From Monet to Van Gogh: A History of Impressionism
Richard Brettell (1949–2020) was the Margaret McDermott Distinguished Professor of Art and Aesthetics at The University of Texas at Dallas. He earned his BA, MA, and PhD from Yale University. Prior to joining The University of Texas at Dallas, Professor Brettell taught at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, Yale University, and Harvard University. Professor Brettell was the founding American director of the French Regional and American Museum Exchange, designed to promote the exchange of art and information between regional museums in France and the United States. He served as the McDermott Director of the Dallas Museum of Art and advised and consulted for museums such as the Portland Museum of Art and the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. His museum exhibition work included Monet in Normandy (for the de Young Museum in San Francisco) and The Impressionist in the City: Pissarro’s Series (for the Dallas Museum of Art). He gave scholarly lectures at numerous museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art, and he wrote more than 25 books, including Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century European Drawings in the Robert Lehman Collection and Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860–1890.
01: The Realist and the Idealist
In 1855, Paris held the first of many international exhibitions, allowing Frenchmen and foreign viewers to witness the tensions raging in the French art world. At mid-century, the bitter rivalry was between two competing trends: the French Classical tradition exemplified by Jean-Dominique Ingres, and the French Romantic tradition presided over by Eugène Delacroix. To this mixture was added the new strand of art called Realism.
02: Napoleon III’s Paris
Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, declared himself emperor of France in 1853. His aim was to modernize the economy of France, create a sophisticated and centralized rail-transport system, and completely rebuild and glorify the capital city, Paris. This systematic development meant that, for most Parisians, life was utterly disrupted and altered from fundamental patterns.
03: Baudelaire and the Definition of Modernism
A poet and art critic named Charles Baudelaire began writing systematically about art in 1846. His basic idea was that art should be "of its own times," and he struggled to find artists who would embody his ideals.
04: The Shock of the New
Edouard Manet, the son of a prominent civil servant, was among the best-educated and most authoritatively independent artists of the 19th century. He painted works that, although fundamentally Baudelairian, actually transcend Baudelaire. Manet's painting is as great as Baudelaire's poetry, and greater than his art criticism.
05: The Painters of Modern Life
By 1865 Manet's fame made him the de facto leader of a group of young painters who wanted to push painting further and further into modern life. These artists included Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Frédéric Bazille, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Cézanne—all of whom would become central members of the Impressionist group.
06: Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Of the young artists in Manet's circle, Auguste Renoir was the most naturally fluent and, hence, sensual painter. His works vary widely in composition, subject, and style, indicating a willingness to experiment that was greater than that of any of his colleagues.
07: Impressions in the Countryside
In 1869 Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Pissarro all moved to a landscape along the Seine just west of Paris and easily accessible to the capital by train. The aesthetic created by these four men in what we might call the Cradle of Impressionism stressed the modern and the mutable. The landscapes were not only up-to-date in terms of their fashionable urban/suburban subjects, but also in their fascination with the frank use of materials.
08: Paris under Siege
The Second Empire crumbled in 1870 when, after provocation from Prussia, France declared war. Inadequately prepared, the French endured a humiliating defeat. This was followed by another in a series of 19th-century French revolutions, the Commune, based completely in Paris. These upheavals caused many Impressionists to leave Paris and France, and had notable effects on their lives and work.
09: The First Exhibition
Within two years of the group's return to Paris, they had organized themselves into a new and, in French art, unprecedented private and independent group of artists. Their aim was to organize an exhibition of their own work on their own terms, outside the governmental strictures that limited artistic freedom in France. The exhibition, in May of 1874, quickly came to be called an exhibition of Impressionists or an Impressionist Exhibition, possibly based on the title of a quickly painted canvas by Monet entitled "Impression: Sunrise."
10: Monet and Renoir in Argenteuil
After the First Exhibition, a core group of the artists spent the summer together in the suburban town of Argenteuil, just west of Paris, a popular spot for sailing on the Seine. That summer can easily be considered the classic moment of suburban Impressionism.
