Learning objectives

  • Identify and connect French Impressionism to a wider cultural, historical and social context
  • Analyse and interpret themes, concepts and ideas in the work of French Impressionist artists and discuss how they are expressed
  • Identify and describe sources of inspiration and the important influence of the natural world on the practice of the French Impressionist artists
  • Discuss how the French Impressionists used materials, techniques, technologies and processes to realise their intentions in their artworks.

Links to the Victorian Curriculum

Further resources

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Glossary

Aquatint: Aquatint is a printmaking technique used to create tone rather than lines. The process involves a metal plate that the artist applies a powdered resin or acid-resistant material to (attached by heating the plate). It is then immersed into an acid bath to erode the exposed metal. When inked and printed, this achieves patterning that is read as tone. The longer the plate spends in the acid bath, the darker the print.

Avant-garde: Avant-garde is originally a French word that means vanguard or advance guard (the troops moving at the head of an army). In art, this term describes radical, experimental or innovative approaches to art-making.

Barbizon School: An informal group of painters who worked in and around the French town of Barbizon to paint the forest of Fontainebleau near Paris from 1830 to 1870. Barbizon painters elevated landscapes from mere backgrounds to subjects in their own right.

Caricature: A caricature is a comic portrait where the person’s most striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to satirise the subject.

Drypoint: Drypoint involves scratching an image into a printing plate with a needle-like tool, which throws up a small burr of metal beside the scratch. Ink is applied to the plate, then wiped off, leaving ink caught in the metal burr and scratches. Paper is placed against the plate and put through a printing press. The remaining ink is pressed from the plate, transferring the image onto the paper.

En plein air / Plein air: A French term meaning ‘in the open air’. It is used to describe the practice of working outdoors and finishing the entire painting in the open air, rather than in the studio.

Impressionism: Impressionist artists aimed to capture ‘impressions’ of the world around them as they saw it, recording changing natural light, movement, and other atmospheric effects in natural and urban landscapes. The Impressionist style became known for vivid colours and distinctive brushwork, with artists using rapid, broken, feathery strokes and dabs. The greatest painters of the movement included Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley.

Lithography: Lithography is a printmaking technique that involves many steps and special equipment, chemicals and materials. First, an image is drawn with greasy crayons or pencils directly on a flat stone or metal plate. Next, chemicals are applied over the surface, then ink, then paper and then it is put through a printing press. This process transfers the image to the paper in a way that shows the details of the lines drawn by the artist.

Neo-Impressionism: Neo-Impressionism is the name given to the work of Georges Seurat, Paul Signac and their followers.  The Neo-Impressionists moved away from the earlier style of the French Impressionists to favour a more ordered and ‘scientific’ method of painting.  Inspired by optical theory, they painted with tiny dabs of pure colour rather than mixing colours together on the palette. The contrasting colours oscillate against each other and create the effect of shimmering light in the viewer’s eye.

Pointillism: A technique of painting that uses small, distinct dots of colour to form an image. This technique was developed by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac in 1886, branching from Impressionism. See Neo-Impressionism for more information.

Post-impressionism: Post-impressionism describes the changes and development in Impressionism from about 1886 (after the last Impressionist group exhibition). This term is usually used to describe the style of four major artists: Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat and Vincent van Gogh, who each extended Impressionism in very different ways.

Renaissance: A French word which means ‘rebirth’, the Renaissance was a period from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries when art was revived in Italy under the influence of Classical art and culture. Italian painter Raphael (1483–1520) is seen as a great master from this movement.

Rococo style: The term Rococo originates from French word rocaille, which describe rock works based on forms of seashells and corals. Rococo style features elaborate curves and is intensely decorative. This style was developed in France in the early eighteenth century.

Salon: The Salon, or sometimes the Paris Salon, refers to the official exhibition of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture (Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture) and its successor the Academy of Fine Arts (Académie des Beaux-Arts), sponsored by the French government. The name of the Salon comes from the location of the exhibitions, the Salon Carré of the Louvre in Paris. The Salon was arguably the most important and influential art event in the Western world between the 1740s and 1890s.

Soft ground: Soft-ground etching involves tracing an image with a pencil on a sheet of paper placed over a metal plate covered with a soft, sticky ground. The soft ground attaches to the paper as the pencil is drawn over it, exposing the metal surface of the plate below the pencil marks. The plate is dipped in acid, which eats away the exposed parts of the metal. These hold the ink that is transferred onto the paper in the printing press. The resulting print looks similar to a drawing made with pencil or pastel.

Notes

1 For a full curatorial introduction to the exhibition visit <https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/exhibition/french-impressionism/>, accessed 12 May 2021.

2 Pierre-Auguste Renoir quoted in Jean Renoir, Renoir: My Father, trans. Randolph & Dorothy Weaver, New York Review Books, New York, 2001, p. 69.

3 Dita Amory, ‘The Barbizon School: French painters of nature’, 2007, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000,   <https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bfpn/hd_bfpn.htm>, accessed 22 March 2021.

4 Alfred Sisley, letter to Adolphe Tavernier, 1892, cited in Ann Dumas, ‘Alfred Sisley: the true Impressionist’, Alfred Sisley: poète de l’impressionisme, Musée des beaux-arts, Lyon, 2002, p. 329.

5 John McCoubrey, ‘Cézanne’s difference’, in Eliza E. Rathbone & George T. M. Shackleford (eds), Impressionist Still Life, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2001, p. 34.

6 ‘Il faut être de son temps!’ (One must be of one’s time!’) is recorded as an expression of Honoré Daumier’s, frequently quoted by Manet. Linda Nochlin, Realism, Penguin, London, 1971, p. 103.