The term, first used sarcastically, was derived in part from the title of a painting, Impression, Sunrise (1872, Musée Marmottan-Claude Monet, Paris), by Claude Monet. In 1874 he exhibited the work independently of the official Salon in Paris, along with artists such as Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, and Camille Pissarro. Impressionism subsequently became widely used to describe the style of painting practiced by these artists, who exhibited together eight times until 1886.

The impressionists usually worked rapidly, in front of their subjects, in open air rather than in a studio. They took full advantage of the technical advances being made in the manufacture of artists' pigments, such as new cadmium pigments. Their characteristic broken or flickering brushwork was particularly effective in capturing the fleeting quality of light. The impressionists tended to be attracted to contemporary subjects, namely aspects of modern urban life and suburban landscapes.

Several American painters, such as Mary Cassatt, Willard Leroy Metcalf, and Childe Hassam, also worked in the impressionist style in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century.

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