Impressionism changed the way that artists paint and paved the way for contemporary art. Here are 10 of the most famous Impressionist paintings that revolutionized the art world.
Most Famous Impressionist Paintings
So what exactly is Impressionism? This radical art movement started in the 19th century in France.
Artists rejected traditional painting methods that used precise brush strokes and stylized portraiture. Instead, they took their easels outdoors and depicted the changing light and colors. Many Impressionist painters were inspired by Asian artists, who focused on the subject matter rather than complex backgrounds.
Impressionism is all about capturing the moment and breaking away from imposed norms. In Paris, a state-sponsored exhibition known as The Salon decided whose paintings could be shown.
A group of artists called the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, & Printmakers, etc. organized an independent exhibition in 1874. They were annoyed that their paintings had all been turned down by the official Paris Salon and the Academy of Fine Arts.
The founding members of the Impressionist movement included Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro and Edgar Degas. Their first collective exhibition at a gallery on Rue du Capucines in Paris brought together 165 artworks and 30 artists. The art world would never be the same again!
These famous paintings look at their subject matter in a new way and prompt us to do the same.
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11. Dancers, Pink and Green | Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas is known for his pastel paintings of ballerinas, whom he painted throughout his career. They were often depicted behind the scenes rather than on stage, which was in keeping with his interest in everyday life.
Degas preferred to be known as a realist, and he generally painted indoors in a dance class. Having said that, he was a leader in the Impressionist group, helping to organize their independent exhibitions.
He carefully observed his subjects, capturing their last-minute preparations and elegant movements. To the right of this painting, a shadowy patron with a top hat watches the dancers behind the wings.
Dancers, Pink and Green is on display at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 899.
10. Girl Arranging Her Hair | Mary Cassatt
The only American painter to exhibit with the Impressionists, Mary Cassatt was highly skilled in portraying women and children in intimate settings. She lived in France for much of her life and became close friends with Degas.
Along with Berthe Morisot, the French painter, she was one of the most famous female Impressionist artists.
Cassatt was a professionally trained artist, highly skilled in using pastels to convey the impression of natural light. She enjoyed experimenting with new techniques and would often leave parts of her canvas unfinished to express spontaneity.
In Girl Arranging Her Hair, one of Cassatt’s most famous works, we observe a private moment of introspection. The subtle contrast of pink wallpaper and flushed cheeks with the sitter’s blue toned nightdress and water jug is skillfully executed.
Although Degas once said to Cassatt, “What do women know about style?”, he traded this painting for one of his own and it hung in pride of place in his private salon. It is now exhibited at The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
9. Impression, Soleil Levant | Claude Monet
The famous artwork from which Impressionism takes its name is by Claude Monet. The critic Louis Leroy unfavorably called it a mere sketch or “impression,” rather than a finished painting.
Using short, loose brushstrokes and unblended colors, Monet emphasizes the reflection of the water and the thick fog. Completed in 1872, the painting depicts sunrise at the harbour in Le Havre, France.
Most likely completed in a single sitting, this famous Impressionist painting may well have been inspired by the work of J.M.W. Turner. Monet had recently seen the artist’s works in London and been struck by the pervasive fog.
This painting is on display at the Musee Marmottan-Monet in Paris. You can create your own version with an Impression Sunrise Painting by Numbers Kit. It requires no artistic ability and makes a great gift.
8. Paris Street; Rainy Day | Gustave Caillebotte
This unusual painting successfully portrays a rainy day, even though we don’t see actual rainfall. The umbrellas and shining cobblestones convey humidity, while the painter observes his subjects with a detached air.
Caillebotte often painted members of the working class, as in another of his well known artworks, The Floor Scrapers. In this oil painting he also depicts a couple of flaneurs, or members of the bourgeoisie out for a stroll.
He came from a wealthy family and was a patron of other Impressionists. What is striking about this painting is the aspect of photo realism.
Caillebotte’s brother Martial was a keen photographer and there are several elements of photography at play here. The man to the far right of the painting is cropped out, in a similar fashion to a photograph and the man and woman in the foreground appear more prominent than the figures in the background.
You can admire this innovative artwork at the Art Institute of Chicago.
7. L’Absinthe | Edgar Degas
The Absinthe Drinker is one of the most famous Impressionist paintings. Originally called Dans Un Cafe (In a Cafe), this intimate oil painting shows a couple who appear somewhat the worse for wear.
