The Art of Impressionism

Impressionism can be considered the first distinctly modern movement in painting. Developing in Paris in the 1860s, its influence spread throughout Europe and eventually the United States. Its originators were artists who rejected the official, government-sanctioned exhibitions, or salons, and were consequently shunned by powerful academic art institutions. In turning away from the fine finish and detail to which most artists of their day aspired, the Impressionists aimed to capture the momentary, sensory effect of a scene - the impression objects made on the eye in a fleeting instant. To achieve this effect, many Impressionist artists moved from the studio to the streets and countryside, painting en plein air.

The Impressionists loosened their brushwork and lightened their palettes to include pure, intense colors. They abandoned traditional linear perspective and avoided the clarity of form that had previously served to distinguish the more important elements of a picture from the lesser ones. For this reason, many critics faulted Impressionist paintings for their unfinished appearance and seemingly-amateurish quality.

Picking up on the ideas of Gustave Courbet, the Impressionists aimed to be painters of the real - they aimed to extend the possible subjects for paintings. Getting away from depictions of idealized forms and perfect symmetry, but rather concentrating on the world as they saw it, imperfect in a myriad number of ways. At the time, there were many ideas of what constituted modernity. Part of the Impressionist idea was to capture a split second of life, an ephemeral moment in time on the canvas: the impression.

Scientific thought at the time was beginning to recognize that what the eye perceived and what the brain understood were two different things. The Impressionists sought to capture the former - the optical effects of light - to convey the passage of time, changes in weather, and other shifts in the atmosphere in their canvases. Their art did not necessarily rely on realistic depictions.

Impressionism records the effects of the massive mid-nineteenth-century renovation of Paris led by civic planner Georges-Eugène Haussmann, which included the city's newly constructed railway stations; wide, tree-lined boulevards that replaced the formerly narrow, crowded streets; and large, deluxe apartment buildings. The works that focused on scenes of public leisure - especially scenes of cafes and cabarets - conveyed the new sense of alienation experienced by the inhabitants of the first modern metropolis.