Impressionism developed in France in the nineteenth century and is based on the practice of painting out of doors and spontaneously ‘on the spot’ rather than in a studio from sketches. Main impressionist subjects were landscapes and scenes of everyday life

Edgar Degas, 'Woman in a Tub' circa 1883
Edgar Degas
Woman in a Tub circa 1883
Pastel on paper
support: 700 x 700 mm
frame: 945 x 945 x 10 mm
Bequeathed by Mrs A.F. Kessler 1983

Introduction to impressionism

Impressionism was developed by Claude Monet and other Paris-based artists from the early 1860s. (Though the process of painting on the spot can be said to have been pioneered in Britain by John Constablein around 1813–17 through his desire to paint nature in a realistic way).

Instead of painting in a studio, the impressionists found that they could capture the momentary and transient effects of sunlight by working quickly, in front of their subjects, in the open air (en plein air) rather than in a studio. This resulted in a greater awareness of light and colour and the shifting pattern of the natural scene. Brushwork became rapid and broken into separate dabs in order to render the fleeting quality of light.

The first group exhibition was in Paris in 1874 and included work by Monet, Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and Paul Cezanne. The work shown was greeted with derision with Monet’s Impression, Sunrise particularly singled out for ridicule and giving its name (used by critics as an insult) to the movement. Seven further exhibitions were then held at intervals until 1886.

Other core artists of impressionism were Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot and Auguste Renoir, with Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet also often associated with the movement.

Although originating in France, impressionism had great influence overseas. Core British impressionists included Walter Richard Sickert and Wilson Steer.

Further reading

River of dreams
In this article, art historian John House and filmmaker Patrick Keiller talk about how London’s light has had an impact on the depiction of its river, referencing the work of Monet, Whistler and Turner.

Impressionism at Tate

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Many of the core impressionist artists have all had exhibitions at Tate. These online exhibition guides provide an introduction to their work.

Monet in focus

When Monet’s paintings first appeared they must have looked absolutely astonishing…those lurid artificial colours must have seemed as though they had come from out of space or something
Fiona Rae

Watch painter Fiona Rae, filmmaker Mike Leigh and Tate Director Nicholas Serota discuss the Turner Monet Twombly exhibition, which was on display at Tate Liverpool in October 2012.

Beauty, power and space
Jeremy Lewison, the curator of Turner Monet Twombly, explores the influence of Turner on Monet’s work. Monet had admired Turner’s paintings in 1871 when he was in London with Camille Pissarro.

Monet’s Water-lillies
Curator Jeremy Lewison explains why Monet created a lilly pond in his back garden and the sadness behind Monet’s iconic impressionist pieces.

Impressionism in context

Impressionism reached prominence in during the 1870s and 1880s. Watch curator Allison Smith discuss what else was happening at the time in the art world.

Impressionism in Britain

It’s the picture that made impressionism excepted in England.
Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, Assistant Curator, British Art, 1850–1915 

Get a closer look at Sargent’s Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose in this short film which shows how the painting was made, hearing from both conservation and curation.

Impressionism for kids

Edgar Degas, 'Little Dancer Aged Fourteen' 1880-1, cast circa 1922
Edgar Degas
Little Dancer Aged Fourteen 1880-1, cast circa 1922

These blog posts, games and activites are a fun and simple way to introduce impressionism to kids, whether in the classroom or at home.

What is impressionism?
Who were the key impressionist artists and why was the weather important to them? This Tate Kids blog post answers these important questions.

Who is Paul Gauguin?
…and why did his travels influence his work? This piece explains all.

Who is Edgar Degas?
Did you know Degas was supposed to be a lawyer? This blog post looks at who Degas was and his famous artworks.

Play and create

Secret Dancer
They will love bringing Degas’ Little Dancer to life with this extraordinary game.

Airbrush
Inspire kids to use brushstrokes and markers like the impressionists, with this airbrush game. 

Related glossary terms

Movements:
Post-impressionism, British impressionismneo-impressionism,

Schools and group exhibitions:
Glasgow school, Newlyn school, École des Beaux-Arts, New English Art Clubsalon

Painting techniques and styles:
Divisionism, complementary colours, plein air, naturalism, rural naturalism, painterlyimpasto