The 1st Impressionist Exhibit: A Comprehensive Look

the 1st impressionist exhibitThe Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc., consisting of Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley, and Paul Cezanne, independently presented their works for the first time in 1874. The exhibition was held at 35 Boulevard des Capucines, the old studio of photographer Nadar. It was revolutionary to consider exhibiting outside of a formal gallery. No group of painters had ever staged a self-promoted exhibition outside of the yearly Salon of the official French Academy. The independent artists devoted to realistic depiction, color theory, and photographic experimentation presented an exhibition intended to challenge the aesthetics of the Parisian art establishment.

Paul Durand-Ruel, a driven and aspirational businessman who established a network of galleries in Paris, London, Brussels, and New York and organized several worldwide exhibits, is credited with developing the concept of exhibitions. He developed an interest in the new Impressionist painters upon his return to France in 1871. As he continues to support Courbet and the Barbizon artists despite being subjected to the worst criticism for his involvement in The Commune, he learns about Alfred Sisley and Edgar Degas, who were introduced to him by Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro.

After seeing Edouard Manet’s paintings at Stevens’ workshop, the buyer approaches the artist and buys 23 of the artist’s works for 35,000 francs in one transaction. He organizes shows in London where he displays his buys. During the year 1873, he meets Pierre-Auguste Renoir. His enormous purchases, which he regrettably cannot continue since there are not enough French collectors, not only support the artists financially but also lift their spirits. This demonstrated that there are alternatives to official exhibitions.

The most significant event in Western art at the time was the Paris Salon exhibition. A new style and artists with new concerns had no place in that event, which presented the old to the world. The jury members defended academic art in the Paris Salon, which functioned as the venue for “official art” (that taught at the French Academy of Fine Arts, which preserved, cared for, and imposed the classical norms of representation). As a result, a large number of those artists whom the official salon turned down the official salon as well and sought alternate routes.

In order to pursue a big adventure, the Impressionist group’s members feel confident enough in their skills and beliefs. They continue to get the same rejection from the Salon jury, so they may directly face the public and ask for its opinion, especially now that they have had some success. They feel the timing is right to stage this exhibition and take decisive action based on Durand Ruel’s activities and the prices some of their paintings have garnered at public auctions in Paris.

When Edouard Manet staged an exhibition of around 50 of his paintings in 1867, the impressionist artists’ collective addressed the issue of the necessity to exhibit independently display. The group of painters which include Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot, Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley, Paul Cézanne, and Frederic Bazille used to meet in the Batignolles neighborhood near the Café Guerbois, where Manet had his studio. They were known as the “Batignolles Group” for this reason. They also established the Anonymous Society of painters, sculptors, and engravers after 1873. The goal was to put together group exhibitions without judges, produce a magazine, and spread the word about the organization and its principles.

The first impressionist exhibition opened its doors four months later, on 15 April 1874, two weeks before the start of the Paris Salon that year. Roughly thirty painters displayed a total of 165 pieces in seven or eight rooms. The works were seen by about 4,000 people, including some rather unsympathetic critics. Naturally, as there was no jury selection, some of the artworks did not adhere to what is considered to be “Impressionism.” By the time it was closed on 15 May, history had been made. For the first time, Paris had witnessed a large-scale independent exhibition of avant-garde art mounted as a direct challenge to the salon, the academy, and the official art world.

Whether the large turnout of the public constituted, a success or a failure is still up for dispute. The issue is that the figure would be arbitrary given that many visitors reportedly paid admission to “make fun” of the newest and most “crazy” trends. Whether the enormous attendance was a success or a flop is still debatable.

There were both negative and positive reviews. Art critics did not take the show seriously, as they were not interested in the new ideas being put forward. Louis Leroy made a famous remark on Monet’s painting Impression, Rising Sun. He said: “Impression… The wallpaper in its embryonic state seems more finished than that seascape!” Ten days after the exhibition, the journalist’s remark on the “impression” earned the group the name “Impressionists.” Some people derogatorily used the phrase, while others positively did.

Prompting seven more group exhibitions of these and other artists over the next twelve years, this first impressionist exhibition became the symbol for the defiance of tradition and the emergence of a united modernist group.

Why was the first exhibition held?

