Swirling colors, hazy scenes, blurred edges — ah, the impressionists!
I once read that impressionist paintings are found to be the most soothing, hence why many doctors offices sport these types of paintings on their walls. But, that wasn't always the case.
Here are three great examples from the Springfield Museum of Fine Arts.
Now look at this John Singleton Copley portrait of Thomas Boylston for contrast. Quite a difference! Each line and object in this portrait is discernible and clear to the eye, and was the common style until the impressionists changed things.
Impressionism began in the late 19th century and continued into the early 20th — just about until the 1st World War, when everything changed. But we're not talking about the Lost Generation or a war-torn continent. We're here for the 'radical' impressionists and Belle Epoch!
From Renaissance frescos to ostentatious Baroque gilding, academic painting became the norm from the 1700 to mid-1800s.
Think George Washington striking a powerful pose, or the perfectly proportioned portrait above — skillfully done, and a great snapshot of the past, but not usually exciting and moving.
The keyword here is "impression," an impression of what the painter is taking from real life at the moment it's happening.
Impressionist paintings look hazy or blurry because these artists paid attention to how natural elements affect the way we see things; water always has dimples showing its movement, light makes an impressive effect on how the eye sees our natural surroundings, people can sit still but they continue to move, breathe, and live.
Rather than depicting static images, artists like Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and Auguste Renoir began to render scenes with more movement and feeling to give the view the impression that they're really seeing this scene exactly how the artist did when painting.
You can see the river moving, the breeze shifting trees into an incomprehensible blur, or snow turning a cityscape hazy as though it's stuck to your eyelashes making it hard to see clearly. Romantic, isn't it?
Self Portrait, August Renoir 1876. Even standing still, there's still movement, visible brushstrokes, and life in this portrait.
The Rehearsal, Edgar Degas 1878.
The Black Countess, Henri-Toulouse Lautrec 1881.
Lautrec is another name that might be familiar — while technically a post-impressionist, he is well known for his influence in the Parisian Belle Epoche as a painter and printmaker. You may have seen his prints, like the one for the Moulin Rouge or Chat Noir.
These prints are how I best know him, and are some of my favorite images.
The impressionists weren't solely concerned with painting.
Auguste Rodin is well known for his sculptures, like The Thinker, which has been parodied innumerably.
I took this shot in the Impressionist Gallery in the Harvard Art Museum to capture the sculptures with the paintings as a backdrop.
Here to, you can see that emphasizing movement was more important to the sculptors than a perfectly angled and smoothed body.
Three Pairs of Shoes, Vincent Van Gogh 1887.
Seated Bather, Renoir 1884.
I can't say that every impressionist artwork makes sense — some artists were too focused on being daring and different from the prior methods that their subject matter gets lost, but the idea of going against the norm and trying to make the viewer see the moment of inspiration is enlightening.