impressionism, in painting: Impressionists and Postimpressionists

Impressionists and Postimpressionists

The subject matter of their painting was as diverse as the various artists' personalities: Manet chose Old Master themes which he treated in a novel and stunningly direct way so that his canvases were the focus of acid controversy and scandal. Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro were the most consistently impressionist in style. Their subject was landscape and the changing effects of light. Degas painted horse races, the ballet, and portraits of ordinary people, all with a photographic sense of “accidental” composition. Renoir, painting his idealized women and children and his lush landscapes, developed divisionism; omitting black for shadows and outlines from his palette in the 1860s, he used pure, bright color to separate forms. Monet painted many series of the same subject at different times of day so that the character of light became his subject and the forms of objects seemed to dissolve, as in the series of Rouen Cathedral.

The interests and attitudes of these painters influenced the postimpressionists Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. Toulouse-Lautrec gained from a study of Degas's paintings; Matisse, Vuillard, and Bonnard all owed a debt to the landscape painters. However, impressionist objectivity was limiting; the severe and total rejection of both the function of imagination and of the enduring aspects of reality began to pall. Gauguin and Van Gogh used color imaginatively and violently for its expressive emotional value. Immediate impressions and flickering light gave way to heavier subjects, solid with “meaning,” in the works of the impressionists' successors.

See postimpressionism and articles on individual artists, e.g., Renoir.

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