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For over two centuries, European art was dictated by the Academy, following the Greco-Roman guidelines to making good art. In 1863, Napoleon III founded the Salon des Refusés, an exhibition for the rejected artists from the Paris Salon, in which Édouard Manet was showing The Picnic. Today this painting is considered to be a landmark for the beginning of the modern painting, but at the time was seen as shocking and outrageous. A rupture was being taken place with the classic way of thinking art.
Manet was an inspiration for the impressionist artists to come, like Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Frédric Bazill – who was killed in the Franco-Prussian combat – and much more. But these artists had different feelings about the Academy than Manet. He wanted to be accepted in the Salon, but the impressionist artists despised it. They were interested in representing the modern life and not depend on historical symbols and perfect refinement. The works captured a precise moment, with that particular light. Artists started leaving their ateliers to paint outside, as well as painting faster, to keep the same natural lighting on canvas.
Artists no longer needed to depend on preexisting symbols and references to have their work valued as art, for it is grounded on itself, with all new meanings according to each artist. Of course, this was not perceived at the time. Art critic Louis Leroy entitled the movement Impressionism in a prerogative and insulting way after seeing Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet. The critic, like most at the time, did not agree on this rupture with Academic Art and said he had seen better artistry in wallpaper.
What not many people know is that the impressionists were highly inspired by the Japanese prints coming to Europe. Beautiful works of Asian art showing bright colors, dynamic compositions and displaying scenes of everyday life. If you observe some impressionist painting along with Japanese woodcut prints, the references become apparent, for example, Monet’s painting Boating on the River Epte, with the print Two Ladies Picking Lotus Flowers of Suzuki Harunobu.
The start of photography also changed the course of art. The academic painter Paul Delaroche said “painting is dead,” after seeing a daguerreotype (first photography process available to the public). In a way, he was right, for even though photography was not seen as an art form, the academic way of painting would soon be invalid because of this new technology. The spontaneous images created by photography deeply inspired the impressionist painters, for they too were seeking to capture a moment in time.
The ballerinas in Degas works were done as if to imitate the spontaneous click of a camera, many times with blurred images as if the figures moved as the photo was taken. Most of the scenes painted by him are backstage or during rehearsals, like The Dance Class, showing the importance of the process and not just the final result. This way of thinking was the same for their work, for the Impressionists valued their process as much as the paintings final result. Degas was trained at the Art Academy but was strongly influenced by Manet’s modern take on art.
Impressionism had an idea of capturing the visual impression that light caused, using contrasting and pure colors with strong, marked brush strokes, showing scenes of the modern-day world. Of course, not all impressionist artists worked the same way. Each develops their method and thematic, for example, Degas preferred working inside, as opposed to other Impressionists that would only work outside with natural light.
Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt would mainly paint indoors as well, for it was not considered respectable for a woman to do such task outdoors. Monet is considered the greatest reference for impressionist painting because he was able to beautifully capture all of the elements that the movement set itself to realize. Sculptors, like August Rodin and Medardo Rosso, were able to capture the brush strokes and impressionist spirit in their modern sculptures
The Salons insisted in accepting only artwork following academic techniques, with historical, religious or mythological themes. So, in 1874, a group of thirty artists called the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors and Printmakers were formed. This group did not advocate any particular style and was established by the some of the pioneer impressionist painters. They realized eight exhibitions in twelve years and was considered the greatest time for impressionist art, and in this way, marking the beginning of Modern Art.