Impressionists: 7 Great French Artists

Monet the paddling fragment

“A new world was born when the impressionists wrote it”

Henry Cahnweiler

XIX century. France. An unprecedented event has occurred in arts world.

A group of young artists decided to shake the 500-year-old tradition.  Instead of clear lines, they used wide “careless” strokes.

Also they abandoned usual images, portraying both ladies of easy virtue and gentlemen of dubious reputation.

The audience was not ready for the impressionists’ painting. They were ridiculed, scolded. And most importantly, they did not buy anything from them.

But the resistance was broken. And some impressionists waited for their triumph. Though they were already over 40. Like Claude Monet or Auguste Renoir.

Others awaited recognition only at the end of life, like Camille Pissarro.

Someone did not live to see it, like Alfred Sisley.

What is so revolutionary they have committed? Why did the public not accept them for so long?

Here are 7 of the most celebrated French Impressionists that the whole world knows.

1. Eduard Manet (1832-1883)

Mans self portrait with palette
Eduard Manet. Self-Portrait with a Palette. 1878. Private Collection.

Eduard Manet was older than most impressionists. He was their main inspirer.

Manet did not claim to be the leader of the revolutionaries. He was a secular man and dreamed of official awards.

But he waited for recognition for a very long time. The audience wanted to see the Greek goddesses or still lifes at the worst, so that they looked beautiful in the dining room.

Manet wanted to write modern life. For example, courtesans. The result was his “Luncheon on the Grass.”

Two dandies rest in the company of ladies of easy virtue. One of them, as if nothing had happened, is sitting next to dressed men.

Manet. Breakfast on the grass.
Eduard Manet. Luncheon on the Grass. 1863. Museum d’Orsay, Paris.

Please, compare his “Luncheon on the Grass” with the work of Tom Couture, “The Romans in a Time of Decline”.

Couture painting made a splash. The artist instantly became famous.

The Luncheon on the Grass was accused of vulgarity. Pregnant women were absolutely not recommended to look at it.

Couture Romans from the time of decline
Tom Couture. The Romans of the Time of Decline. 1847. Museum d’Orsay, Paris.

In the Couture painting we see all the attributes of academism (traditional painting of the 16th-19th centuries).

Columns and statues. People of Apollonian appearance. Traditional muted colors. The manner of poses and gestures. The plot from the distant life of the ancient Romans.

Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass” is a completely different format.

Before him, no one depicted courtesans next to respectable people. Although many men of that time spent their leisure time. It was the real life of real people.

Manet tried to reckon with the tastes of the public. He painted portraits to order. But nothing came of it.

Once he depicted a respectable lady. Ugly. He could not flatter her with a brush. The lady was disappointed. She left him in tears.

Mane Angelina
Eduard Manet. Angelina 1860. Museum d’Orsay, Paris.

So he continued to experiment. For example, with color. He did not try to portray the so-called natural color. If the gray-brown water he saw as bright blue, then he portrayed it as bright blue.

This, of course, annoyed the public. “After all, even the Mediterranean Sea cannot boast as blue as Manet’s water!” they snapped.

Manet Argenteuil
Eduard Manet. Argenteuil. 1874. Museum of Fine Arts, Tournai, Belgium.

But the fact remains. Manet fundamentally changed the purpose of painting. The picture became the embodiment of the individuality of the artist, who writes as he pleases. Forgetting about patterns and traditions.

His innovations have not been recognized for a long time. He waited for recognition only at the end of his life. But he no longer needed it. He painfully faded from an incurable disease.

2. Claude Monet (1840-1926)

Monet self portrait in beret
Claude Monet. Self-Portrait in a Beret. 1886. Private Collection.

Claude Monet can be called a textbook impressionist. Since he was faithful to this direction all his long life.

He painted not objects and people, but a single color design of glare and spots. Separate brush strokes. Trembling air.

Monet the paddling pool
Claude Monet. Paddling pool. 1869. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Monet painted not only nature, but city landscapes as well. One of the most famous is the Capuchin Boulevard.

In this picture you can notice the effects of photography. For example, the movement is transmitted using a blurry image: distant trees and figures seem to be in a haze.

Monet Boulevard Capuchin
Claude Monet. Boulevard of Capuchin in Paris. 1873. Pushkin Museum (Art Gallery of Europe and America of the 19-20 centuries), Moscow.

In front of us is the stopped moment of the bustling life of Paris. No staging. No one poses. People are depicted as a collection of strokes. Such plotlessness and the effect of a “freeze frame” is the main feature of impressionism.

By the mid-80s, artists were disappointed in impressionism. Aesthetics is, of course, good. But the plotlessness depressed them.

Only Monet continued to persist, hypertrophying impressionism. It grew into a series of paintings.

He depicted the same landscape dozens of times. At different times of the day. At different times of the year. In order to show how much temperature and light can change the same look.

Thus appeared countless haystacks.

Claude Monet’s paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Left: Haystacks at sunset in Giverny, 1891. Right: Haystack (snow effect), 1891.

