The art style known as impressionism took the art world of France and beyond by storm in the second half of the nineteenth century.
In 1874, the first independent exhibition of impressionist paintings was held in Paris. One critic scornfully dubbed Monet’s Impression: Sunrise painting as “impressionistic,” meaning it was raw and unfinished. The intended insult backfired, for the impressionist artists liked the label, and it stuck.
Before impressionism, there was realism, an art style that sought to capture the subject matter in a realistic way, rather like a photograph.
Artists such as Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, August Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot, and others changed all that. Their paintings were composed of flecks of color that built on the canvas to give an impression of the subject, rather than a realistic rendering.
The key to understanding and appreciating impressionistic art lies in its immediacy. The impressionists wanted to capture the look and feel of a particular time of day, or a particular weather effect.
That meant painting quickly to capture the impression, rather than the painstaking realism of a scene. It also meant being able to use color in a much freer manner than ever before.
Complementary colors were sometimes used in shadows, for example, rather than dull and boring dark browns and blacks. This provided a fresh vitality that realism had lacked.
What impressionistic art lost in sharp outline and detail, it more than made up for in vibrancy, vitality, and spontaneity. The sheer energy of these paintings was sometimes compared to the preliminary sketches, fleetingly drawn by the old masters.
Ironically, the realism art style usually attempted to glorify timeless moments of high drama, while the impressionistic style attempts to capture temporary moments in time. Often, it is the impressionistic art that finds the greater realism, the more believable moment, the one we all find easiest to recognize.
The focus of classical art is often on Roman and Greek mythology, or scenes of a Biblical nature. This kind of art can be extremely beautiful, but they are not the kind of scenes that the average person is likely to encounter.
Impressionistic art, by contrast, is much easier to relate to. Scenes such as a tree in a forest, a mother and child walking together, or boats were drawn up on a beach, are the kind of everyday things that people see. Perhaps it is this kind of realism that we appreciate most in impressionistic art.