Today,Impressionismremains one of the most popular and prevalent types of painting. Considered the catalyst ofmodern art, the Impressionist genre has played a pivotal role in art history, with its influence evident in a range of artistic practices.
Having left such an important legacy, you may be wondering what could have set such a monumental movement in motion. Unlike most genres, which develop over time, Impressionism is believed to have to started in the 1870s with a single work:Impression, Sunrise, a light and airylandscape paintingby none other thanClaude Monet.
Often referred to as the “Father of Impressionism,” Monet was one of the movement’s most prominent members. While theFrench painter was already an established artist by the time he completed Impression, Sunrise—and subsequently sparked amajor art movement—his earlier work exhibits many of the characteristics that would later come to define Impressionism. With this in mind, it is no surprise that he would be the one to officially initiate the Impressionist Movement.
Monet Before Impressionism
In 1840, Claude Monet was born in Paris, France. When he was five years old, his family relocated to Le Havre, a seaside town in Normandy. Here, Monet developed his interest in art, which was fostered by his enrollment in an art school in 1851. Even as an adolescent, Monet’s work was popular; locals would regularly purchase his prized charcoal studies.
In 1856, under the mentorship of fellow future Impressionist Eugène Boudin, Monet began dabbling in oil paints and paintingen plein air, or outdoors—two habits that he would maintain for the rest of his life. “I have never had [a studio]” Monetconfided, ” and personally I do not understand why anybody would want to shut themselves up in some room. Maybe for drawing, sure; but not for painting.”
In 1861, Monet was drafted to Algeria for military service. During his seven years in North Africa, he developed a taste for color and light. When he returned to France, he continued to incorporate a sun-soaked palette into his paintings, which he rendered in quick, expressive brushstrokes in order to capture fleeting “impressions” of his surroundings.
A complete rejection of the traditional tastes of Paris’ prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts, Monet’s approach to painting transformed 19th-century art, withImpression, Sunriseserving as the tipping point.
The Port of Le Havre andImpression: Sunrise
In 1872, Monet visited Le Havre. During this holiday, he completed a series of six paintings featuring thePort of Le Havreat various times: daytime, sunset, nighttime, and, of course, dawn.
Impression, Sunrise takes Monet’s interest in light, color, and spontaneity to new heights. As with his other works in the series, the artist opted to focus on the sunlight’s ephemeral effects on the water. While the hazy silhouettes of rowboats, ships, and smokestacks are evident in the composition, the emphasis is mostly on the breaking sunlight and its undulating reflections.
Why has Impression: Sunrise resonated more strongly than other works in this six-piece series? Ironically, the painting’s fame is predominantly due to its initial unpopularity.
The Influence and Legacy ofImpression, Sunrise
Following this name change, the Impressionist movement saw a surge in popularity, with Monet at the forefront. The artist continued to capture “impressions” of his surroundings for the remainder of his life. In 1890 and 1891, he completed a series that explored the effects of light, atmosphere, and seasonal changes onHaystacks; the following few years, he applied the same treatment to a Gothic façade in his Rouen Cathedralseries; and, for his most ambitious project, Monet spent 30 years creating 250 large-scale paintings ofWater Lilies.
While series such as these now define Monet’s oeuvre, one cannot underestimate the role ofImpression, Sunrise—especially in the context of the artist’s own words and wishes.
“A landscape is only an impression, instantaneous, hence the label they’ve given us—all because of me, for that matter,” Monetrecalled. “I’d submitted something done out of my window at Le Havre, sunlight in the mist with a few masts in the foreground jutting up from the ships below. They wanted a title for the catalog; it couldn’t really pass as a view of Le Havre, so I answered: ‘Put downImpression.’ Out of that they got impressionism, and the jokes proliferated . . . “
Today,Impression, Sunriseis part of the permanent collection Paris’ Musée Marmottan Monet. Here, it continues to captivate visitors with its radiant color palette, expressive brushwork, and, of course, groundbreaking history.