Impression, soleil levant by Monet


The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1) and the subsequent civil war of the París Commune destroyed infrastructure around the city. Many of these locations were chosen as subjects by the French Impressionist painters. They focused on the new Paris which rose with the bourgeoisie in the 1860s and 70s who encouraged the urban renewal wrought by Haussmann in wide boulevards and parks.

During the war Argenteuil, on the outskirts of Paris, had suffered damage to the railway and pedestrian bridges over the Seine. Monet painted these rebuilt bridges as a patriotic gesture and the impressionists reproduced scenes from the area in over 50 paintings. 

In a similar way Monet painted Sunrise, an  1872 depiction of the busy port of Le Havre in a tribute to the French economic revival after the war and its demanding retributions from Prussia. 

Degas' Place de la Concorde (1875), on the other hand, makes the memories and politics of the war visible. The artist uses a top hat in the painting to hide the City of Strasbourg sculpture, reminding viewers that the French had lost Alsace-Lorraine to the Prussians. 

The harmful effects of the Industrial Revolution are not so visible on most Impressionist canvases. There was a movement of working classes towards urban centers where they could find employment and the factories turned blue skies grey and filled rivers with sewage.

Monet's utopian and patriotic picture of the reconstructed railway bridge at Argenteuil was a personal perception since in fact sewage carried down the Seine from Paris had built up sludge on the riverbank. It was so nauseating that in 1873 the Mayor of the town cited it as a health concern and requested help to clean it up.

Degas is famous for his ballet dancer paintings, innocent looking, but known to be sex workers. In another depiction Women Ironing (1875, revised in the 1880s) a laundress irons a white sheet while a companion stands holding a bottle of wine and yawning. Laundresses worked in hot, cramped conditions and their unhealthy surroundings were a reflection of their moral ill-health:

Industrial smog produced by the factory system may also have influenced the evolution of impressionist paintings. They evolved through a lessening of contrast between colours, a tendency towards pastel tones and less definition of shapes. These are characteristics of how the world would appear on a hazy day or when the atmosphere has a high concentration of sulphur dioxide, the main atmospheric aerosol emitted by factory chimneys.

The famous ImpressionSunrise painting was part of the first Impressionist exhibition (1874) in Paris which included prominent names such as Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Piere-Auguste Renoir and others. They were part of a collectivity called Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (Cooperative Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers). They had created the group to support independent artists who wanted to free themselves from the rigid painting rules of the Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Monet's Sunrise painting was heavily criticised by the writer and art critic Louis Leroy who wrote:

“Impression – I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it…and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.”

Ironically, this critical review is what gave the Impressionist movement its name.


Impression, Sunrise (1872) represents a dawn depiction of Le Havre harbour from Monet's hotel room. There are three rowing boats, one darker and nearer, another greyer, suggesting it is further off in the mist and the third almost obscure, confused with the distant haze, or smog.

The viewer is presented with a vast expanse of water and in the background there appear the outlines of clippers, steamboats and pack boats. Thick smoke is rising from the left and is moving towards the composition's right-hand side.

The eye is led round a river of water in the centre to a reddish sun ball which is hanging just off-centre in the background and reflects back to itself in the water.

The colour and light in the painting combine to convey the early morning hours. The blue-grey tones contrast sharply with the orange rising sun, suggesting its warmth. The colours are a close selection of colours from a small palette.

The brushstrokes are not the traditional ones of clear outlines. The strokes are clearly visible and may appear rudimentary. However painting in the open air required the artist to work fast and in one sitting, especially in the effort to capture fleeting changes in light. The task was to capture a instantaneous impression of the harbour in the dawn light.


En plein air (Outdoors)

Before the middle of the 19th. century most painters purchased their colours from vendors who sold them in containers made of pigs' bladders. This was portable, but wasteful since the artist had to use all the paint in the bladder once it was pierced. The Barbizon school of landscape painters, whom Monet briefly worked with, used a glass syringe to carry their colours, but they could only transport a few colours at a time which meant several sittings, focusing each time on one part of the painting.

