Why Were the Impressionists Initially Unpopular?

Updated on February 7, 2018

It's hard for us to appreciate the extent to which the painters who became collectively known as the Impressionists challenged the conventions of their time. Reactions to their first exhibition were extreme, with critic declaring their absolute disgust with the art on display. The word "Impressionist" was intended as an insult, implying that these pieces were on a par with unfinished sketches.

The Paris of the 1870s was that heart of the art world. The dominant force in determining whether or not a work constitute art was the Paris Salon, which presented an annual exhibition that could make or break the fortunes of an aspiring artist. For the Salon, good art meant realism imparted by close attention to detail ,intricacy of composition, and a narrative that had its roots in the classical tradition. It might almost be described as art that aspired to photographic realism. In 1874, a group of artists who had not achieved success at the Salon mounted their own exhibition. Among those artists were some who became known as Impressionists ; but the exhibition was not well received.

The use of the word Impressionist by critics was inspired by Claude Monet's Painting, "Impression, Sunrise."

The Woodcutter by Camille Pissarro
The Woodcutter by Camille Pissarro
Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir
Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir
Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet
Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet
Monet's Painting of Camille on a beach at Trouville
Monet's Painting of Camille on a beach at Trouville

The names of leading Impressionists - such as Degas, Cezanne, Gaugin, and Pissarro - have become familiar even to people who have no particular interest in art. Among them, Pissarro is sometimes described as the Father of Impressionism. Of all the impressionists ,he was the only one to show work at all eight exhibitions, and he was widely considered to be at the forefront of the development of the Impressionist technique. What made Pissarro's work initially unpopular tells us a great deal about why the movement was condemned. He painted rural and urban scenes, showing the ordinary and commonplace with seemingly little regard for formal composition. There was certainly no attempt to reference the work to themes of antiquity. In Pissarro's paintings, ordinary people were shown in cafes and bars. Renoir also showed scenes of ease and relaxation such as the luminous Luncheon of the Boating party.

To their contemporaries, the Impressionists were sacrificing the dignity of art. Impression, Sunrise took Claude Monet just forty minutes to paint. Like other Impressionists, he was anxious to capture a momentary quality of light and movement. The development of paint available in tubes freed the artist from the studio. In one painting by Monet of his wife, Camille, some of the sand from the beach at Trouville is visible in the paint, such was the immediacy of his work. These were virtually snapshots, seemingly informal and unstudied, created in great haste. The early responses to this approach were shock and revulsion. It was only a decade later that critics began to consider and value the philosophy behind the movement.

La Yole by Renoir
La Yole by Renoir
Rouen Cathedral: Full Sunlight By Monet
Rouen Cathedral: Full Sunlight By Monet

Into the Mainstream

In condemning the Impressionists, one art critic, Ernest Chesneau, wrote that ' it is a foregone conclusion that the public declare itself in favor of the conventional work at the expense of the work of innovation.' This clearly illustrates the main reason for the initial unpopularity of the movement. In their efforts to capture the quality of light and movement at a particular moment in time, they created a new realism. Colors were mixed and intense; for example, Renoir contrasted cobalt-blue water against an orange boat in La Yole. The same location or object would be revisited repeatedly and never appear the same; Monet painted the Cathedral of Rouen over and over in 1892 ,never copying himself. The challenge to convention was initially too much, but tastes change. The Impressionists were absorbed into the mainstream during the lifetime of Pissarro. What had been unacceptable, described as lunacy at the outset, became the new convention for later generations of artists to break.

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Sunshine Diaz


    Submit a Comment
    • jolinabetts profile imageAUTHOR

      Sunshine Diaz 

      7 years ago from Wichita, Kansas

      You're absolutely right, i think in time people were able to learn that their notion of norms have to comply in the times. Thank you for commenting, Katyzz, i'm thrilled that you like this article.

    • katyzzz profile image


      7 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Very interesting and the art illustrations are well chosen, some great artists here, despite initial condemnation of their techniques as not real art.

    • jolinabetts profile imageAUTHOR

      Sunshine Diaz 

      7 years ago from Wichita, Kansas

      I remembered reading once that painting has some cameos of his famous friends too. One was even Van Gogh, i think. Thank you for your comment :)

    • dragonflyfla profile image

      Joy Campbell 

      7 years ago from South Florida

      I have always loved "Luncheon of the Boating Party" by Renoir, that little dog looks exactly like my dog! :-)


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