Art Surgery

With Barry Whitehouse

Impressionism was the Birth of Modern Art

Impressionism can be considered the first truly modern movement in painting. Developing in Paris in the 1860s, its inspiration spread throughout Europe and later to the United States. Its originators were artists who rejected the official, government-sanctioned exhibitions, or salons, and were consequently shunned by powerful academic art institutions.

In turning away from the fine finish and detail to which most artists of their day aspired, the Impressionists aimed to capture the momentary, sensory effect of a scene – the impression objects made on the eye in a fleeting instant. To achieve this effect, many Impressionist artists moved from the studio to the streets and countryside, painting en plein air.

The Greek word Mimesis can help us define Impressionism, as it can be translated in two ways:

(i) Imitation

(ii) Representation

Imagine taking your antique sideboard to an auctioneer and being told it is an imitation Chippendale. It is a fake, and now much lower in value.

Now imagine instead being told that it is So-and-So’s representation of a Chippendale. It has value in its own right.

Impressionist artists sought to represent the world they saw, not to imitate it.

It must be remembered that movements in art cannot be clearly defined by date. Things slowly change as artists discover new methods, which then inspire other artists and spreads over time in different ways.

Many of the artists in the Neo-Impressionist period, such as Camille Pisarro were there at the start of the Impressionist movement, but this rebel group who had created something new, inadvertently created something popular. As more and more artists began to use the style, some of those artists who wanted to be different, were no longer different! They had to expand and explore Impressionism further – this led to Neo-Impressionism

There are a number of alternatives to the term “Neo-Impressionism” and each has its own nuance: Chromolumina was a term preferred by Georges Seurat. It emphasized the studies of colour and light which were central to his artistic style. This term is rarely used today. Divisionism, which is more commonly used, is used to describe a mode of Neo-Impressionist painting. It refers to the method of applying individual strokes of complementary and contrasting colours.

However, the Post-Impressionists differed in many ways from their predecessors and that applies to even the subject matter. Most Impressionist paintings didn’t have room for “important content” with deep meaning as they experimented with colour, light and shadow. The result was blurred form of content. The Post-Impressionist artist rejected these obsessions, and placed more emphasis on the subject matter, and embraced clear, defined lines.

Compare the spontaneous snapshots of Impressionist paintings to the rigid poses of Post-Impressionism and you’ll find that motion was replaced with stasis. Painted dots are not ideal for showing motion. The main artists behind this movement were Georges Seurat, Camille Pisarro, Paul Signac, Henri-Edmond Cross, Paul Metzinger, and Henri Matisse.

These artists then paved the way for other new modern art movements such as Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism, and Abstract Art. The Impressionist movement really did capture the art world’s imagination and inspired many generations that followed.