The Case for Impressionism

The Case for Impressionism

Is this painting you’re looking at right
now good, or is it bad? What about this painting, exhibited the same year? Is it better because
it’s forms and figures are more clearly defined? Because it tells a dramatic story?
Or is this one better because it captures a fleeting moment, recorded just as the artist
witnessed it? Its brushwork more lively, colorful, and expressive. When Impressionist paintings are presented
in museums today and sold for millions at auction, no one questions their legitimacy
as works of art worthy of attention and esteem. But when they were first exhibited in Paris
in 1874, they were regarded as unfinished, slapdash, lowbrow, and renegade. With the way art history has since evolved,
or in the view of some, devolved, how do we understand these pictures whose original power
lay in their ability to shock, especially when to contemporary eyes they look old, and
totally unradical? What remains of their power? Why should we
look and them, and what do we see? This is the case for Impressionism This new style didn’t arrive out of the
clear blue sky, but the paintings were often created under one. A hallmark of the art that
would come to be known as Impressionist was that many were painted outside of the studio and in the world, or as the French say en plein air. Unlike the slow, studio-based approach
that held sway at the annual salons of the French Royal Academy, whereby tonal gradations
were gradually built up with layer upon layer of glazes, Impressionist works were frequently
begun if not completed entirely out of doors. These artists used smaller canvases that were
easy to transport and finish quickly before the light or weather changed. Artists had been painting in the landscape
for some time, like Dutch artists of the 17th Century, and even more recently in England,
where the likes of John Constable won admirers for his pictures of villages and countrysides,
and J. M. W. Turner wowed with his own highly dramatic and abstracted scenes from nature.
In France, where Impressionism was brewing, painting in the landscape was an established
practice, artists escaping Paris and political instability to observe nature and render it
in a relatively lifelike manner. These artists also experimented with style
and technique, trying out looser brushwork and brighter colors. But landscapes were considered
to be genre painting and less important in the eyes of the Academy that, more than nature,
valued the study of ancient Greek and Roman art. Figures were to be strongly defined,
and set amid ordered and harmonious compositions. This was the kind of subject matter favored
by the Academy, pulling from history, mythology, and religion. They didn’t want to see regular
people doing regular stuff. The so-called Reaslists had already challenged the academy’s
values by painting scenes from contemporary life, sometimes admitted to the salon and
sometimes denied. Gustave Courbet built his own pavilion during the 1855 Paris World’s
Fair, circumventing the official juried exhibition, and showing this painting where, it’s worth
noting, the focus is on a landscape painter. In 1863, the state organized a special exhibition
to feature works rejected by the Salon, including challengers to the status quo who wanted to
paint their own way and show the here and now. Like Édouard Manet, who would not go
on to show with the Impressionists, but was close friends with them, endorsed their work,
and shared numerous interests and techniques. The artists who participated in the first
Impressionist exhibition in 1874 had shown their art within the Salon and also grown
tired of having work rejected from it. So they put together their own show in the former
studio of the photographer Nadar, calling themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters,
Sculptors, Printmakers, etc. There was no state involvement, no jury, no
hierarchy of subject matter. They were each exploring their own concerns, not working
toward any shared mission or manifesto. If there had been a manifesto it could have only
read something like: “Not the Salon” or “I want to do my own thing, thanks.” But IN GENERAL we could say this group was
mostly painting from modern life, cityscapes and landscapes, using a brighter palette of
colors, broken brushstrokes, and loosely defined forms, that gave the works an air of spontaneity.
So much so that art critic Louis Leroy commented on the accuracy of the title of one of Claude Monet’s paintings on display, Impression: Sunrise. To Leroy, it was merely an impression, a sloppy
and unfinished sketch, unsuitable for display or sale. He dubbed the show “Exhibition
of the Impressionists” as an insult, but another critic recast the name in a positive
light, saying of the new work: “It’s lively, brisk, light — captivating. What a rapid
grasp of the object and what an amusing facture. It’s summary, agreed, but how spot on the
marks are!” As you know the name stuck, and the artists came around, too.
Impressionist landscapes, unlike those that came before, often betrayed their place in
time, showing city folk in the latest fashions or enjoying leisure activities in the Paris
suburbs. New railway lines had made travel out of the city easier than ever, and the
Impressionists were unafraid to show signs of this new way of life, and also of the increased
industrialization around them. Life was getting faster, and it followed that
art should, too. Paris had changed enormously in the preceding decades, having undergone
wholesale renovation beginning in the 1850s. A crowded, medieval city had been replaced
with one that was much more open, cleaner, and safer, with wide boulevards, public gardens,
and lots and lots of light. And the Impressionists did love their light,
trying again and again to arrest its ephemeral effects. They liked to show it broken by clouds,
dappled and filtering through the trees, oh and especially as it reflects on water. Even
when painting interiors, which they did indeed do, they loved to include a window, often
with sheer drapes through which light could filter. Because they were often capturing
atmospheric effects that would change with the passing minutes, the paintings have the
feel of improvisation, even if they took a while to get just right. Monet often worked
on several canvases at once, shuffling to different works as the light changed, or returning
to the same spot daily to patiently await the return of the desired conditions. New and brighter pigments had recently become
available, which the Impressionists put to good use, juxtaposing vivid colors in ways
that were startling to audiences at the time. Even shadows, it turned out, didn’t have
