In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section French Impressionism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • 19th-century Critical Essays and Reviews
  • Anthologies
  • Affiliated Painters
  • Pictorial Themes

Art History French Impressionism
Jane M. Roos
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0102


Impressionnisme (and its Anglophone cognate, “Impressionism”) was coined in 1874 to designate a group of painters who had formed a cooperative and exhibited their works in a small Parisian gallery. The group included Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, and Paul Cézanne, many of whom had worked together since the 1860s. The purpose of the exhibition was to present their paintings directly to the public and to provide an alternative to the government’s official exhibition, popularly called the “Salon.” Considered at the time to be the only significant venue for contemporary art, the annual Salon was also the dominant marketplace for contemporary art. Works were chosen by a jury, which in the early 1870s was widely criticized for the rigid conservatism of its tastes. The Impressionists’ decision to organize an exhibition independent of the Salon was a bold move—critics referred to it as “revolutionary”—that positioned them in opposition to the French art establishment. After 1874, the group organized seven more exhibitions, the last one in 1886. The participants changed with each exhibition, as Monet, Renoir, and Sisley ceased to believe in the efficacy of the independent shows and returned to the Salon, and as new members joined the group—most notably, Gustave Caillebotte in 1876 and Mary Cassatt in 1879. Also allied with the Impressionists was Frédéric Bazille, who had been an integral part of the group from the early 1860s until his death in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Also of most importance was Édouard Manet. Although he never exhibited with the Impressionists, preferring to send his works to the Salon, he had been very much part of the group since the 1860s. Because his paintings had greatly influenced those of the Impressionists, Manet was considered to be Impressionism’s founder and the group’s leader. In addition to denominating a particular group of artists, “Impressionism” also denotes a particular pictorial and painterly approach. In its purist form, the term indicates works that take their subjects from contemporary life and depict them in ways that suggest the fleetingness, the transiency of modern experience, using evanescent lighting effects, bold touches of color, and brush strokes that appear to have been applied rapidly.

General Overviews

For much of the 20th century, literature on Impressionism tended to view the movement in terms of specific artists and/or to analyze the paintings from a formalist perspective. A breakthrough came with Rewald’s studies—best seen in the fourth edition (Rewald 1973)—which shift the focus to the history of Impressionist group and the eight independent exhibitions its artists held between 1874 and 1886. Rewald’s extensive documentation of painters and paintings had a great impact on Impressionist studies, although the subtext to his analysis—a somewhat romantic narrative of a brave band of male artists struggling against a monolithic establishment—did not escape his critics. As happened in many academic disciplines, art history took new directions in the latter 20th century, when alternative methodologies offered further modes of inquiry. Shiff 1984 looks to 19th-century critics and analyzes the vocabulary they used to discuss Cézanne’s paintings. His highly original, densely conceptual study disputes both the stereotype of Impressionism as an objective style, devoid of affective components, and the idea that Impressionism came to an end in the mid-1880s. Moffett 1986 greatly extends the history of Impressionist exhibitions with essays that examine each exhibition in depth and take into account its sociopolitical context and critical reception. Herbert 1988 approaches Impressionism from a Marxist perspective and brings solid social history to bear in the interpretation of Impressionist paintings. Broude 1991 challenges the gender dichotomies implicit in traditional, patriarchal assessments of Impressionism and argues against the notion of Impressionist paintings as rapidly executed, objective recordings. Tinterow and Loyrette 1994 turns to the 1860s, the decade before the independent exhibitions began, and traces the formation of the group and its development of the painterly approach that would become known as “Impressionism.” Thomson 2000 applies several of the new directions and takes the group’s history as discussed in Rewald 1973 into the last years of the 19th century.

  • Berson, Ruth, ed. The New Painting: Impressionism, 1874–1886; Documentation. 2 vols. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1996.

    Volume 1 is an indispensable collection of reviews for the eight group exhibitions (1874–1886), many never previously reprinted, and for research into contemporary critical responses to Impressionist painting. The reviews are in French, with the exception of the occasional Anglophone article. Volume 2 includes documentation for works known to have been exhibited.

  • Broude, Norma. Impressionism: A Feminist Reading; The Gendering of Art, Science, and Nature in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Rizzoli, 1991.

    Thoughtful, provocative inquiry that draws on philosophy, science, and art criticism to challenge the notion of Impressionism as a kind of quasi-scientific, optical realism. Traces the shift in interpretation from the early coding of Impressionist landscapes as feminine to the anxious emphasis in the 20th century on their masculinity and connections with science.

  • Callen, Anthea. The Art of Impressionism: Painting Technique and the Making of Modernity. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2000.

    Deeply thoughtful and observant study that analyzes technical aspects of Impressionist painting. Argues that Impressionism’s modernity derived not just from subject matter, but also from the artists’ material practices. Richly illustrated, thorough glossary of terms.

  • Herbert, Robert. Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1988.

    Scholarly, accessible text that seamlessly blends solidly researched social history with astute analyses of individual paintings. Chapters are organized by theme. With elegantly crafted prose, Herbert links Impressionist subjects to the changing physical and social conditions in Paris and its suburbs. The book’s large format allows for copious illustrations.

  • Melot, Michel. The Impressionist Print. Translated by Caroline Beamish. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1996.

    Astute, broad-ranging exploration of prints by the Impressionists and many of their contemporaries. Analyzes individual artists and specific prints, and sets printmaking into broader contexts—historical, technical, and aesthetic. Large format, well illustrated.

  • Moffett, Charles S. The New Painting: Impressionism, 1874–1886. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums, 1986.

    Catalogue of a groundbreaking exhibition, assisted by Ruth Berson, Barbara Lee Williams, and Fronia E. Wissman, that assembled paintings from each of the Impressionists’ eight independent shows. Includes well-documented, in-depth essays on each exhibition, on the naming of Impressionism (Eisenman), and on the essential subjectivity of the Impressionist approach (Shiff). Includes key texts in English by Mallarmé and Duranty.

  • Rewald, John. The History of Impressionism. 4th rev. ed. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973.

    An important treatment of Impressionism organized around the group’s eight exhibitions (1874–1886). Once the major text, its significance has paled, as social history, gender studies, and critical theory have expanded the discipline. Includes an annotated bibliography and detailed chronology of the group and its exhibitions.

  • Shiff, Richard. Cézanne and the End of Impressionism: A Study of the Theory and Critical Evaluation of Modern Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

    Primarily concerned with Cézanne but highly relevant for Impressionism in general. Probes the terminology used by 19th-century writers to describe Cézanne’s paintings. Disputes the stereotype of Impressionism as an objective style, devoid of affective components, and finds continuity between Cézanne’s early paintings and those after the 1870s.

  • Thomson, Belinda. Impressionism: Origins, Practice, Reception. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.

    Begins with a concise and useful summary of the methodological changes that took place in Impressionist studies in the late 20th century. Reflects these changes and provides wide-ranging rereadings of Impressionism and its painters. Generally chronological, weaves in considerations of political and cultural context, biography, reception, and the art market.

  • Tinterow, Gary, and Henri Loyrette. Origins of Impressionism. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994.

    Although the term “Impressionism” came into use in 1874, the artists of the works designated as such had shared a professional, and personal, history well before that date. This pioneering exhibition catalogue traces the formation of the group and their gradual development of Impressionism from 1859 through 1870.

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