monet impression: sunrise
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.
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).
We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from MONET (2002) by Trewin Copplestone, an essential read for anyone interested in the history of painting.
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.
Jules Castagnary for Le Siècle wrote that the group of painters could be described by no other word beside the new term impressionists, since they rendered the “sensation evoked by the landscape” rather than the landscape. He claimed that “The very word has entered their language: not landscape, but impression, in the title given in the catalog for M. Monet’s Sunrise. From this point of view, they have left reality behind for a realm of pure idealism”, typified by Monet’s Impression, Sunrise. 
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.
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.
In 1861, Monet was drafted to Algeria for military service. During his seven years in North Africa, he developed a taste for color and light. When he returned to France, he continued to incorporate a sun-soaked palette into his paintings, which he rendered in quick, expressive brushstrokes in order to capture fleeting “impressions” of his surroundings.