Introduction to French Impressionism

What is French Impressionism? How did it start and what makes it different? What does en plein air mean? NGV Educators David and Leah answer these questions and more in this introductory video for kids and school groups.

Further resources

Video transcript

Hi my name is David and I’m Leah. We’re Educators here at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Today, we’re in a very special exhibition called French Impressionism from The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

What is French Impressionism?
French Impressionism is an art movement that started in France in the 1870s – almost 150 years ago – by a group of artists who liked to experiment and make art in unusual ways. Impressionist paintings record changing natural light, movement, feelings and energies of natural and urban landscapes using vivid colours and unusual brushwork. In fact, you can actually see where the paintbrush has made a mark across the canvas in many Impressionist paintings.

What made Impressionists different from other artists?
The Impressionists painted outside, directly in front of their subject. This is called en plein air, a French term that means “in the open air”. Before the Impressionists, painters tended to produce a lot of their work inside their studios from their imagination. But the Impressionists wanted to paint their interpretations of the world as they experienced it, so painting en plein air was ideal. It must have presented some challenges at times though: heat, rain, wind and winter chills to name a few.

How did Impressionism start?
While today Impressionist artists like Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir are world famous, when they first started painting they were often rejected by the tightly controlled French art scene, which prized paintings of historical events and figures over other subjects like landscapes or still lifes.

These traditional styles were abandoned by a group of painters who we now call the Barbizon school. They wanted their landscape paintings to be personal interpretations of nature based on their own direct observations. Sound familiar? That’s because the Barbizon school greatly influenced and inspired the Impressionist artists who followed them.

What kind of art did the Impressionists make?
As you’ve probably already guessed, landscapes were an incredibly popular subject for the Impressionists. They loved being immersed in nature. Monet had a beautiful garden full of flowers, a waterlily pond and a Japanese style bridge, which inspired him to create lots of paintings like this one.

However, did you know they painted other subjects as well such as still life arrangements, portraits and scenes from everyday life in Paris? They weren’t just painters either, many of them – such as Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt – experimented with printmaking.

Did the Impressionists know each other?
Yes! Many of the Impressionists were indeed friends. Some of them met at art school, like Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley, who started painting outdoors together; experimenting with the effects of light and different ways to apply paint to their canvases.

This is a painting by Camille Pissarro, who was a key figure in establishing the Impressionist group. He forged many supportive relationships with other artists, both teaching them and also learning from them – even though he was the oldest in the group. The Impressionists were always helping each other to improve why we have such a spectacular array of artworks to enjoy here today.

We hope you enjoyed learning about Impressionism, thank you for watching. Au revoir!

Learning resources