Top 10 Impressionist Paintings
Selecting the top 10 impressionist works is a difficult job.
The movement, which sought to capture modern life, light and the moment, has become one of the 21st century's favourite genres. But the impressionists were roundly rejected by the art establishment and the public in the 1860s and 1870s. Many of them struggled to make ends meet. And at times they caused uproar.
Edouard Manet, the reluctant father of impressionism, features heavily in our list. His Dejuner Sur l'Herbe (Lunch on the Grass) and Olympia, completed in the early 1860s, threw down the gauntlet to the traditional Academy des Beaux Arts. Manet was not to achieve recognition until late in his life, with the Bon Bock and the Bar at the Folies Bergere.
Claude Monet, the most famous impressionist today, also has three entries: Impression Sunrise (which got the impressionists their name), Gare Saint-Lazare (which captures steam, noise, heat and modernity) and his beautiful Water Lily series (featuring over 250 works, painted in the last 30 years of Monet's life from his home in Giverny).
We have three bonus entries, each from van Gogh. Though arguably a post-impressionist, we cannot ignore this troubled genius. Our selections are Starry Night, Irises and Sunflowers.
Our selection of the 10 best impressionist paintings is arranged chronologically.
1. Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (Manet, 1862-3)
Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Lunch on the Grass) is the work that kick-started the impressionist movement.
Submitted by Edouard Manet to the Salon des Beaux Arts (the annual exhibition organised by the influential and conservative Academy des Beaux Arts), Lunch on the Grass was rejected by the jury.
The painting was instead displayed in a different exhibition held in 1863 called the Salon des Refuses (the “exhibition of the refused”), open to the 3,200 works that had been rejected by the Salon’s jury.
The painting received a hostile reaction from both the public and reviewers. The public attended the Salon des Refuses in droves to mock and laugh at the work.
The problem was that the painting was not art as the French knew it. It did not depict Greek mythology, Roman history or a religious scene. And it was not produced using fine blended brush strokes that produced a near-photographic effect. Instead it used bold colours, broad un-blended brush strokes, and depicted a risqué modern scene.
The French would not come to appreciate such paintings for another two or three decades.
Clothed men, naked women?
As for the work, it has a striking nude female in the foreground chatting with two well-dressed young men. Another female bathes in the mid-ground. The four figures are depicted under a fairly coarsely painted canopy of leaves.
Though interesting, such debates miss the real point. Manet was making a controversial statement with this work. He was challenging the orthodoxy and showcasing his new techniques. And it worked: the whole of Paris started to talk about him.
Where can I see it for myself?
You might also enjoy our page on Manet's life story.
2. Olympia (Manet, 1863)
Though painted in 1863, Manet hid Olympia in his studio for 18 months before deciding to show it at the 1865 Salon. He knew that it would be controversial.
The painting depicts a Parisian prostitute lying naked on a bed, her left hand covering her modesty. Behind her stands a servant carrying a bouquet of flowers that have presumably been sent by a satisfied customer (not that Olympia seems remotely interested in them). And to the far right is a black cat with its tail raised.
The picture uses broad brush-strokes, and so could have been criticised by the establishment for this reason. But it was the courtesan’s unapologetic and brazen stare that caused uproar. The outrage was suffused with hypocrisy: in the mid nineteenth century prostitution was rife in Paris (some studies suggest that almost half of the male population visited brothels on a regular basis).
Manet was optimistic when Olympia was accepted by the Salon’s jury, writing “it won’t be too bad a year”. He couldn’t have been more wrong: a few weeks later he wrote to a friend to say that
“Insults are beating down on me like hail. I have never been through anything like it.”
That was no overstatement. One critic wrote that “Never has a painting excited so much laughter, mockery and catcalls as this Olympia”. Another said that “Nothing can convey the visitors’ initial astonishment, then their anger or fear”. A third that Manet’s motivation was to “attract attention at any price”.
Yet more critics wrote that Manet’s prostitute was a “female gorilla”, a lady of “perfect ugliness” and “a corpse … at an advanced state of decomposition.”
Manet travelled to Spain to escape the furore.
Where can I see it for myself?
Olympia was bought from Manet's widow, Suzanne, shortly after his death. It was paid for by a public subscription organised by Monet, which raised almost 20,000 francs, so that it could be hung in the Louvre (though it languished in the less prestigious Musee du Luxembourg until 1907).
These days Olympia is to be found in the Musee D’Orsay.
3. Impression Sunrise (Monet, 1871)
Impression Sunrise is the work that coined the word "Impressionism".
