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Origins of Impressionism
One of the main features of the new landscape style that emerged during the mid-19th century was a change in subject matter. Many French artists no longer endeavoured to imitate and recreate the classical past; instead they portrayed sites of natural beauty. Artists such as Gustave Courbet and Frédéric Bazille soon developed an interest in depicting views of regions often close to the places in which they worked: the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Channel coast and other parts of rural France.
A key figure in the development of landscape painting at the threshold of Impressionism was Courbet, who drew a great deal of inspiration for his landscapes and seascapes from the places and surrounds he visited, especially Montpellier on the Mediterranean coast and Ornans in the Jura in eastern France near Switzerland.
Landscape became a very significant genre after 1860. As art exhibitions and private collectors became more numerous in Paris, the art market gained in importance and art critics focused repeatedly on questions of the subjects and style that should be used in landscape painting. Many of the artists presented in this room explore the new practices of capturing nature in a quick and very spontaneous manner that would become fashionable and lead finally to the landscapes full of light and shimmering colours that we today consider typical of Impressionism.
Dark colours, often used in the past and derived from the old masters (especially those of Spain and Holland), were rejected by the landscape painters presented here and replaced by a bright and radiant palette. These artists often painted their views in the open and not in the studio, since they wanted to look at the world in a modern, spontaneous way and deliver an immediate record of reality.
Many of the Impressionists, including Bazille and Alfred Sisley, were interested in exploring new artistic possibilities in painting, not only landscapes but also still lifes. Sisley’s and Bazille’s still lifes illustrate superbly how important this genre became as a result of the artist’s sustained interest in depicting different aspects of nature.
At the same time, painters such as Berthe Morisot and Edgar Degas sought to depict the conditions of modern life. Morisot’s and Degas’s paintings of figures in a contemporaneous setting established an exciting dialogue between nature and modern city life.
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