The impressionist art movement included a group of painters exhibiting works at the Academy des Beaux-Arts’ annual Salon (exhibition) since at least 1874 to gain attention. The selection committee that chose the paintings to be shown often disapproved of the impressionists’ work. Additionally, when their pieces were approved, harsh art reviewers would often trash them. The issue was that the established art world demanded specific painting techniques, like blended brushstrokes, muted hues, and images from mythology, history, or religion. Consequently, most paintings accepted to the Paris Salon were moralizing, idealized depictions of historical, religious, and mythical themes that were created on smoothly polished canvases with balanced compositions and defined lines. The impressionist method, broad, broken brushstrokes, vibrant colors, and contemporary life depictions were entirely at odds with this.

Despite favoring the autonomous impressionist shows, Edouard Manet chose not to participate. He still wanted to convince the Salon jury and the art world of the worth of his work. Manet’s perspective was strengthened because, in 1873, he had a rare Salon triumph with a painting of a guy sipping a pint of Beer known as the Bon Bock (the Happy Beer).

Claude Monet resisted Eduardo Manet’s attempts to convince him to reject the notion of independent exhibitions. He and Degas regarded the exhibition as a chance to present their paintings to a broader audience and generate profitable sales.

Organization

The main organizers of the first exhibition were Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Venue

Claude Monet knew Nadar, a caricaturist, and photographer who was packing up his studio on the Boulevard des Capucines. This location was ideal. One of Paris’ four “grand boulevards,” The Capucines, was built as part of Baron Haussmann’s renovation of the city. It was 35 meters wide, tree-lined, and provided an excellent commercial location when it was completed in 1865. With floor-to-ceiling windows, Nadar’s studio on the third level was likewise roomy and well-lit.

The Anonymous Society

The leading proponents of the Société Anonyme des Artistes and the exhibition were artists who were continuously demoralized by the official rejection of their work. They had become determined to break the academy’s peculiar grasp on the preferences and sales of the Parisian art market. The most ambitious member of the group, Claude Monet, first met Camille Pissarro and Paul Cezanne in 1862 at the Académie Suisse, a studio for less fortunate students. He became friends with Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean-Frédéric Bazille, and Alfred Sisley, not long after at the Atelier Gleyre, where their teacher Charles Gleyre (1808-1874) defended academic doctrine despite being talented and kind. The following year, Monet convinced the other artists to leave Gleyre’s workshop after being irritated by his customary advice that “when painting a figure, one should constantly think of the antique.”

The six friends formed a close-knit group of innovators were soon joined by Berthe Morisot and Edgar Degas, two more like-minded individuals. Most of the independent artists began to frequently congregate at the Café Guerbois on Rue de Batignolles in 1866, where they spent numerous hours discussing art with friends like Édouard Manet, who was already recognized as a major avant-garde artist and sometimes had scholastic success. These painters were known as the Batignolles group because of the area where they congregated.

The Batignolles artists first imagined hosting their collective exhibition in 1867. However, because of their lack of resources, they had to be happy with having tiny, solo exhibitions in private galleries and sometimes having their more traditional pieces recognized by the Salon. However, in 1873, they were more angry than usual with the Salon jury since it seemed to be repeating the severe intolerance it had shown ten years earlier when it had rejected seventy percent of the 5,000 entries it had received. In response to the concerns of hundreds of artists, Napoleon III’s administration set up a separate exhibition of the rejected artworks in the Salon des Refusés (exhibition of rejects) throughout the preceding decade. Paul Cezanne, Édouard Manet, and Camille Pissarro had all taken part in the Salon des Refusés, with the latter creating a stir with his subversively classical but anticlassical Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863). Ten years later, the Batignolles decided to establish their association and have independent exhibitions since they did not want to associate their reputations with another “reject” Salon.

Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro agreed to form a joint stock company in which artists and their supporters would own shares after the notion of an independent exhibition was raised in 1873. The result was a slowdown. The charter, which sets out how the business should be run, was drafted by Monet and Pissarro over many months using the charter of a baker’s cooperative as a model. It was difficult since Claude Monet knew that the business should have no political objectives. Given that the authorities already held the impressionists in low regard and that Paris was beginning to recover from a communist uprising (known as the Paris Commune), Monet did not want to take any risks.

Following the completion of the charter on December 27, 1873, Monet and Pissarro had to solicit subscriptions for the company’s shares (for 60 francs a year, paid at the rate of 5 francs a month). Degas was instrumental in the effort to collect signatures.

Discord

The organizing committee consisted of Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Renoir Pierre-Auguste, Alfred Sisley, and Berthe Morisot. One of their first responsibilities was to determine if Paul Cézanne would be permitted to participate. The issue was twofold: Cezanne had already received specific criticism, and he intended to submit an odd piece titled A Modern Olympia. Only Pissarro, who was open-minded, supported including Cezanne on the committee.

