Impressionism: A Complete History of the Impressionist Movement

Impressionism, a groundbreaking art movement of the 19th century, sought to capture the fleeting, ephemeral nature of reality. Rather than striving for a meticulous reproduction of the external world, Impressionist artists prioritised the portrayal of subjective experiences, atmospheric effects, and nuanced shifts in colour and light. This movement celebrated the essence of the moment. This, therefore created a new dialogue between art and reality and marking a significant departure from traditional art conventions.

In this guide, discover the timeline of Impressionism, the main characteristics of the art and the main contributors to the revolutionary movement.

‘A visual impression of the moment that captures a feeling or experience rather than portraying an accurate representation; a record of the soul and sensations.’

Impressionism Timeline and History

Claude Monet: Stacks of Wheat (End of Day, Autumn)

The Impressionist movement lasted from 1860 to about 1887 and continues to influence, have great popularity, and be a significant part of life and art today. Impressionism began when a school of French artists questioned the traditional approach to art. They wanted to use a freer, looser style that wasn’t bound by formal, technical constraints. They wanted to express themselves more unconventionally and create things the way they saw them in their mind’s eye. In 1874 these rebellious artists held a private exhibition in Paris to announce their new and as yet unnamed style. Claude Monet exhibited a painting called ‘Impression, Sunrise’ and one visitor at the exhibition made a sarcastic remark, saying that it was Impressionism and so the phrase was coined.

The Response to Academic Standards and Salon des Refusés

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Boating at Argenteuil

The Impressionists were fundamentally at odds with the academic standards of art that were upheld by the Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. This prestigious institution preferred historical subjects, religious themes, and portraits, all executed in a polished, meticulous style. The Impressionists, on the other hand, sought to capture everyday life. They favoured spontaneity over precision, and valued colour over line—all of which contradicted the Salon’s criteria for “good art”.

In 1863, the Salon rejected an unusually high number of works, leading to public outcry. In response, Emperor Napoleon III decreed that the public should have the opportunity to decide the merit of the rejected works for themselves. The resulting exhibition, known as the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Refused), included works by future Impressionists Édouard Manet and Camille Pissarro, among others. The fierce criticism and ridicule that met the exhibition did not deter the Impressionists. Instead, it galvanised them, cementing their determination to break free from academic conventions and explore new artistic paths. This rebellious spirit became one of the defining features of the Impressionist movement.

Impressionism and its Place in Art History

Romanticism Art
Caspar David Friedrich: Two Men Contemplating the Moon (Romanticism)

Before Impressionism came the Romanticism and Realism movements. Romanticism, which emerged in the late 18th century, was characterised by its emphasis on emotion and individualism, glorification of the past, and reverence for nature. The movement was a reaction against the Industrial Revolution and the scientific rationalisation of nature. Realism, which emerged in the mid-19th century, represented the common people in everyday situations. The Realism movement depicted reality, without the emotional overtones of Romanticism or the idealised depictions of earlier movements.

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Van Gogh: Starry Night over the Rhone (Post-Impressionism)

Following the Impressionist era was the Post-Impressionism movement that emerged in the 1880s. Post-Impressionism extended the movement’s emphasis on the depiction of light and colour. However, while Impressionists sought to capture the fleeting moments of reality, Post-Impressionists aimed to express their emotional and psychological responses to the world. This led to an increased emphasis on the symbolic content of their art. It also led to a greater focus on structure, form, and composition. Notable Post-Impressionists include Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, and Paul Gauguin.

The Shift in Style and Inspiration

Edgar Degas: The Cafe Concert

Impressionists tried to express the perceptions of the world around them, rather than create an exact representation of them. This allowed them to paint an interpretation of what they saw and so let their subject matter be seen in an alternative way.

Previously to Impressionism, subjects or models were painted in the way they were asked to pose, formally and seriously. Impressionists, on the other hand, wanted to portray the moods of everyday life, so subjects appeared sullen, or looking away. They were painted in their natural form. This was a risk as it could mean rejection by galleries and exhibitions and therefore loss of potential earnings. 

Impressionism was a vast movement that was started and centred around France and unlike most other previous movements was not based on any previous movement. This gave the artists a tantalising challenge to represent the world they saw around them without giving it a true form or by using direct means, and it also allowed them to paint just as they wanted to. 

