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Curley Family Library main page: Impressionism as Social History

The Impressionists from A&E

Impressionism from the Heilbrunn Timeline at the Met


Several of the Impressionists lived in the country for part or all of the year. New railway lines radiating out from the city made travel so convenient that Parisians virtually flooded into the countryside every weekend. While some of the Impressionists, such as Pissarro, focused on the daily life of local villagers in Pontoise, most preferred to depict the vacationers' rural pastimes. The boating and bathing establishments that flourished in these regions became favorite motifs. In his 1869 La Grenouillère  for example, Monet's characteristically loose painting style complements the leisure activities he portrays. Landscapes, which figure prominently in Impressionist art, were also brought up to date with innovative compositions, light effects, and use of color. 

Perhaps the prime site of modernity in the late nineteenth century was the city of Paris itself, renovated between 1853 and 1870 under Emperor Napoleon III. His prefect, Baron Haussmann, laid the plans, tearing down old buildings to create more open space for a cleaner, safer city. Also contributing to its new look was the Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), which required reconstructing the parts of the city that had been destroyed. Impressionists such as Pissarro and Gustave Caillebotte enthusiastically painted the renovated city, employing their new style to depict its wide boulevards, public gardens, and grand buildings. While some focused on the cityscapes, others turned their sights to the city's inhabitants. The Paris population explosion after the Franco-Prussian War gave them a tremendous amount of material for their scenes of urban life. Characteristic of these scenes was the mixing of social classes that took place in public settings. Degas and Caillebotte focused on working people, including singersand dancers, as well as workmen. Others, including Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, depicted the privileged classes. The Impressionists also painted new forms of leisure, including theatrical entertainment (such as Cassatt's 1878 In the Loge [Museum of Fine Arts, Boston]), cafés, popular concerts, and dances.