The title of this piece is a quote from artist Henri Matisse, which means “Impressionism is the newspaper of the soul.” In the same way that newspapers report events from a political standpoint, impressionists do it from a personal one. Impressionism is a 19th Century artistic movement that was born and bred in the French capital city, Paris. The term “Impressionist” was coined by reporter Louis Leroy, after an exhibition containing Claude Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise.” For Leroy, the work lacked substance and depth, giving away only an “Impression” of the intended subject matter. It is interesting to think that something that was meant as an insult was transformed as a means of identifying one of the most famous and influential movements in art history, and my personal favourite. The middle of the 19th century was a time of much change and unrest in France. With constant shifts in power, the most dominant and consistent force of power was the Académie des Beaux-Arts. This was an esteemed artistic institution that dictated the rules contemporary artists were expected to follow. The standards set were often consistent with traditional French painting, with predominantly historical and religious subjects that were expected to be highly stylised and idealised. As well as enforcing said rules, the Académie held an annual art show, the Salon de Paris, in which artists could exhibit their work and win prizes, commissions and ultimately fame and prestige.
The Impressionists, on the other hand, cared less about the notoriety of being a conventionally established artist but focused instead on creating works motivated by personal feelings and experiences. One of their main influences was poet Charles Baudelaire, who in his work “The Painter of Modern Life” encouraged modern artists to create works with more realistic and personal subjects. As a result, they were more inclined to paint landscapes and contemporary life rather than follow in line with their contemporaries at the Académie.
Due to the modernisation and expansion of Paris, brought about by Emperor Napoleon III and carried out by architect Georges-Eugène Haussmann, there was increasing poverty, illness, and general unease amongst its modern citizens. The city was growing in size and wealth, and its entertainment industry blooming, and while the bourgeois was profiting from these improvements, those who were less educated and well off did not reap such benefits. Also, the growing size of the city emphasised the disconnect between its citizens and heightened the rising feeling of depression and isolation. Parisians would often take advantage of lavish clubs, inexpensive prostitutes and an obscene amount of absinthe to mask their sadness.
With this in mind, it is no surprise that the Impressionists felt contemporary life would make a much more interesting subject matter than historical or religious works. With an abundance of material in their everyday lives, it would be illogical not to take inspiration from it.
Baudelaire also encouraged artists to act as “flâneurs” painting works “en Plein air.” They would wander the city streets, with painting materials in hand, ready to capture any moment that inspired them.
Due to the lack of French paintings depicting contemporary subject matter, the Impressionists took inspiration from photography and, somewhat surprisingly, Japanese woodblock prints. The composition of these Japanese works was the primary influence for the Impressionists as they highlighted space and enlarged landscapes. The Impressionist style was characterised by loose brushwork, with the paint being applied impasto (the paint was layered on very thick, creating the illusion of depth).
In hindsight, the Impressionist influence on modern art is undeniable, with artists like Monet, Manet, Degas and Cezanne becoming some of the more revered and celebrated names in the art world. However, like with most artists, this fame was posthumous, and the majority of these painters were unable to reap the rewards of their talent while they were alive. They were rejected continuously from the Salon de Paris. However, it got to the point where there was enough independent work that needed to be exhibited, and the Salon des Refusés was created. Here, some of the most famous impressionist paintings were displayed, and at some point, it even garnered more attention than the traditional Salon de Paris.
The reason for my love of Impressionists is their confidence, independence and creative rebellion. This was a group of artists who were in the midst of one of the most unstable periods in French history and were not confined by societal norms and expectations and were more inclined to create works that they were passionate about. They possessed immense talent inaccurately portraying the contemporary climate and established a precedent for using art as a means of social commentary, something very few artists before them had done.