Impressionism Defining Characteristics

Alfred Sisley: Walnut Tree in a Thomery Field
  1. A loose representation close up, but a clear picture further away.
  2. Clear and accurate skies that emphasise and contrast with the subjects depicted.
  3. No or little use of the colour black to create more colour and lightness. 
  4. Use of unmixed colours straight from the tube or tin giving the object a crude look.
  5. Those portrayed have natural or real-life expressions as though capturing a moment (everyday painting) rather than a pre-arranged, false composure.
  6. Use of broken colour where an object is painted of its component colours in short strokes, not its actual overall colour. So when looked at closely it is a multitude of different colours and far away one colour merged. 
  7. Typically Impressionists would paint directly onto the white canvas rather than covering the canvas with a dark base coat beforehand, giving lighter, brighter paintings.

Influences on the Impressionist Movement

As with any significant shift in artistic sensibilities, the Impressionist movement didn’t arise in a vacuum. A myriad of influences and inspirations played key roles in shaping this revolutionary approach to art, which spurred it on to be recognised as an art movement in itself. In this section, we’ll explore the cultural, technological, and intellectual currents that converged to give birth to Impressionism.

The invention of Photography

Impressionism was able to come into being and was a side effect of the invention of photography. Artists saw and were interested in the way the newly invented camera caught a snapshot of ordinary life and normal daily situations. But more importantly, photography took the need away for any style of painting to show reality, as cameras could represent reality better itself. Impressionism as an art style provided the perfect visual contrast, therefore it flourished.

Industrialisation and Urbanisation

Camille Pissarro: Boulevard Montmartre Morning, Grey Weather

The rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of Europe, particularly France, during the 19th century, played a significant role in shaping the Impressionist movement. Artists were drawn to the changing urban landscape, capturing scenes of bustling city life, rapidly expanding railways, and burgeoning factory towns. The dynamic, transient nature of the modern city resonated with the Impressionists’ desire to depict fleeting moments and the passage of time.

The Influence of Japanese Art

Utagawa Toyokuni II: Wild geese at Miho, Kiyomi Temple, Suruga, Yoshiwara

The opening of Japan to the West in the mid-19th century brought a flood of Japanese ukiyo-e prints into Europe. These prints, with their flat areas of colour, asymmetrical compositions, unconventional perspectives, and everyday subject matter, greatly influenced the Impressionists. The fascination with Japanese art and its aesthetic principles, a phenomenon termed “Japonisme,” can be seen in the works of many Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, such as Manet, Degas and Van Gogh.

Painting on Location

Claude Monet: In the Woods at Giverny Blanche Hoschede

Impressionist artists broke away from the norm of painting in studios, opting instead to paint “en plein air,” or outdoors. Painting on location allowed them to capture the subtle nuances of natural light that could not be duplicated in a studio setting. These artists were fascinated by the changing qualities of light throughout the day and in different weather conditions, and how these shifts in light could alter the appearance of a scene. By painting outdoors, they were able to observe these changes in real time and depict them in their artwork. Furthermore, painting en plein air provided the opportunity to portray the transient effects of sunlight on the landscape and objects around them. This contributed to the characteristic spontaneity of Impressionist art.

The Pioneers of Impressionism

In this section, we will delve into the lives and works of key artists who played a pivotal role in shaping the Impressionist movement. These painters defied traditional artistic norms and embraced a revolutionary approach, leaving an indelible impact on the world of art. We’ll explore their unique styles, the influences they brought to the movement, and how their contributions helped to define and popularise Impressionism.

Claude Monet (1840 – 1926)

Claude Monet: Self Portrait with a Beret

The founder of Impressionism grew up in Le Harve, a northern French coastal town. His work as a youth was of seascapes and some caricatures which he sold in a local shop. He was influenced away from these subjects by Eugene Boudin who in 1855/6 taught him to paint outside to study light, the air and the ever-changing weather. This was a major influence and key to his later success.