In September, 1841, the U.S. artist John Rand, inspired by the syringe, patented a collapsible paint tube made from tin. This kept oil paints fresh for longer, since once a little colour was squeezed out the tube could be sealed. This allowed painters to take all their palette outdoors to paint.

The paint tubes also enabled the painter to depict a particular scene in one sitting and to produce landscapes quickly. This pace probably led to the quintessential Impressionist style of short, quick brushstrokes and a tendency towards abstraction. The paint in these tubes was usually thick and so needed sturdier brushes. This resulted in painters like Van Gogh laying their colours in thick paste on the canvas.


The Industrial Revolution in the 18th. century introduced speed, efficiency and precision into social perception of duration in what has been called the industrialisation of time. Franklin's aphorism "Remember that time is money." dates from 1743 and is a summary of the influence of factory production on the contemporary perception of time.

Towards the end of the century French philosophy reacted against Positivism and its mechanistic viewpoint. In Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (1889) Bergson differentiated between lived time (durée réelle) and the mechanistic time of science which, he argues, superimposes spatial notions on time and so distorts it so that it is perceived as a series of spatial constructs. Bergson claims that this is an illusion, like the 24 still frames per second of a film. For him time evolves as a dance, a movement of flow.

Duration for Bergson is the unified flow of time as opposed to the mechanistic interpretation of clockwork time prevalent in his contemporary industrial era. Duration is the vital force of life (élan vital), which can only be captured through intuition and the experience of flux, not by reason

In 18th. century art, particularly Impressionism, the crucial measure for artists trying to capture fleeting light was the instant. In 1890 Monet wrote to the art critic Gustave Geoffrey:

"I’m getting so slow at my work it makes me despair, but the further I get, the more I see that a lot of work has to be done in order to render what I’m looking for: ‘instantaneously,’ the ‘envelope’ above all, the same light spread over everything.”

The Impressionists displayed a clear awareness of the pressures of time. They painted in quick brushstrokes, often in one sitting, the changes in weather, the seasons and the time of day. They also illustrated the new leisure time practices as in Monet's La Grenouillère (1869), where he painted with Renoir.

It is Monet's series paintings, which most obviously capture time in the aesthetic form of changing light. The series paintings featuring Gare Saint-Lazare, Haystacks, Poplars, Water Lilies and Rouen Cathedral are examples of how the artist captured the fleeting passing of time reflected in changing light patterns. They are his instantaneous impressions, snapshots of time passing:

Rouen Cathedral series:


The first daguerreotype appeared in the 1830s and later techniques for making photographic prints on paper evolved later. Since then a close relationship was established between photography and painting.

Photography gradually developed from a mechanical process to allow painters to examine light effects and spaces as well as a spontaneous capture of scenes. Photographers vied to make their images more aesthetic. Painters of the Impressionist movement, well aware of the transient nature of reality, saw in the snapshot a reflection of temporality.

In landscape painting pre-impressionsts like Courbet, Corot, Rousseau and Daubigny, were influenced by the snapshot approach of photography, irregular composition, the filtered light effects on trees and the outdoor subjects:

In cityscapes the Impressionist interest in the rebuilding of Paris under Haussmann after the Franco-prussian war and the Commune revolt is also reflected in contemporary photography:

Portrait photographers encouraged painters like Manet, Cézanne and Degas to paint portraits from photographs of their sitters, possibly to relieve the boredom of long sessions.


Post-Impressionism was a mainly French movement which developed between 1886 and 1905. Post-impressionists extended and went beyond Impressionism. The artists continued to choose real life subjects and use vivid colours, though tended to apply thicker paint and used rather unnatural colours. They also tended towards more abstract and symbolic outlines by using geometric shapes and distorted forms.

Cézanne is considered the father of Post-Impressionism and he aimed to give structure to his works by using basic shapes and retaining the lively colours of Impressionism.

In his series of paintings Mont Sainte-Victoire (1904-06):

the artist uses bold colours and irregular brushstrokes to create depth and an energetic landscape. His experiments with colours and shapes inspired other artists such as Degas, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso.

Van Gogh was another Post-Impressionist and his The Starry Night (between 1885 and 1890) is a personal vision which relies on a saturated palette, an inventive perspective and strong brushstrokes:

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