First Impressionist Exhibition Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

At the first Impressionist exhibition, a group of painters committed to naturalistic representation, color theory, and experimentation with photography mounted a show meant to challenge the Parisian art establishment’s aesthetics. Although not initially a success, the exhibition announced the emergence of modernist art, paving the way for post-Impressionism, abstract expressionism, Fauvism, cubism, and a host of other movements that owe their existence in part to French Impressionism.

Summary of Event

On April 15, 1874, thirty artists who had joined forces the previous December as the Société Anonyme des Artistes Société Anonyme des Artistes (anonymous association of artists) opened an independent exhibition at 35 Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. Their show challenged the authority of the French Academy of the Fine Arts, the prestigious, state-sponsored institution whose annual exhibition, or Salon, had long been indispensable for launching and maintaining a successful career in painting, sculpture, Sculpture or engraving. The acceptance or rejection of one’s submissions to the academy depended on the decisions of a jury of previous exhibitors. Unsurprisingly, the system led to extreme conformity in both subject matter and technique. As a result, most paintings accepted to the Paris Salon were moralizing, idealized versions of historical, religious, and mythological subjects, rendered in balanced compositions and distinct lines on smoothly finished canvases. Impressionism;first exhibition Art;Impressionism Paris;Impressionism Paris;art in [kw]First Impressionist Exhibition (Apr. 15, 1874) [kw]Impressionist Exhibition, First (Apr. 15, 1874) [kw]Exhibition, First Impressionist (Apr. 15, 1874) Impressionism;first exhibition Art;Impressionism Paris;Impressionism Paris;art in [g]France;Apr. 15, 1874: First Impressionist Exhibition[4730] [c]Art;Apr. 15, 1874: First Impressionist Exhibition[4730] [c]Photography;Apr. 15, 1874: First Impressionist Exhibition[4730] Monet, Claude Manet, Édouard Pissarro, Camille Renoir, Pierre-Auguste Morisot, Berthe Degas, Edgar Sisley, Alfred Cézanne, Paul Bazille, Jean-Frédéric [p">Renoir, Pierre-AugusteBazille, Jean-Frédéric[bazille, Jean Frédéric Leroy, Louis

The prime movers behind both the Société Anonyme des Artistes and the exhibition were members of a small group of painters who were discouraged by persistent official rejection of their work. They had become determined to loosen the academy’s strangehold on the Parisian art world’s aesthetics and sales. Claude Monet Monet, Claude , perhaps the most ambitious of the group, had met Camille Pissarro Pissarro, Camille and Paul Cézanne Cézanne, Paul in 1862 at the Académie Suisse, a studio for impoverished students. Soon afterward, he had befriended Pierre-Auguste Renoir Renoir, Pierre-Auguste , Jean-Frédéric Bazille Bazille, Jean-Frédéric , and Alfred Sisley Sisley, Alfred at the Atelier Gleyre—where their teacher, Charles Gleyre Gleyre, Charles (1808-1874), though capable and generous, nevertheless upheld academic dogma. The following year, provoked by Gleyre’s conventional insistence that “[i]n drawing a figure, one should always think of the antique,” Monet persuaded the others to abandon the master’s studio.

The six friends, soon joined by the like-minded Berthe Morisot Morisot, Berthe and Edgar Degas Degas, Edgar , became a close-knit circle of innovators. As of 1866, most of them regularly gathered at the Café Guerbois, on Rue de Batignolles, where they spent countless evenings in debates about art with such colleagues as Édouard Manet Manet, Édouard , who had already established himself as a leading avant-garde artist and enjoyed periodic academic success. Thanks to the neighborhood in which they gathered, these artists were initially known as the Batignolles group.

As early as 1867, the Batignolles artists dreamed of having their own group show. Given their poverty, however, they had to content themselves with occasionally getting their more conservative works accepted by the Salon and having small, one-artist shows in private galleries. In 1873, however, they felt more than usually disgusted with the Salon jury, which seemed to be repeating the extreme intolerance it had shown a decade earlier, when it had dismissed 70 percent of the five thousand submissions it received. In the earlier decade the government of Napoleon III had responded to the protests of hundreds of artists by arranging for the rejected works to be displayed separately in the Salon des Refusés (exhibition of rejects). Pissarro Pissarro, Camille , Cezanne Cézanne, Paul , and Manet Manet, Édouard had all participated in the Salon des Refusés, the last causing a sensation with his subversively classical yet anticlassical Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863). Ten years later, wary of associating their reputations with another “reject” Salon, the Batignolles decided to form their own society and to exhibit independently.

A sixty-franc annual membership fee brought in enough money to fund the 1874 exhibition—a month-long display of 165 oil paintings, watercolors, pastels, prints, and sculptures Sculpture;French in a studio on loan from a photographer. Whereas Degas had been particularly active in recruiting members for the association, it was Renoir Renoir, Pierre-Auguste who hung most of the paintings in the studio’s five red-wallpapered rooms, because the rest of the organizing committee did not show up. More than one-fourth of the displayed pieces were pictures by the core group, including twelve by Monet Monet, Claude , ten by Degas Degas, Edgar , nine by Morisot Morisot, Berthe , seven by Renoir, five by Pissarro, three by Cézanne Cézanne, Paul , and two by Sisley Sisley, Alfred . Manet Manet, Édouard neither joined the association nor exhibited with them, but he did lend his friends his copy of Morisot’s Cache-cache (1873; hide and seek).

