Just who are these "Impressionists" anyway?

Monet's Impression, sol levant (Impression, sunrise)A detail from Monet's Impression, sol levant (Impression, sunrise)

By the 1860s, French painting had become so rigid and formalized—not to mention bland—that the visible brush strokes and natural, everyday settings in works by Manet and Monet caused scandals when they were first exhibited.

The new artists of mid-19th-century France varied greatly in style, but held several things in common. One was a penchant for painting en plein air—which is fancy French for painting outside—from life, as it happens—as opposed to in a studio based on reflection and formal traditions.

Where to see Impressionist art in Paris
• Musée d'Orsay
• Musée Marmottan-Monet
• Musée de L'Orangerie
• Musée du Petit Palais
In such live settings, many young artists found themselves trying to capture the fleeting impression of light and color in the scenes, in the process often abandoning traditional academic rules on form and composition and forming entire landscapes from tiny daubs of bright paint with no sense of line.

How to get ahead in the 19th century Parisian art world

In the middle of the 19th century, the only major venue for exhibiting new works of art in France was the Salon de Paris, a show juried by the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

The Académie was the premier art school of Paris and the ossified arbiter of all that was worthy of being called "art" in French culture. (It also infamously refused to admit the iconoclastic sculptor Rodin as a student—three times.)

When, among others, Édouard Manet's now-famous Dejeurner sur l'Herbe (now in the Musée d'Orsay) was rejected by the Salon jury for the 1863 show, Emperor Napoleon III decreed that there should be a more populist exhibition showcasing all the salon's rejects so that the public, not the academy, could decide what they liked.

This alternative show was called the Salon de Refusés, and it was a hit. However, a decade later, when other young painters experimenting with new styles—including Monet, Renoir, Pissaro, and Sisley—clamored for another Salon des Refusés, nothing came of it.

So these young artists organized their own salon-of-rejects-from-the-salon-of-rejects.

The rejects of the rejects

They called themselves the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, and in 1874 mounted their own totally unsupported and throroughly unapproved-of exhibition.

One classically minded critic named Louis Leroy wrote a scathing review of the show—a satirical rant imagining the conversation between two artists touring the exhibit—in which he singled out Monet in particular, saying of one of his seascape paintings that "wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished."

This particular painting was called Impression, soleil levant ("Impression, sunrise," now in the Musée Marmottan). Leroy seized upon this title and turned it into a riff in his review, using some variant of the word "impression" 15 times—all of them derogatory. He then sneeringly smeared the whole of the movement by titling the review "Exhibition of the Impressionists."

He meant it to be cruel and dismissive. The artists, though, thought it was perfect and quickly adopted the moniker as their own.

Critical derision notwithstanding, Monet and his contemporaries proceeded to buck artistic tradition and accellerate the development and definition of art in ways that had been seen since the Renaissance.

Rise of the Impressionists

Over the next 12 years, a rotating roster of new artists—not just Monet, Pissaro, Sisley, and Renoir but also Dégas, Cézanne, Cassat, Corot, Signac, Gauguin, Seurat, and many others—staged eight more exhibits and established themslves firmly in the artistic firmament.

Even as the importance of the rigid old Salon de Paris began to fade, these artists blazed the trail for the modern art of the 20th century and set the stage for the next generation of artists. (The likes of Matisse, Van Gogh, and Chagall—who inherited Impressionist sensibilities and took them in new directions—can each be assigned to various schools or movements in art, but are also frequently lumped together as "Post-Impressionists.")

Indeed, the Impressionists got the last laugh. While certainly not all were successful in their lifetimes, the artists and their works have long since risen in stature to become among the most beloved in the world.

Ask a random person today to list great artists throughout history and you'll find that many Impressionists remain household names—while most folks would be hard-pressed to name any of their contemporaries who hewed more to the prevailing Romantic or Realist styles. (Ingres and Delacroix died before the first Impressionist exhibit, so they don't count; Courbet, who died in 1877, could be counted alongside Manet as a granddaddy to the movement.)

Entire museums are now devoted almost exclusively to the Impressionists. Blockbuster shows of Impressionst art travel the world to sell-out crowds. And in art museums around the globe, Impressionist postcards, posters, and books outsell those of any other era by an enormous margin.

Take that, Leroy.

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Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863) by Edouard Manet
Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863) by Edouard Manet.