to be just black or brown or gray. Studies on color that had been published in 1839 by
chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul, had a hand in this experimentation, providing a guide
for how complementary colors could be shown side by side to appear more vibrant and intense. An early review asserted these artists were
painting things, “not just as they are, but just as they appear to be.” And this
was the revelation of Impressionism. To paint trees one need not understand their structure,
that they’re composed of a wooden trunks with branches and leaves extending out. One
need only lay down rough smudges of greenish brown to approximate the visual sensation
the forms give off from a particular distance, as the light hits them in a certain way. You don’t even need to know they are trees.
The artist could be an alien, recently arrived on planet earth, who knows nothing of the
objects before them but makes a record of the visual stimuli they perceive nonetheless.
(Assuming this alien has some sort of eyes, of course.) But not all Impressionists painted like that.
Edgar Degas was a master draftsperson, using strong lines to delineate forms, often human
ones, with clear expertise. His innovation came in his unexpected compositions, showing
subjects off-center, from oblique angles, or closely cropped. The popularity of Japanese
art at the time can be seen in many Impressionist works through their flattening of forms and
use of open space. The arrival of photography had also revealed new ways of framing images,
suggesting the possibility of unbalanced, snapshot-like compositions, long before cameras
would reach snapshot size and speed. Some have theorized that now that photography could
capture reality so well, painting was then freed from the shackles of realism and could
do what paint does best, which is being colorful and tactile, and you know, painty. This new kind of art also involved more women
and represented them in new ways. Berthe Morisot participated in all but one of the Impressionist
exhibitions, and gave us remarkable views into the domestic sphere and lives of well-to-do
women. Mary Cassatt joined the ranks as well, and became known for depicting women and children
as well as her own family. Women of a variety of classes were subjects for the Impressionists,
and not just nude and lying on a bed anymore, but shown doing the things they actually do,
in the home as well as out in the world, enjoying Paris’s nightlife, and also being it. A
population boom following the Franco-Prussian war had brought about a new mixing of genders
and social classes, which we see unfolding in Impressionist depictions of street life,
cafe culture, and various forms of entertainment. The membership of this motley crew of artists
fluctuated with each exhibition, including names you’ve definitely heard of as well
as ones you probably haven’t. By their last exhibition in 1886, few of the artists were
working in style you’d likely identify as “Impressionist.” Core members had evolved
their own styles and were exhibiting independently. And the artists we now consider Neo-Impressionist
had arrived, like Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, who were interested in the more scientific
aspects of color and how our eyes process it. What we call Post-Impressionism had reared
its head as well in the form of the young Paul Gauguin. By 1886, Impressionism had become
a global tendency, with artists around the world exploring similar techniques and styles
and subject matter. That “Impressionism” as a word exists
owes a credit to the concurrent expansion of the popular press, the first art-movement-with-a-name
to be covered widely and with reviews ranging from neutral to complementary to openly hostile.
The art market had recently strengthened as well, bolstered by a stronger French economy. And a new category of collector had emerged,
interested in apartment-scale pictures rather than castle or cathedral-scale ones. Art dealer
Paul Durand-Ruel was a primary force behind selling the Impressionists’ works, both
in Europe and America, where the paintings were snapped up and eventually gifted to the
museums where many are still held today. It was a newly common pratctice among dealers
to encourage their artists to find their own niche in the market, each to peddle their
own singular vision. And it’s that singular, subjective vision
that Impressionism has come to embody. What these artists were able to capture, and what
still enthralls us, is not the world as you see it or as a large crowd might, but the
world as only they see it. It’s why their last names still hold power, evoke strong
associations, sell for millions at auction, and draw crowds. When you look at an Impressionist work, you’re
aware that a person stood before the canvas, applying the paint mark by mark, from their
own particular viewpoint, and in their own distinct manner. In it we can see the beginnings
of the cult of the individual that has since taken hold, inklings of the now widespread
thirst to share our everyday views of the world, each from our own angles and in our
own styles. Impressionism was one of the first of a string
of avant-garde art movements, each rejecting tradition and embracing the modern, promoting
new ideas about what art could be and what it could do. Whether or not you’re familiar
with the succession of “isms” that followed, you already know the narrative: students learn
from their teachers, but then repudiate their lessons and push on to forge their own paths.
Novel methods over time lose their ability to shock, new ideas replace old, and the cycle
continues. And now it’s gotten ever faster. An 1874 review of the first Impressionist
exhibition posed the question, “Is the absence of rules a good thing? Only the future will
enlighten us…” And enlighten us it has, demonstrating the breadth of what the pursuit
of singular vision can bring forth. But the best case for Impressionism is the
art itself. In a museum filled with the dark and dramatic art that preceded it, and the
often confounding art that follows, Impressionism is really… pleasant. It’s not violent or distressing or sentimental
or moralistic. It’s recognizable subject matter rendered in an interesting but not
overtly challenging–by contemporary standards–kind of way. It’s an optical delight, giving
us windows into a fascinating historical moment, created by supremely talented artists who
pushed art in new directions to better represent that moment and their own view of it. And
that is enough. Thanks to all of our patrons for supporting
the Art Assignment, especially our grandmasters of the arts Vincent Apa, John Thomas, and
Ernest Wolfe.