The exhibition’s oil paintings in particular established the movement’s iconoclastic trademarks. These included representing contemporary people and ordinary scenes; capturing fleeting moments in middle- or working-class life or in nature’s rhythms; using bold colors on canvases free of the dark under-painting beloved by the academy; conveying the light, motion, or energy of the subject through short, rapid brushstrokes; intensifying the immediacy of scenes through cropped figures and props or through flattened perspective; painting entire pictures outdoors (en plein air), rather than finishing them in the studio; and rendering shadows through complementary pigments rather than black—for instance, blue-green shade for trees in an orange sunset.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

(Library of Congress)

To encourage working-class visitors, the society kept the exhibition open from eight to ten o’clock in the evenings. Although they managed to attract thirty-five hundred people (paying 1 franc apiece) and to sell 3,600 hundred francs’ worth of pieces, after costs their 949-franc profit did not even cover all the members’ dues. Worse, their venture provoked extreme hostility from most critics, who especially attacked what, by academic standards, they considered the unfinished quality of the paintings.

Monet’s Monet, Claude seascape Impression: Soleil levant (1872; impression: sunrise) was the painting that most outraged fellow artist and critic Louis Leroy Leroy, Louis . On April 25, reviewing the exhibition for the satirical paper Le Charivari, Leroy scathingly commented that the painting was less finished than “wallpaper in its embryonic state” and contemptuously dismissed all the exhibitors as “Impressionists.” It was in this review that the term Impressionist was first coined to describe the works of the society. Although it began as a pejorative label, the name stuck, and it was eventually embraced by some (though not all) members of the movement.

Leroy Leroy, Louis denigrated Monet’s Monet, Claude representation of people in Boulevard des Capucines (1873) as “black tongue-lickings.” Other subsequently famous oil paintings on display in 1874 included Degas’s Degas, Edgar Aux Courses en province (1869; at the races in the country), Pissarro’s Pissarro, Camille Le Verger (1872; the orchard), Morisot’s Morisot, Berthe Le Berceau (1872; the cradle), and Renoir’s Renoir, Pierre-Auguste[renoir, Pierre Auguste La Loge (1874; the theater box). Although these last two paintings were among the few that received praise, it was arguably Monet’s Impression: Soleil levant that proved most influential. Within the year, the label it had inspired Leroy Leroy, Louis to coin so contemptuously had lost its stigma and had become a reputable term for the movement.

While the 1874 exhibition was hardly a financial or critical success, it led to seven more group showings in the next twelve years, as well as to the 1879 creation of a journal dedicated to Impressionism, La Vie moderne (modern life), with an art gallery adjoining the journal’s offices. The public debut also encouraged the group’s select supporters, among them the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel Durand-Ruel, Paul[Durand Ruel, Paul">Renoir, Pierre-Auguste (1831-1922) and the writers Stéphane Mallarmé Mallarmé, Stéphane (1842-1889) and Émile Zola Zola, Émile [p]Zola, Émile;and Impressionists[Impressionists] (1840-1902), to continue championing the movement. By the time of the last exhibition, in 1886, there was no question that Impressionism had become a force to be reckoned with in the art world.


The first Impressionist exhibition was a crucial step in liberating its participants and their successors from the academy’s long dictatorship over French art. The painters of the next artistic generation (some of whom were the same age as the Impressionists) started out as Impressionists and only eventually found their individual paths into the various styles titled Post-Impressionism. They included Cézanne Cézanne, Paul , Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Even after abandoning Impressionism’s essentially realist concern with recording the world as it appeared to pursue their more subjective visions, these artists remained indebted to the movement’s innovations.

By insisting on portraying the world they lived and worked in—both urban and rural—the participants in the first Impressionist exhibition introduced and privileged the modern moment as a an inspiration equal to traditional subjects. By displaying their experimentation with different techniques for best capturing the flux of this moment, they also opened up new directions in representing space and time. While their interest in both photography Photography and Japanese prints led to a flatter, more immediate rendering of spatial dynamics, their reliance on short, broken brushstrokes to indicate changes in light, movement, and energy endowed painting with a new temporal dimension. The prominence of these rough brushstrokes, the way they attracted attention to the canvas surface, looked ahead to the emphasis on medium, rather than on content, in abstract art. Finally, the Impressionists’ bold use of color likewise laid the foundations for the vibrant canvases of the next generation, especially those of van Gogh, Gauguin, and Seurat.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bomford, David, Jo Kirby, John Leighton, and Ashok Roy. Art in the Making: Impressionism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990. A technical but accessible analysis of fifteen paintings from London’s National Gallery, with an introductory essay on the materials, studios, and traditions of the nineteenth century art world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brettell, Richard R. Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860-1890. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. This lavishly illustrated book by a professor of aesthetic studies focuses on the theory, meaning, and technique behind particularly “unfinished,” or quickly executed, Impressionist paintings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Denvir, Bernard. The Chronicle of Impressionism: An Intimate Diary of the Lives and World of the Great Artists. London: Thames and Hudson, 2000. A journal-format survey of the movement’s origins, exhibitions, career divergences, and legacy. Excerpts from critical reviews, letters, and diaries provide a fascinating cultural context for more than four hundred paintings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Thames and Hudson Encyclopedia of Impressionism. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990. Covers the movement’s people, places, events, and techniques in admirably precise entries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tinterow, Gary, and Henri Loyrette. Origins of Impressionism. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994. Nine essays focus on the movement’s achievements in different genres of nineteenth century painting.

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