John Singer Sargent: Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of a Wood

From this, Monet learned to re-paint the same subject matter, usually a landscape to explore the different lights, weather, changes of seasons and times of day. Monet’s style developed from observations of nature and after early success was able to experiment more with his art. Rather than paint direct lines or shapes he would break his brushstrokes up into fragments that in their combined form represented the objects painted (broken colour).

Overview of Monet’s Life

Claude Monet: Impression Sunrise

Monet met Renoir and other then-to-be Impressionist artists at art school in the studio of Professor Charles Gleyre, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1862. They quickly formed friendships that would be long-lasting and started to influence each other almost immediately. Monet and Renoir had a lot in common as they were both from working-class families and had overcome economic adversity to meet success. This adversity came to a head in 1868 when Monet was impoverished and so deeply depressed that he threw himself off a bridge into the river Seine. Although he survived, he struggled with depression for the rest of his life. Monet and Renoir worked together in 1869 to paint the first impressionist landscapes. In 1870 Monet moved to London to avoid the Franco-Prussian war, leaving his young family behind. Monet was mainly influenced by Manet, Renoir, Pissarro and Japanese art.

Impressionist Artists
Claude Monet: The Houses of Parliament, Sunset

Monet became rich and famous in the late 1880s. From 1883, he first rented then later bought the house in Giverny called the ‘Cider Press’, where he lived until his death. (The house and gardens are open to the public at certain times of the year.) Later Monet bought a strip of marshland across the road from the house, through which flowed a tributary of the Epte and so by diverting this stream, he began to construct a water-lily garden. In 1899 Monet painted 12 works that centred on the garden and the Japanese Footbridge he had constructed there.

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Claude Monet: Water-Lilies

Although Impressionism ended in 1887, it is considered to have lived on in Claude Monet until he died in 1926. Monet painted some of his best work in the 1900s and saw Impressionism eclipsed by other movements.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 – 1919)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: The Luncheon of the Boating Party

Renoir was born in Montmartre, Paris and was a leading artist in the Impressionist movement. As a boy, he worked in a porcelain factory where his art skills were recognised. Soon after, he was asked to paint designs on fine china and fans.

He was a prolific painter, producing several thousand paintings in his lifetime. By 1864 he was exhibiting in the famous Paris Salon. However, his work there went largely unnoticed, this was mainly because of the disruption caused by the Franco-Prussian war. After a series of rejections by the Salon juries, Renoir joined forces with Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, Frederic Bazille and several other artists to mount the first Impressionist exhibition in April 1874, in which he displayed six paintings which were favourably received.

Durel and the Popularisation of Impressionist Art

Umbrellas - Pierre-Auguste Renoir Paintings
Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Three Umbrellas

In the early 1880s, his situation changed with his marriage to Aline Charigot and his art being exhibited by art dealer Paul Durand-Durel. Durel became the most important commercial advocate of French Impressionism. He succeeded in establishing a market for Impressionism in the United States and Europe. About 1500 of Renoir’s works can therefore be related to Durel. He was the man behind the scenes who made Impressionism commercially possible.

Renoir’s Later Life

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette

After visiting Europe and Africa, Renoir became disillusioned with Impressionism. In the 1880s / 1890s returned to France to paint in a more formal style. However, later in the early 20th century, despite illness and being immobile he reverted to artistic experimentation in sculpture and portraits. The year Renoir died he visited the Louvre and as he saw his paintings hanging alongside the great masters he so admired. A lifetime achievement was realised.

Edouard Manet (1832 – 1883)

Edouard Manet | George Moore (1852–1933) | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
George Moore: Edouard Manet

Manet had a traditional training in art, having rejected a naval career that was lined up for him. He was from a wealthy French family with high political connections. His mother was the daughter of a diplomat and the goddaughter of the Swedish crown prince. The early success and eventual much greater acceptance of his painting ‘Le Dejeuner sur I’herbe’ (The Luncheon on the Grass) caused much controversy. It broke many rules of art and did not replicate any observed reality. It was considered shocking as it contained a true-to-life naked woman looking back at the viewer alongside two clothed men. This was considered to be a record of an unacceptable event.

