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Impressionism, Monet, Renoir, and Degas


With the cry, “out of the studio and into nature,” the Impressionists revolutionized art. Monet focused not on the physical object but on light, shadow, and color. Renoir painted everyday scenes with a soft focus. And Degas caught ballerinas at candid moments.

Complete Video Script

[46, Tuileries Garden, Paris] These artists were known as the Impressionists — freed from the stifling constraints of the Academy and inspired by the Realists, they took their easels outdoors. Their philosophy, like a declaration of independence, it was: "Out of the studio and into nature."

[47] The Impressionists painted the French countryside, but the true subject wasn't so much the farms, rivers, and forests. It was all about the light. They even studied which pigments would reproduce reflected light most accurately. And when the light was just right, they painted furiously… to catch the scene before it was gone…the way the light reflected off the passing clouds…the waving grass…a billowing dress.

[48, Claude Monet, 1840–1926; Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Monet, Musée Marmottan, Paris] The father of Impressionism was Claude Monet. The son of a grocer with little formal education, he dedicated his life to discovering new ways of seeing things. With this quick impression of a harbor at sunrise, Monet helped give the movement its name. The real subject: the impression of the light reflected on the water, rendered in a few squiggly lines or broad strokes of paint.

[49, Boating on the Seine, 1880, Renoir, National Gallery, London] Impressionists used an innovative technique: They applied bright colors in thick dabs, side-by-side on the canvas, and let them mix as they traveled to your eye. Up close it's a mess. But move back…and voilà! Since the colors never completely resolve, they continue to vibrate in the mind, giving Impressionist paintings their shimmering vitality.

[50] With Impressionism, the physical object in the painting was now just the rack upon which the light, shadow, and color would hang. And that's what the artist worked to capture.

[51, The Cathedral of Rouen, 1894, Monet, Orsay Museum, Paris] Monet would paint the same subject at different times of day, and in different weather to capture the different light: a cathedral for example, in morning sun…full sun…and grey weather…the same building becomes a montage of subjects as it dissolves into pure light and color.

[52, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1841–1919; Dance at the Moulin de la Galette, 1876, Renoir, Orsay Museum, Paris] Monet's friend, Renoir, also pioneered the Impressionist style. With his working-class background, Renoir loved to paint everyday Parisians dressed in their Sunday best, gathering at outdoor cafes to eat, drink, and dance. Renoir's bright colors caught the glowing afternoon sunlight, filtering through the leaves, dappling the dancers with darts of light like a 19th-century disco ball. As if snapping a photo with a slow shutter speed, he created a waltzing blur of joy.

[53] With soft focus and broad brushstrokes, Renoir painted easy-going scenes of everyday people… especially women. His nudes were voluptuous…and he caught the innocent joy of middle-class life. As Renoir himself said of his always-happy paintings: "There are enough ugly things in life."

[54] Each of the Impressionists developed their own distinctive style: Pissarro with his grainy earthiness…Sisley with his cloudy landscapes….

[55, Edgar Degas, 1834–1917] And Edgar Degas, with his ballerinas. With his knack for catching subjects at an unguarded moment, Degas showed dancers rehearsing — hot, tired, and bored. But when the lights came on, Degas captured all the onstage glitter…the joie de vivre of France's "Beautiful Age" — the Belle Époque.

[59, Monet's garden at Giverny, outside Paris] Impressionism reached its culmination with the same man who started it — Claude Monet. Late in life, Monet moved to this garden estate. The colorful gardens were like his brushstrokes — a bit slap-dash but part of a carefully composed mosaic. Monet made a pond and filled it with water lilies.

[60, Water Lilies, Monet, Orangerie] He painted the water lilies in this ensemble of canvases — all focusing on the ever-changing light….from the predawn darkness…to clear morning light…to afternoon lavender…to golden sunset. He'd start by laying down thick, big brushstrokes of a single color, horizontal and vertical to create a dense mesh of foliage…then add more color for the dramatic highlights, until he got a dense paste of piled-up paint. Up close, it's messy — but back up, and the colors resolve into a luminous scene…just pure reflected color.

[61] The true subject is not really the lilies, but the changing reflections on the pond…where lilies mingle with the clouds and trees. Monet cropped his scenes ever closer, until there was no shoreline, no horizon, no sense of what's up or down…until you're completely immersed. In his final paintings, the great Impressionist Monet dissolved the physical subject more and more into purely abstract patterns of colorful paint…anticipating the future of art.