The Balanced Combination of the Moment, Light, Color and Atmosphere

Impressionism is a movement that emerged around the 19th Century in France that can be seen as an early distinct form of Modernism since it was a highly experimental art form. In the impressionist movement, artists aimed to capture the perfect moment or the main construction by especially focusing on the moment. Thus, sunlight is depicted as not separate but in harmony with the setting to catch a glimpse of the moment in a limited time. Such an impression created a new world with the help of natural light.

Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1916-19. Fondation Beyeler

A group of artists such as Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Edgar Degas started the movement by opening an exhibition saloon. They called themselves intransigents as well as independents since they were highly different from the other artists. ''The founding Impressionist artists were united by their desire to cast off the strict rules of academic-style painting. In particular, the artists sought independence from the Académie des Beaux-Arts and its annual Salon (which was, at the time, considered the greatest art show in the Western world).'' (Sotheby's). In short, they wanted a place for themselves where they could work independently and opened a Salon for exhibitions named as Salon of Independents. ''The term “Impressionism” was not chosen by the artists – rather, it was born from a satirical review written by French art critic Louis Leroy (1812 – 1885) in an article on the inaugural exhibition of the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (‘Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers'). Held in the spring of 1874, the exhibition included works from 30 Impressionist artists and is considered the formal start to the movement. In his review, Leroy poked fun at Monet’s 1872 painting Impression, Sunrise, writing that: “‘A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape'' (Sotheby's).

Monet’s 1872 painting Impression, Sunrise

Claude Monet's painting Impression, Sunrise was revolutionary in this regard since it was the painting that gave the impressionists their name. In Impression, Sunrise Monet reflected the moment of sunrise by putting an impression on his work. The way Monet used unsteady brushstrokes as well as a very limited color aimed to convey the sense of the moment in time and the changable natural light on the surface of the water. There is also a sense of movement in the painting which is clear by the movement of the sun and the boats proceeding in the water affiliates into one another which creates a sense of movement as well as transience. As a result, Clause Monet creates a real impression by observing the scenery very well through what he saw and felt while examining it.

However, experimental forms and their unique independence caused the artists to receive criticism from some critics since their style was opposed to the style of Academic Art. ‘’The independent artists, despite their diverse approaches to painting, appeared to contemporaries as a group. While conservative critics panned their work for its unfinished, sketch-like appearance, more progressive writers praised it for its depiction of modern life. Edmond Duranty, for example, in his 1876 essay La Nouvelle Peinture (The New Painting), wrote of their depiction of contemporary subject matter in a suitably innovative style as a revolution in painting.’’ (Samu). The public and people who enjoy going to art galleries also had difficulty accepting Impressionism as a new style or art form since it was far from classical references. Yet, later as the new forms of art emerged by the Modernist movement, the impressionist movement was given more importance in the history of art.

Edouard Manet - A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

Impressionist artists also depicted public leisure scenes, scenes from cafes and cabarets in their paintings. To exemplify, Edouard Manet depicted his impressions of a scene from a bar in his last work named A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. The painting is inspired by his own experience by representing the leisure time of the growing middle class. In this composition, while he uses vivid colors in the front of the painting, in the background the colors become paler. The painting also remains ambiguous due to some aspects; it is not clear if the bar is indoor or outdoor, and the bartender's position is also ambiguous as her reflection shows her talking to a customer while she is also looking directly at the viewer. Thus, the mirror on the background is misleading. Since impressionists mostly depicted outdoor scenes, Manet intended to represent an outdoor scene. Yet, the chandeliers are puzzling for the viewer as well as they look as if they are attached to the ceiling while the scene reflects a background setting.

In conclusion, the impressionist art movement began with the revolutionary work of Monet’s, Impression, Sunrise. Although it is highly criticized due to its experimental form as well as ambiguity, it played an important role in the emergence of the Modernist movement. Especially, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Manet presents a glimpse of the later Modernist art’s aspect of ambiguity and experimentation. Thus, Impressionism, which was at its peak in the second half of the 19th century, can be considered the first distinctly Modernist Art movement.


-      Manet, Edouard. ‘’ A Bar at the Folies-Bergère ‘’

- Monet, Claude ‘’Impression: Sunrise’’                                                                      

-      Samu, Margaret. “Impressionism: Art and Modernity.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)