What Is That?


Discover the artists who broke the rules by setting out to capture fleeting moments in the life of ordinary people, places and things

What was so different about it?

Camille Pissarro, ‘The Little Country Maid’ 1882
Camille Pissarro
The Little Country Maid 1882

In the 19th century a group of artists in France started to draw and paint landscapes and scenes of everyday life, like cooking, sleeping and bathing. These may seem fairly normal things to see in art now, but in the 19th century most of the art that was made in Europe had much grander subjects such as battle scenes from history, or stories from ancient Greece and Rome.

Berthe Morisot, ‘Girl on a Divan’ c.1885
Berthe Morisot
Girl on a Divan c.1885

The impressionist artists were not trying to paint a realistic picture, but an ‘impression’ of what the person, object or landscape looked like to them. (This is why they are called impressionists). They wanted to capture the movement and life of what they saw and show it to us as if it is happening before our eyes.

They often painted thickly and used quick (and quite messy) brush strokes. Most of the paintings before impressionism have a much flatter, neater surface and you can't really see the brushstrokes at all.

Some of the main impressionist artists are Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas.

Claude Monet, ‘Poplars on the Epte’ 1891
Claude Monet
Poplars on the Epte 1891

Before impressionism, landscapes in art were often imaginary, perfect landscapes painted in the studio. The impressionists changed all that. They painted outdoors and ‘on the spot’. As they were outside, they looked at how light and colour changed the scenes.

What time of day do you think Monet painted these trees? What do you think the weather was like?

This is the advice that another impressionist, Camille Pissarro, gave about how to paint a landscape:

Work at the same time on sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis...Don't be afraid of putting on colour...Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression.

Let's take a closer look

Alfred Sisley, ‘The Bridge at Sèvres’ 1877
Alfred Sisley
The Bridge at Sèvres 1877

Alfred Sisley, like the other Impressionists, liked to paint sunlight. He really liked painting this bridge and painted it all the time, from different viewpoints and at different times of day.

Could you paint the same scene over and over again? What about painting in the morning and at sunset? How would they look different?

At the very moment Sisley was painting, people were just relaxing, strolling and doing normal things. Impressionism was meant to show the simple things in life. Looks nice doesn’t it? Maybe have a look around you when you are next on a walk in a park. Maybe grab a sketch book and draw what people are up to. Are they playing sports? Feeding the ducks? Or just going for a walk with friends?

An international style

Philip Wilson Steer, ‘Girls Running, Walberswick Pier’ 1888–94
Philip Wilson Steer
Girls Running, Walberswick Pier 1888–94

It wasn’t just in France that impressionism existed. Artists in other parts of the world were also inspired by this idea of capturing scenes of everyday life. This is a painting by a British artist called Philip Wilson Steer. He has managed to capture the magic and excitement of a day at the seaside. Look at the sunlight sparkling off the sea! Have you noticed that the shadows are very long? What does this tell us about the time of day it is?

Armand Guillaumin, ‘Moret-sur-Loing’ 1902
Armand Guillaumin
Moret-sur-Loing 1902

Lots of people didn’t like impressionism as they thought it was a bit messy and that the paintings looked unfinished. They thought art should be neater and that subjects in art should be more important than just everyday scenes.

Have you seen any impressionist paintings in a gallery or in a book? What did you think of them? Have you ever tried to make an impressionist-inspired painting? Why not have a go!

More to explore