Movement in painting and music that developed in late 19th-century France in reaction to the formalism and sentimentality that characterized academic art and much 18th- and early-19th-century music. The impressionist movement is often considered to mark the beginning of the modern period in art and, to a lesser degree, in music.
The direct precursors of impressionism were the English landscape painters John Constable and J. M. W. Turner. When Monet and Pissarro first saw the work of these men, in 1871, they were particularly impressed by Turner's rendering of atmosphere and his representation of the diffusing effects of light on solid objects. The Barbizon school of painting was also a precursor of the impressionist movement in France. Thirty years before the first impressionist exhibition, Camille Corot, an occasional member of the Barbizon school who sometimes is called the father of impressionism, interpreted the fleeting aspects of changing light in a series of subjects painted during different hours of the day. Eugène Louis Boudin, Monet's first teacher, a preimpressionist painter of seascapes swiftly executed at their actual locales, taught his successors to convey a feeling of spontaneity. Gustave Courbet encouraged the impressionists to seek inspiration from everyday life.
Édouard Manet, sometimes called the first impressionist—although he rejected that term for his own work—showed that subtle depictions of light can be accomplished as well by the juxtaposition of bright, contrasting colors as by shadings of intermediary tones. His Dejeuner sur l'herbe (1863, Louvre, Paris), exhibited in the Salon des Refusés, which had been organized in opposition to the salon showing of the Académie, signaled the beginning of a new era in art. The impressionist painters organized their first independent exhibition in 1874. The 30 exhibitors were united in their common rejection of the prevailing art styles and their admiration for the bold vignettelike paintings of Manet. The term impressionist was first used by a writer for a Paris magazine to characterize derisively a painting by Claude Monet entitled Impression: Sunrise (1872, Musée Marmottan, Paris). The term was officially adopted for the impressionist's third exhibition in 1877. Notable French contemporaries who championed the impressionists included such literary figures as Émile Zola and Charles Baudelaire, the painter-collector Gustave Caillebotte, and the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. Long accustomed to the conventional academic style, the press and public were hostile to the new style. During ensuing years, however, impressionism gradually won acceptance.
The impressionists developed individual styles and as a group benefited from their common experiments in color. Monet alone was doctrinaire in applying what had become impressionist theory. He painted many series of studies—the cathedral of Rouen, haystacks, a lily pond, and poplars—each study painted at different times of the day and in different seasons. Pissarro used a subdued palette and concentrated equally on the effects of light and on the structure of forms. Sisley, although greatly influenced by Monet, retained his own delicacy of style. Degas, who was not an orthodox impressionist, caught the fleeting moment, especially in ballet and horse-racing scenes. Renoir preferred to paint the female form rather than pure landscapes. Morisot's subtly painted landscapes gained strength from brushwork rather than color.
French impressionism influenced artists throughout the world. The most outstanding was the American J. A. M. Whistler, whose so-called nocturnes (1877) represent such effects as fireworks or lights shining through mists. Other artists include the Americans Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, Winslow Homer, and John Singer Sargent, the Englishman Walter Sickert, the Italian Giovanni Segantini, and the Spaniard Joaquín Sorolla.
Impressionism had far-reaching
effects. Painters who began as impressionists developed other techniques,
which started new movements in art. The French painters Georges Seurat
and Paul Signac painted entire canvases with small dots of color in a scientific
application of impressionist theory known as pointillism. The postimpressionists
Paul Cézanne, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent
van Gogh were greatly influenced by the impressionists' brilliant use of
color. Cézanne's work anticipated cubism, while that of Gauguin
and van Gogh was an early stage of expressionism.
French impressionist music continued to develop in the work of Maurice Ravel. Other French composers of the impressionist school were Paul Dukas and Albert Roussel. Outside of France, various aspects of Debussy's style were imitated by a number of composers, such as Frederick Delius and Ralph Vaughan Williams in England, Ottorino Respighi in Italy, and Manuel de Falla in Spain.
By the beginning of World
War I in 1914, the overrefinement and technical limitations of musical
impressionism provoked adverse criticism from composers and critics alike.
A new group of antiromantic French composers, Les Six, influenced by Erik
Satie, satirized and revolted against these excesses. Eventually, impressionism,
which had been conceived by Debussy as a revolt against romanticism, came
to be regarded as the final phase of romantic music.