Impressionism, Reexamined: How One of Art History’s Most Controversial Movements Finally Got Respect

2024 marks the 150th anniversary of Impressionism, the movement that determined a new course for modern painting. Throughout this year, ARTnews will publish a series of new and archival articles on the subject, exploring its start in 19th-century Paris, moving beyond French borders to celebrate its varied localizations, and finally surveying the numerous exhibitions planned by museums worldwide in honor of the movement’s milestone. 

In 1863, the Paris Salon, an annual art exhibition sponsored by the French government and the Academy of Fine Arts, received over 5,000 submissions. Acceptance to the Salon was often a career-making achievement, leading to state commissions and notoriety. That year, more than two-thirds were refused by the conservative panel—including works by Gustave Courbet (who caused an uproar with his 1852 submission, Baigneuses), Édouard Manet, and Camille Pissarro, and Claude Monet. The panel called that group “a gang of lunatics.”

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The French avant-garde was familiar with critical contempt—it was common for the day’s most cutting-edge artists to test social mores by producing work that would ignite controversy—but the scale of the Salon’s rejection proved an intolerable insult, and these artists’ protests eventually reached Emperor Napoleon III. Napoleon preferred the academic style of, say, countryman Alexandre Cabanel, but he spied a chance to score points with the bohemians. He issued a statement: “His Majesty, wishing to let the public judge the legitimacy of these complaints, has decided that the works of art which were refused should be displayed in another part of the Palace of Industry.”

The Salon des Refusés was born, and more than a thousand visitors flocked to the Palais des Champs-Elyées to see the strange and indecent works. By some accounts, the laughter from the people who came to see the show could be heard outside the gallery’s walls. It would not be the last time the artists included were ridiculed, nor the last time they would band together to stage an art history-marking exhibition.

In Paris in 1874, Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and Paul Cézanne, among others, organized a Salon des Indépendants. Titled the “The Impressionist Exhibition,” after Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, a gauzy study of the Le Havre port at dawn, the show featured works dedicated to light’s transitory manipulation of nature. Speaking of the title, Monet said, “Landscape is nothing but an impression, and an instantaneous one, hence this label that was given to us, by the way because of me.” The show was neither a financial nor a critical success, and even cost the exhibiting artists money—and social capital. Upon seeing Monet’s Impression, the art critic Louis Leroy wrote in the French magazine Le Charivari, “Impression! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished!”

That label, once meant as an insult, wound up sticking, though the Impressionists themselves didn’t embrace it until their third exhibition in 1877, around the time the critical tide had begun—slowly but surely—to turn in their favor through the campaigning of influential dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. In that time, however, the Impressionists experienced their fair share of critical scorn. Below is a round-up of artworks by Impressionists and their associates that were largely lambasted by critics and are now considered representative of the group’s innovations.

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1832-1883.

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1832-1883.

Édouard Manet

More Impressionism-adjacent, Manet’s innovations influenced the movement, which in turn influenced his own practice. The Impressionists Monet and Berthe Morisot, in particular, were inspired by Manet’s flouting of propriety. One work that did as much was Olympia (modeled after Titian’s 1538 Venus of Urbino), which was considered so scandalous that pregnant visitors to the 1865 Salon were advised to keep their distance. Critics decried its “color patches” and “yellow-bellied odalisque,” though it did find its supporters in prominent intellectuals such as Emile Zola and Charles Baudelaire. Recasting the female nude as a courtesan, Manet was also hit with criticism for his bizarre use of perspective and his unadorned brushwork.

Paul Cézanne, A Modern Olympia, 1873-74.

Paul Cézanne, A Modern Olympia, 1873-74.

Paul Cézanne

Cézanne painted A Modern Olympia in response to Manet’s painting Olympia and inspired similar scorn because of it. Of Cézanne’s bold brushstrokes, luminous colors, and dreamlike composition, Marc de Montifaud, a French art critic, wrote in the journal L’artiste, “Mr. Cézanne merely gives the impression of being a sort of madman, painting in a state of delirium tremens,” adding, “Like a voluptuous vision, this artificial corner of paradise has left even the most courageous gasping for breath.” Cézanne’s early work was indebted to the dark coloring of Eugène Delacroix, though under Camille Pissaro’s tutelage, he learned to expand his tonal scale.

Camille Pissarro, Ploughed Field, 1874.

