, Art Gallery of South Australia

Words by Eliza Apperly

Edgar Degas

Drawings and Pastels Christopher Lloyd