who painted 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.
For analysis of pictures by
modern artists like
Claude Monet, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.
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.
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. 
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:
The loose brushstrokes of Impression, Sunrise strayed from the more traditional landscapes of the time. The aim of Impression, Sunrise was not to paint a realistic view of the harbor; instead, his style of painting suggests the impressions he felt while looking out the window at the view. The docks in the background are represented by just a few brushstrokes, and in some places the canvas is still visible; rather than striving for realism, Monet was attempting to capture and preserve a certain moment in time.
At the time, MonetвЂ™s approach to landscapes was shocking; even offensive to those who would not believe he would leave artworks looking unfinished. The Neoclassical movement was de rigueur, and it was highly unusual for a work to stray away from using the traditional rules of composition.
Impression, Sunrise takes Monet’s interest in light, color, and spontaneity to new heights. As with his other works in the series, the artist opted to focus on the sunlight’s ephemeral effects on the water. While the hazy silhouettes of rowboats, ships, and smokestacks are evident in the composition, the emphasis is mostly on the breaking sunlight and its undulating reflections.
Often referred to as the “Father of Impressionism,” Monet was one of the movement’s most prominent members. While the French painter was already an established artist by the time he completed Impression, Sunrise—and subsequently sparked a major art movement—his earlier work exhibits many of the characteristics that would later come to define Impressionism. With this in mind, it is no surprise that he would be the one to officially initiate the Impressionist Movement.