  • Mahendra Rahud says:


  • Tyler Alexy says:

    The Case for the almost first comment

  • Marid Khairullah says:

    Is this a re-upload? It feels like I've seen it before! Awsome video as always.

  • Xenolilly says:

    The Saint Louis Art Museum has really great impressionist pieces. It is one of my favorite sections at one of my favorite places.

  • lorenabpv says:

    "all art was once contemporary" right?

    I like the idea of a case for something we nowadays are pretty enthusiastic about, but people back then didn't value

    Something else I found interesting is the idea that "genre" paintings were seen as less valuable. The same concept stills happens today in many kinds of media, like film snobs against sci-fi or literature people complaining about YA lit or fantasy or whatever. It's weird to imagine the impressionists as these people from their time, given how classic they are today

  • Dol l says:

    I suspect many of the impressionist artists were nearsighted.

  • Oren Albert Meisel says:

    We need more art inspired by impressionism, and less art inspired by 1950s abstract modernism

  • akirealamub says:

    Just experiences a wonderful weekend of this, painting in a plein air class at the John C. Campbell Folk School. Love you introductions and explanations of the world and variety of art to se and to do. Thank you,

  • Ivan Vivas says:

    Amazing "case" as always! c'est magnifique …but… i kinda miss the intro hahahah #theSouthAmericanWhoLikesTheIntros

  • Chanel Brideau says:

    At 0:45 is that in the National Gallery of Canada? Because it reminds me of a layout I saw there this summer!

  • Jackson Elmore says:

    Do “The Case for Memes”

  • Fulano de Tal says:

    I love that Renoir's retort to criticism that he only painted "pretty" paintings basically boiled down to "So? What's wrong with that?"

