What is Impressionism?

What is Impressionism?

Impressionism describes a style of painting developed in France during the mid-to-late 19th century; characterizations of the style include small, visible brushstrokes that offer the bare impression of form, unblended color and an emphasis on the accurate depiction of natural light. The founding Impressionist artists – including Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley and Edgar Degas, among others – were united by their desire to cast off the strict rules of academic-style painting. In particular, the artists sought independence from the Académie des Beaux-Arts and its annual Salon (which was, at the time, considered the greatest art show in the Western world).


Claude Monet, MEULES, 1890. Sold for $110.7 million in 2019.

The term “Impressionism” was not chosen by the artists – rather, it was born from a satirical review written by French art critic Louis Leroy (1812 – 1885) in an article on the inaugural exhibition of the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (‘Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers’). Held in the spring of 1874, the exhibition included works from 30 Impressionist artists, and is considered the formal start to the movement. In his review, Leroy poked fun at Monet’s 1872 painting Impression, Sunrise, writing that: “‘A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.1

Alfred Sisley, EFFET DE NEIGE À LOUVECIENNES, 1874. Sold for $7.3 million in 2017.

Impressionism is often termed the first modern movement in painting, in part because the greater tide of modernization created the conditions which inspired the movement. The industrial revolution and the invention of the railroad suddenly awarded greater leisure time to middle and lower-class Parisians, and a way to travel quickly and inexpensively to the countryside. During this time, circa 1860, four young art students – Monet, Sisley, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Frédéric Bazille – met while studying under French academic artist Charles Gleyre. In their free time, the students began boarding trains bound for remote areas around the city, where they’d set their easels amongst the fields or riverbanks and try their best to capture the fleeting glints of sunlight reflected by water, workers bent to their task or Parisians enjoying a lazy Sunday by the sea.


Learn more about the Impression movement and Sotheby’s Auction House by clicking here.

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