Camille Pissarro, Ploughed Field, 1874.

Camille Pissarro

Cézanne called the Dutch-French Pissarro “the first Impressionist,” and the latter artist was akin to a father figure for the group, equally concerned in his paintings with depicting labors of the working man as the whims of nature. He cycled through styles, gravitating in his later years towards the pointillism pioneered by Post-Impressionists Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Pissarro, to his assumed displeasure, was perceived as being less accessible—and memorable—than his contemporary Monet. His presentation of Ploughed Field in the 1874 Exhibition of Impressionists was met with derision. Leroy, in Le Charivari, related the comments of one observer: “Those are furrows? That is hoar-frost? But those are palette-scrapings placed uniformly on a dirty canvas. It has neither head nor tail, neither top nor bottom, neither front nor back.”

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1879–81.

Edgar Degas, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, 1879–81.

Edgar Degas

Throughout his lifetime, Degas bristled against associations with Impressionists, once writing, “No art was ever less spontaneous than mine.” But he was criticized alongside the radicals all the same. One of his best-known and most controversial works, the sculpture The Little Dancer, was widely reviled upon its presentation at the 1881 Impressionist exhibition in Paris. Art critic Elie de Mont wrote, “I don’t ask that art should always be elegant, but I don’t believe that its role is to champion the cause of ugliness.” Degas created it from colored wax, real hair, and a fabric tutu, a mixed media practice that was unconventional in the 19th century. The choice of subject, a ballerina, was another scandal, as the profession was then considered unseemly, akin to prostitution.

Claude Monet, Women in the garden, 1866-67.

Claude Monet, Women in the Garden, 1866-67.

Claude Monet

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Monet endured nearly a decade of contempt from the public and the press, who found his artworks formless and unfinished. Albert Wolff of Le Figaro wrote that he was personally “saddened” by an exhibition including Monet’s landscapes. Monet’s large-scale Women in the Garden was among the paintings rejected by for the Salon, with one Academy member exclaiming, “Too many young people think of nothing but continuing in this abominable direction. It is high time to protect them and save art!” The going was initially rough for Monet, but by the end of the 1870s, he had begun to receive acclaim. A painting of his was accepted in the 1880 Salon, and some of his light studies sold, prompting Pissarro to dub his longtime friend “commercial.”

Berthe Morisot, Lady at her Toilette, 1875–80.

Berthe Morisot, Lady at her Toilette, 1875–80.

Berthe Morisot

History has not been kind to the female Impressionists—they showed alongside Monet, Manet, and other male contemporaries, but rarely featured in any advertising materials. One such artist was Berthe Morisot, who exhibited at the 1864 Paris Salon and was shown prominently in nearly every Impressionist exhibition from 1874 to 1886. She was concerned with female interiority, and approached selfhood as a given, rather than a gendered privilege. Woman at Her Toilette, which was included in a landmark Barnes Foundation show of Morisot’s art in Philadelphia, illustrates her quick brushstrokes and empathetic gaze.

Alfred Sisley, Flood at Port-Marly, 1876.

Alfred Sisley, The Flood at Port-Marly, 1872.

Alfred Sisley

Alfred Sisley, an Englishman who lived nearly his entire life in France, never achieved the household recognition of his peers, though he was a key initiator of the movement, having been included in the 1874 Impressionist exhibition and represented by Durand-Ruel. He was almost exclusively a landscape painter, eschewing the brash colors of Monet and the dynamic lighting of Cézanne; Pissarro described him to Matisse as “a typical Impressionist.” The Flood at Port Marly, a series of two paintings painted between 1872 and 1876 at a village along the Seine, is representative of his signature style, featuring muddied colors, conventional lighting, and a prioritization of setting over population.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt, Mother and Child, 1905.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt

Cassatt stood out twofold among the French Impressionists, as a woman and the only American among their ranks. She was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and settled in Paris in 1875. By then, she was regularly showing in the Paris Salon, but she only turned toward the Impressionist style after meeting Degas, who invited her to exhibit in four of the eight Impressionist exhibitions. Like Degas, she was interested foremost in figure compositions but shared with Morisot a refusal to objectify women. The relationship between mother and child became her specialty, with Mother and Child (1905) among her key works. Her subject was often described by critics of her time as being overly “feminine,” and Cassatt achieved commercial success—something that was then rare for female artists.


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