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Impressionists Pre 1940

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Notable First-Generation Painters

Impressionism imported from France in the late 19th-century was the first injection of abstraction into mainstream American art. It came ashore with artists who had been exposed to this revolutionary style while training in Paris and painting in the countryside.  The eastern United States fortified this first wave of Impressionism, which then traveled successfully across the continent.  Following its path is a trip with some very unique and talented individuals who stepped out of their studios into the open air to capture on canvas what they saw at that moment at that particular place.  Reflecting a new interest in optical effects, a free spiritedness and lack of academic constraints, these images spoke of a new time in western art history.

Although he had predecessors who did plein-air atmospheric painting and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) is likely more deserving of the recognition, Frenchman Claude Monet (1840-1926) is the artist most associated with the founding of Impressionism. The term is linked to an 1874 Paris exhibition of the Societe Anonyme composed of work by Monet and other artists rebelling against the strictures of the government-sponsored Salon exhibitions. Other Impressionist participants in this 1874 exhibition were Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), Pierre Renoir (1841-1919), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Camille Pissarro Armand Guillaumin (1841-1927) and Alfred Sisley (1839-1899). Although they were not tightly agreed on a style, the goal was to present paintings that focused on their immediate surroundings and the transitory aspects of those surroundings.  It was a conscious turning away from Classical Realist studio oil paintings with their predictable themes of allegory, post-medieval religion, and mythology. 

Monet inadvertently provided the name for the new movement with his entry, Impression Sunrise. A derisive critic termed the group 'Impressionists' for the careless-appearing execution of their paintings. The exhibiting artists rejected the description, but the term stuck, and Monet, because of the critic’s attention as well as his hard work on behalf of the artists, was perceived as the leader. Between 1876 and 1886, seven more exhibitions were held in Paris with varying participants but with a steady offering of Impressionists including other core exponents of the new style, Eduard Manet (1832-1883) and Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894).

Characteristic of Impressionist paintings by Monet and his disciples is their ability to anchor the viewer to a particular place and to a fleeting moment in time at that place.  In other words, they were painting what they saw and not what they were supposed to see as dictated by tradition.  Usually the subject is landscape but can be figures in landscapes or figures in interiors. Simulated sunlight conveys a sparkling atmosphere that suggests everything is on the verge of rearrangement.  A responsive viewer has a sense that quick change is in the air and that one is being swept along both by urgency and spontaneity. For these Impressionist artists, the motivating message was ‘paint fast and grab the impression before it disappears’. 

Because of special methods employed by Monet and other French Impressionists, the human eye can sort through this montage of color, atmospherics, and motion and perceive a cohesive image. Involved is broken color, achieved with rapidly applied unmixed paint and even-sized short brush strokes. On first glance the canvas appears slap-dash but in fact is the result of formulaic applications linked to the discovery of a wide-range of new color dyes for oil paint and to new theories about optical combinations derived from chemical research.  Also the development of  sophisticated photography reinforced “magical instantaneity”, a term coined by Degas. (Denvir 13)

Impressionist paintings were shocking when first introduced because of their violation of the way paint was supposed to be handled and the focus on nature as subject matter. Another defiance of traditionalists was the casting aside of concerns about realistic perspective or diminishing space and throwing everything up front, “in-your-face”.

The bridge to French Impressionism from Academism was at the village of Barbizon, near the forest of Fontainebleu, with painters who were active between 1830 and 1880.  Leaders were Thomas Couture (1815-1879), Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867), Charles –Francois Daubigny (1817-1878), Camille Corot (1796-1875), Henri Joseph Harpignies (1819-1916), Narcisse Diaz de la Pena (1807-1876), Constant Tryon (1810-1865) and Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875).  For several reasons, their approach was revolutionary, which initially made their work unacceptable to judges of the Paris Salon, the state-run exhibition, and to a public used to formal paintings created with prescribed methods and lofty subjects.

At Barbizon, these French painters established the first art colony in western culture. Although their work varied in style and content, they shared innovative commitments that opened doors to Impressionism. The most revolutionary of their common pursuits was plein-air painting, facilitated by the invention in the 1840s of malleable-lead paint tubes.  Looking back over a century and a half to this group in the context of an exhibition of their work at the New York State Museum in July 2004, reviewer Raymond J. Steiner wrote:  “They taught us to get our heads out of the studio. . . . They showed painters how to retrain their eyes to see nature as it was, rather than how it had been customarily painted by many of the earlier practitioners. They taught us to see trees, and water, and clouds, and windswept plains, and rocky outcrops, and farm animals, and peasants at work---but most of all they taught us to see light.” (Art Times, July 2004)

Also they diluted realism by experimenting with the effects of light and by conveyance of shapes through blocks of color arrangements. Tonalism, most associated with Corot, was the prevalent style that emerged and was achieved with somber colors and muted delineation that suggested fading light, misty weather, and a time for quiet and meditation.  Like successor Impressionists, these Barbizon painters depicted weather patterns, mood, and changing colors, but unlike Impressionists, they had little interest in sunlight. 