In order to give the inaugural show respectability, Edgar Degas pushed for the inclusion of famous artists like Boudin, Bracquemond, and Meissonier. This put an end to the situation since the committee concluded they could not rule out one of their own if outsiders were to be taken into account.

The artworks need to be arranged next. Given the method by which the Salon judges selected the locations for the hanging of the paintings, this was another possible cause of conflict (placing artwork that they disapproved of near the ceiling, known as skying). Renoir supervised a method that included grouping paintings by size and drawing lots.

The catalogue, dates and tickets

Edmond, an aspiring journalist, and brother of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, handled the catalog. It boldly advertised the “Premiere Exposition” and cost 50 centimes. 10 am to 6 pm and then 8 pm to 10 pm were the hours of operation (to encourage as many to come as possible). Tickets cost one franc (the same price as Salon tickets). Three thousand five hundred people came in total. This translated into around 200 attendance on the first day and approximately 100 every day after that.

1st impressionist exhibition – 15 April – 15 May 1874

The first impressionist exhibition began April 15, 1874 and ran until May 15, 1874. The exhibition was held in the gallery of photographer Nadar at 35 Boulevard des Capucines, and the entry ticket was one franc (a catalog cost 20 centimes). About 175 pieces by 30 artists were on show. The core group of artists created more than one-fourth of the pieces on display, including twelve works by Claude Monet, ten by Edgar Degas, nine by Berthe Morisot, seven by Pierre August Renoir, five by Pissarro, three by Paul Cézanne, and two by Alfred Sisley. Despite neither joining the organization nor participating in independent impressionist exhibitions, Édouard Manet did give his colleagues a copy of Morisot’s Cache-cache (1873; hide and seek). It was not a competition like the Salon, where the top artworks received awards. All pieces were equal, hanging places were determined by drawing lots, and anything not already in a collector’s collection was for sale.

In stark contrast to the lavishly gilded frames seen in the Salon’s offerings, Camille Pissarro came up with the notion to put his paintings in less-obtrusive plain white frames. While Edgar Degas had been especially active in recruiting members for the organization, Renoir Pierre-Auguste was the only member of the organizing committee to attend and hung most of the paintings in the studio’s five rooms with red wallpaper. Another novel approach was to present the pieces alone or, at most, stacked one over the other (the Salon had paintings in four columns, making the top row very difficult to see correctly).

The oil paintings in the show established the iconoclastic hallmarks of the movement. These included depicting modern life and commonplace settings; catching brief moments in the middle- or working-class life or in nature’s rhythms; employing vivid colors on canvases free of the dark under painting favored by the academy; portraying the light, motion, or energy of the subject by short, rapid brushstrokes; enhancing the immediacy of scenes through cropped figures, props, or flattened perspective; and painting whole pieces outside (en plein air).

One hundred seventy-five people visited on the first day, which is not even close to the 10,000 people that visit the Salon every day. The 4,000 total visitors to the month-long exhibition needed to contribute more money to pay the expenditures of the exhibition when it closed its doors. There needed to be better sales. The most prosperous member of the group, Sisley, made 1000 francs. Pissarro made 130 francs, Monet and Renoir made little under 200 francs, while Degas and Berthe Morisot had no sales. Even worse, their project sparked fierce criticism from the majority of reviewers, who targeted the paintings’ unfinished appearance in particular since it, in their opinion, violated academic standards.

Paintings on display

The major paintings on display include: Sunrise, Dance Class, Hoar Frost, La Loge and Modern Olympia.

Impression, Sunrise (Claude Monet)

Impression, Sunrise - Claude Monet

  • Artist: Claude Monet
  • Year: 1872
  • Medium: Oil on canvas
  • Movement: Impressionism
  • Dimensions: 48 cm × 63 cm (18.9 in × 24.8 in)
  • Location: Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

When Claude Monet returned to Le Havre, in the Northwest of France, in 1872, he started painting the harbour there. The port is shown on the six painted canvases “during dawn, day, dusk, and dark and from various viewpoints, some from the sea itself and others from a hotel room looking down over the port”. After its debut in April 1874 in Paris at an exhibition put on by the organization “Painters, Sculptors, Engravers etc.,” Impression, Sunrise became the most well-known of the series.