  • Cristina Dias says:

    Constable wasn't a plein air painter: he made watercolor sketchs on the field but all his oil painting – including the one you show – are studio paintings – with a LOT of layers and weeks of work.

  • cannabiscupjudge says:

    Wow, another excellent presentation. Thanks!

  • ojiverdeconfleco says:

    I am in love. Been waiting for this episode since the first "The case for…", and it is everything I wanted and more.
    Oh how I love me some everyday subject matter in beautiful colors. Delightful.

  • charcoal Angel says:

    Could you do the case for Bob Ross?
    Edit: Or the case for video games?

  • Roman Beliaev says:

    Oh my god, the video was incredible! Showing impressionism from different perspectives and how something once contemporary can become unchallenged classics. Absolutely love your videos!!

  • charcoal Angel says:

    I love doing plein air! There's nothing better then taking my Indian inks and painting like mad!

  • Chelsea Shurmantine says:

    I LOVE impressionism

  • sheep_on_a_motorbike says:

    i was so happy to see this video in my sub box! I don't know much about art, but I've always loved impressionist paintings because they really capture the vibe, or the atmosphere or the moment, and that's something really hard to capture, even with the best cameras we have today. Great video 🙂

  • Tito Lounge says:

    I’m wondering if art has stopped evolving as fast as it seemed in times past

  • Kostas Adamos says:

    What you have to know about art is two things. It doesn’t matter what you know but who you know (to profit from) and art is like religion it doesn’t mater what it say or how but what you feel with it (to enjoy). And I’m loving it (quite often).

  • LuckyLifeguard says:


  • Philip Clapper says:

    That first painting, with the question, was really strange to me, because that's my favorite painting!

  • Jeff Zhang says:

    Next up, The case for Edward Hopper!

  • Jonas Lundholm says:

    I really like the idea that the success of Impressionism has to do with the fact that is was the first art movement with a distinct name which the contemporaries could be either fir or against.

  • EatenByAGrue says:

    The lack of detail in most impressionist paintings usually doesn't keep my interest for long but they are pleasant to look at while walking through a museum. It's hard to imagine having a hostile opinion of them because they're generally pretty benign.

  • Pete Magnuson says:

    That floor scraper piece at 5:45 doesn't feel super impressionistic to me, the lines are clean and the whole piece feels too… Refined? Am I missing something?

  • Eric Chung says:

    I wish my Art History class was composed this well! So beautifully executed! 😀

  • Atlantis11698 says:

    I’d love to see the Case for Fashion 👗

  • holly says:

    Inspiring as always

  • MGL PS says:

    12:46 isn’t it Josh?

  • UConnhuskyandrewnduati says:

    I started watching this channel because I liked the idea of Art. I wanted to feel more learned and like I could get to know what I was supposed to look at, or rather for. I found my favorite artist and now also style. With this video it finally clicked. Impressionism is what I always thought was capital 'A' "Art", and thanks to this video I have found what I was looking for. I can't describe it, but I feel it now 😊

  • afroceltduck says:

    Looking at an impressionist painting is like looking at a dream.

    You brought up something that somehow never occurred to me: that these artists were depicting contemporary life. It all looks old to us here in 2019, but back then it must have seemed startling to see 'new' stuff when paintings were generally about ancient history or biblical stories.

  • Joshua Chow says:

    Thank you for the video! I've always enjoyed what you had to say about art!

  • Grace Chase says:

    Thank for sharing your knowledge on Art. I love all forms of Art. I never went to school for it. But I use all my free time searching for art. It's amazing how a piece can change my entire day & vibe. Actually learn about the art now from Google and YouTube is another level of appreciation

  • Andrew says:

    You have shown some exquisite paintings and on impressionists, I adore the work of Sisley and Corot. As a photographer myself, I learn so much from paintings, composition and the use of light for example. Required viewing in my opinion.

  • Parapluie says:

    I've never been particularly taken with impressionism, but understanding a bit more about the context of the movement has been fascinating and valuable!

  • Snoops Q. says:

    I was waiting for Van Gogh to show up and he didn’t.

    Now I’m deciding whenever or not your doing him dirty by leaving him out.

