origin of ‘impressionist’ and ‘impressionism’

The noun impressionist (from French impressionniste) designates a painter who was an exponent of impressionism. The noun impressionism (from French impressionnisme) denotes a movement in painting developed in France in the last third of the 19th century, characterised by a concern with depicting the visual impression of the moment, especially in terms of the shifting effect of light and colour.

Impressionism met at first with derision, and it is precisely in a scornful article that the French noun impressionniste is first recorded. This article, L’Exposition des impressionnistes (The Exhibition of the impressionists), by the French journalist and art critic Louis Leroy (1812-1885), was published in Le Charivari (Paris, France) of 25th April 1874.—However, cf. note 1 for a possible early occurrence of the French noun impressionnisme.
—Context: From 15th April to 15th May 1874, the artists who came to be known as the impressionists, held, as the Société anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc. (Limited society of painters, sculptors, engravers, etc.), their first exhibition in the salon of the French photographer Nadar (Gaspard Félix Tournachon – 1820-1910), 35 Boulevard des Capucines, in Paris.
Leroy’s article, which ridicules those artists, takes the form of a fictional dialogue between the author and Mr. Joseph Vincent, “paysagiste, élève de Bertin [note 2], médaillé et décoré sous plusieurs gouvernements” (“landscape painter, pupil of Bertin [note 2], recipient of medals and decorations under several governments”).
It must be noted that, although, in this article, the noun impressionniste is particularly associated with Impression, Soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) [note 3], the title of a painting by Claude Monet (1840-1926), Louis Leroy uses the nouns impressionniste and impression, the verb impressionner and the adjectives impressionnant and impressif in reference to the various paintings on display.
This is the passage in which Leroy mentions Impression, Soleil levant:

Je jetai un coup d’œil sur l’élève de Bertin : son visage tournait au rouge sombre. Une catastrophe me parut imminente, et il était réservé à M. Monet de lui donner le dernier coup.
— Ah ! le voilà, le voilà ! s’écria-t-il devant le n° 98. Je le reconnais le favori de papa Vincent ! Que représente cette toile ? Voyez au livret
— « Impression, Soleil levant. »
— Impression, j’en étais sûr. Je me disais aussi, puisque je suis impressionné, il doit y avoir de l’impression là-dedans… Et quelle liberté, quelle aisance dans la facture ! Le papier peint à l’état embryonnaire est encore plus fait que cette marine-là !
I glanced at Bertin’s pupil: his face was turning a deep red. A catastrophe seemed to me imminent, and it was reserved to Mr. Monet to give him the final blow.
— Ah! there he is, there he is! he cried in front of n° 98. I recognise him, papa Vincent’s favourite! What does that canvas depict? Look at the catalogue
— “Impression, Sunrise.”
— Impression, I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I am impressed, there has to be some impression in it… And what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape!

These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of the English noun impressionist that I have found:

1-: From Paris Gossip, published in The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of 30th March 1875:

(From our Correspondent.)
Paris, Sunday.
Apropos of sales. The Hotel Drouot—that is, the Paris Public Sales’ Rooms—was full, not many days ago, to see the sale of pictures, painted by a new school of painters, who call themselves impressionists or impressionalists. These are, in painting, what Wagner’s operas are in music—they are the “painting of the future.” The painters have evidently studied the Belgian painter, Woerst. They have, however, only copied his defects, without catching a spark of his extraordinary genius. There is some meaning in Woerst’s pictures—there is none in these impressionists’ fogs. They remind us of the spiritualists’ paintings we once saw in New Bond-street, London—you had to have a key to understand them, and even then—

2-: From The Examiner (London, England) of 22nd April 1876:


