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Timeline: Impressionism

U.S. Public Domain
In 1874, Claude Monet exhibited his work "Impression, soleil levant" in Paris. It marks a shift in artistic expression taking place in the late 19th century.

Art influences art. The work of one discipline can inform and inspire the work of another. In France, at the close of the 19th century, a movement known as impressionism left its mark on the world of visual art, literature and music.

In the 1870s a group of artists in Paris called themselves the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, and whatever their medium was. They challenged the accepted norms of aesthetic beauty and technique. In 1874 Claude Monet’s painting Impression: Sunrise was put on display. The critics didn’t know what to make of this unusual piece. One critic called this work, and the artist that created it, Impressionist. This term was meant to be an insult; these paintings were unfinished, messy; left with brush strokes, blurred lines and blobs of paint. However, Monet and his contemporaries embraced that title.

Impressionism was a new way of seeing reality. It was color and light as perceived by the painter.

Since the time of Aristotle, art was considered to be an imitation of nature and reality, but in the 19th century this view began to change. The invention of the camera allowed reality to be captured in a literal sense. But, what a photograph can’t do is show the way light dances off of a wave or how colored leaves blur in the wind. That’s what the impressionist painters were trying to express.

In literature, impressionism found its expression in the symbolic poetry of Stephane Mallarme and his contemporaries. The symbolist poets believed that words had beauty and meaning in and of themselves apart from context. Poems could suggest not describe, evoke not explain.

Mallarme’s poem Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn inspired the composer Claude Debussy to find a means of expressing these ideals through music. Debussy believed that music was better suited than any other medium in expressing nature and the dance of color and light. A painter would need multiple canvases to achieve what a composer can do in a single piece.

Debussy disliked the term impressionism for his work. Nevertheless, his music, much like Monet’s paintings, escaped convention, blurring line and color through the avoidance of traditional scales and harmonies. The critics’ reception of Debussy’s 1887 Printemps was quite similar to their reaction to Monet’s painting. They called it an exaggeration of color and texture.

Impressionism is a great example of the change that was coming in the 20th century. Artists would continue to challenge traditions, aesthetics and even the taste of their audience.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Follow the Timeline on our new web app where you can hear all of the episodes in order.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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