During these changes in the French art world that increasingly challenged academicians, numerous American painters were studying in French academies, private studios and painting in the countryside. Some of them, influenced by Barbizon School and French Impressionists as well as their country’s own landscape traditions including Luminism, paved the way for Impressionism in America. Leading names are William Morris Hunt (1824-1879), John La Farge (1835-1910), Joseph Foxcroft Cole (1837-1892), George Inness, (1825-1894) Alexander Wyant (1836-1892), and Dennis Miller Bunker (1861-1890). However, with the exception of Bunker, they were not committed Impressionists, but were key players in its transition to America.

Bostonian painter, teacher, and lecturer William Morris Hunt studied in Paris from 1846 to 1852 with Thomas Couture and under his influence “developed a preference for making quick sketches in a flash of inspiration, rather than using intermediate studies” for the under drawing. (Zellman 206).  For several years, Hunt then lived at Barbizon, where he joined Couture and his good friend Millet and adopted their style of painting. When he returned to the United States in 1855, Hunt not only did Tonalist-style painting but effectively used his strong connections with Boston collectors to bring much Tonalist painting of The Barbizon School to Boston.

Joseph Foxcroft Cole was encouraged by William Morris Hunt to go to France, where Cole then studied with Daubigny and Corot and emerged with a Tonalist style that in his later years became lighter in tone and more Impressionistic. Cole also played a critical role in Monet’s success in the American marketplace because he imported Monet’s paintings for American collectors.

Landscape painter George Inness did much to prepare “a climate of acceptance for American Impressionism” (Spencer 41).  He began his painting career in the Hudson River Valley style of serene, panoramic landscapes with realistic color and shapes.  However, several trips to Europe exposed him to Barbizon painters, especially Rousseau, Daubigny, and Corot, artists whom he reportedly idolized.  Because of their influence, he adopted looseness of brushwork, emphasis on mood or atmospheriecs, and depiction of activity in landscape. Returning to America, he became a firmly established painter in the Tonalist style, but he was not an enthusiast for Impressionism, which he referred to as a “new fad” and “evil extreme in art.” (Spencer 41). Since Inness returned to America in the mid 1850s about the same time as William Morris Hunt, “the beginnings of Barbizon influence on American tastes could be dated from that time.  By the 1870s, it had become a fashionable style.” (Spencer 39)

Dennis Miller Bunker is regarded as a major influence in bringing French Impressionism to America. In 1889, he returned to New York after several years in England and France. He was a close friend of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who had spent time at Giverny with MonetSargent shared the influence of Monet's teachings with Bunker during a summer in 1888 when they painted together in rural England.

With new cosmopolitanism injected into American culture after the Civil War, people in the United States were increasingly receptive to new ideas, including some that were avant-garde from Europe such as Tonalism followed by Impressionism. These styles were a marked departure from the realist genre paintings of the Civil War era, from the landscape scenes of the Hudson River School, and from the dark, moody painting techniques American artists learned from the Munich Academy in Germany. And some elements of Impressionism were not new to American art because of the experimentation with light and atmospherics by the first-generation Hudson School painters led by Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902).

Art dealers, particularly in New York City, began importing European art, and by the late 1800s numerous exhibitions were held that included work by leading-edge French painters. A Ballet by Edgar Degas, exhibited in New York in 1878, was the earliest French Impressionist painting publicly viewed in the United States.

While some of the American painters studying in France were attracted to Barbizon, others, beginning in the summer of 1887, painted at Giverny, a small village in Normandy where Claude Monet had his home and studio.  Although Giverny became an artist colony, Monet kept a private existence and was not eager to socialize with ‘disciples’ who were fascinated by his bright, sunlight-ridden canvases, his energetic palette and depictions of bucolic local scenes including his signature haystacks and lily ponds.

Some of the earliest American artist visitors to Giverny were Willard Metcalf (1858-1925) of Boston, Theodore Robinson (1852-1896) of New York, and Bostonians Theodore Wendel (1859-1932), Lilla Cabot Perry (1848-1933) and John Leslie Breck (1860-1899). According to William Gerdts, whose source was Texas Impressionist Dawson Dawson-Watson (1864-1939), Emma Richardson Cherry (1859-1954), who later settled in Texas, was the first American woman artist at Giverny, arriving in 1888 and staying into 1889.  Shortly after that first wave, Bostonian Philip Leslie Hale (1865-1931) arrived, as did New Yorker Theodore Earl Butler (1861-1936), who married one of Monet's daughters, Suzanne. (After her death, he married her sister, Marthe.)  The most famous American artist to visit Giverny was John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who arrived in 1887 and became a close friend of Monet, even doing a painting of him outdoors at his easel.  For a period after that visit, Sargent adopted the high-keyed palette and plein-air method of Impressionist painters.  As time went along, however, some aspects of Impressionism were incorporated into his painting, but he never fully committed to that style.  Other American Impressionists in Giverny were Richard Miller (1875-1943), Frederick Frieseke (1874-1939), and Guy Rose (1867-1925), a native Californian who became that state’s most renowned Impressionist painter. From 1906 to 1908, John Frost (1890-1937) painted in Paris with Richard Miller and often visited him at Giverny.  Robert Vonnoh (1858-1933) and his student Robert Henri (1865-1929) are other prominent American painters whose careers were influenced by visits to Giverny.

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