It looks like they’ve overdone the absinthe on the table! Finished in 1876, this artwork depicts two friends of Degas.
Ellen Andrée was an actress who also featured in several of Manet’s paintings, while Marcellin Desboutin was a painter. In this painting, Degas cuts off the man’s pipe, giving the impression of a casual snapshot. You can view it in the Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
6. Bal du Moulin de la Galette | Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Known in English as Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, this 1876 painting by Renoir can also be seen at the Musée d’Orsay. Evoking a carefree atmosphere, it depicts working class people enjoying their Sunday afternoon.
The artist has masterfully captured the flickering light and sense of vitality. While some of the people shown were Renoir’s friends, others were professional models.
The outdoor dance hall, Le Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre was close to Renoir’s home and somewhere that he went quite often. Several neo-Impressionists subsequently immortalized this site in their art are, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh.
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5. Poppy Field, Claude Monet
Created in 1873, this landscape painting by Monet features a mother and child walking through a field of poppies. They were most likely the artist’s wife Camille and son Jean.
The field is thought to be in Argenteuil, France, where Monet lived from 1871 to 1878. He managed to capture the movement of the poppies in this atmospheric artwork.
4. The Boulevard Montmartre at Night | Camille Pissarro
One of the four main boulevards or avenues in Paris, The Boulevard Montmartre is lined with fashionable apartment blocks created when Baron Haussmann redesigned Paris city center.
Camille Pissarro painted this street in the morning as well as at night, from his room at the Grand Hôtel de Russie. The diagonal lines of the pavements and rooftops create an effect of depth.
Notice the reflected light on the rain-soaked pavement on the right which is beautifully depicted. The Boulevard Montmartre at Night is part of The National Gallery collection in London.
3. A Bar at the Folies-Bergere | Edouard Manet
Although Manet was regarded by the Impressionists as their inspiration, he was something of a reluctant Impressionist. From a wealthy background, Manet preferred to exhibit at the traditional Salon rather than the independent Impressionist exhibitions.
However, his daring and controversial works such as Dejeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia were certainly trailblazing. Manet was adept in depicting everyday scenes of ordinary people such as this barmaid in the Folies-Bergere nightclub.
Manet’s last major painting, accomplished when he was already ill with syphilis, shows us two sides of a woman’s experience. In the mirror’s reflection, she leans attentively towards a customer, however face-on she looks dejected and pensive.
Look to her left and you’ll spot a woman at the bar peering through opera glasses, which further enhances the painting’s observational elements. To the top left, you can spot the green shoes of a trapeze artist performing at the club.
This fascinating Impressionist painting can be seen at The Courtauld Gallery, London.
2. Dance at Bougival | Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Another masterpiece by Renoir, Dance at Bougival is a highlight of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. Parisians flocked to the outdoor dancing terraces in the suburbs of the city.
This oil painting was commissioned by the collector Paul Durand-Ruel, as part of a series of three with a common theme of dancing. The dancing lady’s flushed face and the couple’s close proximity gives a sense of intimacy.
Renoir was the son of a tailor and a dressmaker, and skilled at capturing details like the woman’s fitted dress and red bonnet.
1. The Water-Lily Pond | Claude Monet
Arguably the most famous Impressionist paintings of all are the series of water lily artworks, or Nymphéas in French, created by Claude Monet. There are around 250 oil paintings of Monet’s flower garden in Giverny, Normandy.
The artist created a Japanese inspired garden with a curved bridge, adding weeping willow trees and water lilies. He spent much of the last 30 years of his life painting this scene in different lights.
Rather than depicting the edge of the banks or the sky, the focus is brought in to the surface of the water. Many of the water-lily paintings are displayed at the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, although this one is in The National Gallery, London.
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Here’s a recap of the 10 most famous Impressionist paintings:
- The Water-Lily Pond, Claude Monet
- Dance at Bougival, Pierre-Auguste Renoir
- A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, Edouard Manet
- The Boulevard Montmartre at Night, Camille Pissarro
- Poppy Field, Claude Monet
- Bal du Moulin de la Galette, Pierre-Auguste Renoir
- L’Absinthe, Edgar Degas
- Paris Street; Rainy Day, Gustave Caillebotte
- Impression, Soleil Levant, Claude Monet
- Girl Arranging Her Hair, Mary Cassatt
- Dancers, Pink and Green, Edgar Degas
Although famous artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin are sometimes referred to as Impressionists, they’re actually part of the Post-Impressionist movement which focused on formal structure.
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