National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Impressionism

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In 1874 a group of artists, calling themselves "Société Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs,"—roughly "Artists, Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, Inc."—opened an exhibition independent of the official Salon. Conspicuously absent was Edouard Manet, recognized leader of the avant-garde. Though he never participated in any of their eight exhibitions, Manet's bold style and modern subjects inspired these younger artists, who came to be known as impressionists.

The name is usually attributed to a disparaging critic who seized on the title of Claude Monet's Impression, Sunrise. Accustomed to the more polished works of the Salon, the critic compared—unfavorably—Monet's sketchy harbor view to wallpaper. He expected more of a painting than a mere "impression." But what had Monet meant when he used the word? Though he would say later that he had called his painting an impression because it "could not pass for a view of Le Havre," the word was already in common use to describe rapidly executed sketches and the visual impact a scene first made on an artist. Another commentator on the 1874 exhibition noted, "They are impressionists in the sense that they render, not the landscape, but the sensation produced by the landscape. . . . " Artists like Monet, he realized, wanted to paint not simply what they saw but the way they saw it.

"Impressionism" entered the lexicon of painting at a time when French positivist philosophers and scientists were studying perception and color theory. Artists accepted on principle that Manet's style, which juxtaposed discrete brushstrokes of color rather than blending them, most perfectly transcribed their raw sensation. The impressionists used color, not modeling from dark to light, to create form, recording with quick brushwork a fleeting effect of changing seasons, weather, and times of day.

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