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Monet to Matisse: Masterworks of French Impressionism is on view now!
Claude Monet (French, 1840 – 1926); Port of Dieppe, Evening, 1882 (Detail); oil on canvas; 27 ¼ x 28 ¾ inches; Collection of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Gift of Montgomery H. W. Ritchie, 1996.2.7

Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, appointed Georges Haussmann as Prefect of the Seine in 1853 and charged him with modernizing Paris. As Haussmann’s urban plan began to take shape, the French capital was transformed from a chaotic web of medieval streets to a more orderly system of wide, tree-lined boulevards. A new Paris emerged, bustling with energy in its many cafés, parks, and dance halls.

A drawing of the rebuilding of Paris under Haussmann’s command, from around 1860.
A drawing of the rebuilding of Paris under Haussmann’s command, from around 1860. Illustration: Alamy

As keen observers of the changes taking place around them, some artists working in Paris began to move away from more traditional forms of art rooted in history and religion. Instead, they dedicated themselves to “the painting of modern life” and to creating their work en plein air, or directly on location, to give a quick impression of a particular moment in nature.

Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet
Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet

In April 1874, a group of these artists calling themselves the “Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Printmakers, etc.” organized an exhibition in the studio of the pioneering French photographer Nadar. The work showcased a variety of media and touched on many subjects, from Normandy seascapes to Parisian street scenes.

Rather than shared ideals about art and art making, the main thing that tied together these artists, including Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, and Alfred Sisley, was their desire to present their work wholly separate from the conservative Paris Salon.

Ultimately, this group came to be known as the Impressionists, having been given that name by contemporary critic Louis Leroy in a mocking response to Claude Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise.

Over the next 12 years, the Impressionists had seven more independent exhibitions, where they continued to promote the practice of painting directly from nature and recording modern life as a means of conveying truth in art. In doing so, they changed the course of art history, revolutionizing the way art was viewed in Paris and eventually around the world.