Few great pieces of culture from history were ever received calmly, or praised in their time.
Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise is one such example of a beloved work of famous art that took time to gain appreciation.
The Birth of Impressionism
Monet painted Impression, Sunrise from his hotel room overlooking the French port of Le Havre in 1873. It is a hazy depiction of the early morning water, shadowy boats and their passengers are seen only as silhouettes and reflections.
Further into the background, the vague outline of industrial buildings is visible but the palette of blue, gray, and green that Monet uses throughout most of the painting makes it difficult to discern a horizon (something that only became more common in his work).
The sole source of brightness in the piece is the sun, which burns a vibrant orange against the mostly cool, and almost neutral backdrop. The sun is likewise reflected in the water, which makes it feel somewhat like the focal point of the piece.
The year after he painted this piece of art, Monet hung it in the First Impressionist Exhibit. At that point, however, Impressionists weren’t calling themselves by that name, and Impressionism had yet to take shape as a movement.
It was this painting—Impression, Sunrise—that led to the movement’s title. Critics opposed Monet’s sketch-like brush strokes, and felt that the piece simply looked unfinished. One article deemed the entire show the Exhibition of Impressionists, and the name stuck from there on out.
Today, the painting has overcome its tumultuous beginnings and is one of Monet’s most loved works, despite not being all that typical of is overall style since the colors are somewhat subdued and he created a relatively accurate landscape account rather than simply an impression.
Impression, Sunrise can be seen at Musee Marmottan-Monet in France.
Monet is best known for his prolific depictions of Water Lilies. He painted hundreds of lilies during his career, and there are hints to the fact that he might eventually become obsessed with such a subject in Impression, Sunrise.
The unifying element in Monet’s Water Lilies works is their sense of disorientation. In them, he is only painting the water, the lilies, and the reflections in the water. Early shades of that style can be observed in Impression, Sunrise, as much of the work is taken up by the water’s reflection, and the horizon is difficult to make out at all.
A Movement of Rebellion
After the title Impressionism was coined, the group of artists that belonged to it made no secret about their intention to let go of conventional norms. This subversive attitude kept them from receiving critical acclaim for quite some time.
Impressionists resented the idea that paintings shouldn’t look like paintings, in the sense that painters were expected to hide their brush strokes as much as possible and make realistic accounts of their subjects. Instead, Impressionists embraced brush strokes, vivid coloring, unusual use of light, and disorienting spatial representation.
Along with Monet, some other important Impressionists were Manet, Renoir, and Degas to name a few. Each of these artists had their own distinct style, but shared the sense of frustration with artistic convention. Though they were something of a counterculture in their own time, Impressionists are now understood ass trailblazers who paved the way for creativity and innovation in the art world.
Impression, Sunrise may not have earned critical acclaim when it was unveiled, but it gave a name to a movement and eventually won the hearts of millions.