This distinctive school of art, which enjoyed its heyday from the 1860s to the 1880s when Post-Impressionism came along, features bold paintings that were, for the first time, not meant to be exact replicas of the scene before them.
Rather the paintings were meant to create a visual impression on the viewer – hence the name – and used a range of painting techniques to achieve the right effect.
Interestingly enough, Impressionists were actually trying to capture a relaxed and realistic scene, blurring the division between subject and object, allowing the background to dominate the foreground on occasion and generally disregarding the hitherto tightly adhered rules of art that applied to composition, form, subject vs object and so on.
This is why some impressionist paintings, such as La Grenouillere II have captured a very modern snapshot effect with each slice of life depicted on the canvas. See also his other Grenouillere painting plus Claude Monet's own La Grenouillére.
However, it is what the French call 'je ne sais quoi' or a 'certain something' that makes a good impressionist painting work.
While a photograph could capture the same characters and the setting, in a fraction of the time, even with some manipulation to make the image the best it can be, a painting completed by a genuinely talented artist adds an indescribable layer to the painting – one that cannot really be described, but that is immediately noticeable upon seeing the picture, particularly being able to view the work in the flesh, so to speak.
Many Impressionist paintings do not bear up to a close-up scrutiny the way, for example, that a Van der Meer would, but rather need the viewer to stand a little further back and look at the painting as a whole – sometimes even with eyes slightly shut to blur the image even further.
Despite the groundbreaking achievements of the impressionists, there was still much artistic development to occur before we arrived at some of the more abstract work of the 20th century. For example, Picasso's Blue and Rose periods were highly significant. The Realist work of Edward Hopper offers a closer comparison to the impressionists, with famous paintings such as Nighthawks, Gas and Automat.
But this is not as unrealistic as it sounds – there are many things in real life that do not bear close scrutiny and that need to be looked at from a distance for full cohesion and comprehension, and it is this effect, created with seemingly hasty and careless brush stroke that were often left visible – a previous no-no – that lends a unique and attractive air to impressionist works.
The whole Impressionist movement can be dated fairly neatly within a one-hundred-year period, with its earliest roots to be found in works of the 1830s, and the last straggly vines dying out in the 1930s, when modern technology (cameras and film predominant amongst them) pushed aside the need for accurate painting as record keeping.
The above painting, La Grenouillere II was a location popular with the early Impressionists and Renoir was not the only one to feature this small sociable venue in his work – Monet too, used the waterside meeting place as a setting for his paintings. It was the perfect impressionist backdrop – ever-changing, bustling with life, and yet natural and beautiful at the same time.