a history of western art

from the renaissance to the present

impressionism


people, terms, and concepts: local color, perceived color, painterly, bourgeoisie (middle classes)


The Impressionist style is characterized by a radical use of color and by visible, painterly brushwork. Although many conservative critics dismissed Impressionist works as 'unfinished,' other critics tried to justify this unusual style as actually more true to appearances than traditional naturalism. As the art critic Duranty put it, "They are impressionists in the sense that they render not the object, but the sensation produced by the object." Know the difference between traditional, Renaissance-type naturalism (where the artist uses only the local color of objects modeled with chiaroscuro to show mass and solidity) and the Impressionist rendering of perceived color (including all the observable variations in color at the time of viewing that are due to the specific atmospheric conditions, time of day, season, reflected light, etc.). The Impressionists' concentration on how we actually perceive objects is also visible in their frequent use of unbalanced, off-centered, and oddly cropped scenes, rather than carefully balanced and centered compositions and systematic linear perspective of traditional art: this again can be defended as more true to how we perceive scenes and objects as we move through space, catching unstaged glimpses of things. Be able to describe the radical use of color and/or space in the works below in relation to the Impressionists' project of capturing momentary 'sensations' or 'impressions.'

Typically, Impressionist subject matter consists of picturesque landscapes and/or the urban bourgeoisie (middle classes) at leisure (contrast the Realists as recorders of the rural peasants at labor). But there are significant differences in the way different Impressionists recorded middle class leisure. Renoir and Monet tended to paint middle-class life 'sunny side up,' for example, with no signs of labor or strife (see the Renoir below, for example). By contrast, Degas, Cassatt, and Manet (who was associated with the Impressionists) tended to do social criticism of bourgeois leisure. How do Degas' and Cassatt's paintings of Parisian nightlife below call attention to somewhat seedy and unsavory forms of middle-class male leisure, for example? Be able to discuss the very different access to the social spaces of Paris by male and female Impressionists as they collected their impressions of middle-class urban leisure, and be able to analyze the Degas and Cassatt below as expressions of the very different ways that social life and social spaces were experienced by men versus women.

Cassatt, Woman in Black at the Opera, Impressionism, c. 1880

Degas, The Rehearsal on Stage, French Impressionism, c. 1875

Renoir, Le Moulin de la Galette, French Impressionism, c. 1875

Monet, Rouen Cathedral (2 of dozens of different versions), French Impressionism, c. 1895