  • geoingo says:

    I loved this video, really does the breadth and detail of impressionism justice

  • Rasmus n.e.M says:

    I know this might sound brusque, but impressionist paintings I like very much because they look like the world I see without glasses. A reminder that everything that looks clearly delineated and controlled is and can never truly be so. I take comfort in this fact that the ship of Theseus never really existed until Theseus bought it and never really got replaced until we thought it might.

    I hope this makes sense to someone plus me instead of someone including me. xD

  • rian chan Briliantama says:

    Awesome!! Since i wanted to learn about impressionism a week ago

  • kkcat says:

    Reading old instruction painting books I think the classic artist see impressionist as people who skip the basic art fundamentals and people who think they're better then nature (probably some religious belief that nature is the best artist or something). I still see this today to a lesser extent, except the impressionist are a part of the great masters which the establishment tell students to study xD. It makes perfect sense to me, as there is different types of people you don't get, there will be different types of art you don't get.

  • Jack Fran says:


  • TheTravelVal says:

    Great video! Always learn so much, thank you for making these!!!

  • First man on the moon says:

    Noone questions those paintings couse noone cares, theyre to buisy takeing selfies

  • Corey Holt says:

    Love these videos

  • William Kallemeyn says:

    Impressionism is one of my favorite types of art! great video! love this channel.

  • S Francoeur says:

    24 seconds in… best museum!! (The Nelson Adkins, i live in that museum❤️❤️)

  • Alfredo Marquez says:

    Impressionism isn't dead. Will never stop being vital.

  • otakufreak40 says:

    This case for impressionism works better for me as a case for more modern styles of art, what with the mention of how it was viewed by many of its contemporary critics.

    Ain’t gonna make me like it any more, but might make me dislike it less.

  • Sahil Baxi says:

    Hell yeah! Finally a Case For video again

  • Rishiraj Mukherjee says:

    dude u can work on ur delivery….it gets monotonous….also the writing feels generic….as if I have heard the sentence structures and adjectives for a thousand times and will hear them for however long i exist…..

  • AL says:

    Utterly delightful Presenter. Can’t get enough of this charismatic and unpretentious presenter

  • Leah O'Steen says:

    I loved seeing all the lovely paintings showcased in this episode. This channel is the art history, art appreciation course I always wished I could take.

  • dd nast says:

    this video is so impressive and so informative. I learn a lot. Thank you so much.

  • thinker 227 says:

    "I painted so many landscapes that the shapes of the land began to loose their meaning. And the shapes broke apart to me, so I painted them like that."

  • DontMockMySmock says:

    If you don't like impressionism you're some sort of lifeless husk pretending to be a human

  • Joonas Puuppo says:

    That Peder Severin Krøyer painting at 9:38 caught me off guard. The sunlight scattered through leaves looks so beautiful and real but in a way that's a million times more interesting (in my opinion) than any photograph that could be taken in a similar situation. Of course I immediately went and googled the artist and discovered that the same could be said of many of his paintings. Wow, okay, I guess I'd better start planning a trip to Skagen!

  • Coldchili says:

    Didn't expect CG aliens in a video about impressionism. Loved it!

  • T. Vinters says:

    Impressionism was never my cup of tea, but I think that had I lived in the era, it would have been the most radical and exciting thing around.

  • Ikonya Warachi says:

    I'd love to see your take on "transavantgarde art"

  • BubblewrapHighway says:

    This channel is really helping me fulfill my desperation to become a sophistocate.

  • Achilleus says:

    Tbh I think most impressionist paintings are really ugly, but that doesn’t mean I can’t see how important they were in the development of styles I do enjoy. I’m glad these videos are here to remind me of that, when my personal likes and dislikes make it tempting to write off an entire movement

  • Evan Masson says:

    quality content

  • what's it to ya!? says:

    another banging episode 👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽

  • Tulika Sharma says:

    Colours and light is what strikes you the most when you look at an impressionist painting. It is one of the best examples of the judicious use colour and contrast. Even if the colours are dull, it gived the entire painting a very unique aesthetic.

  • andrés ardila says:

    Now you have to do the case for Neoclassicism 😀
    Love your channel <3

  • Kevin Russo says:

    Impressionism is about light and form. Impressionism goes to the emotional heart of a matter.

