claude monet impression: sunrise 1872
This work was painted from a hotel window at Le Havre in 1873 (Monet later dated it incorrectly to 1872). It was one of the nine works that he showed at the First Impressionist Exhibition of 1874. Of all those displayed there, this is probably the most famous picture, not so much because of any crucial status within Monet’s oeuvre, but rather for the criticism it attracted from the reviewers, which gave rise to the name of the movement. On 25 April, ten days after the exhibition had opened, an article appeared in the satirical journal Le Charivari in which the critic Louis Leroy described a fictitious conversation between two visitors. One of them was a landscape painter who, while looking at this work, exclaimed: ‘Impressionism, I knew it; after all I’m impressed so it must be an impression. What freedom! What ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than this seascape!’ The article was entitled ‘The Exhibition of the Impressionists’, and the label stuck thereafter, as well as being used by such other critics of the exhibition as Castagnary.
Despite its notoriety the painting is in some ways untypical of Monet’s own work of this period and of Impressionism more generally. It shows little of the Impressionist treatment of light and color. The colors are very restrained and the paint is applied not in discrete brushstrokes of contrasting colours but in very thin washes. In some places the canvas is even visible and the only use of impasto is in the depiction of the reflected sunlight on the water. The painting is strongly atmospheric rather than analytical and has a spirit somewhat akin to Turner’s works. Nevertheless, it does illustrate particularly well one of the features of Impressionist painting that was thought so revolutionary. The technique is very ‘sketchy’ and would have been seen as a preliminary study for a painting rather than a finished work suitable for exhibition. (Monet himself saw the work as unfinished, and it was for that reason that he adopted the title ‘Impression’ to distinguish it from such works as his other view of Le Havre in the same exhibition, though this too lacks the finish then expected.) In this work Monet stripped away the details to a bare minimum: the dockyards in the background are merely suggested by a few brushstrokes as are the boats in the foreground. The whole represents the artist’s swift attempt to capture a fleeting moment. The highly visible, near abstract technique, compels almost more attention than the subjectmatter itself, a notion then wholly alien to viewers.
Following this name change, the Impressionist movement saw a surge in popularity, with Monet at the forefront. The artist continued to capture “impressions” of his surroundings for the remainder of his life. In 1890 and 1891, he completed a series that explored the effects of light, atmosphere, and seasonal changes on Haystacks; the following few years, he applied the same treatment to a Gothic façade in his Rouen Cathedral series; and, for his most ambitious project, Monet spent 30 years creating 250 large-scale paintings of Water Lilies.
Having left such an important legacy, you may be wondering what could have set such a monumental movement in motion. Unlike most genres, which develop over time, Impressionism is believed to have to started in the 1870s with a single work: Impression, Sunrise, a light and airy landscape painting by none other than Claude Monet.
Impression, Sunrise (French: Impression, soleil levant) is a painting by Claude Monet first shown at what would become known as the “Exhibition of the Impressionists” in Paris in April, 1874. The painting is credited with inspiring the name of the Impressionist movement.
However, this idyllic perspective of the exhibition was not the view of all critics. Louis Leroy, for Le Charivari, is often quoted in his review on Monet’s work. His article “The Impressionist Exhibition” is written as a dialogue from the imaginary perspective of an old-fashioned painter, shocked at the works of Monet and his associates:
A critic who attended the exhibition, M. Louis Leroy, wrote a now famous article in Le Charivari in which he used the term “Impressionist” based on the title of this painting. Despite the fact that Leroy had used the word derisively, the group decided to adopt it and painters such as Renoir and Degas were happy to be called Impressionists
From the 15th April to 15th May 1874 Monet exhibited his work together with Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Édouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, and some other thirty artists. They organized their exhibition on their own as they were usually rejected at the Paris Salon. Most visitors were disgusted and even outraged over such a graffiti. Monet’s Impression, Sunrise enjoyed the most attention and some visitors even claimed that they were absolutely unable to recognize what was shown at all.
This technique is the defining factor of Impressionist art. Now referred to as a “painterly technique” by art historians, at the time it was shocking. Art was supposed to be academic and focused on the rules of composition. What’s more, Neoclassical art was all the rage. It was very uncommon to depict subjects that had little to do with antiquity, myths or biblical stories.
Claude Monet, Impression, Sunrise (oil on canvas, 1872) / Claude Monet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons