Impressionism was an art movement which began in Paris in the last quarter of the 19th century. The impressionists tried to capture the momentary effects of light on colours and forms, often painting outdoors. They frequently used bright colours with a thick application to capture landscapes and contemporary everyday life in cafés, the theatre, and the boulevards of Paris.
The Term 'Impressionism'
The term 'impressionism' is a useful but ambiguous label, which can be applied to a group of artists from the 1860s who were painting in France, particularly in Paris. It was coined by the critic Louis Leroy after seeing a work by Claude Monet (1840-1926) at the First Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in April 1874. The painting was titled Impression, Sunrise and shows a view of Le Havre's industrial harbour with a fierce orange sun reflected in purple waters. Leroy and other critics then applied the term 'impressionism' to many of the works on display which had vague forms and very obvious brushstrokes.
In the beginning, then, the term 'impressionism' was a derogatory one used by some conservative art critics to ridicule this new art style. However, the artists involved (or most of them) soon adopted the term to describe themselves and their independent exhibitions, even if nobody could quite agree what the term meant precisely. 'Impressionism' remains a useful general label, and it does certainly capture the essential thing these artists were trying to paint, that is the momentary effects of light and colours rather than precise, photographic-like reproductions of reality (photographs had become popular from the 1820s). They were trying to create an impression of reality, or more precisely, their individual impression of the reality they saw.
'Impressionism' as a term does have its limitations. Just exactly when, what style, and who the term may be applied to is much debated by art scholars. The artists who have been called impressionists were often quite different. Painters like Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Edouard Manet (1832-83), and Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1896), for example, were often interested in form and composition and in using less visible brushstrokes. This is in contrast to the hazy effects produced by artists like Monet, Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). All of the artists could paint in the traditional manner as shown by their earlier works, but some were definitely more 'impressionistic' than others.
To further complicate the use of the term, impressionism also involved a new approach to the colours being used and the subjects. The brighter palettes often used were very different from traditional painting but, on the other hand, some impressionist artists deliberately used more subdued tones. The use of purer colours was another feature. The impressionists stood out for their interest in capturing daily life, the poorer classes, and landscapes, but again, this was not always the case. Finally, an important element of the process of producing a painting for many impressionists was to paint the subject outdoors (en plein air), now a possibility thanks to the invention of portable tin tubes with a screw cap containing readymade paint (previously, artists had to grind their own pigments). But yet again, some artists preferred to continue working only in their studios, and even the die-hard en plein air proponents still added finishing touches to their canvases back in the studio. In short, 'impressionism' has come to mean the art produced from the 1860s to the end of the 19th century which challenged the conventions of traditional fine art, challenges which were made by different artists in different ways