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Four Friends: The Foundation of Impressionism

Thursday, July 16, 2020

In 1862, four young men came together in Paris to study painting.  They were Claude Monet, Pierre Renoir, Alfred Sisley, and Frederic Bazille.  In the course of their studies, they brought into being a completely new style of art called Impressionism.  Their teacher was Charles Gleyre, who had taken on the school of Paul Delaroche, and was himself a working artist.  Although he himself never achieved the fame of some of his students, he was an excellent teacher.  He taught them to paint “en plein air” (painting outdoors) in Paris and surrounding areas.  

Four great artistsClaude Monet (top left)
Jean Frederic Bazille (top right)
Pierre Renoir (bottom left)
Alfred Sisley (bottom right)
The Salon, at the time, was the official art exhibition of the Academie de Beaux-Arts in Paris. If an artist could get into the Salon, he then had official recognition as an artist; but if he was not invited, he was, in the eyes of society, not really an artist.  These four painters were not invited.  Their work was too new and too different to be considered real art.

The solution to this situation was to create their own exhibition, which took place on April 15, 1874, and the result was a new school of painting, labeled “Impressionism” by a newspaper reporter, who did not know that he was creating a major art movement  by his supposedly derogatory label.  Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Bazille participated in this exhibition, becoming part of the new movement.  Although these four started out in the same way, they each took different paths and developed completely different styles, although all four are known as Impressionists.

The first artist, Alfred Sisley, painted landscapes almost exclusively.  His paintings were delicate, with muted colors, very often with a traditional format.  Most of his paintings contained some sort of water: rivers, canals, the sea, or even snow.  He liked the play of light on water and sky, and he used more muted colors than the other painters.  In his lifetime he painted nearly 1,000 paintings.

Alfred Sisley painting

In View of the St. Martin Canal 1870, the colors of the sky and water are nearly identical. These are the key elements of the painting: the buildings and the boats lining the canal are only background elements. The water is alive with light from the sky.

The Canal St. Martin is a 4.6 kilometer canal in Paris, connecting the Canal de l’Ourcq to the river Seine. Today, much of the Canal St. Martin has been edged with paving and covered with bridges so people can walk alongside it and enjoy its beauty.

Alfred Sisley

Here is Snow at Louveciennes, 1878. Louveciennes is a village about fifteen kilometers from Paris. Sisley, Renior, and other Impressionist painters were attracted to its cobblestone lanes, vine-covered stone walls, and picturesque storefronts, with its steepled church in the town’s center.  They often painted the town and country roads between Louveciennes and Paris.  This painting has lovely tones of white and gray, communicating the lonely mood of a solitary man out for a walk on a snow-covered street.

The second artist, Jean Frederic Bazille, on the other hand, painted figures and still life almost exclusively.  Of the four original Impressionists, he followed the definition of impressionism the least, and he only produced forty-eight paintings in his lifetime, most of which are of a more traditional style, using stylized forms and primary colors, as in this painting, Bathers, (Summer Scene).

Jean Frederic Bazille painting

In Bazille’s work, the Impressionist element came out rarely; for example, in this painting, Man with a Pipe.  The shapes are only impressions, and the colors are muted.  We can see the light reflected on his hair, his mustache, and his pipe. Notice how different this painting is from Bathers (Summer Scene).  It is hard to believe that these two paintings were by the same artist!  

An F Bazille painting

The vast majority of Jean Frederic’s paintings were portraits, in the style of Bathers.  He did not often stray into the Impressionist style.

The third artist, Pierre Renoir, was easily the most versatile painter of the four.  He started painting in the style of the impressionist, but later shifted toward realism and the more traditional Renaissance style.   His starting point was Impressionism, so his early works emphasized the play of light on water and on the figures in his compositions.  He was also the most prolific of the four, painting over 4000 works in his lifetime.  He loved to paint people doing what they loved to do.  His paintings are full of people living their lives and being happy with one another.

Pierre Renoir painting

One excellent example of a painting showing people living their lives was Luncheon of the Boating Parties (1881).  People are having a wonderful time talking, laughing, and drinking wine.  Renoir captures the feeling of happy people at their leisure.  The lady in the foreground playing with the little dog is Aline Charigot, Renoir’s future wife.

In 1891 Renoir was asked to contribute a painting to a new museum, the Musee de Luxembourg.  The result is this lovely painting is called Girls at the Piano (1892). He made five versions of this painting, which are now all in private collections.  

Another Renoir

Another very lovely painting is Dance at Bougival (1883)Another very lovely painting is
Dance at Bougival (1883).

This painting displays an example of the beautiful dresses of the time. In the painting the man and the woman are in love and delighting in their dance. The focus of the painting, aside from the woman’s beautiful costume, is the romantic passion of the couple, captured by the movement of the figures and the contrast of colors between the man and the woman.

