Monet, Father of Impressionism
Claude Monet is perhaps the most famous of the Impressionist painters. While the movement takes its name from one of his paintings, he was not the first to paint in a style that would become known as Impressionism. He would, however, become the most famous of the impressionist painters. His work helped define the movement, and he became one of its leading figures.
Impression rose from a desire for artists to show their work without the approval of the French art academy. Before impressionism, artists like Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Cézanne were already growing disinterested in recognition from the government organized Salons; art exhibitions showcasing art selected by jurors chosen from the art academies in Paris. The Emperor Napoleon III organized a Salon des Refuses as a way of showing the works by painters who were rejected by the official Salons, but this did little to appease the avant garde painters.
Monet, along with other artists, would gather at cafés in Paris to discuss painting. At Café Guerbois Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pissarro, Cézanne met with the older Manet. It was here that the young artists founded the Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers. This group decided the only way to show their work was to put on their own exhibitions.
In April of 1874, Monet and 29 other artists had their first showing at a studio of the photographer Nadar. That first show did little to draw critical praise. Upon viewing Monet’s Impression, Sunrise the art critic Louis Leroy wrote "Impression – I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it ... and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape." His description of Monet’s painting was intended as an insult, calling the work an unfinished painting that would be better suited as a layer of wallpaper rather than art. Rather than be offended by the insult, Monet and the impressionists embraced it.
While the group that became known as the Impressionists had no declared leader, Monet often took the brunt of the criticism. He was an outspoken advocate for their new style of art. Monet’s paintings showed all of the values and techniques that embodied Impressionist painting. Not only did his painting give the movement its name, his paintings defined the movement.
Monet was painting in the style of what would become Impressionism in the early 1870’s. His paintings showed outdoor scenes of landscapes, bridges, and people spending leisurely days in the sun. Monet celebrated the rural life using light colors, showing the natural impression an artist can get more than the literal view he sees. He applied the paint with thick broad brushstrokes often mixing colors on the canvas. By today's standards his technique doesn’t seem so radical, but Monet was breaking rules that had been in place for hundreds of years. Critics and viewers were shocked to see unpainted canvas in some of his paintings, offended that he would show what they considered unfinished works.
He painted outdoors, or en plein air, to capture the changing light. Before Monet, painters would meticulously sketch compositions, making their initial drawings outside to document the scene. However, they would then return to a studio to paint. Monet and the Impressionists painted outside because for them, the light was among the most important elements of the painting. Even beyond subject matter, how an artist saw something was as important as what they saw. He wrote "When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you — a tree, a house, a field. . . . Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape."
The Impressionists held eight exhibits from 1874 to 1886. Monet participated in many of those, but like most of the Impressionists, not all. Only Pissarro showed work in all eight. During those years, there were disagreements between artists, painters came and went, and the art world in Paris changed. As more people saw their paintings, they became more accepted, from France to America. Members of the group like Monet and Renoir chose to put on their own exhibitions as they gained more fame and success.