There is an exhibition of paintings and etchings now displayed in Paris which commands attention more by its strangeness than its merits. It announces itself as a collection of pictures “made by a group of artists,” and with this title, affected as it is, one would not perhaps quarrel if there were anything like a common aim among the artists who compose the “group.” But the avowed object of the exhibition is to impose a new school of art upon the public taste; and between such skilled draughtsmen and painters as MM. Legros [note 5] and Lepic [note 6], and the painters who choose to overthrow every recognised rule of art in favour of their own theory, it is difficult to find any similarity. Of the productions of this new school one can only imagine that the painters’ brushes have been endowed with an insane and epidemic life, and have overmastered their wielders with the strength of insanity. These victims of an unlucky disease, who are known by the names of “Impressionists,” “Sensationalists,” “Intransigentes,” [sic] and “Painters independent of Rules,” appear to be afflicted with two theories. One of these is that, if a man with some knowledge of how colour is applied to canvas goes out into the fields or woods and daubs down some combination of paints which may to an intent observer suggest the kind of light which it is desired to reproduce, he will have produced a fine picture. By carefully looking into the effects produced upon this plan one can no doubt determine pretty accurately whether the so-called picture is meant to represent the effect of morning, noon, or evening. But the things from which these impressions have to be derived are the mere humid dashing-down of colours which a painter might make up for a complete study executed within closed walls, but which he never ought to offer to a spectator as a picture. They are mere jottings, as incoherent as those which might be found in the note-book of a writer who had collected certain statements for the purpose of an article. The artists, as they call themselves, of this school have evidently said to themselves, “By mixing such and such colours together, and splashing them on to our canvases, we can indicate what kind of place and what sort of light we wish to represent; and what more is wanted?” An actor who had to play Cassio’s drunken scene might just as well say, “If I come on to the stage with a stagger and a hiccup, the audience will see that I mean to appear intoxicated, and what more need I do?”
This singular theory of the “Impressionists” leads sometimes to results which are literally appalling, as in the “Effet d’Automne” of M. Claude Monet. Careful observation and reflection induce us to think this picture is intended to represent a kind of gondola coming down a stream bordered by autumn foliage; but of what may or may not be the autumn foliage the closest study can make nothing but an ill-managed display of fireworks, in which all the effects have, by the carelessness of the man in charge, been let off together in a tempest of hideously coloured smoke and flame. The same painter exhibits “La Promenade,” in which there is an undoubtedly clever effect of airiness and breeze, but in which the figure of the woman seen on a hill against the sky is of exactly the same texture as that of the clouds; and “La Prairie,” in which again the impression of coolness and distance is blemished by the figure of a woman sitting among the grass, who seems made of the lightest possible gauze. The painter’s most striking work, however, is “Japannerie,” a lady in Japanese costume, composed of the most daring and discordant combination of yellows, reds, and greens. The effect is as hideous as the execution is woolly.
Another effect in which some of the “Intransigentes” delight seems to be explained by the fact that white can be resolved into the prismatic colours. Consequently, whenever they have a white or even a flesh-coloured object to reproduce they paint it in all the colours of the rainbow. M. Renoir [note 7] exhibits a portrait of an old man, whose hair, by the judicious carrying out of this principle, appears absolutely green; many artists produce women in dresses which are supposed to be white, and which are represented as horribly prismatic; and there is one picture of a naked model which, in its ugly form and dirty many-hued colour, is alike horrible and shocking. The form may be true to nature—in that case the painter should have chosen a better model; of the colour happily no human being has ever seen the like.
It is startling to find such good work as that of MM. Lepic, Legros, and Caillebotte [note 8] associated with the intolerable monstrosities which are the result, we fear, of affectation rather than of madness. M. Lepic’s feeling for landscape is somewhat stern, but it has always unusually fine qualities. Perhaps among many pictures which are good, his best effort is “Le Beaupré,” the bowsprit of a vessel protruding in the foreground among gnarled stumps of wood, with a middle distance of sea, broken by buoys, and beyond that a village on the shore. The effect of atmosphere in this is surprisingly true. M. Legros’s etchings, especially those in dry paint, are better than his few coloured contributions. He shows a portrait of Mr. Carlyle; the head is fine, but unfortunately it has no kind of likeness to the subject of the portrait. This may possibly be the result of the “Intransigentes” theories. They perhaps think that both their portraits and their landscapes should assert a superiority to nature by being as unlike it as possible.
M. Caillebotte’s contributions, which treat of the most ordinary aspects of life, are marvellously clever and careful; they are indeed almost over-careful, and thus offer a pleasant relief to much that is seen in the same gallery. But the perspective in some cases, and notably in that of a young man playing the piano, is hopelessly wrong.
M. Deguy [note 9] has devoted his art, such as it is, principally to the illustration of ballet-girls and washerwomen. He has a firm and sweeping touch which might do good service with better subjects.
Judged as a whole, the exhibition is a lamentable example of the charlatan spirit which threatens to prevail among artists of all countries. Some methods and tricks of the old school may well be put away and done with, but let us hope that their place may not be filled by the childish extravagances which seem good to the eyes of the “Group of Artists.”

3-: From Parisian Festivity, a letter by the U.S.-born British novelist and critic Henry James (1843-1916), published in the New York Tribune (New York City, New York) of 13th May 1876:

Paris, April 22.—[…] An exhibition for which I may at least claim that it can give rise (at any rate in my own mind) to no dangerous perversities of taste is that of the little group of the Irreconcilables—otherwise known as the “Impressionists” in painting. It is being held during the present month at Durand-Ruel’s [note 10], and I have found it decidedly interesting. But the effect of it was to make me think better than ever of all the good old rules which decree that beauty is beauty and ugliness ugliness, and warn us off from the sophistications of satiety. The young contributors to the exhibition of which I speak are partisans of unadorned reality and absolute foes to arrangement, embellishment, selection, to the artist’s allowing himself, as he has hitherto, since art began, found his best account in doing, to be preoccupied with the idea of the beautiful. The beautiful, to them, is what the supernatural is to the Positivists—a metaphysical notion, which can only get one into a muddle and is to be severely let alone. Let it alone, they say, and it will come at its own pleasure; the painter’s proper field is simply the actual, and to give a vivid impression of how a thing happens to look, at a particular moment, is the essence of his mission. This attitude has something in common with that of the English Preraphaelites [note 11], 20 years ago, but this little band is on all grounds less interesting than the group out of which Millais [note 12] and Holman Hunt [note 13] rose into fame. None of its members show signs of possessing first-rate talent, and indeed the “Impressionist” doctrines strike me as incompatible, in an artist’s mind, with the existence of first-rate talent. To embrace them you must be provided with a plentiful absence of imagination. But the divergence in method between the English Preraphaelites and this little group is especially striking, and very characteristic of the moral differences of the French and English races. When the English realists “went in,” as the phrase is, for hard truth and stern fact, an irresistible instinct of righteousness caused them to try and purchase forgiveness for their infidelity to the old more or less moral proprieties and conventionalities, by an exquisite, patient, virtuous manipulation—by being above all things laborious. But the Impressionists, who, I think, are more consistent, abjure virtue altogether, and declare that a subject which has been crudely chosen shall be loosely treated. They send detail to the dogs and concentrate themselves on general expression. Some of their generalizations of expression are in a high degree curious. The Englishmen, in a word, were pedants, and the Frenchmen are cynics.

The earliest occurrence of the English noun impressionism that I have found is from The Daily News (London, England) of 10th April 1877:

The Impressionists have opened a gallery of their own in Paris. There is nothing in this news to alarm the friends of order, though the word Impressionist does somehow seem to denote a new and ferocious sort of Communist. The gentlemen who call themselves by this queer name are merely painters bent on being original. The number of the names is about eighteen, but the paintings are very numerous; for your Impressionist, when once he has his brush full, “pulls it through,” to adopt a term from the art of boating, with very great vigour and smartness. English artists may be surprised to hear that Impressionism came from England, like free thought and constitutional government. Like these other things, it has been much altered on the road. The Impressionist appears, if we may judge from a work of the school which was exhibited last year in London, to paint in this wise. He gets two florid people to sit under a broiling mid-day sun, beside a piece of water of the harshest blue; he goes within a few feet of his group, armed with a palette covered with cobalt, vermilion, and white, and he dashes off a rapid record of his impression. The result is a thing not unlike a masterly, but too glaring, tinted advertisement of some one’s patent starch factory. Now, the fact that all Impressionists paint in this noisy style proves one of two things. Either, when people look at the visible world without prejudice and in forgetfulness of the traditions of art, they all receive the very same impression, or the Impressionists are affected persons who all take up the same fashion. It is said that they find cobalt come so expensive that they admit a peculiar black on their palettes, in company with the white and the vermilion, and this black they call “the poor man’s cobalt.” There is said to be force among the Impressionists, and, like the members of other modern schools, they will wake one day to their collective error, and go each rejoicing on his own way.


1 According to the French journalist and politician Antonin Proust (1832-1905) in Souvenirs sur Édouard Manet [note 4], published in La Revue blanche (Paris, France) of 15th April 1897, the noun impressionnisme was coined as early as 1858:

Au sujet de l’expression « impressionnisme » qui est venue non pas comme l’a écrit M. Benedite d’un tableau de Claude Monet exposé sous le titre d’Impression, mais qui a pris naissance dans nos discussions de 1858, il [i.e., Édouard Manet] disait volontiers : « —Un artiste doit être spontanéiste. Voilà le terme juste. Mais pour avoir la spontanéité, il faut être maître de son art. »
About the expression “impressionism” which did not originate, as Mr. Benedite wrote, from a painting by Claude Monet exhibited under the title of Impression, but from our discussions of 1858, he [i.e., Édouard Manet] readily said: “—An artist must be spontaneist. This is the proper term. But to have spontaneity, one has to be master of one’s art.”

2 Perhaps the French painter François Édouard Bertin (1797-1871).

3 This is Impression, Soleil levant (1872), by Claude Monet—image Wikimedia Commons:

4 The French painter Édouard Manet (1832-1883) adopted a realist approach which greatly influenced the impressionists, using pure colour to give a direct unsentimental effect.

5 Alphonse Legros (1837-1911) was a French—later British—painter, etcher, sculptor and medallist.

6 Ludovic Lepic (1839-1889) was a French painter

7 Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was a French impressionist painter.

8 Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) was a French painter.

9 Misprint for Degas: the French impressionist painter Edgar Degas (1834-1917) is best known for his paintings of ballet dancers.

10 The French art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922) was an early champion of the Impressionists.

11 The Pre-Raphaelites were a group of English 19th-century artists who consciously sought to emulate the simplicity and sincerity of the work of Italian artists from before the time of the Italian painter and architect Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio – 1483-1520).

12 The English painter John Everett Millais (1829-1896) was a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

13 The English painter Holman Hunt (1827-1910) was a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

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