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Monet Poppy Fields
Photograph: The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Kimball Collection.

Famous impressionists in art history

These famous impressionists changed the course of art history forever

Written by
Howard Halle

You may be familiar with some of the most famous impressionists, but do you know the origin of the term "impressionism"? In 1874, a group of 30 artists—Paul Cèzanne, Edgar Degas and Claude Monet among them—mounted an exhibition in the studio of Nadar, a pioneering figure in the history of photography. It was not a hit with the critics, and one dubbed the group Impressionists after seeing Monet’s contribution: a landscape painting title Impression, Sunrise. The term was meant as an insult, suggesting that the paintings were mere impressions, rather than finished works—and hence, not presentable. But it stuck and was soon embraced by the artists associated with the style.

Since then, Impressionism has become one of the most beloved movements in art history. You can view many examples of the works of these artists at museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA and the Guggenheim. Before you head out, however, brush up on your art history knowledge with our quick guide to some of the most famous impressionist painters ever. You'll recognize their works, but now you'll know a little more about them before you see their paintings in person. 

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Famous Impressionists

Édouard Manet (1832–1883)
Photograph: Musée d'Orsay

1. Édouard Manet (1832–1883)

Though Manet is generally considered one of the leading figures of Impressionism, his work was distinct from other artists in the movement. Initally influenced by Old Masters such as Velaquez, Hals and Goya, he broke with tradition by introducing elements of modern life into his scenes. (As in his Luncheon on the Grass, in which a classical nude model joins a pair of ordinary-looking, clothed men on a picnic.) It was only in his later work that he adopted the loose brushwork and subject matter we think of as Impressionist. Born into an affluent Parisian family, Manet rejected a law career to pursue painting. In the 1870s, he contracted syphilis, which led to numerous health complications—including a gangrenous foot which had to be amputated in April, 1883, precipitating his death soon after.

Claude Monet (1840–1926)
Photograph: Musée Marmottan Monet

2. Claude Monet (1840–1926)

The defining figure of Impressionism, Monet gave the movement its name with his painting, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), 1872. Monet was known for his studies of light and color, and often returned to the same themes (haystacks, the cathedral in Rouen, France), to capture them at different times of day or in different seasons. Born in Paris, he grew up in the port city of Le Harve, becoming a painter after he defied his father’s wishes to join the family grocery business. Besides painting, Monet is famous for the garden he cultivated for his house in Giverny northwest of Paris. It became a source of subject matter for his paintings, especially for his nearly abstract images of the garden’s lily pond.

Edgar Degas (1834–1917)
Photograph: Musée d'Orsay

3. Edgar Degas (1834–1917)

Degas surprisingly called himself a realist instead of an Impressionist. Known for depicting the worlds of dance and horse racing, his work betrays the influence of the then-nascent medium of photography, and certainly his canvases captured what would later be called the “decisive moment,” in which an image embodies a frozen instance in time. (As in The Dance Class, 1873–1876, where the action seems to have been called to a abrupt halt by the ballet instructor.) Moreover, Degas abjured painting outdoors like many of his contemporaries. “No art was ever less spontaneous than mine,” he once remarked. He was born in Paris to a Creole mother from New Orleans and a banker father, and like Manet, chose art over a law career. A difficult person, Degas remained a perennial, as well as misanthropic, bachelor who espoused politically reactionary and anti-Semite views. He died in 1917, five years after he stopped working due to failing eyesight.

Camille Pissarro (1830–1903)
Photograph: The Hermitage

4. Camille Pissarro (1830–1903)

A Danish-French Jew, Pissarro was a transitional figure between the Impressionist and the Post-Impressionist painters. Indeed, his short, choppy brush marks and staccato daubs had more in common with Seurat, Signac and Cézanne than they did with Monet’s more fluid approach. (This can be seen in paintings like Boulevard Montmartre à Paris, 1897, which captures the bustling traffic outside a hotel window.) Pissarro liked to work outdoors, painting many rural landscapes over his career. Born on St. Thomas in what is now the American Virgin Islands, Pissarro also lived in London for a time, returning there on several occasions to paint the Kew Gardens and other London scenes.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919)
Photograph: The Phillips Collection

5. Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919)

Renoir is arguably the most beloved Impressionist and it’s easy to see why. He painted the world of Belle Epoque Paris as a kind of bohemian idyll, rendered in a lush, sensual style that quite literally put the pink of the good life into his subjects’ cheeks. His landscapes were equally sumptuous, and his portraits idealized his sitters. He was born in Limoges into a family of modest means, which may account for the aspirational tenor of his art. Renoir entered the Impressionist orbit after meeting Alfred Sisley, Frédéric Bazille and Monet while studying with the Swiss artist Charles Gleyre. Though immensely popular now, Renoir initially had a rough go at making ends meet to the point of being unable to afford art supplies.

Mary Cassatt (1844–1926)
Photograph: National Gallery of Art

6. Mary Cassatt (1844–1926)

Born into an upper-middle-class family, Cassatt is the best known of the female painters associated with Impressionism. She initially studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia before moving to Paris in 1866. A friend and admirer of Degas, Cassatt became known for intimate domestic scenes with women and girls as the main focus. Later in her career, her work was shaped by the period fashion in France for Japanese art and design. By 1914, she was almost blind, and stopped making art. She would live for another dozen years before dying at Château de Beaufresne, outside Paris.

Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot (1841–1895)
Photograph: The Cleveland Museum of Art

7. Berthe Marie Pauline Morisot (1841–1895)

The next best-known female Impressionist after Mary Cassatt, Morisot seemed to have borrowed a little something from just about all of her Impressionist contemporaries. Starting out by doing watercolors and drawings, she eventually transitioned to oil painting, for which he developed a light, almost feathery, style characterized by rapidly applied, sinuous stokes. (Her brushwork most closely resembles that of late Manet, and in fact, she was married to Manet’s older brother, Eugène.) As with Cassat, women served as a main subject for Morisot, along with landscapes. She died from pneumonia, contracted while nursing her 16-year-old daughter through a bout of the same illness.

Gustave Caillebotte (1848–1894)
Photograph: Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

8. Gustave Caillebotte (1848–1894)

Born into a wealthy family, Caillebotte lived off an inheritance that permitted him to make art without worrying about sales, and which also allowed him to buy the work of his fellow Impressionists and fund their exhibitions. Like Degas, his style was more realistic than that of his contemporaries. Indeed, you could say that some of his canvases were almost photo-realistic, or at least, uncanny in the way a photo can sometimes be. He painted interior scenes, cityscapes and the occasional rural scene, often employing extreme lines of perspective that gave his paintings a jittery dynamism that was sometimes at odds with the subject. These eccentricities of style may account for the fact that his work was largely forgotten until the 1950s, and not fully appreciated by art historians until the 1970s.

Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870)
Photograph: Courtesy Musée d’Orsay, Paris

9. Frédéric Bazille (1841–1870)

Like Gustave Caillebotte, Frédéric Bazille was born into wealth, and used his money to help support his fellow Impressionists. He took up painting after seeing the work of Délacroix, but his family expected him to become a doctor, so after moving to Paris in 1862 from his hometown of Montpellier in Southern France, he studied both art and medicine at the same time. Two years later, he failed his medical exam and took up painting full time. Bazille’s work focused on figures, which he often inserted into landscapes. He joined the French Army at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian in 1870, and died in November of that year during the Battle of Beaune-la-Rolande, in which the French were routed by Prussian forces.

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