Impressionist artists are some of the most famous and influential in art history. The movement began in the late 19th century and was a time of great change in the Western art world.
In this guide, learn about the most famous impressionist artists and see some of their most popular paintings. Plus, learn about the impressionist movement, how it arose and how it influenced art history as a whole.
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Considered to be the founder of the movement, Claude Monet was a French impressionist artist. He was born in 1840 and he produced his first Impressionist style artwork in 1858: “View at Rouelles le Havre”.
Monet’s work is characterised by its use of light and colour, as well as its depiction of everyday subjects. Some of Monet’s most famous paintings include “Impression, Sunrise” and “The Water Lilies.”
“Impression, Sunrise” is the artwork that inspired the name of the Impressionist movement. Monet was influenced by his mentor Eugene Bouldin, who taught him how to paint en plein air. Painting landscapes on location was one of the key tenets of Impressionism, and it was how Monet learned to paint. He learned by observing nature in natural light, rather than learning techniques from the old masters.
Monet produced multiple paintings of his garden, based in Normandy. His painting “Water Lilies” was made there. He used small strokes of colour to represent the water and lily pads in his pond.
A friend of Monet’s, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was an Impressionist artist who grew up in France. He was known for his vibrant and expressive paintings and painted many portraits as well as landscapes.
He met Monet, Sisley and other founders of the movement when he moved to Paris to study art in the 1860s.
Some of Renoir’s most famous paintings include “Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette” and “The Luncheon of the Boating Party.” Renoir created a sense of movement in his works with small, textured brush strokes and bright colours.
An interesting development in the field of art is attributed to a finding by Renoir and Monet. By observing the scenes in front of them, they found that shadows of objects are not black, but reflections of surrounding objects. He and Monet both avoided using the colour black or brown in shadows. They instead used low chroma versions of other colours on their palettes.
Renoir refused to participate in the Impressionist’s exhibitions after 1878. He chose to follow his own path, educating himself on the techniques of the old masters like Raphael. His painting “The Luncheon of the Boating Party” demonstrated these new influences. The figures in the painting appear more clear and sculptural in form, compared to his older works.
Renoir created a huge body of work in his lifetime, with paintings in the thousands. By the end of his life he had built a prosperous art career for himself and had a prominent reputation. He died in 1919 and managed to see his works hanging in the Louvre before his death.
Cezanne was a French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artist who was known for his innovative approach to painting. He was associated with other famous Impressionist artists in his younger years, then moved on to develop his own style.
His early Impressionist works, “The House of Pere Lacroix in Auvers” appear darker, more contrasted and bolder in tone. He had a distinct style of painting landscapes that portrayed the movement and composition of the scene differently to other Impressionists of the time.
Cezanne’s work is characterised by its use of geometric shapes and bold colors. Some of Cezanne’s most famous paintings include “The Card Players” and “Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses.”
Born in France, Edgar Degas was another Impressionist artist who is regarded as one of the founders of the movement. He is known for his scenes of everyday life and paintings of ballet dancers.
Degas’ work is notable for its use of light and shadow, as well as its candid portrayal of subjects. Some of Degas’ most famous paintings include “The Absinthe Drinker” and “L’Etoile.”
Rather than painting landscapes and outdoor scenes, Degas instead painted figures and portraits from life. During his lifetime, he didn’t feel affiliated with the Impressionist society. This is due to the criticism they received and their focus on painting outdoors.
However, Degas’ work has been widely celebrated since his death. Many consider him to be an important figure in the development of modern art.
He worked not only in oil paints, but also in pastel, copper and pencil. One of his most famous artworks is a copper sculpture of a ballerina, entitled “Little Dancer”.
Pissarro, shortened from Jacob Abraham Camille Pissarro, was a Danish-French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artist who was known for his landscapes, portraits and cityscapes. Some of Pissarro’s most famous paintings include “The Louvre, Morning, Snow Effect” and “Boulevard des Italiens, Morning Sunshine.”
He is known for his representation of figures without pretence and was highly respected by other members of the Impressionist society, of which he was a core member. His works also spanned the Post-Impressionist movement, where he expressed a more deeply personal style.
Pissarro is also known for his social connections. He formed close ties with other artists and art patrons in the Paris art scene of the 19th century. His work has been highly influential in many forms of modern-day art and he remains a key figure in the development of Impressionism. Camille Corot was his teacher and Gauguin was a student of his.
A British-French impressionist artist who lived in France most of his life, Alfred Sisley took up painting in the 1860s. He was well known for his dedication to painting en plein air. His landscapes are serene in tone, painted with cool muted tones.
Alfred Sisley learned to paint in Charles Gleyre’s studio, where he met Renoir, Monet, amongst other Impressionist artists. He also worked with Pissarro and Morisot.
Sisley painted many famous landmarks in France and the UK. His paintings of the River Thames and the Seine are some of his most well known, with a focus on maritime subjects, boats, regattas, weirs and dams.
Sisley used soft colors and subtle brushstrokes in his works. Some of Sisley’s most famous paintings include “Flood at Port Marly” and “View of the Canal Saint-Martin.”
Posthumously, Sisley achieved critical acclaim, however this did not happen during his lifetime. He exhibited in France and had a solo show at the La Vie Moderne, however the exhibitions didn’t bring him success financially.
