Why impressionists?



Impressionism: a historical reconstruction

Why were the ‘impressionists’

called Impressionists?


On this page we will answer the next questions: What does impression mean? How were the 8 expositions from 1874-86 named? Where did the term ‘impressionist’ came from? What terms did the art-critics use? How did the Impressionists call themselves? What terms were used in important articles? What terms did friends use? What terms were used in other (foreign)  expositions with works of the Impressionists? What do our sources say?
In the end we will draw the conclusion that it is the most appropiate to call the 8 independent expositions held from 1874-86 in Paris ‘impressionist’. For more info on the art-critics, see.


What does impression mean?
Impression means the immediate effect of an experience; lively perceptions of our senses; the effect which exterior objects make upon the sense organs; the middle-term between subject and object (R2,p51). In 1874 Castagnary writes: ” They are Impressionists in the sense that they render not the landscape but the sensation produced by the landscape.” (R2,p52;R87,p265;R90I,p17). In 1877 Rivière wrote: ’their works are the result of sensations they have experienced’ (R2,p56;R90I).


How were the eight expositions named?
The so-called ‘impressionist’ expositions were not called that way, see. Only during the 3rd exposition in 1877 above the entrance door there was displayed ‘exposition des impressionnistes‘ (R2,p58). The 1st exposition in 1874 was called ‘première exposition’ and on top of that was mentioned ‘Société anonyme d’artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc.‘. The ‘Société anonyme d’Artistes…‘ was founded 1873/12/27. (Note: they were not called ‘société des impressionists’.) In the catalogues the most expositions were simply called ‘exposition de peinture‘, namely the second (1876), the third (1877), the fourth (1879), the fifth (1880), the sixth (1881), the eighth (1886).
The seventh exposition (1882) was called ‘exposition des artistes indépendants‘. Moffett writes this term was also used around the fifth and sixth exposition in 1880 and 1881 (R2,p19). This term was also used in 1880 on the poster (R3,p218+229). Pickvance writes this term was on the posters for the fourth exposition in 1879: ‘un groupe d’artistes Indépendants (R2,p252). Question is, who introduced this term for the 1882 exposition, which was organized mainly by Durand-Ruel. Durand-Ruel would open 1882/07/01 an ‘impressionist’ exhibition in London, so why didn’t he promote this term? The 7th exposition had just 9 partakers and all painted in an impressionist style, so why this term? Clear is that Renoir objected this term (R2,p421). The ‘Salon des Artistes Indépendants‘ who started their independant expositions in 1884 ‘stole’ this term ‘Indépendants’ from the Impressionists (R2,p24+19). Thus leaving the Impressionists with the term ‘impressionists’ whereas the term ‘Intransigeants’ already had faded out.


Where did the term ‘impressionists’ come from?
What terms did the art-critics use?
Untill 1874 the term ‘impressionist’ wasn’t used, only the term ‘impression’ which was used quite commonly (R2,p51+117). (Still Walther writes Duret used the term ‘impressionists’ in his review of the 1870 Salon, R3,p660). Louis Leroy called his article in ‘Le Charivari’ on 1874/04/25 ‘l’exposition des impressionnistes‘. Tucker points out that he was the first to call the group that way and also that it didn’t refer explicitly to Monet’s ‘Impression, soleil levant’, but to the group as a whole (R2,p117). In the article itself Leroy doesn’t use the term impressionists (R87,p259-261;R90I,p25+26). But Denvir cites Jules Claretie writing for ‘L’Indépendant’ 1874/04/20: ‘We have seen the exhibition of these impressionists…’ (R5,p88). This would mean Claretie was the first to use the term ‘impressionists’. (Note: Dayez, nor Moffett, nor Berson mention this review; R87;R2;R90I). Castagnary (Le Siècle, 1874/04/29) explicitly used the term ‘impressionists’ and wrote: ’they don’t render a landscape, but the sensation caused by the landscape’ (R3,p141). Other critics used other terms, like ‘le plein air‘,  ‘exposition de la Société anonyme…’, ‘exposition du boulevard des Capucines’, ‘exposition libre des peintres’ and ‘exposition des révoltés‘ (Silvestre and Cardon; R2,p490).
Around the second exposition in 1876 the art-critics use equally the terms ‘impressionists‘ and ‘intransigeants‘ (This term had revolutionary political connotations, something rebels and subversive, both with a negative and a positive connotation;  R2,p52-55+201). Emile Blavet uses the term ‘réalistes‘ (Le Gaulois, 1876/03/31). Around the third exposition in 1877 most art-critics use the term ‘impressionnistes‘. Rivière published 4x the magazine  ‘l’Impressionniste (R26, p168; R2,p56).
During the following expositions the terms ‘indépendants‘ and ‘impressionnistes‘ are used the most often. In 1879 and 1882  ‘indépendants’ dominates. Still in 1882 several critics use the term ‘impressionnistes’ even while the exposition was called ‘indépendants’. In 1880 the terms are used quite equal, while the poster speaks of ‘indépendant’ (R3,218+229) . In 1881 ‘indépendants’ is almost the only term used. In 1886, after the term ‘indépendant’ was ‘stolen’ by the ‘Salon des Indépendants‘ the term ‘impressionnistes’ dominated the critic reviews. During all the expositions neutral terms indication the street of the exposition are sometimes used, for example ‘exposition de la rue des Pyramides’ (see R2, p490-6).


