The First Impressionist Exhibition - Monet and his gang go solo...


Impression: Soleil levant (Impression: Sunrise)
by Claude Monet


Monet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Cézanne, universally regarded as among the greatest artists of the Nineteenth Century, or of any century. But in 1873 things were very different.

The bourgeois press shunned them as amateurs without talent. Classical painters treated them with disdain. All venues at which they could display their work were closed to them, with one sole exception, the Salon des Refusés (Exhibition for Rejects). Then that closed down! They were in desperate straits. There was only one option left if they wanted their work to be seen. They’d have to go solo and organize an exhibition themselves.

La Danseuse (The Dancer)
by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Monet was nominated their leader and they set up their Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors & Engravers. For the exhibition location, they hired the photographer Nadar’s defunct studio at 35 Boulevard des Capucines. They selected the paintings to be exhibited, and arranged them on the walls. But while printing the exhibition catalogue a problem arose over what to call one of the Monet’s works.

The work in question was the now famous painting of the sun rising as seen from a room in the artist’s house in Le Havre. Monet proved unhelpful in providing a title. “It’s… the thing”, he replied vaguely. Edmond Renoir, the son of Auguste, pressed him to be more explicit. “All right... call it…. I don't know... call it... Impression”, said Monet, to which someone added Sunrise. And so the work became Impression: Sunrise (Impression: Soleil levant).

La Maison du pendu
by Paul 
Cézanne

The exhibition doors opened at 10 a.m. on 15 April 1874. A total of 165 paintings were exhibited, among them Monet’s Impression: Soleil levant. Several days later the journalist Louis Leroy wrote an article on the exhibition which he entitled The School of the Impressionists. In the article he imagines a traditional landscape painter visiting the exhibition and seeing Monet’s painting.

“What’s this one?” wonders the landscape painter. “Let’s look in the catalogue. ‘Impression: Sunrise’. Of course, what else or could it be? That’s what I told myself, since I’m so impressed!”

In this way the word Impressionist was invented, by someone in an article taking the piss.

The exhibition was a resounding failure! Only a handful of art critics bothered to turn up, and most wrote bitter reviews, accusing Monet and his gang of having “declared war on beauty”. A mere 3,500 people visited the exhibition.

It was also a financial disaster. Renoir, heavily in debt, was forced to sell 20 paintings for just 2,251 francs, painting which today would be worth millions!

And Monet’s Impression: Soleil levant? It is on permanent display at the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, and is one of the most famous paintings in modern art.

Proving that it sometimes pays to go solo!



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