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The Lasting Impression of French Impressionism

Strokes of Genius
Claude Monet<br/> French, 1840–1926<br/> <em>The Japanese Bridge</em>, c. 1923–25<br/> Oil on canvas<br/> Bequest of Putnam Dana McMillan<br/>
  Claude Monet
French, 1840–1926
The Japanese Bridge, c. 1923–25
Oil on canvas
Bequest of Putnam Dana McMillan


Impressionism has become perhaps the most popular movement in the history of European art. The French Impressionists explored new ways of expressing the world, leaving a lasting impression on the world of art.

The Impressionists—including Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Berthe Morisot—shocked the Parisian art world with their new style of painting, which rejected both traditional artistic techniques and the religious, historical, or mythological subjects favored in 19th-century France. They also rejected the Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, choosing instead to hold eight independent exhibitions from 1874 to 1886. Inspired by a newly rebuilt and modern Paris, discoveries in science, the burgeoning art of photography, and popular interest in Japanese art, the Impressionists explored radical techniques, capturing colors and moments in time, different points of view, and modern topics.

Originally critics applied the term "impressionism" as an insult to the paintings they believed were unfinished or even sloppy. Many reviewers were critical of the new artists' use of bold, visible, "painterly" brushstrokes. The Impressionists felt the traditional techniques of smooth surfaces and fully developed forms were inadequate for expressing the energy of the modern world. Thick brushstrokes (a technique called impasto) quickly applied to canvas helped capture the feel of a world in motion. Some Impressionists even bypassed the palette altogether and mixed paint directly on the canvas. They emphasized brushstrokes to call attention to the idea of what makes a painting "art."

Claude Monet was at the vanguard of Impressionism. The Japanese Bridge clearly shows painterly brushwork, where each large stroke reveals a different part of the scene: bridge, water, and trees. The brushwork captures what Monet said was "the instability of a universe transforming itself every moment before our eyes."

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1. By looking closely at this painting by the Dutch artist Johan Barthold Jongkind, a forerunner to Impressionism, the viewer can see each brushstroke, especially in the clouds and water. The Impressionists often used water imagery in their paintings, because of its ability to show the fleeting nature of the visual experience.
Johan Barthold Jongkind, Dutch, 1819–91. Landscape from Lake Leman to Nyon, 1875. Oil on canvas. Gift of Nathan Cummings.
2. Monet felt the influence of the artist Eugène-Louis Boudin, who specialized in beach scenes. This early Monet seascape, painted before the Impressionist movement had taken hold, shows the beginnings of an open-brushwork style, especially in the short, rhythmic brushstrokes of the water.
Claude Monet, French, 1840–1926. The Seashore at Sainte-Adresse, 1864. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Bennett.
3. This work is an example of the enduring influence of the Impressionists. Painted almost 50 years after the Impressionist exhibitions, it shows a moose family, painted with photographic realism, materializing out of an impressionistic landscape.
Bruno Liljefors, Swedish, 1860–1939. Moose Family Entering a Clearing, 1930. Oil on canvas. Gift of the estate of Paul Upcraft in his memory.