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Paris 1874: The Daring Debut of Impressionism

Paris 1874: the daring debut of impressionism

The year is 1874. Paris, still reeling from the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent political turmoil, is undergoing a period of immense change. Amidst this social and artistic upheaval, a group of revolutionary artists challenged the rigid conventions of the art world, paving the way for a movement that would forever alter the landscape of Western art – Impressionism.

The story of Impressionism’s birth is not one of a singular moment, but rather a culmination of artistic rebellion. For years, a circle of young artists, including Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley, had been pushing the boundaries of traditional art. They were dissatisfied with the emphasis on historical and mythological scenes favored by the official Salon, a yearly Parisian exhibition that dictated artistic taste.

Camille Cabaillot-Lassalle, Le Salon de 1874, 1874, Paris, Musée d'Orsay
Camille Cabaillot-Lassalle, Le Salon de 1874, 1874, Paris, Musée d'Orsay

These artists, hungry for independence, sought to capture the fleeting effects of light and atmosphere, the essence of a scene, rather than a meticulously detailed portrayal. They favored open-air painting, capturing the play of sunlight on water in Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” (1872), the vibrant bustle of Parisian life in Renoir’s “Dance at the Moulin de la Galette” (1877), or the intimate moments of leisure in Degas’ “The Ballet Class” (1874).


The turning point arrived on April 15, 1874. Frustrated by repeated rejections from the Salon, these artists, united as the “Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers,” decided to take matters into their own hands. They rented a studio from the photographer Nadar on the bustling Boulevard des Capucines and staged their own exhibition, showcasing 30 artists and 165 works.


The event was met with a barrage of criticism. The term “Impressionism” itself was born from a scathing review by critic Louis Leroy, who mocked the artists’ loose brushstrokes and unfinished style, calling Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” nothing more than an “impression” – a derisive term the artists would eventually embrace.

Despite the ridicule, the exhibition became a pivotal moment. It demonstrated the artists’ commitment to their vision and served as a rallying point for those looking for a new direction in art. Subsequent independent exhibitions throughout the 1870s and 1880s solidified the movement, attracting new followers and gradually gaining public acceptance.

So, what exactly made Impressionism so revolutionary? Here are some key characteristics that set it apart:

  • Light and Atmosphere: Impressionists were obsessed with capturing the fleeting effects of light and atmosphere. They used loose brushstrokes and broken colors to create a sense of immediacy and movement.
  • Focus on the Present: Unlike traditional art that often depicted historical or mythological scenes, Impressionists focused on everyday life, capturing the beauty of the ordinary – a stroll in the park, a woman sewing by the window, a leisurely afternoon at the races.
  • Open-Air Painting: Impressionists abandoned the confines of the studio and embraced painting outdoors. This allowed them to capture the ever-changing play of light on natural elements.
  • Color Theory: The movement experimented with color theory, using vibrant hues and unconventional palettes to create a sense of light and depth.

The birth of Impressionism in 1874 was a pivotal moment in art history. It marked a shift from the rigidity of academic art towards a more subjective and expressive approach. The movement’s influence extended far beyond painting, sparking innovation in music, literature, and even photography. Today, Impressionist works are some of the most beloved and celebrated in the world, a testament to the enduring power of their revolutionary vision.

2024 marks the 150th anniversary of the first Impressionist exhibition, and there are a number of exciting exhibitions happening around the world to celebrate! Here are a few highlights, particularly focused in France where the movement originated: 


 Musée d’Orsay, Paris:

“Paris 1874: Inventing Impressionism” (March 26 – July 14): This major retrospective delves into the groundbreaking 1874 exhibition, showcasing a selection of the original works and offering a glimpse into the radical nature of the movement at the time.

“An Evening with the Impressionists. Paris 1874” (March 26 – August 11): A unique immersive experience using virtual reality technology. Visitors are transported back in time to witness the opening of the first Impressionist exhibition.

 Normandy Impressionist Festival (March 22 – September 22): This region played a significant role in Impressionism, and the festival celebrates the movement’s connection to the area with over 150 events planned. Expect exhibitions, themed events, and contemporary art dialogues inspired by Impressionism. Click here for more information.

Musée de Pont-Aven:

“Anna Boch, an Impressionist Journey” (February 3 – May 26): This exhibition focuses on the life of a key collector, Anna Boch, and features works by Van Gogh and others displayed alongside her collection.


Courtauld Institute

“Monet and London. Views of Thames” (September 24, 2024 – January 19, 2025): This exciting exhibition, part of the 150th-anniversary celebrations, focuses on Claude Monet’s captivating series of paintings depicting the River Thames in London. This exhibition will realize Monet’s unfulfilled ambition of showing this extraordinary group of paintings in London, on the banks of the Thames and a mere 300 meters from the Savoy Hotel where most were painted.


National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

“Paris 1874: The Impressionist Moment” (September 8, 2024 – January 19, 2025): This major exhibition, co-organized with the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, focuses specifically on the groundbreaking 1874 exhibition. It will showcase a selection of works displayed in the original show, offering U.S. audiences a chance to experience the birth of Impressionism firsthand.

Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

 “Monet to Matisse: French Moderns” (June 8, 2024 – September 15, 2024): While not solely focused on Impressionism, this exhibition includes works by key Impressionist figures like Monet, Renoir, and Cézanne alongside other prominent French modernists. It provides a broader context for the development of Impressionism within the larger landscape of French modern art.

Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Mary Cassatt at Work” (May 18 – September 8, 2024): This show goes beyond simply admiring her iconic paintings of mothers and children. The exhibit delves into Cassatt’s creative process, showcasing her innovative techniques and use of materials that were advanced for her era. New findings from a detailed study of the museum’s own Cassatt collection will be revealed, offering a deeper understanding of her artistic choices.

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