Like the writers of their era, the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters rejected what had become clichéd subject matter—the historical subjects of Classicism and the highly charged imaginative subjects of Romanticism. Instead, they choose to paint their lived experience. Keenly influenced by a rising historical sensibility, they were acutely aware of how quickly and fundamentally their world was changing. Art had a new purpose—to capture these modern times.
Key to understanding the Impressionists is therefore an understanding of the times they wished to capture, their cultural milieu in all its richness, including the philosophical, historical, artistic, and scientific trends. The French Revolution, for example, not only gave rise to a new sense of historicism, but also expanded the potential subject matter of art. Its new ideal of equality implied the need to treat bourgeois and working class subjects with high seriousness. This is one of the reasons the Impressionists depicted so many bourgeois women and children. The possibilities for new subjects seemed endless—from ballet dancers and circus performers to prostitutes and laborers.
The Impressionists also had innovative ways of working. With new portable paints, they were able to paint “en plein air” (in open air) instead of being tied to their studios. The newly developed paints also encouraged them to experiment with color. Train service allowed easy travel to the countryside on weekends and holidays, and the Impressionists began documenting this travel.
The collaborative nature of the Impressionist movement cannot be underestimated. Many of these artists painted in pairs, competing with and inspiring each other. After several very successful exhibitions, however, many of them sought new directions. Monet, for example, became interested in capturing more than the timely—time itself. Meanwhile Cézanne, who had exhibited in some of the first exhibitions, was already laying the groundwork for modern art, creating paintings that were simultaneously realistic and abstract.
His portrayal of the Bibémus quarry outside of Aix-en-Provence was cubist before the cubists, and his pictures of Monte Sainte-Victoire hewed to a minimalism that revealed the bare essence of his subject. Cézanne’s attempt to capture the uniqueness of place is also crucial to his project, and visiting Provence is fundamental to understanding his art.