The Very First Painting of Impressionism

Impression, Sunrise by Monet

Christopher P Jones
Thinksheet
Published in
7 min readOct 25, 2021

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Christopher P Jones is the author of How to Read Paintings, an introduction to some of the most fascinating artworks in art history.

Impression, Sunrise (1872) by Claude Monet. Oil on canvas. 63 × 48 cm. Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, France. Image source Wikimedia Commons

When, in 1874, Claude Monet first exhibited his painting Impression, Sunrise, the initial response was hostile. Critics thought the work was technically limited, more like a childish daubing than a mature oil painting.

The most notorious review of the exhibition was written by a journalist (and artist) named Louis Leroy. Leroy took his lead from Monet’s sunrise picture, calling his acerbic review Exhibition of the Impressionists — and unwittingly gave the group their famous name.

He wrote sneeringly:

“Impression! Of course. There must be an impression somewhere in it. What freedom … what flexibility of style! Wallpaper in its early stages is much more finished than that.”

And yet, just a few years later, the reputation of Monet and his fellow Impressionists could hardly have been more different. Not only were their paintings selling to avid collectors, but subsequent exhibitions were visited by thousands of people. Art critics began to treat the Impressionist technique as an innovative and groundbreaking style that had the power to convey a new type of perception. And it was Monet who was at the heart of this change.

Monet’s Early Years

Monet was born in Paris in 1840. When he was five, his family moved to Le Havre in Normandy, where from an early age he pledged to become an artist and enrolled at Le Havre secondary school of the arts.

As time passed, Monet would divide his time between Paris and the Normandy coast, keeping close to the artistic developments in the French capital whilst drawing inspiration from the countryside and coastal towns of Honfleur and Le Havre.

Two pivotal events took place in his formative years that would decisively shape his later painting career. The first was his friendship with fellow artist Eugène Boudin, whom Monet met in 1858.

Beach Scene (1862) by Eugène Boudin. Oil on wood. 31.2 × 47.5 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., U.S. Image source NGA

A generation older than Monet, Boudin worked largely in Le Havre and was one of the first French landscape painters to paint outdoors. Monet was only 18 at the time; Boudin encouraged him to take up landscape painting and to do so en plein air (outdoors) — a technique Monet would keep up throughout his career. Monet later paid tribute to Boudin’s formative influence, whom he called his “master”.

The second event in Monet’s early life was his year-long military service in Algeria, which he undertook during 1861–62. The experience of Algeria seemed to have a lasting impact, as he later reflected:

“Algeria was a splendid country with constant sunshine, with hot, seductive colours, an eternally blue sky accentuated by the greens of palms and exotic plants. [..] You cannot imagine to what extent I increased my knowledge, and how much my vision gained thereby. I did not quite realise it at first. The impressions of light and colour that I received there were not to classify themselves until later; but they contained the germ of my future researches.”

Despite Monet’s fond memories of his time in Algeria, he had no desire to be a soldier. The normal term for French military service was seven years, but after Monet contracted typhoid fever he hastily returned home after just a year. When, a decade later, France went to war with Prussia, Monet made sure he avoided conscription by moving his family to England.

While living in London, Monet had time to evolve his painting style. Already influenced by Boudin, as well as the Dutch landscape painter Johan Jongkind, Monet now encountered the works of John Constable and J. M. W. Turner. He was impressed by Turner’s emphatic treatment of light, especially his willingness to let painted brush marks do the work of capturing the fleeting and translucent effects of light.

Norham Castle, Sunrise (1845) by J. M. W. Turner. Oil on canvas. 90.8 × 121.9 cm. Tate Britain, London, UK. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Impression, Sunrise

The next few years of Monet’s life would prove crucial. Whilst he and his new wife Camille struggled to pay their living costs, he continued to work as a painter and develop his practice.