Morisot was an Impressionist painter who painted figures, alongside florals, landscapes and maritime scenes. One of her earliest works “Calvary (after Varonese)” shows Jesus Christ being crucified, painted in a realistic style. She started her painting career copying old masters’ paintings in the Louvre and painting religious figures, however her style soon developed and was influenced by the Impressionist movement, that was happening at the time.
Morisot became close friends and co workers with fellow Impressionist painter Edouard Manet and learnt under Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s instruction, painting en plein air. She began exhibiting at the Paris Salon throughout the 1860s and ten years later was invited to exhibit with the Anonymous Society of Artists, Painters, Sculptors and Engravers.
An American impressionist artist who moved to Paris in 1866, Mary Cassatt had studied art previously at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, but became frustrated with the teaching and limitations put on female artists. French Academies did not allow women to have formal art training at the time, so she couldn’t join the École des Beaux-Arts. Therefore, she studied privately with an instructor from the school instead, and furthered her skills by copying old masters’ paintings at the Louvre.
She was one of the first women to exhibit her works at the Salon, the painting “The Mandolin Player” which showcases her early Realism and Romanticism style, inspired by Corot.
She later developed an Impressionist style of painting; Edgar Degas who invited her to exhibit with the Impressionists.
Over her career, Cassatt was known for her scenes of motherhood and domestic life. Her works are full of movement, contrasting colours and sharp but delicate brush strokes. She was influenced by many styles, including Realism, Japanese woodblock prints and Impressionism. However, most of her works embody the Impressionist style. Some of her most famous impressionist paintings are: “Mother Holding Her Baby”, “Young Woman In Green Outdoors In The Sun” and “Maternity”.
A French Impressionist painter and close friend of Monet, Renoir and Sisley, also studying under Charles Gleyre, Bazille is best known for his works “Family Reunion”, “The Terrace at Méric (Oleander)” and “The Pink Dress”, a portrait of his cousin that he painted when he was only 23.
Bazille was born in a wealthy family. As such, he had many of the luxuries that other impressionist painters could only dream of. He grew up in a small town in the south of France. However he moved to Paris at a young age to study medicine. He began painting and showed his work at the Salon de Paris in 1866. Consequently, this earned him some recognition and status amongst other young impressionist painters.
Bazille enlisted for military service in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war. Sadly, he was killed while fighting, only a month before the war ended, at the age of 28.
People best know Bazille for his figure and landscape paintings, however he also painted some seascape and still lifes during his short career.
What is Impressionism?
Impressionism is an art movement that started in the 19th century. The way in which artists used colour to capture the qualities of light in landscapes, with loose brush strokes and texture characterises the art style.
Impressionist works have a sense of immediacy, capturing the moment and often emphasising colour over realism. Paint manufacturers began using new synthetic pigments to make paint colours. These newfound pigments provided Impressionist artists with larger and brighter palettes to use in their colourful paintings.
Some of the most famous impressionist artists include Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, and Mary Cassatt. They explore a range of subjects in their work, from landscapes to still lifes. Art enthusiasts now consider these paintings as some of the most iconic artworks of all time.
How did the Impressionist movement arise?
In the 1860s in Paris, the strict rules and guidelines of the Académie des Beaux-Art began to fall out of favour with many young artists. The academy favoured naturalistic representations of religious figures, historical figures and paintings of portraits.
The young Impressionist artists, Monet, Renoir and Sisley wanted to capture the modern world around them using new techniques, inspired by their surroundings and not by traditional art styles. This led to the development of Impressionism.
These artists would take their paints and easels outdoors to paint en plein air. Painting on location inspired them to be more reactive to the changing light and atmosphere of the environment, applying paint quickly, with looser brushstrokes.
The jury of the Academy rejected the works of these now highly respected Impressionist artists, so Monet and several other artists set up their own society, called the Cooperative Society of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers. Here they exhibited freely and independently of the Académie des Beaux-Art. Although the Academy and other high profile critics denounced their work at the time, the public began to accept and enjoy the paintings as time passed.
Impressionist artists vs Post Impressionist artists
While both movements are closely related and often studied together, there are some key differences between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.
Impressionist artists used loose brushstrokes and vibrant colours, to capture the momentary light and atmosphere of a scene. This contrasts with the more structured compositions, vivid colours and strong outlines of Post-Impressionist works, which often explore more emotional or symbolic themes.
Some of the most notable Impressionists include Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas. Post-Impressionist artists include Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Seurat. Seurat subsequently started the Pointillism movement.
Both movements helped to shift the focus of art from traditional subjects and techniques to more modern, everyday subjects. However, while Impressionism sought to capture the natural beauty of the world around us, Post-Impressionism often explored deeper themes and ideas through bolder colours and more expressive brushstrokes.
Impressionist artists’ techniques
There are several techniques that define the Impressionist movement and style these are:
Artists would use short, thick brush strokes to create texture on the canvas. This contrasts to the soft and subtle brushstrokes of previous eras, where artists would blend paint on the canvas to achieve a sense of realism. Impasto painting is the technique of applying paint thickly to the canvas.
Impressionists painted en plein air (outdoors), capturing the natural light and colour of their environment.
Other key techniques used by Impressionists include using bright colours, without using black or brown for shadows. Impressionist painters would often apply colours unmixed to the canvas. This creates a vibrant effect on the surface, leaving the viewer to optically mix colours and tones. When you step away from the canvas, colours appear to blend together. Get up close, and you will see swirls of separate colours.