Renoir kept painting throughout his life, and even when his hands were so severely arthritic that he couldn’t hold a paintbrush, he taped the brushes to his wrists so he could continue painting.

When he was young and still a student of painting, Renoir and his friend Claude Monet would paint together in the countryside around Paris.  One such site was called La Grenouillere.  It was a floating restaurant and boat-rental establishment on the Seine River, at the village of Croissy-sur-Seine, and it was a center of society in 1869.  In fact, it was so famous that it became the setting of a short story by Guy de Maupassant called “La Femme de Paul.”

There was a walkway to the restaurant divided in the middle by a small island called “The Camembert,” after the shape of the cheese.  Well-dressed men and women dallied at the Camembert and swam in the waters of the river.  

One day, the two painters set up easels in exactly the same location at exactly the same time, facing the restaurant and the Camembert.  The result was two of the first Impressionist paintings, one by Monet and one by Renoir. There were men and women in party clothes on the walkway to the restaurant, bathers in the river alongside sailboats with bright white sails, a selection of boats tied to the dock, and in the background a line of trees from the other side of the river.

Impressionist painting

Renoir’s painting is called La Grenouillere.  The focal point of the painting is the island on the way to the floating restaurant, the Camembert.  He emphasizes the people on the island, showing the women’s beautiful lacy dresses and parasols.  The men have hats and beards.  There are little dogs playing near the water. The trees are shown in clear detail, and background trees are green.  There is a play of light against the water, but the light on the clothing and the figures is easy to see.

Renoir's La Grenouillere
Monet’s painting is also called La Grenouillere. The focal point of the painting is also the island, the Camembert, but the emphasis of the painting is the changing of light on the water of the river and the contrast of the water between the sun and the shade.  The boats tied to the dock are also developed more fully with distinct shapes and colors. The people on the island are indistinct, and the trees across the river are yellow-green.  Of the bathers in the water little can be seen except as an indistinct impression.

Monet's La Grenouillere

Monet painted a second painting of the Frog Pond.  This one is called Bathers at La Grenouillere.  It must have been painted from a different spot because the perspective is completely different.  In this painting the Camembert is not seen, but instead the focus is on the boats in the foreground.  The canvas is divided nearly in half, with the boats taking up the lower half and vague images of bathers in the top half.  In fact, it is difficult to discern the bathers from the shimmering waters of the river.

The paintings of La Grenouillere aren’t the only time Monet painted a scene more than once.  In fact, the image of water lilies he is so famous for was painted not once, but over 250 times.  He liked to paint the same scene over and over to observe the changes of light and color at different times of the day and on different days.

Monet LIlies

The first painting must have been painted in the daylight, while the second must have been late afternoon or early evening.

More Monet LIlies

Monet donated eight of his water lilies paintings to France in celebration of the Armistice as a symbol of peace at the end of World War I as a symbol of peace.  They are now on display at the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris.

Monet painted many other scenes in series in addition to his water lilies.  There were five paintings of haystacks during the 1888 harvest.  On a trip to Venice in 1908, he painted thirty-seven paintings of the canals and buildings he saw during his stay.  He also created another series of fifteen paintings of poplar trees growing along the Epte River near his home in Giverny.  (A nearby town had decided to cut down the trees, but Monet paid the town to delay the cutting of the trees until he had completed his paintings.)  Finally, he did a series of thirty paintings of the Rouen Cathedral in Paris.

Sunrise by Monet

And of course, there is Impression, Sunrise by Monet, considered by many to be the first Impressionist painting.  It was made even more well-known than it already was by being featured as the “loot” in the movie The Thomas Crowne Affair.  Currently, it resides in the Musee Marmottan Monet in Paris.

Monet painted approximately 2,500 paintings.  That number may even be larger because he destroyed an unknown number of his canvases after they were completed.

These four men, as different as they were, formed the backbone of the Impressionist Movement. They will be remembered forever for their contributions of beauty, light, and color to our lives.

Article by Christine Bond


Erin Hanson ArtistERIN HANSON has been painting in oils since she was 8 years old. As a young artist, she worked at a mural studio creating 40-foot-tall paintings on canvas, while selling art commissions on the side. After getting a degree in Bioengineering from UC Berkeley, Erin became a rock climber at Red Rock Canyon, Nevada. Inspired by the colorful scenery she was climbing, she decided to paint one painting every week for the rest of her life. She has stuck to that decision ever since, becoming one of the most prolific artists in history. Erin Hanson's style is known as "Open Impressionism" and is now taught in art schools worldwide. With thousands of collectors eagerly anticipating her work and millions of followers online, Hanson has become an iconic, driving force in the rebirth of contemporary impressionism.

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