How did the Impressionists call themselves?

  • In the first paragraph of his will, dated 1876/11/03, Caillebotte speaks of painters known as Intransigents or Impressionists (R2,p53+244;R102,p281). In a letter (1881/01/24) to Pissarro he doesn’t use these terms, but complained that Degas introduced ‘fighters for the great cause of Realism‘ (see).
  • In 1879 Degas suggested the term ‘un groupe d’artistes indépendants, réalistes et impressionnistes‘ (R2, p18+250). In early 1874 he wrote about a Realist Salon (R2,p110).
  • Renoir later would say that (in 1874) he objected against using a title with a more precise meaning (R2,p55) and in the preparations of the exposition in 1882 he opposed the term Impressionism (R2,p421).
  • Pissarro (1883/02/28): ‘Impressionism should be nothing more than a theory purely of observation, without sacrificing fantasy, freedom, grandeur, in short, all that makes for great art…’ (R2,p385).


What terms were used in important articles?

  • 1876/04, Edmond Duranty: ‘La nouvelle peinture à propos du groupe d’artistes qui expose dans les galeries Durand-Ruel’. (Eng. ’the new painting’, which is also the title of the catalogues of Moffett and Berson) (R2, p491;R140;R90I,p72-83).
  • 1876/09/30, Stéphane Mallarmé: ‘Les impressionnistes et Edouard Manet’ (Gazette des Beaux-Arts) (R2, p491;R141)
  • 1878, May, Théodore Duret: ‘Les peintres impressionnistes, Claude Monet, Sisley, C. Pissarro, Renoir, Berthe Morisot’ (R26, p168; R2,p243+262;R142). In a second edition he added Cézanne and Guillaumin (R142;R7).
  • 1879 and 1880, D. Martelli ‘Gli impressionisti‘ (R26, p168).
  • 1883, J.K. Huysmans publishes ‘l’art moderne‘ (R5,p136/7; R26, p168;R144).
  • 1885/Februar: Duret publishes ‘Critique de l’avant-garde‘ (a series of articles) (R5,p142;R145).
  • 1886/09/19: Fénéon first uses the term ‘Neo-Impressionniste‘ in a review of the Salon des Indépendants (R39,p301).
  • 1894, Gustave Geffroy: Histoire de l’impressionnisme – La vie artistique, IIIe série (R2,p262;R157).
  • 1906, Théodore Duret: Histoire des peintres impressionniste (R2,p262;R261).


What terms did friends use?

  • 1877, August: Duranty wrote to Zola about their ‘Intransigent friends’ (R2,p244)
  • 1878/02/01: Martelli wrote about an Impressionist exhibition (R2,p246)

What terms were used in other (foreign) expositions with works of the impressionists?

