150 years of Impressionism, the movement that shook the French art world

Now-celebrated artists were once shunned by the art establishment

Today's expression: Fall into
Explore more: Lesson #679
May 30, 2024:

Impressionism, the art movement that celebrates bright colors, thick brushstrokes, and outdoor settings, turns 150 years old this month. Though Monet, Degas, Renoir, and others are celebrated in museums and art schools around the world, their work was initially rejected by the art establishment.

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On today’s Plain English: Impressionism turns 150 years old

Lesson summary

Hi there everyone, I’m Jeff and this is Plain English. Here at Plain English, we help you upgrade your skills in English. We do that with stories about current events and trending topics. When you listen, you’ll get exposure to many new words and concepts that you might not otherwise hear about in English.

And then of course, in the second half of every lesson, I show you exactly how to use a common English expression.

So today, we’re talking about Impressionism. This style of painting debuted with a radical exhibition in Paris in 1874. It was not welcomed by the art establishment—to put it mildly . But this new style of painting would revolutionize art and win the hearts of museumgoers for many years.

That’s story. In the second half of the lesson, I’ll show you how to use “fall into” when you talk about categories. “Fall into” a category.

You can find the transcripts, the lesson quizzes, exercises, translations, and practice opportunities all on the lesson home page at PlainEnglish.com/679. That is thanks to JR, our producer.

150 years of Impressionism

In France in the 19th Century, if you wanted to be anyone in the art world, you had to curry favor with one powerful organization: the Academy of Fine Arts. And if you wanted to really be someone in the art world, you had to exhibit your work at the Salon.

The Salon was the Academy’s official art exhibition—and it was the most prestigious in the world for about 150 years. It was sponsored by the French government.

The Academy and the Salon were conservative institutions. They didn’t reward risk-taking in art. Most of the work accepted at the Salon fell into a few established categories: depictions of classical mythology, historical recreations, and people in formal settings.

The Academy wanted its painters to have excellent technique. They wanted paintings to perfectly resemble real life, with great attention to detail and accurate anatomy. To produce artwork like that, painters had to work in studios under perfect conditions. There wasn’t a lot of room to maneuver.

But in the late 1800s, a group of thirty-one painters wanted to do something different. They didn’t want to be confined to the same, tired themes of mythology and formal dress. They didn’t like the dark shadows and muted colors that dominated the Salon.

They wanted to use color. They wanted to go outside. They wanted to bring more life to their canvases. They wanted to paint quickly, to capture a fleeting moment. They didn’t want to spend weeks or months poring over details of a nose until they got it just right.

So in 1874, these painters—they called themselves the “Anonymous Society”—the Anonymous Society organized a breakaway exhibition in Paris. At the time , they were upstart artists, excluded from high society. You might recognize their names: Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro , and others.

These artists experimented with new technology and new techniques. Portable metal tubes of paint had just been introduced. That allowed this new group of artists to bring their studios outside: to set up an easel in a park, in a street, or on a riverbank and to paint what they saw and felt.

They also cast aside some of the old techniques of the conservative painters. Instead of obsessing over the smallest details, they used broad brushstrokes to create a fuzzy image.
Their purpose was to depict an emotion, not to perfectly represent real life.

They painted parks and rivers, busy cafés and boulevards, factories and crowded docks. They eschewed the grays, browns, and blacks and instead opted for vibrant, unblended colors.

One of the best examples of this new style was a painting by Claude Monet. He exhibited it at the breakaway 1874 exhibition. It depicts a port, with ships on the sea and smokestacks in the background. He called it, “Impression, Sunrise.”

Little did he realize at the time, but the title of that painting (“Impression, Sunrise”) would lend its name to the new genre of painting: Impressionism.

What did people at the time think of “Impression, Sunrise” and the other paintings of the same style?

The established artists and critics said the paintings were sloppy. They were blurry, almost like they were unfinished. The subjects—ports, cafes, workplaces—these subjects were not worthy of being painted, of being displayed, of being celebrated. And besides, these paintings were blurry: who wants that? You sometimes couldn’t tell exactly what you were looking at. It’s almost like the painters didn’t bother to finish their work. No, this won’t do.

History has not been kind to that opinion.

Today , Impressionist paintings are some of the most beloved works of art. They adorn the finest museums on every continent. They’re studied in art schools. Even the most casual museumgoer knows the names of the Impressionists: Monet, Renoir, Degas.

And it’s not just that. The breakthrough of Impressionism allowed for all kinds of post-modern art to develop. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” would never have passed muster with the art world had the Impressionists not first broken the Salon’s chokehold on respectable art.

Museums, galleries, and art societies around the world are celebrating 150 years since that first exhibition. The French region of Normandy is holding 150 events to celebrate 150 years. The Musée D’Orsay in Paris has created a virtual reality experience that mimics the original 1874 exhibition.

Jeff’s take

Only four paintings from the Anonymous Society’s first exhibition sold. The company that organized the show went out of business. And now look at what Impressionism has become.

Every time I go to a museum—either one I know well, like the Art Institute of Chicago or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—or to a new one, I always try to keep an open mind, but I always find myself drawn to the Impressionists.

But here’s something funny. Remember the criticisms of Impressionism—it’s boring, it’s blurry, I can’t figure out what this is supposed to be—I find myself saying those same things about a lot of contemporary art.

Anyway, 150 years of Impressionism—if there’s a museum near you, see if they have an exhibit this year to mark the anniversary.

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Expression: Fall into