The Conceptual Nature of Impressionist Art

Art History

April 18, 2016

Impressionist art is considered to be the first revolutionary art that echoed the abstract and conceptual thought that followed years later. Charming and nice, with the total absence of darkness and the adding of the softness to the edges of the subject matter depicted, it is a wonder today, how many artists and intellectuals of the 19th century had such strong words of revolt and disgust about it. The charm that echoes through the use of color and the concentration to the depiction of light makes us forget that the Impressionist art is also an Avant-garde art and possibly the last time that the subject matter in the paintings needed to be recognizable. The first movement of the Modern art, the Impressionism and its ideas, alongiside its basic principles influenced the subsequent development of painting and sculpture,and simultanously its view on the perception of the world around us, influenced the conceptual approach to nature. Shocking then, to the same extent, as was the Damien Hirst’s shark in a vitrine when it first appeared in the art world, we must acknowledge the broad extent of the innovation and original thought we owe to this art movement.

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Left: Auguste Renoir - Moulin de la Galette / Right: Claude Monet - Women in the Garden. Images via

We Turn Our Backs to the Past

For a better understanding of the Impressionism, we must consider where art previously was. Following the tradition from the Middle Ages and before, art was considered in the service of the church and most of the paintings were used to depict saints and secular themes. With the birth of the Renaissance, we acknowledge the birth of the research in art, to a certain degree, of course, governed by the works of Leonardo Da Vinci. We see a rise in the portraiture art and we also see the artists' need to depict reality with a twist. This twist produced for the public the enlightenment world and the transcendence of the divine, where the perfection of the gods was the produced image. There was no room for the real but only for the idealized image that was the canon for the presentation of the reality. Everything was done by a certain formula, where the painted surfaces were flat, colors were subdued and there was no room for flaws. The rejection of this view towards art marks the first revolutionary approach to art that was celebrated in the circle of artists of the Parisian scene in the 1870’s and 1880’s that became known as the Impressionists. Rejecting the idea that there exists a canon of expression for indicating moods, sentiments and arrangements of objects, impressionist art gave primacy to the subjective attitude of the artist, emphasizing spontaneity and immediacy of vision and of reaction.

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Gustave Courbet - The Painter's Studio. Image via

The Real with a capital R

In the 19th century art was still expected to transcend the everyday. This was still the dominant style of the most celebrated and admired artists that gathered every year for the prestigious Salon of Fine Art in Louvre. This was, of course, the arena where the first ‘ fight’ appeared between the established art and the new movement that was approaching. The Universal Exhibition, the name of the official art show, was shocked to find, in the year 1855, a tent filled with paintings of the artist Gustav Courbet that aimed to challenge the established ideas about art. 40 paintings, most large and some enormous like his work The Painter’s Studio, fought the establishment with the large scale and the depiction of the everyday life. Courbet’s painting depicts on the left members of the government, on the right, the members of the artists' society and in the middle the artist himself. This allegory of the society was painted in the realistic manner where the brush stroke was more evident and the everyday members of the society depicted. The new approach to realism was born. This approach, maybe not so evident in the painting mention, celebrated color, light, nature and the loose gesture of the brush.

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Gustave Courbet - Peasants of Flagey. Image via

Mundane is made to be Special

The rebellious character of the painter Gustav Courbet was evident through the paintings of the Impressionist artists that followed. No longer was the painting viewed as the medium for the depiction of the past, of the idealized and the ancient Roman art. For the impressionist art, the everyday, the mundane was made special. The depiction of the peasants, the move from the closed studio into the open air, the elimination of the dark shadow and the outline that does not exist in nature, the use of the complementary color of the shadow in relation to the subject, and the depiction of the modern world that was developing around them, were the dominating themes and concerns of the impressionist art group. There was no hierarchy applied in the painting of the past and the impressionist artist abandoned the traditional linear perspective and avoided the clarity of form that was used to distinguish the most important elements of the picture from the lesser ones. This was one of the reasons why many critics of the day, considered the Impressionist paintings to be unfinished and applied an amateurish quality to them.

"I am following Nature without being able to grasp her; I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers." Claude Monet

Traditionally the landscape paintings and still life were done in the artist’s studio. The move to the outside, and the birth of the plein air painting, we also owe to the impressionist art. One of the most celebrated figures of this movement was Claude Monet who also chose to celebrate the mundane. He was most celebrated for his mastery of the capture of the natural light. It was with his experimentation of the different times of the day that the light was painted and his use of the soft brush, with only the simple impressions of the subtle hints of his subject that many consider the indication for the abstract art that developed in the 20th century.

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Left: Claude Monet - Water Lilies / Right: Claude Monet - Water Lilies, 1914-1917. Images via

The Importance of the Impressionist Art

Impressionism was born in a certain social and cultural context, which was responsible for shaping its forms and determining its ideology. Most of its practitioners had grown up under the not so distant shadow of the Revolution and the Napoleon. Most importantly, Impressionism owed its historical validity to the fact that it reflected the profound changes taking place in the whole of the European culture. The new theories of color that reflected the perception of the color dependent on the individual perception influenced the group’s approach to the application and the use of color. The birth of photography, the development of the machines and the industrial society, influenced the subject matter. From the open-air paintings to the scenes of the cafes, bars, and restaurants, the impressionist art was also important, as it was the art movement that depicted the real and the changing world around us. This is possibly the most important development of the impressionist art that is seen to later shape what followed. The freedom that was celebrated in the application of the paint, in the choice of the reference that went to the undiscovered art the Japanese print art, all of this is evident in the art today.

Editors’ Tip: Impressionism: Origins, Practice, Reception (World of Art)

This book offers a complete history of the Impressionism art movement. Concentrating on placing the art movement within the political and the social concerns of the day, the book aims to further the understanding of this important art movement, celebrated as the precedent to the Modern Art. The author, Belinda Thomson, concentrates on the exploration of the most important artists of the period, touching upon the personal lives of the artists and the overview of the recently discovered letters between writers, authors and dealers, and the critical reviews, that aim to examine the factors and experiences that allowed Impressionism to develop when it did.

All images used for illustrative purpose only. Featured image in slider: Edouard Manet – A Bar at the Folies Bergere. Image via; Edgar Degas – Ballet Rehearsal. Image via; Claude Monet – Sunrise. Image via; Claude Monet – Haystacks, Sunset. Image via

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