  • Durand-Ruel organized in London the ‘(annual) exhibition of the Society of French artists‘ (starting 1870)
  • 1882 at Gurlitts Kunstsalon in Berlin ‘exposition impressionniste‘ (repeated in 1883)
  • 1882 in London ‘exposition impressionniste‘ organisée par Durand-Ruel’
  • 1882 in Paris Georges Petit starts the yearly ‘exposition internationale de peinture (et de sculpture)’ (R232)
  • 1883 in London at Dowdeswell ‘la société des impressionnistes
  • 1884 in London at Dudley ‘exposition de tableaux impressionnistes (appartenant à Durand-Ruel)
  • 1884 in Rouen ‘magnifique collection d’impressionnistes… (collection Murer)
  • 1885 in Brussels (Hôtel du Grand Miroir): ‘Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir et Sisley
  • 1886 in New York in April and later in May-June ‘works in oil and pastel by the Impressionists of Paris’; organised by Durand-Ruel
  • 1886-87 in New York in December and January ‘modern paintings‘; also organised by Durand-Ruel
    with works of Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir en Sisley.
  • 1888 in Copenhagen ‘exposition d’art Français
  • 1891 in Boston ’the impressionists of Paris; Monet, Pissarro, Sisley’ (collection Durand-Ruel)
  • (see also R22=Wildenstein, 1996, vol.IV, p.1016+1017)
  • from 1907-1913 there were several international ‘impressionist’ expositions (R249)


What do our sources say?

  • Moffett writes that in 1876 the artists already begun to call themselves Impressionists (R2,p18)
  • Eisenman writes that the decision for the term ‘impressionist’ over the term ‘intransigeants’ was made with the third exposition in 1877. But he leaves out the choice between ‘impressionist’ and ‘independent’. He also leaves out the international development / exportation of the term ‘impressionist’ (R2,p51-59).


I think ‘independant expositions of Impressionists, Realist and other artists’ is the best description for the 8 expositions held between 1874-86. But this description is a bit too long. So, what shorter term is the best to describe these expositions?
I think the term ‘independent‘ is the best to identify the eight expositions held from 1874-1886 in Paris. The expositions were deliberately independant from the Salon and later also from art-dealers. But this term ‘independent’ was taken over in 1884 by the ‘Société des Artistes Indépendants‘, so to leave out confusion this term is not suitable anymore. The second best term is ‘impressionist‘. It was often used by art-critics and others. In most expositions outside France the term ‘impressionist’ was used. It seems Durand-Ruel played an important role in that. (Still it is strange that the 7th exposition in 1882 in which Durand-Ruel had a major role, was called ‘indépendant’. It also is interesting to know which painters exhibited at these foreign expositions; so which painters were internationally becoming known as impressionists? Another question further more to be examined is: How did the impressionists call themselves in correspondences, etc.?).
The term ‘realist‘ never was used much and belongs more to the movement Courbet started, though many who did partake from 1874-86 painted in a realist style, namely Degas. The term ‘the new painting‘ (La Nouvelle Peinture) is only used in the article of Duranty (and with a variation as ‘modern art’ by Huysmans in 1883 and ‘modern painting’ in the New York exhibition of 1886/87). So it doesn’t seem quite fit that the 1986 exposition in San Francisco and Washington about the 1874-1886 expositions was called ’the new painting’. (Note: The catalogue of this exposition edited by Moffett is one of the main sources of this website.)
Summarizing I think the term ‘impressionist‘ still is the best term to give name to the eight expositions held in Paris from 1874-1886. These expositions are nowadays generally best known as the “impressionist expositions”, what is an important argument to go on to call them that way. Using another term doesn’t add to a good understanding. But it is good to realize these expositions contemporary were often not called that way. And it’s good to realize that the partaking artists were not all fully part of the Impressionist art movement, and that many partaking artists were not painting in an impressionist painting style. I therefore chose for the term ‘impressionist’ expositions, writing ‘impressionist’ between inverted commas, to make clear that the term is not fully appropriate.


My main source is the catalogue edited by Moffett (1986=R2). For the general references (=R) see. For other references to internet sites (=iR) see.


Recommanded citation: “Why were the ‘impressionists’ called impressionists? Last modified 2023/10/03.  https://www.impressionism.nl/why-impressionists/.”

Note: additional info will be added later.