11: Cézanne and Pissarro in Pontoise
While "The School of Argenteuil" painted modern suburban landscapes along the Seine, Camille Pissarro gathered a different group of artists around the much less-modern town of Pontoise, on the river Oise. Although several artists were part of this group, the most important, after Pissarro, was the young provincial painter, Paul Cézanne.
12: Berthe Morisot
Berthe Morisot was the first woman in the history of French art to have a career comparable to the best of her male colleagues. She was also the first to be accepted completely by a group of male artists, including Manet, Degas, and Renoir. Her social position in the haute bourgeoisie and her gender shaped her oeuvre powerfully.
13: The Third Exhibition
In 1877 a relative newcomer to the group, Gustave Caillebotte, organized the third Impressionist Exhibition. His modern and thoroughly urban works anchored what can now be called the single most important of all eight Impressionist exhibitions, defining the major artists for the next several generations.
14: Edgar Degas
One artist, more than any other, represented the modern urban condition as a psychological as well as social condition. Edgar Degas created a body of work in various media that defines Parisian modernism through the interaction of figures with their settings.
15: Gustave Caillebotte
Caillebotte was the wealthiest of all the artists associated with Impressionism. Long known as a collector and patron of the group, he was recognized as a painter in his own right only after World War II, when works from the family collection began to be acquired by major museums.
16: Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt was a well-born American painter who had worked extensively in Europe before she met Edgar Degas in 1876. He introduced her into the Impressionist circle, and she became the only American painter who was a major force in the movement. Like Morisot, Cassatt's paintings depict the lives of wealthy women.
17: Manet’s Later Works
Edouard Manet is known today chiefly as a painter of major Salon Paintings in the 1860s, and as the creator of a late masterpiece, "The Bar at the Folies-Bergeres." That view is incorrect and undervalues the importance of his Impressionist experiments. He is among the few great painters in the history of art who adapted his style as a mature painter to that of younger artists.
Renoir and Monet became increasingly successful in the early 1880s and, perhaps as a result, increasingly dissatisfied with the group dynamics and politics of the Impressionists. Each of them also became restive about Paris and its suburbs as the sole subject of their art.
19: Paul Gauguin
A young banker-stockbroker named Paul Gauguin met Pissarro in the late 1870s and became a major collector of Impressionism. He also embarked on a career as an amateur painter and sculptor, and exhibited with the Impressionists in their last four exhibitions.
20: The Final Exhibition
In 1885 Pissarro went to visit a young, academically trained painter named Georges Seurat. This meeting changed both men's careers and the subsequent history of art, introducing a scientific rigor into conception, composition, and execution of art. Their collaboration brought an end to the Impressionist experiment when they dominated the final Impressionist Exhibition in April of 1886.
21: The Studio of the South—Van Gogh and Gauguin
A young Dutch painter, Vincent van Gogh, came to Paris in February of 1886 and visited the final Impressionist exhibition. He befriended many of the artists but came increasingly under the spell of Paul Gauguin. In 1888, van Gogh moved to Arles in the south of France and succeeded in convincing Gauguin to join him to create an artistic brotherhood called "The Studio of the South."
22: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the only son of the Comte de Toulouse, was the wealthiest and most nobly born painter in the history of French art. All of Toulouse-Lautrec's early subjects have their origins in the art of Manet and Degas. Hence, Lautrec can be considered a second-generation Impressionist.
23: The Nabis
In the late 1880s a small group of young men formed a brotherhood of artists called "Nabis" (the Hebrew word for prophet). Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, the most important artists of the group, took the informal art of Impressionism into the interiors of 1890s Paris—a realm relatively unexplored by the Impressionists themselves.
24: "La Fin"
After their final exhibition, boycotted by Renoir and Monet, the Impressionists worked more or less independently of each other. Monet's pictorial production of the 1890s was dominated by the concept of "series" paintings. Pissarro and Degas also devoted much of that decade to series of their own.