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The Birth of Impressionism: Manet and Monet

Impressionism began to take shape in the 1860s on the canvases of Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. But the actual birth of Impressionism was probably the summer of 1869, when Monet and Renoir painted views of a swimming resort at La Grenouillère on the Seine. That summer, they learned to catch the transitory moods of nature with quick, suggestive brushstrokes. It was here that the broken-brushstroke style (painting in flecks of color) became a standard characteristic of Impressionist art. The movement didn't yet have a name — that came five years later when a critic attacked one of Monet's early paintings: Impression — Sunrise.

Monet and Renoir pioneered this new art style by borrowing and adapting techniques that Manet had developed a few years earlier.

Édouard Manet: Breaking rules to free the artist

The classically trained Édouard Manet (1832–1883) straddled Realism and Impressionism. He influenced the Impressionists and was, in turn, influenced by them. In the 1860s, the Impressionists began meeting near Manet's studio at Café Guerbois. He was the unofficial head of the twice-weekly meetings, which included Monet, Renoir, Degas, Alfred Sisley, Émile Zola, and sometimes Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, and others.

What was the bridge between Realism and Impressionism? It was Manet's new approach to painting, his innovations with color and brushwork.

Earlier artists began painting their canvases with a layer of dark, usually brown, paint and then built layers of paint on top of it. Of course, they had to wait for each layer to dry before adding the next one. Finally, they glazed the painting to give the surface a smooth finish. This process could take weeks or months. Obviously, the models couldn't pose all that time, so painters frequently added layers without the model present.

As a Realist, Manet preferred to paint from life — in other words, with his model in front of him. He did this by completing his paintings in one sitting. How did he achieve this high-speed efficiency? By not painting in layers and not glazing the final product. That meant he had to choose the perfect color right off the bat because there were no layers to fall back on. When he made a mistake, he scraped off the paint, down to the bare canvas, and then repainted that area.

The Impressionists adopted Manet's alla prima ("at once") technique. Without it, they couldn't have painted fast enough to capture the shifting effects of light.

Manet also painted in patches of color, cutting out in-between values (shades of color) to make sharper contrasts. So instead of painting a range of progressively lighter or darker shades of orange to indicate how close an orange dress is to a light source, he would simply slap on a patch of bright orange. This technique is called Tachism. (Tache means "spot" or "blot" in French.) The Impressionists modified this technique by breaking up Manet's color patches into much tinier patches, flecks, and dabs of color.

Claude Monet: From patches to flecks

The new style of Claude Monet (1840–1926) came from a shift in focus. He looked at the colors of objects instead of the objects themselves. He advised another painter:

"When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you — a tree, a house, a field. . . . Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape."

He believed that people should always judge based on first impressions, before getting to know something or someone. Becoming familiar with an object or a face falsifies it. You get the gist of what you see — a blue car, a red house, or a man's double chin — so your eyes don't search out details. You settle for an approximation. But the first time you encounter a face or place, you examine it thoroughly. "Ah, her eyes are green with flecks of blue; the window has a Z-shaped crack in it." To notice the color components of an object, Monet had to stop seeing the object and focus on the color.

In the second half of his long career, Monet painted series of the same scene captured at different times of day. Some of these paintings are like pictorial clocks, especially the haystack series. You can tell the time by the light and shadow on the hay bundles.

The first independent Impressionist exhibition was in 1874. Among other works, Monet showed Impression: Sunrise, which is now owned by the Musée Marmottan Monet. The name inspired one critic to condemn all the paintings in the show for being "impressionistic" or incomplete. Although it was intended as an insult, most of the artists liked the label, so it stuck.

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