Who inspired the Impressionists?

Who inspired the Impressionists?

Added Jul 7, 2021 - 8 minutes read

First episode of our series dedicated to the Impressionist epic: Discover with us the instigators of a revolutionary movement. Who impressed the Impressionists?

Whether you were born in the 60's or 90's, for our current generations, impressionist painters are as well-known or even more renowned than the great names of the Renaissance. This artistic movement, which only lasted about twenty years, has left its mark on the history of art. In occident and all over the world, the shelves of our libraries and bookstores are more often filled with books on this movement than on other periods which are much vaster, such as Flemish painting, classicism, or the legendary Renaissance. But why are Monet, Renoir, Degas, Manet, Pissarro, Morisot as famous today as Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio or Michelangelo? 

Camille Pissarro, The Crystal Palace, Londres, 1871. Art Institute of Chicago.

And why such an imbalance? What makes the Impressionist so important? Today we start our summer saga on the theme of Impressionism. Without pretension, this documented adventure will attempt to shed light on all aspects of this revolutionary movement, of a generation of artists willing to do anything to disrupt the established order

Over the course of the weeks, you'll discover the initiators of the movement, the origins of its name, the critical and public receptions, the different artists who participated (including some particularly powerful female personalities), the friendships and disagreements that animated this group... Finally, we'll try to solve the most difficult problem: to give a clear definition of what Impressionism is, based on all the information we'll have discovered on the subject. 

So follow us, because the history of Impressionism has many surprises in store for you! 

Claude Monet, Le Bassin aux Nymphéas, 1904. Denver Art Museum. 

Who inspired the Impressionists?

What are the origins of Impressionism? To whom do we owe the emergence of this movement? 

Although often described as rebels, the Impressionist artists - Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Sisley, Bazille, Pissarro and others - didn't create a new artistic movement overnight, out of nothing. 

Far from the myth spread here and there, the Impressionists aren't completely self-taught, dissident and enlightened artists. Like all painters of all periods, they were inspired by their predecessors to push the boundaries of what was possible ever further. For Auguste Renoir, moreover, "Painting is learned especially in museums": from initiators to imitators, there's only one step - and a few letters. 

Auguste Renoir, Woman laying on the grass, 1899.

No beautiful story begins without an introduction. And as far as the Impressionists are concerned, it's necessary to clear up some contextual notions. To fully understand the origins of this legendary movement, we must go back more than 170 years

We arrive in 1850. At that time, French art was concentrated around one and only one way to dream of success: academic art, or official art. Since the creation of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1648 (under the reign of the Sun King), art is dictated by masters and for masters: the rules remain eternally the same, transmitted from generation to generation, and the political power is very accommodating. The Academy transmits a unique knowledge, centralizes the future of artists and channels the most recalcitrant minds. It's an artist's maker: it dictates the rules to be followed, exercises its control, criticizes dissent, and approves (or not) the artworks that will be presented at the largest Parisian exhibition: Le Salon. This all-powerful authority will be both the justification and the reason for the emergence of the Impressionist movement, but we'll come back to this in the second part of this article (critical, media and public reception)

Henri Fantin-Latour, Tribute to Delacroix, 1864. Edouard Manet is standing at the right of the painting. The American impressionist James Whistler is standing in the foreground to the left of the painting. 

The creative effervescence of this group of artists was inspired by French painters already well established at the time. These sources of influence are numerous and differ according to the life trajectories of our impressionist protagonists. However, they can be subdivided into 3 distinct elements: technique, intention (the choice of subjects and the way of treating them), and finally, the attitude towards official art. 

1. The technique: Eugène Delacroix

Concerning the technique first, most of the Impressionists were influenced by the sketches of Eugène Delacroix. At first glance, it doesn't seem so obvious to establish links between this master of Romanticism and the Impressionists' mottled landscapes, and yet there's a lot!

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830. Musée du Louvre, Paris. 

The author of the legendary painting "Liberty Leading the People" created many landscapes in which we can see the beginnings of an impressionist technique, notably with large brushstrokes that summarize the shape of waves, valleys, and other rocks. The dark artist was also a great master of pigments and chromatic shades: by fine analysis, he discovered on his own the aesthetic interest of using complementary colors to create shadows in his compositions. A technique that would become the cornerstone of the impressionist microcosm! 

Eugène Delacroix, Landscape with Rocks, 1822. Museum of Valence.
This painting was owned by the painter Camille Pissarro, further proof of the importance of this romantic figure within the Impressionists.

