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Chapter 12


Impressionist art documented in a truthful and dispassionate manner the appearance of life and landscape in the late nineteenth century. Impressionist artists often selected motifs and vantage points that were typical of the era and characteristic of the artist's own corner of the world. Impressionist paintings conveyed a range of ideas about modernity - from exhileration to anxiety - and often revealed attitudes about social class, economic change, technology, and scientific discovery. Impressionist artists experimented to find techniques suited to the expression of their ideas, whether it was the staccato and turbulent pace of modern life, or the odd visual effects of everyday experience. Development of a signature style, one clearly identifiable with a particular artist, signaled an artist's independence and creativity. In a world in which economic success demanded ingenuity as well as diligence, originality and modernity assumed unprecedented significance.


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Richard Schiff offers a definition of Impressionism: 

“In summary: if the art for which the term ‘impressionist’ is now usually reserved is to be defined with some precision, it must be understood with regard to specific technical devices applied to a very general problem of both discovery and expression, a problem so fundamental to the art of the late nineteenth century that it often went unstated. The problem is that of the individual’s means of arriving at truth or knowledge, and the relation of this traditional truth to a universal truth. Impressionists and symbolists shared this traditional concern. The impressionist artists distinguished themselves by the manner in which they conceived and responded to the issue. For the impressionists, as the name implies, the concept of the 'impression’ provided the theoretical means for approaching the relation of individual and universal truth. The artists’ characteristic technical devices, such as accentuated (‘spontaneous’) brushwork and bright color, are signs of their practical application of the theory of impressionism.” 

Richard Schiff, “Defining ‘Impressionism’ and the ‘Impression’,” Cézanne and the End of Impressionism: A Study of the Theory, Technique, and Critical Evaluation of Modern Art (Chicago-London: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 17. 


Stephen F. Eisenman offers an explanation for the generally positive reception of Impressionism: 

“Impressionism in 1874 thus connoted a vaguely defined technique of painting and an attitude of individualism shared by an assortment of young and middle-aged artists unofficially led by Manet. Yet if the word Impressionism offered only the merest coherence to the exhibition at Nadar’s, it had one significant advantage over any other. Serving as a description of unbridled individualism, Impressionism assured politically moderate critics that the new art had both broken with increasingly discredited salon conventions, and remained unsullied by any troubling radical affiliations. ‘Does it constitute a revolution?’ asked [Jules-Antoine] Castagnary of Impressionism. ‘No…it is a manner. And manners in art remain the property of the man who invented them…’ To such supporters of the Third Republic as Castagnary, individualism was deemed an essential instrument for the emancipation of citizens from debilitating ties to former political, economic, or religious dogma. Individualism would be necessary in the massive work of reconstructing France after the disasters of the Franco-Prussian War and Commune. We may conclude that the combination of painterly daring and political discretion suggested by the word Impressionism helps account for the surprisingly positive reception given the new art by many critics.” 

Stephen F. Eisenman, “The Intransigent Artist or How the Impressionists Got their Name,” The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, iCharles S. Moffett, ed. (The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1986), 52.


In 1845, traveling from Paris to Bordeaux took 5 days by stagecoach and 18 hours by train. In 2014 it took 6 hours by car and 3 hours by train.

Web Resources

Metmuseum: Impressionism

Smarthistory: Impressionism

Map of Locations

Paris in 1871

Paris Map, pre-Haussmann

Paris Map, post-Haussmann