The Smart Girls Guide to the Impressionist


Like everything else in life art has a story. When you look at a drawing, painting, or sculpture it’s only a tiny peek into a whole complex world. Like a flower poking through the dirt, it’s merely the tip of something deeper. It’s love, hate, struggle, envy—all wrapped up in paint and canvas. Just dig a little and you’ll uncover the roots. So let’s do a little digging into a group known as the Impressionist.


Ah, to be in Paris

The wind in 1860’s Paris whispered artistic thoughts into the ears of anyone who would listen. Artist responded with a willingness to sacrifice life’s comforts in order to attain total devotion to their work. They brought with them dreams of seeing their art rest comfortably above the fireplaces of willing patrons, and their names ranked among the artistic elite. With proper education and hard work it was possible, especially if you could get into the salon.


Deleroche, Herodias
Herodias with the head of John the Baptist, by Paul Delaroche. Johns looking pretty good considering his head is no longer on his body.


Why did artist care so much about getting their hair done?

Yeah, that’s the wrong salon. The French salons were the official government art exhibitions held by the Academie des Beaux Arts. The Academies in England and France educated young artists, dictating what good art was and wasn’t. If the academy liked it, you liked it; end of story.  A jury was in charge of picking the entries for the years salon, this ensured only rule abiding paintings were included. Those who made it were pretty happy because they knew tons of people from near and far were going to view their paintings. Not only that, but you may find favor with a collector. And that my friend, was gold in the pocket.


School of Athens
This is Raphael’s School of Athens. He gets an A+ for a historical theme.


So what did the Academy want?

Students of the academy were trained how to paint things in their ideal form. Everything was well rounded with shading that was mellow and gradual. No rotten tomatoes or wind swept hair here, thank-you very much. A good painting would imitate the great Renaissance artists or something from antiquity, and when completed the surface would be smooth as porcelain: no brush strokes showing, colors perfectly mixed, everything neat and tidy.The topic of the painting should have historical value, either religious or mythological. Scenes of everyday life were ok, so were portraits. Landscapes and still lives could make it in too although they weren’t the top picks.

Painting for the academy was kind of like any other school project. Follow the rules and you’ll do fine. Try to color outside the lines though and you’ll be about as welcome as pork rinds at a vegan birthday party.


Crisp and Polished, this is Davids rendering of the Combat of Mars and Venus. We are outside, but not to look at the pretty scenery.


The problem with artist, however, is they aren’t the most rule abiding lot. It should be no surprise then that like little cracks in plaster, the cohesion of the Academy slowly began to crumble. Here and there men began to go astray, sometimes being accepted, sometimes not.


Rebels with a clue

A group of these artists became known as the Barbizon painters. These men gathered in the town of Barbizon and began painting in the fresh air of the forest of Fountain bleu.  By doing this they were breaking two rules. First, they were sketching outside the studio. This was actually not totally unheard of, but when combined with the second sin—painting informal landscapes because they liked the flora and fauna—it was a bit more criminal. There were no historical ties, nothing allegorical, not even a smidge of classical reference. The view was nice, the colors were nice, the atmosphere was nice, and they wanted to capture it. This was definitely not in the academy rule book. The Barbizon painters, therefore, began to shift the idea of why people paint.  Little did they know at the time, but their actions would be the spark of revolution.


storks on a river
Charles Francois Daubigny painted in Barbizon. Notice the focus is more on capturing the mood of outdoor light and reflection.


You want to show THAT in the Salon!

If we jump ahead to the 1870’s, we find this idea of painting something solely because it interest the painter hasn’t gone away, in fact it’s getting larger. One of the most famous of these men is Claude Monet. Monet loved painting outdoors, not only preliminary sketches like the Barbizon painters, but whole canvases.  He wanted to paint accurate representations of nature, and that meant a big raspberry to the traditions of the academy. He rejected their ideas on color, perspective, and composition. Monet became fascinated with the effects of light and color, so much so that he would paint a series of paintings using the same site at different times of day in order to paint its changing appearance.

Monet wasn’t the only one making radical changes. His friends such as Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and others were doing similar things. They didn’t all paint the same, but the had a few things in common such as contemporary subject matter; unfinished, sketch-like appearance; and bold use of color and brushwork. It was their falling out with the salon that really unified them, however. Although they managed to have some of their paintings gain salon acceptance, the bulk of them were not. Undaunted they continued on and this rebellion is what really sealed their fate.


changes of light on Rouen Cathedral
In order to capture the changing effects of light and atmosphere, Monet often painted the same scene over and over. Here are 3 of Rouen Cathedral


If you can’t join them, you better do it yourself

What the heck do we need the Salon for anyway, the rebels finally asked themselves. We’re quite capable showing our pictures all by ourselves! And so in 1874 they did.

In this era of You Tube and do-it-yourself mania this may not seem like a big deal, but it was. No one had ever gone against the salon like this before. Now this group of 30 renegades, some of who were accused of not even knowing how to finish a painting, were putting everything on the line. They were going straight to the public in hopes of directly wining their favor.

Anarchist, socialist, criminals who were a corrupting influence on the next generation of artists; these were the accusations they were up against when the doors opened on April 15. They had a pretty good turn out, but unfortunately most people came merely to laugh and poke fun.


Monet’s painting, Impression Sunrise. To many viewers this looked like an unfinished mess.


History Is Made

One of the pictures on display was the one above, Monet’s Impression, Sunrise. There’s no rounding of figures here, no historical value, the colors aren’t blended, and the finish is uneven. Basically Monet broke every rule in this one painting. It should be no surprise then that one art critic, Louis Leroy, looked at and sarcastically declared:

“Impression—I knew it. I was thinking that since I am impressed, there must be some impression in there. And the draftsmanship is so free, so effortless! Wallpaper in its embryonic stage is more finished that that painting.”

And so was born the term, Impressionism.


So What Happened?

Well, the exhibition wasn’t a huge success, unfortunately. The painters soon regrouped and had another showing, but they had to sell their work at rock bottom prices. Persistence was the word of the day, however, and they continued to show their work. The name Impressionist wasn’t officially adopted until their third exhibition in 1877. ( Renior’s Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette was shown there—YOU KNOW THIS PAINTING!)

Their Popularity finally began to rise in the 1880’s and 90’s, but mostly because of the persistence of the Paris art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel who did his best to support and promote the outcast artists. Surprisingly enough it was American buyers who bought the bulk of their paintings and turned the tide on their reputation. By the 1900 World Exposition paintings that they had previously sold for 50 francs, now went for a whopping 50,000. Oh how sweet the taste of vindication.

So what do YOU think? Do you like impressionism or should they have stuck to the rules of the academy? Let me know in the comments!


Can’t remember what impressionist art looks like? Download my oh so adorable checklist!




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About The Author

Nicol Valentin

Nicol Valentin is a homeschooling mom of nine who loves history, fiction, and fun.

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  1. Randi Anderson | 6th Sep 17

    We do tend to take for granted these days how amazing it was to buck the system like this….now the Impressionists are the poster children for doing art your own way.

    • Nicol Valentin | 6th Sep 17

      It is funny isn’t it! The impressionist really opened the door to modern art, now no one paints by salon standards. Thanks so much for reading!!

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