impression: sunrise widely thought to be the first impressionist painting was the work of:
Impression, Sunrise is a slight sketch, almost certainly completed on the spot in a single sitting, depicting the harbour at Le Havre as the sun rises over the cranes, derricks and masts of the anchored ships. It was actually painted in one sitting by Monet, standing at a window overlooking the harbour at sunrise. The only evidence of life is the lazy action of the oarsman in the most sharply defined part of the composition. The painting gives a suggestion of the early morning mist, at that time clogged with the industrial smoke of the city, and has a strong relationship to the earlier views of mist and fog done by the artist in London in 1870. Influenced by both Eugene Boudin (1824-98) and Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819-1891), Monet had only recently returned from London, and his abiding impression of the city, recalled later, was of its fog. While there, he had seen the work of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), who is generally thought to have been an important influence on both him and the other Impressionists, and he may also have seen some of the early Nocturnes by his contemporary James Whistler (1834-1903).
NOTE: For the story behind French Impressionism and the group of talented artists who created it, see our 10-part series, beginning: Impressionism: Origins, Influences.
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.
When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have in front of you, a tree, a field…Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene.
Dunstan, Bernard. Painting Methods of the Impressionists. New York: Watson-Guptill
Bathers at La Grenouillère, Claude Monet, 1869. During the summer of 1869, Monet worked with Renoir at this cafe and bathing place on an island in the Seine. He worked with great rapidity to capture the effects of rippling water and sunlight. The light shining on the river and paler color in the distance lead the eye into the landscape, yet the patterned brushwork in the foreground emphasizes the surface of the canvas.
Although a certain group of painters is commonly referred to as “Impressionists,” their aims were not always congruent. Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and some Neo-Impressionists like Georges Seurat (1859-1891) had academic training that they valued (see entry on Pointillism). Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), after traveling widely — particularly in Italy — reacts against the apparent “formlessness” of Monet. Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), who exhibits with the Impressionists, criticizes their lack of intellectual rigor, or color “order,” as he chooses to structure his landscapes with directional brushstrokes. Moreover, Vincent van Gogh (1822-1885) is shown in museums with the Impressionists, although he is often referred to as a Realist, Expressionist, or Symbolist. But perhaps this mixture of artists is what makes this subject so interesting and challenging.
Well: there are still people who criticize, even perhaps dislike, some of these paintings, today. Imagine that you are visiting one of these exhibitions in the late 1800’s: how were the paintings shown? (Look at contemporary paintings of Art Exhibitions or an Art Collector’s home!)
How should these paintings be put on display today? Be critical!
Claude Monet, “Haystacks, End of Summer,” 1871 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)
“Instead of painting in a studio, the Impressionists found that they could capture the momentary and transient effects of sunlight by working quickly, in front of their subjects, in the open air (en plein air) rather than in a studio,” the Tate explains. “This resulted in a greater awareness of light and color and the shifting pattern of the natural scene. Brushwork became rapid and broken into separate dabs in order to render the fleeting quality of light.”