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  The best-known form of impressionism is the French fine-arts movement begun in the 1870s and embracing such painters as Cézanne, Degas, Monet and Renoir. The movement was named soon after Monet\'s painting Impression: Sunrise was first exhibited in 1874. Impressionism was radical in three main ways. First, since the artists preferred to exhibit their work independently, it broke with the authority of the Salon. Second, seeming indifference to subject matter removed one of the major props to the 19th-century theory of aesthetic value (in which, for example, historical subjects were deemed more important than genre themes). Third, the Impressionists\' close observation of nature and of the effects of light cut through academic practice, and rendered obsolete much art education based on academic ‘know-how’ and respect for the past.

As the title of Monet\'s painting suggests, the object was to depict not ‘photographic’ reality, but an impression of reality, the prismatic view of the artist\'s own eye. Above all, Impressionist painters were concerned with representing light, often dappled by leaves, reflected in water, or scattered into myriad dots like a newspaper photograph. In his studies of La Grenouillère, near Paris, Monet also fused two formerly discrete stages of painting: the sketch and the execution of the finished canvas. Painting for at least part of the time on the spot, Monet sacrificed studio finish for the advantages of loosely-handled paint, primarily in order to retain in the one canvas elements of ‘preparation’ formerly lost in execution of a finished painting. (He was followed in this technique by others, notably Renoir.) Not surprisingly, the Impressionists were accused of making sketches, not works of art. But this was to miss the point. They broke with academic practice in order to present the viewer with a spontaneous interpretation of the world, unclouded by the application of academic formulae. In fact Impressionist paintings were not for the most part made at a single sitting, but were often reworked. But, thanks to the use of broken brushstrokes, high-keyed colour, thick, opaque impastos and little preparatory painting, the pictures retain the freshness of studies.

In breaking with the formulae of academic art practice, with subject-based Salon painting and with the tyranny of official exhibitions, the Impressionists created a climate for the rapid advance of modernism. In exploring the potential of painting to capture the effects of light, and in allowing the medium—the paint itself—to become the painting (rather than merely the means to depict the subject), they laid the foundations for almost all subsequent styles in art. Although there is no single ‘impressionist’ style (Turner, Gauguin, Manet and Seurat, for example, were all in their quite different ways Impressionists), impressionist techniques and ideas underlie cubism, expressionism, minimalism, and in fact every ism save those following harsher, more politically or philosophically oriented paths, such as constructivism and futurism.

Impressionism is also apparent in the arts of literature and music. In both, it implies an evocative, subjective and somewhat misty conjuration of atmosphere, of which Stéphane Mallarmé\'s poem of adolescent eroticism L\'aprés-midi d\'un faune, and Debussy\'s tone poem based on it, are archetypes. However, Debussy was not really a musical impressionist, his works are too formal and objective, and yields that particular distinction to such composers as Delius and Respighi. In literature, impressionism was largely absorbed into other movements, from the dewy-eyed mysticism of the Pre-Raphaelite poets to the more exotic (and erotic) fancies of such minor writers as Frederick William Rolfe and Ronald Firbank (and one major writer, André Gide). As in art, it very soon evolved, and became the basis for writing of many other kinds, from the precise imprecision of the imagists (and through them, of much later verse) to the very different novels of Hermann Hesse, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, the plays of Samuel Beckett and the film scripts directed by Marcel Carné, Cocteau, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi.

In fine art, the term neoimpressionism was coined in 1886 by the critic Félix Fénéon to describe the paintings of Seurat and his followers. The neoimpressionists sought to follow impressionist aims while introducing a new ‘scientific’ rigour into the representation of light. They based their theories on a selection of ideas from science and aesthetics (ideas themselves based on discoveries made in optics in the first half of the 19th century). The fundamental principle was that two colours juxtaposed on the canvas will mix optically to produce a tone brighter than the one the artist physically mixed on the palette. This resulted in a technique known as ‘divisionism’ (sometimes called pointillism), in which the application of small touches of pure paint offer the eye of the beholder a brilliance, harmony and luminosity absent from conventional paintings.

In fine art, postimpressionism is the term, more handy than informative, usually applied to those European artists, from van Gogh to Cézanne, who were influenced by, or reacted to, impressionism in ways which would otherwise be difficult to group. Their work shows neither stylistic unity nor a common agenda; if they are a ‘group’ at all it is purely in temporal terms, as a link between the 19th and 20th centuries and a conduit connecting the early modernists to cubism, fauvism and beyond. PD MG KMcL

Further reading P. Pool, Impressionism; , J. Rewald, Postimpressionism: from van Gogh to Gauguin.



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