  • moisture two_scoops says:

    Did I hear "1955" @ 2:51 ?

  • Douglas Campos says:

    it kind of ends in a positive note, but the tone sounds more like a criticism than a "case for".

  • Sok Rath says:

    I loved to see the case of coco Chanel

  • Patrick Reding says:

    Could you do one on Fauvism? The then-contemporary controversies around that are fascinating.

  • João Scaldini says:

    Hey, you should make a video about the Art Week of 1922 in Brazil
    It was a really nice movement inspired by the progress of works in Europe

  • Andreia Freixo says:

    Yes but the interesting question people seem to not want to tackle is: but why? Why is it that impressionism speaks to such a large crowd, while other movements don't?

  • Rick Fravor says:

    this is one of my favorite videos of all time now lol…. I love Impressionism!

  • Heinkle says:

    What’s the painting at 0:54?

  • Willowheart4321 says:

    Please don't ignore the trauma and grit impressionist painting stood for. The Hausemenization of Paris made the city "safer" sure for the rising bourgeois class, however many where forced from their homes when the city was torn down. Shopping districts and large boulevards where put in place at the cost of those who used to live in the city. One could argue that the impressionist captured the alienation of quick moving modernity.
    Many of the women depicted were working women, meaning prostitutes, though as a modern viewer we don't pick up on the signals. Manet's magnum opus, Bar at the Folies-Bergière is a prime example. They were depicting the rapid modernization of Paris as well as the French country side, but not just it's joys, also it's tragedies.

  • Chayanika says:

    Yaaay impressionism is one of my favourite things in my extremely limited knowledge of art and I so wanted this video from you!

  • Drew says:

    I'd love to see some videos on where art is going, what's emerging now in the contemporary art world.

  • Kid Mohair says:

    good on you for 'draftsperson'…I smiled

  • Teodor Munteanu says:

    Make the case for cubism!

  • Slappy says:

    Great video. I would love to see a 'Case for' about Symbolism, one of the least appreciated of the 'isms' at the end of the 19th century. And one of the last overarching 'ism's as there was a correspondence with music and literature along with the art.

  • Baterka Czech says:

    That green boi in 7:21 is mesmerising …. uwu

  • reddenver says:

    Wow, I always enjoy this series ( not that I always agree) but I feel you really did an amazing job of grounding the value of this movement in the context of its time and how it can continue to hold value outside of that context as well, bravo

  • Michael Donovan says:

    Why don't you make a "Case for Commercial Art Being No More Commercial Than So Called 'Fine Art'" video? Or have you already done so?

  • Jamie McFarlane says:

    1855 .

  • Stephen Richey says:

    Yes, art has DEvolved, absolutely DEvolved! Okay, this bit about impressionism was great. Now, will you PLEASE make the case for Rembrandt, Vermeer, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Giotto, Bernini, Botticelli, Watteau, Fragonard, Gainsborough, Donatello, Hals, Raphael, Rubens, Bruegel, the Gothic cathedrals, and the ancient Greeks and Romans? How about the case FOR 19th Century Academic Salon artworks and for beaux arts period architecture?

  • Andrew Zhao says:

    Its just low fi classical art

  • Cihan T says:

    2:50 should be 1855

  • Carlo R says:

    I think she likes Monet.

  • YJ C says:

    "But the best case for Impressionism is the art itself. In a museum filled with the dark and dramatic art that preceded it, and the often confounding art that follows, Impressionism is really… pleasant."
    The whole video was great but this comment in particular resonates – I like to collect postcards of art pieces that I have enjoyed or that I particularly remember from museums, and have discovered that those I have put on my wall are principally impressionist, and this is perhaps why. The whole idea of capturing the ephemeral in a way that highlights beauty in very simple things – living in a space surrounded by art like that is pleasant indeed.

  • stormRed1236 says:

    This weirdly reminds me of the Oscars, in that they're supposed to reward great art in cinema, and yet pick contestants based on arbitrary criteria such as Oscar bait. The same way these paintings were being refused simply because they don't involve Greek characters. I think that says a lot about the culture of Art.

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