Please note that the shadows in these paintings are colored. And not gray or black, as was customary before the Impressionists. This is another of their invention.

Monet managed to enjoy success and material well-being. After 40, he had already forgotten about poverty. He got a house and a beautiful garden. And he created for his pleasure for many years to come.

3. Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)

Renoir self portrait 1875
Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Self-Portrait. 1875. Stirling Institute of Art and Francine Clark, Massachusetts, USA.

Impressionism is the most positive painting. And the most positive among the impressionists was Renoir.

In his paintings you will not find drama. He did not even use black paint. Only the joy of being. Even the most commonplace things painted by Renoir look beautiful.

Unlike Monet, Renoir wrote people more often. Landscapes were less important for him. His friends and acquaintances rest in the paintings and enjoy life.

Renoir Rowers Breakfast
Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Breakfast Rowers. 1880-1881. Phillips Collection, Washington, USA.

You will not find deep thoughts and philosophy in the artworks of Renoir. He was very happy to join the Impressionists, who without exception refused the plot.

As he himself said, finally he has the opportunity to write flowers and simply call them “Flowers”. And do not invent any stories about them.

Renoir woman with an umbrella in the garden
Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Woman with an Umbrella in the Garden. 1875. Thyssen-Bormenis Museum, Madrid.

Renoir felt best in the company of women. He asked his maidservants to sing and joke. The stupider and naive the song was, the better for him. A man’s chatter tired him. It is not surprising that Renoir is known for nude paintings.

The model in the painting “Naked in the Sunlight” as if manifested on a colorful abstract background. Because for Renoir there is nothing secondary. The eye of the model or the background area is equivalent.

Renoir Nude to Sunlight
Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Nude in the sunlight. 1876. Museum d’Orsay, Paris.

Renoir lived a long life. And he never put aside his brush and palette. Even when rheumatism completely bound his hands, he tied a brush to his hand with a rope and painted.

Like Monet, he waited for recognition after 40 years. And he saw his paintings in the Louvre, next to the masterpieces of famous masters of the past.

4. Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

Degas self portrait 1863
Edgar Degas. Self Portrait. 1863. Galust Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon, Portugal.

Degas was not a classic impressionist. He did not like to work in the plein air (in the open air).

In his paintings you will not find a kaleidoscope of bright strokes.

On the contrary, he loved a clear line. He has plenty of black. And he worked exclusively in the studio.

But still, he is always put on a par with other great impressionists. Because he was an impressionist of… gesture.

Unexpected angles. Asymmetry in the arrangement of objects. Captured by surprise characters. Here are the main attributes of his paintings.

He stopped the moments of life, not allowing the characters to come to their senses. Look at least at his Orchestra of the Opera.

Degas Opera Orchestra
Edgar Degas. Orchestra of the Opera. 1870. Museum d’Orsay, Paris.

In the foreground is the back of a chair. The musician has his back to us. And in the background, the ballerinas on the stage did not fit into the “frame”. Their heads are mercilessly “cut off” by the edge of the picture.

So the beloved dancers are not always depicted in beautiful poses. Sometimes they just do stretching.

But such improvisation is imaginary. Of course, Degas carefully thought out the composition. This is just a freeze frame effect, not a real one.

Degas Two Ballet Dancers at Shelburne Museum
Edgar Degas. Two Ballet Dancers. 1879. Shelburne Museum, Vermouth, USA.

Edgar Degas loved painting women. But the disease or features of the body did not allow him to have physical contact with them. He has never been married. No one has ever seen him with a lady.

The lack of real stories in his personal life added subtle and intense eroticism to his images.

Degas. Ballet star.
Edgar Degas. Ballet Star. 1876-1878. Museum d’Orsay, Paris.

Please note that in the painting “Ballet Star” only the ballerina is drawn. Her colleagues behind the curtains are barely distinguishable. Only a few legs.

This does not mean that Degas did not finish the picture. This is a special trick: to keep in focus only the most important thing. The rest should be made disappearing, illegible.

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5. Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)

Manet. Portrait of Berthe Morisot.
Eduard Manet. Portrait of Berthe Morisot. 1873. Marmottan-Monet Museum, Paris.

Berthe Morisot rarely put in the front row of the great impressionists. In my opinion, undeservedly. Indeed, in her artworks you will find all the main features and techniques of impressionism.

Morisot painted quickly and impetuously, as if in a hurry to convey her impression. As a result, the heroes of her paintings seem to dissolve in space.

Morisot summer
Berthe Morisot. Summer. 1880. Fabre Museum, Montpellier, France.

Like Degas, she often did not finish some details. And even body parts of the model. We cannot distinguish between the hands of the girl in the painting “Summer”.

Morisot’s path to self-expression was difficult. Not only because of her “careless” painting. She was… a woman. In those days, the lady was supposed to dream of marriage. After which any hobby was forgotten.

Therefore, Berta for a long time refused marriage. Until she found a man who respected her occupation.

Eugene Manet was the brother of the artist Eduard Manet. He dutifully wore an easel and paints for his wife.