Impression, Sunrise shows the harbour of Le Havre at Sunrise. The image’s main focus points are the two little rowboats in the front and the bright red Sun. More fishing boats are shown in the central area, while clipper ships with lofty masts can be seen in the painting’s backdrop on the left side. More hazy forms may be seen behind them, including “pack boat and steamship smokestacks, not trees, while to the right, in the distance, are other masts and chimneys silhouetted against the sky.” Monet removed the existing homes on the left side of the jetty to reveal these industrial characteristics while keeping the backdrop clear. This piece is among the top ten impressionist paintings. It has a vivid setting sun, short, unblended brushstrokes, and a contemporary landscape, all hallmarks of impressionism.

Dance Class, Edgar Degas

Dance Class - Edgar Degas

  • Artist: Edgar Degas
  • Year: 1874
  • Type: Oil paint on canvas
  • Dimensions: 83.5 by 77.2 centimetres (32.9 in × 30.4 in)
  • Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

The most ambitious paintings Edgar Degas created on the subject of dancing are this painting and a variation of it on display at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Approximately 24 ladies, including ballerina moms, watch while a dancer performs an “attitude” for her examination. Renowned ballet instructor Jules Perrot leads the session. The fictitious action takes place in a rehearsal space in the former Paris Opéra, which had just burnt down. A poster for Rossini’s Guillaume Tell honours the singer Jean-Baptiste Faure, who commissioned the image and loaned it to the 1874 Impressionist exhibition, on the wall next to the mirror.

Hoar-Frost, Camille Pissarro

Hoar Frost, Camille Pissarro

  • Artist: Camille Pissarro
  • Year: 1873
  • Medium: Oil paint on canvas
  • Location: Musée d’Orsay
  • Period: Impressionism

Danish-French artist Camille Pissarro chose the impressionist painting Hoar Frost to be shown at the First Impressionist Exhibition in Paris in 1874. It received harsh criticism from the reviewers for its coloring, the shadows cast by trees outside the frame, and what they considered a lack of polish. Pissarro paid the price for his invention in landscape painting: with no transition from a dark foreground to a brighter sky, no distinct frame like trees on the far left and right, and no feeling of distance but a flat image.

La Loge (The Theatre Box), Pierre-Auguste Renoir

La Loge (The Theatre Box), Pierre-Auguste Renoir

  • Artist: Pierre-Auguste Renoir
  • Year: 1874
  • Dimensions: 80 cm × 63.5 cm (31 in × 25.0 in)
  • Location: Courtauld Gallery, London
  • Period: Impressionism

La Loge depicts a young couple in a box at a Paris theatre. Nini Lopez, Renoir’s new model, who would appear in fourteen of his works over the next several years, posed as the lady. The man was his brother Edmond, a writer and critic of art. Going to the theatre was as much about making a good impression as it was about seeing the show, and as the lady makes her presence known, her partner scans the crowd via his opera glasses.

La Loge was shown at the Impressionists’ first collective show in 1874 to mixed reviews. One of the first Impressionist paintings to be shown in England, it was later displayed in London as part of an exhibition organized by his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel; however, neither showing saw any sales. The following year, the dealer “Père” Martin paid 425 francs to acquire it.

A Modern Olympia, Paul Cézanne

A Modern Olympia, Paul Cezanne

  • Artist: Paul Cézanne
  • Year: 1874
  • Medium: Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions: 18.1 x 21.9 in 46 x 55.5 cm
  • Location: Musée d’Orsay
  • Period: Impressionism

An earlier work by Paul Cezanne, dated to 1870 and inspired by Edouard Manet’s Olympia, handled the subject. His style had become more and more impressionistic by the time he returned to the topic, as shown in this painting. The picture has vivid, vibrant colors and has a definite impressionistic trend. This oil painting on canvas, created as an impressionist work, has shaky brushstrokes that casually describe the characters in the painting. It seems unfinished and almost like a draft. Given its style, it may not be surprising that this picture was created quickly and in the manner of a sketch.

The picture portrays a black servant lifting a bed cover to expose a naked Olympia. A balding, bearded man is perched on a sofa in the foreground, observing the action. The man is probably certainly Paul Cezanne. The subject matter is the same as Manet’s Olympia, despite the painting’s distinct style. Cézanne’s painting, like Manet’s, created a sensation when it was initially presented in 1874.

