Almost everybody knows that Impressionism was a seminal moment in the history of art. What is less clear is when that movement started. Some say it began with Music in the Tuileries by the modernist painter Edouard Manet (1832 – 1883). Finished in 1862, it is an early Impressionist work and depicts an outdoor leisure scene, a popular theme of later Impressionists. Be that as it may, Music in the Tuileries still bears the hallmarks of classical artists of the 17th century like Frans Hals and Diego Velázquez than what we usually understand as an Impressionist picture.
I would argue that the first truly Impressionist painting was executed by Claude Monet in 1869, exactly one hundred and fifty years ago. Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) needs little introduction. He is perhaps the most celebrated among the Impressionists. Renowned for his masterly of natural light and colors painted outdoors at different times of the day, he was also the unofficial leader among a small group of Impressionists which included Renoir, Sisley, Pissaro and Manet himself. This loose group worked alongside each other during the closing days of the 19th century, driven by a united passion to paint modern subjects in a modern style.
Monet’s ambition, like the others in the group, was to espouse a new way of looking at the world, not by producing polished and highly realistic images that flattered existing tastes (particularly as dictated by the all-powerful Paris Salon, the annual exhibition by which French artists of the day could showcase their works and establish their credentials), but to bring out the atmosphere or essence of the subjects. For Monet, this meant that colors and light take center stage; humans are only of passing interest in the total view of attention, mere fragments in the overall mosaic of color.
In Bathers at La Grenouillene (1869), Monet clearly articulated his artistic philosophy. Not only is this one of the earliest Impressionist painting of note, it established a novel way of seeing, in which colors and light worked into the landscape evoke emotions that are in harmony with the way the mind processes a complex image.
How did the painting come into being? In the summer of 1869, Monet, then 29, made a trip to the fashionable watering hole of La Grenouillere on an island on the Seine just west of Paris. There, he painted a leisurely scene,with boats moored at the jetty, leisure seekers chatting on the board walk and the naked bodies of bathers barely discernible in the waters. The painting technique uses short strokes and dabs of colors to depict the shimmering reflections of foliage, boats and people in the water, which is what most people think when the word Impressionism is mentioned. From now on, this technique would inform everything Monet did, right until the last decades of his life when he delighted the world with his dream-like depictions of water lilies at the garden of Giverny.