Morisot Eugene Manet with his daughter in Bougival
Berthe Morisot. Eugene Manet with his Daughter in Bougival. 1881. Marmottan-Monet Museum, Paris.

But still, it was in the 19th century. No, Morisot’s pants weren’t put on. But she could not afford complete freedom of movement.

She could not go to the park to work alone, unaccompanied by someone close to her. She could not sit alone in a cafe.

Therefore, her paintings are people from the family circle. Husband, daughter, relatives, nannies.

Morisot woman with a child in a garden in Bougival
Berthe Morisot. A Woman with a Child in a Garden in Bougival. 1881. National Museum of Wales, Cardiff.

Morisot did not wait for recognition. She died at the age of 54 from pneumonia, having sold almost none of her work during her lifetime.

In her death certificate in the column “occupation” there was a dash. It was inconceivable for a woman to be called an artist. Even if she really was.

6. Camille Pissarro (1830 – 1903)

Pissarro Self Portrait 1873
Camille Pissarro. Self-Portrait. 1873. Museum d’Orsay, Paris.

Camille Pissarro. Non-conflict, reasonable. Many perceived him as their teacher. Even the most temperamental colleagues did not speak badly about Pissarro.

He was a loyal follower of impressionism. Badly in need, having a wife and five children, he still worked hard in his favorite style. And he never switched to salon painting to become more popular. It is not known where he took his strength to completely believe in himself.

In order not to starve to death, Pissarro painted fans who were willing to buy up. And the real recognition came to him after 60 years! Then finally he was able to forget about need.

Pissarro Stagecoach in Louvesien
Camille Pissarro. Stagecoach in Louveciennes. 1869. d’Orsay Museum, Paris.

The air in Pissarro’s paintings is thick and dense. An unusual fusion of color and volume.

The artist was not afraid to write the most changeable natural phenomena that appear for a moment and disappear. First snow, frosty sun, long shadows.

Pissarro hoarfrost
Camille Pissarro. Frost. 1873. d’Orsay Museum, Paris.

His most famous artworks are the views of Paris: wide boulevards, a bustling motley crowd. At night, in the afternoon, in different weather. It have something in common with a series of paintings by Claude Monet.

Pissarro Boulevard Montmartre at night
Camille Pissarro. Montmartre Boulevard at Night. 1897. National Gallery, London.

The night air in the painting “Boulevard Montmartre at Night” melts from burning lanterns and shop windows.

Pissarro portrayed in truth the planetary space. The street is not straight, but curving in an arc. An ordinary boulevard becomes magnificent.

7. Alfred Sisley (1839-1899)

Renoir portrait of Sisley
Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Portrait of Alfred Sisley. 1868. Collection of the Emil Bürle Foundation, Zurich, Switzerland.

Alfred Sisley was a humble and silent man. So were his landscapes. Quiet, filled with color coziness. Sisley did not like external effects. He almost never portrayed people either.

He painted moving sky and water with wide and moving strokes. And depicted buildings with smoother ones. This emphasized the static material. Like in his famous painting “Flood in Port Marley”.

Sisley flood in port marley
Alfred Sisley. Flood in Port Marley. 1877. Museum d’Orsay, Paris.

Sisley especially liked to paint the sky. He started any picture with it. Often it occupied most of the canvas.

In the image of the sky, he also used different strokes. Long ones helped to convey the rapidly moving pre-stormy sky. Light and subtle conveyed the sky clear and cloudless.

Sisley landscapes

Pictures of Alfred Sisley. Left: View of Saint-Mamez. 1880. Walters Museum of Art. Baltimore, USA. Right: Bridge to the Sea. Morning. 1891. Private Collection.

Sisley did not wait for recognition. His landscapes seemed to the public inexpressive. Appreciated it after his death. Now they are worth millions of dollars.


For several decades, the Impressionists fought for recognition. Someone half life. Someone all his life. Why so long?

Imagine yourself a man of the XIX century. For you, a picture is neatly and smoothly painted bodies and objects. Each smear is “hidden”.

Therefore, a lover of painting made a simple conclusion. These are trying. But these (impressionists) hackwork. Once the strokes are visible. And the paints do not mix. And they do not want to accurately convey reality.

It was still difficult for the average person to realize that these “dirty tricks” did not want to copy the real world with traditional methods. They dream of creating their own!

Impressionism is a school of artistic chivalry. He teaches to be free from canons.

All great artists of next generations went through the baptism of impressionism. Both Picasso and Munch. And even Malevich.

Munk, Picasso and Malevich as impressionists

Left: Edward Munch “Lafayette Street”, 1901. Oslo National Gallery, Norway. Right: Pablo Picasso Corrida, 1901. Private collection. Below: Kazimir Malevich “Spring, Apple Tree in Bloom”, 1904, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Unexpected for you to see Picasso as an impressionist? And Malevich, the creator of the Black Square, depicting the delicate color of apple trees? And such a positive Munch, the author of Scream?

All of them went through the stage of impressionism. Without this, they could not have taken the next step. To Cubism (Picasso), Expressionism (Munch), and even in Suprematism (Malevich).


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