Impression, Sunrise (1872) by Claude Monet. Oil on canvas. 63 × 48 cm. Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, France. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Impression, Sunrise was painted in 1872 after he returned to France. The work depicts the harbour of Le Havre at dawn. A fiery orange sun hangs over an industrial scene of smoking chimneys and dockside cranes, all painted in choppy brushstrokes that capture the smog and mist of the early morning port.

An up-close view of the painting shows clearly the sketch-like quality of the paint. The image has been built up quickly, first with a “ground” of blue-greys, pinks and pale purples. Then the details have been added on top once the ground was dry, with every brushstroke painted with a looseness that does little to disguise the rapid, spontaneous nature of the execution.

Detail of ‘Impression, Sunrise’ (1872) by Claude Monet. Oil on canvas. 63 × 48 cm. Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, France. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Look closely at the orange brush marks of the sun’s reflection. Notice how each stroke contains several shades: Monet has deliberately filled his brush with the peach-like tone and also passed his brush through the white on his palette, so that when the brush is pressed against the canvas the mark contains both the tone and the highlight in one.

You can see the same effect in the shadow of the boat, where — if you look closely — you’ll notice the deep blue of the shadow contains a flair of lighter blue on its upper edge.

Compositional movement of ‘Impression, Sunrise’ (1872) by Claude Monet. Oil on canvas. 63 × 48 cm. Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, France. Image source Wikimedia Commons. Edited by author.

The composition of the painting operates around a curving trajectory with the points of interest falling on an arc that moves from the foreground boat up to the silhouetted chimney stacks behind.

This simple structure allows for the painting to remain open and expansive. There is no linear perspective to pull you into the scene, but rather a broad and foggy emptiness that suggests a world not only spatially beyond the canvas but also temporally — after the sunrise has come and gone.

Detail of ‘Impression, Sunrise’ (1872) by Claude Monet. Oil on canvas. 63 × 48 cm. Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, France. Image source Wikimedia Commons

First Displayed

Impression, Sunrise was initially shown at what has become known as the “First Impressionist Exhibition”. This event was born out of a collaboration between Monet and fellow artist Camille Pissarro. Together they conceived the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc., a company of creatives that would pursue independent means of exhibiting their work.

The desire to create such a society came from the dissatisfaction with the annual Salon, Paris’ premier art exhibition mounted by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Monet and others found that their works failed to adhere to the Academy’s traditional tastes and were repeatedly rejected from the influential event.

Monet’s personal experience with the Salon was mixed. In 1865, he submitted two works, both of which were accepted. In the years that followed, he had works rejected and accepted in about equal measure.

Catalogue for the 1874 Impressionist Exhibition. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Letters that Monet wrote at the time reveal how his feelings towards Paris and the Salon were ambivalent, wanting to be embraced by the establishment yet anxious that he was failing to be true to himself: “We are always too concerned by what we see and hear in Paris, however strong we are […] As time goes by, I become more and more aware that we never dare express our feelings openly. Isn’t it strange?” (Letter to Bazille, December 1868).

With his own society, Monet could take matters into his own hands. The 1874 exhibition took place at 35 Boulevard des Capucines in Paris, in the former studio of photographer Nadar, and featured some 200 works of art by artists like Monet, Degas, Renoir and Morisot.

Despite hostility from the critics, not everyone was negative. The exhibition was enough of a success for the group to hold annual and biennial exhibitions until 1886, by which time their influence over a new generation of artists had secured their renown.

Impression, Sunrise (1872) by Claude Monet. Oil on canvas. 63 × 48 cm. Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, France. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Monet’s Impression, Sunrise — with its blue-grey mist and orange accents, rough brushwork and elemental design — was at the heart of this new method of making art.

In the painting, Monet succeeded in capturing his search for an impromptu perception of nature, and it remains one of the most improvised paintings he ever made. As such, his depiction of the sunrise suggested not only daybreak over the harbour at Le Havre, but also a new dawn in the course of art.

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