Impressions of Impressionists

I recently sat through a webinar with author and art historian Kristine Hardeberg. She’s from Norway and has an easy approach to helping students understand art. In fact, she believes in understanding art on an intellectual level but encourages simply viewing and feeling what you feel as well.

This webinar gave a 10,000 foot view of thousands of years of fine art. She talked about what was happening in the world and what to look for in the art of the period. She focused some on the Impressionists as a preview to a paying course she is selling right now.

After lingering near Impressionistic paintings in museums for years, I still never really knew much about their origins so I was delighted for her insight.

The rise of this style of painting actually accompanied the rise of photography. Cameras made it possible to capture realistic images, particularly portraits of wealthy people who had long been patrons of the arts. Since this new technology could capture a realistic scene, some artists were inspired to experiment. Rather than duplicate what they saw, they wanted to create an impression of what they saw and used light, motion and color to do so.

In a nutshell, these early painters of this late nineteenth century movement were renegades and rule breakers. They stepped away from the traditional rules of academic painting and constructed their paintings freely, allowing color to take precedence over lines and contours.

The critics hated it.

This movement began in Paris where artists like Claude Monet abandoned stuffy studios to paint outside. Kristine said that they wanted to get outside, breathe the air and capture the light as it illuminated the world quickly and before it faded.

“They wanted to paint the world as it is right now,” she said.

That meant they worked quickly and focused on the present in a way that had not been done before. She showed us paintings of the sea that evoked all the senses. I could almost smell the salt air and feel it on my face. I could hear the lapping waves and feel the sand in my toes. It was a taste of a summer day captured 150 years ago.

No one wanted to show these artists’ work because they thought it was silly and rudimentary. One critic compared it to a child’s work.

This painting “Impression, Sunrise“ by Monet actually inspired the name Impressionists.

Kristine said a critic actually began calling these painters Impressionists as a criticism, a taunt. He was making fun of them but they loved it and the name stuck.

If you are fortunate enough to stand before one of these paintings in a museum, stand close and study what you see. It’s all color and globs of paint.

Now take a step back. Close your eyes and open them slowly.

Kristine encouraged us to play pretend.

Pretend that you’re just waking up. You know that moment when you’re still drowsy and slowly opening your eyes? The world is a bit blurry but your senses are still absorbing sound, smell and light.

That’s what the Impressionists are all about. It’s a glimpse of an instant and it’s lovely.

Ironically, the Impressionists have gained steam over the decades and are among the most sought after works in most museums. I snapped this picture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington while tourists were lining up for pictures. It’s incredible seeing people so excited about art.