Critical Reaction

In an 1874 letter to a friend, Pissarro lamented, “The critics are eating us alive” (Bouruet Aubertot, 187). The assumption that all reviewers were hostile to the impressionists is a myth. Reviews were mostly favorable, even in the more conservative press, with many being indifferent. Nevertheless, other reviews were very negative. Most commentators criticized the painters’ overt brushwork as evidence of hasty and incomplete work. They disapproved of the hazy shapes and lack of draughtsmanship. The choice of subjects appeared strange, and the usage of specific colors was unusual. Press commentators’ most severe responses included the following: “wallpaper in its early stages is much more finished than that” (Roe, 129) and “…these are paint scrapings from a palette spread evenly over a dirty canvas. There is neither head nor tail, top nor bottom, back nor front” (Bouruet Aubertot, 189).

The most significant of the critics was Louis Leroy because he had dubbed the entire confusing exhibition’s artwork “impressionism” after being decidedly unimpressed by a Monet painting titled Impression, Sunrise. This was a disparaging phrase in Leroy’s eyes. He accused it of being a sketch or “ impression ”, not a finished painting. A notable critic who singled out Pissarro for particular criticism was Albert Wolff of Le Figaro, who said, “in no country on earth will you find the things he paints” (Bouruet Aubertot, 216).

Significance

The initial Impressionist exhibition was a crucial moment in the liberation of the movement’s founders and their followers from the academy’s long-standing rule over French art. The painters of the next generation of artists, some of whom were of the same age as the Impressionists, began as Impressionists and only later discovered their unique routes into the many styles such as Post-Impressionism and neo-impressionism. They included Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin, and Mary Cassatt. These artists were nevertheless beholden to Impressionism’s advances even after eschewing the movement’s fundamentally realism preoccupation with capturing the world as it seemed to pursue their more subjective visions.

The participants in the first Impressionist exhibition highlighted and prioritized the current moment as a source of inspiration equal to conventional topics by insisting on depicting the reality they lived and worked in—urban and rural. They also offered new possibilities for expressing space and time by showing their exploration with various methods for effectively capturing the fluidity of this moment. While their fascination with Japanese prints and photography resulted in a flatter, the more immediate portrayal of spatial dynamics, their concentration on brief, broken brushstrokes to depict changes in light, movement, and energy gave painting a new temporal dimension. The prominence of these rough brushstrokes and the way they drew the viewer’s eye to the canvas surface hinted at the focus on the medium rather than the subject matter in abstract painting to come. The Impressionists’ bold use of color also served as a springboard for the colorful paintings of the next generation, particularly those of Vincent van Gogh, Gauguin, and Georges Seurat.

The exhibition proclaimed the emergence of modern art, opening the way for post-Impressionism, abstract expressionism, Fauvism, and cubism, all of which partly owed their existence to French Impressionism.

What happened next?

Even though the exhibition was hardly a financial or critical success, Claude Monet sold 5 of his artworks, including “Impression Sunrise”, to Ernest Hoschede, a department store owner, for a total of 4,800 francs. However, things quickly became worse for the rest of the group when one of the main art dealers Paul Durand-Ruel stopped paying the monthly payments he was making to them.

The first exhibition led to seven more group showings in the next twelve years, as well as to the 1879 creation of a journal dedicated to Impressionism, La Vie moderne (modern life), with an art gallery adjoining the journal’s offices.

How did Edouard Manet fare?

Edouard Manet’s emphasis on the Salon was likewise unsuccessful. Two of the three pieces he submitted for the 1874 show were flatly denied. The Railroad, a touching portrayal of a mother and daughter at a railway station, came in third and received harsh criticism from reviewers.

Ironically, several reviews blamed Edouard Manet for the first exhibition since he chose not to participate. A crude review in La Presse referred to the group as “disciples of Monsieur Manet.” At the same time, a caricature in Les Contemporains portrayed Manet wearing a crown titled “Manet, King of the Impressionists.” 

Liquidation of the company

Pierre Auguste Renoir presided over a meeting of the company’s shareholders in December 1874. It only had 278 francs in cash and 3,713 francs in liabilities. Each exhibitor owed 184 francs and 50 cents. Everyone agreed that the company should be liquidated.

An auction and seven more exhibitions

The Impressionists did not, however, give up easily. When their 1875 auction at the Hotel Drouot did not go as anticipated, they organized a second exhibition in 1876 and six further exhibitions from 1879 through 1886.

Timeline of the Impressionist Exhibitions

  • 1874: The first Impressionist Exhibition
  • 1876: The second Impressionist Exhibition
  • 1877: The Third Exhibition
  • 1879: The Fourth Exhibition
  • 1880: The Fifth Exhibition
  • 1881: The Sixth Exhibition
  • 1882: The Seventh Exhibition
  • 1886: The Eighth Exhibition/the final impressionist exhibition

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