In 1874, a group of artists called the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc. organized an exhibition in Paris that launched the movement called Impressionism. Its founding members included
Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, among others. The group was unified only
by its independence from the official annual Salon, for which a jury of artists from the AcadÈmie des Beaux-Arts selected artworks and awarded medals. The independent artists, despite their diverse approaches to
painting, appeared to contemporaries as a group. While conservative critics panned their work for its unfinished, sketchlike appearance, more progressive writers praised it for its depiction of modern life.
Their work is recognized today for its modernity, embodied in its rejection of established styles, its incorporation of new technology and ideas, and its depiction of modern life.
Claude Monet's Impression, Sunrise exhibited in 1874, gave the Impressionist movement its name when the critic Louis Leroy accused it of being a sketch or "impression," not a finished painting. It demonstrates the techniques many of the independent artists adopted: short, broken brushstrokes that barely convey forms, pure unblended colors, and an emphasis on the effects of light. Rather than neutral white, grays, and blacks, Impressionists often rendered shadows and highlights in color. The artists' loose brushwork gives an effect of spontaneity and effortlessness that masks their often carefully constructed compositions, such as in Ballet Rehearsal on Stage by Edgar Degas, and Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir This seemingly casual style became widely accepted, even in the official Salon, as the new language with which to depict modern life.
In addition to their radical technique, the bright colors of Impressionist canvases were shocking for eyes accustomed to the more sober colors of Academic painting. Many of the independent artists chose not to apply the thick golden varnish that painters customarily used to tone down their works. The paints themselves were more vivid as well. The nineteenth century saw the development of synthetic pigments for artists' paints, providing vibrant shades of blue, green, and yellow that painters had never used before. Edouard Manet's 1874 Boating , for example, features an expanse of the new Cerulean blue and synthetic ultramarine.
A number of identifiable techniques and working habits contributed to the innovative style of the Impressionists. Although these methods had been used by previous artists - and are often conspicuous in the work of artists such as Diego Velazquez, Peter Paul Rubens, Caravaggio, and Goya - the Impressionists were the first to use them all together, and with such consistency. These techniques include:
- Short, thick strokes of paint quickly capture the essence of the subject, rather than its details. The paint is often applied impasto.
- Colours are applied side-by-side with as little mixing as possible, a technique that exploits the principle of simultaneous contrast to make the colour appear more vivid to the viewer.
- Grays and dark tones are produced by mixing complementary colours. Pure impressionism avoids the use of black paint.
- Wet paint is placed into wet paint without waiting for successive applications to dry, producing softer edges and intermingling of colour.
- Impressionist paintings do not exploit the transparency of thin paint films (glazes), which earlier artists manipulated carefully to produce effects. The impressionist painting surface is typically opaque.
- The paint is applied to a white or light-coloured ground. Previously, painters often used dark grey or strongly coloured grounds.
Breaking free of the naturalism of Impressionism in the late 1880s, a group of young painters sought independent artistic styles for expressing emotions rather than simply optical impressions, concentrating on themes
of deeper symbolism. Through the use of simplified colors and definitive forms, their art was characterized by a renewed aesthetic sense as well as abstract tendencies. Among the nascent generation of artists responding
to Impressionism, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, Van Gogh, and the eldest of the group, Paul CÈzanne,
followed diverse stylistic paths in search of authentic intellectual and artistic achievements. These artists, often working independently, are today called Post-Impressionists. Although they did not view themselves as
part of a collective movement at the time, Roger Fry (1866ñ1934), critic and artist, broadly categorized them as "Post-Impressionists," a term that he coined in his seminal exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists
installed at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1910.
The art of Paul Gauguin developed out of similar Impressionist foundations, but he too dispensed with Impressionistic handling of pigment and imagery in exchange for an approach characterized by solid patches of color and clearly defined forms, which he used to depict exotic themes and images of private and religious symbolism. Gauguin's peripatetic disposition took him to Brittany, Provence, Martinique, and Panama, finally settling him in remote Polynesia, at first Tahiti then the Marquesas Islands. Hoping to escape the aggravations of the industrialized European world and constantly searching for an untouched land of simplicity and beauty, Gauguin looked toward remote destinations where he could live easily and paint the purity of the country and its inhabitants. In Tahiti, he made some of the most insightful and expressive pictures of his career. We Hail Thee Mary resonates with striking imagery and Polynesian iconography, used unconventionally with several well-known Christian themes, including the Adoration of the Magi and the Annunciation. He described this picture in a letter to a dealer friend in Paris: "An angel with yellow wings points out Mary and Jesus, both Tahitians, to two Tahitian women, nudes wrapped in pareus, a sort of cotton cloth printed with flowers that can be draped as one likes from the waist".
In Two Tahitian Women and Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Gauguin employs simplified colors and solid forms as he builds flat objects that lack traditional notions of perspective, particularly apparent in the still-life arrangement atop a white tablecloth pushed directly into the foreground of the picture plane.
Striving toward comparable emotional intensities as Gauguin, and even working briefly with him in Arles in the south of France in 1888, Vincent van Gogh searched with equal determination to create personal expression in his art. Van Gogh's early pictures are coarsely rendered images of Dutch peasant life depicted with rugged brushstrokes and dark, earthy tones. The Potato Eaters shows his fascination with the working class, portrayed here in a crude style of thickly applied dark pigments. Self Portrait, 1918 is reminiscent of the rapidly applied divisionist strokes of the Neo-Impressionists, particularly Signac, with whom Van Gogh became friends in Paris. After his voluntary commitment to an asylum in Saint-RÈmy in 1889, he painted several pictures with extraordinarily poignant undertones, agitated lines, brilliant colors, and distorted perspective, which include, among others Irise, The Starry Night
Through their radically independent styles and dedication to pursuing unique means of artistic expression, the Post-Impressionists dramatically influenced generations of artists, including Henri Matisse and his circle of Fauvist painters, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and German Expressionists.