Manet’s Art Style

Edouard Manet: Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1862-3)

Manet filled large areas of his paintings with one solid colour, simplifying rather than adding detailed perspective. He would create sudden dark outlines and these techniques were adopted by the Impressionist movement as a whole. Manet was a pivotal figure, as his art bridged realism, in the mid-1800s and Impressionism, in the late 1800s.

The Private Life of Manet

EDOUARD MANET PRINT: A Bar at the Folies-Bergère – Pimlico Prints
Edouard Manet: A Bar at the Folies-Bergere

Manet and fellow Impressionist Berthe Morisot were having an affair. Their affair didn’t take place in Paris, but in their minds and hearts. They could not be together, as they were bound by obligations, moral principles and their personal beliefs. Also, Morisot was married to Manet’s brother, Eugene. In the end, they created their artistic dimension, in which they found freedom and the opportunity to spend hours alone together, declaring their love for each other. 

The Monuments Men

In the Conservatory - Wikipedia
Edouard Manet: In the Conservatory (1879) also known as the Winter Garden

At the end of World War II, as the Allied forces closed in on Germany, the Conservatory was among the objects evacuated from the German National Gallery, Berlin and hidden in a salt mine. After the war the picture was discovered and secured by the American troops and among them were the Monuments Men.

The Monuments Men were a group of about 350 men and women who tracked down and returned important pieces of art during and after World War II. Among them were museum directors, curators and art historians. ‘The Monuments Men’ became a film in 2014 starring, George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville and Kate Blanchet.

Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917)

Edgar Degas: L’Etoile

Degas was mainly associated with the subject of dance, but more particularly ballet dancers behind the scenes. He was interested in painting women and the female form and unlike a lot of other artists at that time he painted nudes. He also painted scenes of daily life, some centred around drink to create the element of realism. Degas was not liked much by the other artists in the Impressionist circle as he had a sharp wit and strong conservative views. 

Edgar Degas: Two Ballet Dancers

He was the opposite of Monet as his style was based on line whereas Monet’s was based on colour. He was known as the Linear Impressionist. His styles are regarded as Impressionism, Modern Art and Realism. He was from an aristocratic family, but despite this, he ran into money problems and on the death of his father and sorting out his brother’s debts had to sell his house. He began to gradually lose his vision from an early age and at around forty it greatly altered the art he was able to produce. 

The Decline of Impressionism

Within the Impressionist movement, there were quite naturally varying ideas on the theme of art being pursued. The artists’ uniting factor was dislike of the Academy and frustrations with the Salon. However, the democratising of the Salon system in 1880 and the gradual lessening of the Academy’s power meant that they no longer had a mutual enemy. As a result of this, tensions began to rise. 

French Salon
François Joseph Heim: Charles V Distributing Awards to the Artists at the Close of the Salon of 1824

Impression was followed by Post-Impressionism which was a reaction against it. Post-Impressionists, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gaugin, Sauret, Toulouse Lautrec and Rousseau were annoyed by Impressionism and its conventional way of painting and wanted to use more abstract forms, particularly in skies and backgrounds. 

Beginning in the 1880s and fuelled by fears of ageing, political differences, geographical locations, a changing Paris, and the next generation of artists gaining popularity (one of which was Art Nouveau 1890–1910), the issues between the artists came to a head with the Dreyfuss Affair. The Dreyfus Affair was a subject that, at that time, divided opinion in every walk of life; in families, in the Impressionist movement itself and between people in general. Monet and Emile Zola (French novelist and playwright) were pro-Dreyfus and Degas was anti-Dreyfus. Irreconcilable differences in the political beliefs of the group eventually tore them apart. However, it was a complex combination of factors that led to that point.


In conclusion, the Impressionism movement was a revolutionary period in the world of art, paving a pathway for modern art as we know it today. It was characterised by an emphasis on expressing one’s perceptions before nature, breaking away from the rigid rules of the Academy. Despite the internal tensions and external criticisms they faced, artists like Manet and Degas defied conventional norms, sparking a transformation in the perception of fine art. Their radical techniques and unconventional subject matter continue to be celebrated and studied. However, like all movements, Impressionism gave way to new trends and styles, such as Post-Impressionism and Art Nouveau. The end of the Impressionism era was not merely a decline, but rather an evolution, demonstrating the dynamic and ever-evolving nature of art.