2. The intention: Constable, Turner, Boudin

Concerning the intention, then: The Impressionists weren't the first to set out in search of capturing the immediacy and vivacity of the landscapes around them. The instigators of this rapid execution are to be found in England and on the Normandy coast. In England, the artist John Constable pursued his quest for immediacy by painting landscapes as quickly as possible in order to capture the fiery flashes of light on the Anglo-Saxon coast. He took care to indicate behind each painting the date and time of its realization, to fix in time the energy of a moment. In Honfleur, on the Normandy coast, the artist and mentor of Claude Monet, Eugène Boudin, did much the same work, painting numerous postcard-sized canvases representing the sky and its clouds. He also time-stamped his work, indicating the date and direction of the wind, believing that the phenomena unfolding before his eyes would never again appear in the same way as at that precise moment. 

Eugène Boudin, Sky 4 o'clock, sunrise, ca. 1848. Malraux Museum, Le Havre.

Eugene Boudin's creative process had a great influence on the art of Claude Monet, who was also greatly inspired by another Englishman, William Turner, and his luminous landscapes.  

In England, the borders between academic art and new painting techniques didn't exist, or at least, in a much lighter way than in France. This explains why these artists (Constable and Turner in particular), were able to flourish in this new way of painting, while enjoying a success that allowed them to live and be seen, especially for a French public, as the future stars of the time: Monet, Renoir, Degas, or Pissarro

William Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed, 1844. National Gallery of London. 

3. The attitude: Gustave Courbet

Concerning the attitude, finally: There was no need to wait for the impressionists to express insolence in the art world. In all eras, artists have tried to extract themselves from the official diktats to blossom in pure creative freedom. This emancipatory quest obviously counts more failures than successes. However, there was already, in 1850, an artistic personality known and recognized for his character and his independence towards the academic course, and it's the illustrious Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet, Young Ladies Beside the Seine (Summer), 1856-57. Petit Palais, Paris.

This realist painter, author of the most famous vagina in the history of art, opened a breach for the impressionists, going against the academy on many occasions, organizing his own exhibitions on the fringe of the salon, and increasing his fame and wealth tenfold thanks to the various scandals that marked his life. 

Gustave Courbet wasn't born in Paris, he was a provincial like Monet and Bazille. However, he knew how to make the most of his time and gain success and esteem in the capital: a perfect model of success for the young impressionists. 

Gustave Courbet, The Wave, ca. 1869. Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. 

Gustave Courbet didn't just unburden the future Impressionists: he pumped them up! Without his resistance to academic oppression, without his independent exhibitions alongside the official Salon, the group of Monet, Morisot and Degas would certainly never have had the courage or even the idea to organize their own exhibitions to get around the rejections of the Salon jury. Eugene Boudin, Claude Monet's mentor, would even declare in this regard, "Courbet has already freed me from my shyness.".   From now on, everyone knows that another way is possible. It will be painful, complex and tedious, but it exists, and they will all rush into it with enthusiasm. 

Gustave Courbet, Le Désespéré, 1843-45. Private collection.

If the common theme of Impressionism was a cocktail, then mix Delacroix's technique, Boudin's strategy and Courbet's vehemence in a shaker and you've got a nice, chilled masterpiece! 

Obviously, these influences aren't exhaustive. We could also have mentioned the impact of Japanese engravings, discovered at this time, which upset many future impressionists: notably in the use of bright colors, and the abandonment of certain rules of occidental perspective that were too strict. 

Johan Jongkind, Watercolor, Riverbanks, 1868. Petit Palais, Paris.

Finally, for each painter taken separately, many other influences can be found without any difficulty: 

  • The colorful watercolors of Johan Jongkind for Claude Monet.
  • The finesse of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' drawings for Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Paul Gauguin or Marie Bracquemond (who was also his pupil, although he didn't appreciate female ambitions in the artistic field, we'll come back to this in the last episode of this saga dedicated to the impressionist women).   
  • The poetry of Jean-Baptiste Corot and Charles-François Daubigny's landscapes for Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley.

Camille Corot, View of Marino in the Alban Mountains, Early Morning, 1827. Städel Museum, Francfort.

We'll see you soon for Episode 2 of this impressionist saga!
On the program: a fierce struggle against academism, the detailed origins of the term "Impressionists", and an extremely violent media and public reception... In short, the beginnings of an already successful movement!
Stay tuned!

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