By 1873, the group that would become known as the Impressionists had become thoroughly disillusioned with the Salon and had decided that they would host their own exhibition. Or most of them had: Manet refused to join the independent exhibition as he feared that it would further ostracise him from the French art establishment.
The group's first exhibition, held in 1874, included works by Monet, Cezanne, Renior, Degas and Pissarro and was hosted at the rue de Capucines. The group formed a company in which they each held shares and charged an entrance fee of 1 franc. Attendance was good (some 3,500 came), but Manet’s bad experiences of the Salon were repeated: the public came to jeer and the reviews were hostile.
More hostile reviews ...
One reviewer said that the exhibition was the work of a practical joker, who had amused himself by
“dipping his brushes into paint, smearing it onto yards of canvas, and signing it with different names”.
But the most famous and long-lasting review came from Louis Leroy, who wrote a spoof article about an art critic being shown around the exhibition by an art student. Of Impression, Sunrise, the critic remarks
“What freedom … what flexibility of style! Wallpaper in its early stages is much more finished than that.”
They, of course, didn’t get it: the Impressionists were trying something new; paintings that reflected what they felt about a scene, not paintings which were close to a photographic representation.
Leroy's article had an unintended effect. He used the word 'impression' as a term of insult; but the group gradually started to call themselves the "impressionists".
The work itself
Impression Sunrise is in fact a painting of the port at Le Havre, Monet’s home town, at sunrise. The eye is drawn to two small rowboats in the foreground and the red sun and its reflection in the water. Behind them are smokestacks coming from chimneys and the masts of clipper ships, giving structure to the work.
Where can I see it for myself?
Impression Sunrise is found in Paris' Marmottan Monet Museum, a small museum displaying more than 300 of Monet's works. It was stolen by five masked gunmen in 1985 and not recovered for five years (having been hidden in a small Corsican villa).
You might also enjoy our page on Monet's life story.
4. The Dance Class (Degas, 1870-1874)
Degas’ Dance Class series, painted at the rehearsal rooms of the Paris Opera in the early 1870s, are his classic impressionist works.
Edgar Degas, the son of a wealthy banker, was a complex individual. Degas’ father (unlike Manet's) did not rail against his son’s artistic ambitions. But Degas started out as a classical artist, copying the paintings of old masters in the Louvre and in Italy, Holland and Spain. He was not bitten by the impressionist bug until the early 1870s.
Degas exhibited at a number of the eight impressionist exhibitions held in and after 1874. Indeed, he played a key role in organising them. But his involvement was always controversial: he was demanding, cutting and didn’t like being called an impressionist.
Degas refused to paint outside and indeed did not much like landscapes. It was this that made the opera house and its ballet practices ideal.
The Dance Class
Degas’ Dance Class series ticks all the impressionist boxes: they are modern scenes; they use bright colours; and they give the viewer the sensation of movement. They are also, as per Degas’ personality, devoid of any sentimentality.
Degas’ main motive in painting ballet dancers was financial: they sold well. And, by the 1870s, Degas needed the money because his brother had run the family business into the ground.
Where can I see it for myself?
Versions of Degas’ Dance Class are found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and in Paris’ Musee D’Orsay.
5. Gare Saint-Lazare (Monet, 1877)
In 1877, Monet had a very good idea: he would paint fog.
But he didn’t want to wait around for the weather. He then had another very good idea: he would paint the steam and smoke of a railway station. But that too was a bit tricky: he would need to be allowed access to the platform, and would have to contend with trains coming and going.
The Station Master
Monet’s answer was a stroke of genius. As Renoir later explained:
“He [Monet] put on his best clothes, pulled his lace cuffs to rights, and, idly swinging his gold headed cane, handed the director of the western railways his card. The official froze, and ushered him in forthwith. The exalted personage asked his visitor to take a seat, and the latter introduced himself simply with the words ‘I am the painter Claude Monet’”.
The rest is history. Monet told the station master that he had been weighing up the competing virtues of the Gare du Nord and the Gare Saint-Lazare, and that he had come down in favour of the station master’s establishment.
For his part, the station master did not know much about art and so did not dare challenge Monet’s credentials. And, thinking that he had got an advantage over the Gare du Nord, he gave Monet everything he wanted: platforms were closed off; trains fired full of coal; departures delayed. After days of painting, Monet left with half a dozen canvasses.
They are tremendous successes: the viewer can almost feel the heat, noise and smell of the station. As one reviewer remarked, the paintings recreate the impression produced on travellers by the noise of the engines coming and going.
Even Albert Wolff, one of the most conservative commentators of the day, gave a back-handed compliment: the painting evoked the “disagreeable impression of several locomotives whistling all at once.”