A new approach to painting

Jacques-Louis David, 'The Funeral of Patroclus', 1778
Detail from Jacques-Louis David, 'The Funeral of Patroclus', 1778
Today, Impressionist paintings are some of the most popular attractions in museum collections, but back in 1874, when Impressionists first exhibited their work, art critics and the public were shocked and outraged by them. To a public used to seeing the paintings exhibited at the annual Salon, with their formal Academic compositions and smooth surfaces, the work of Impressionists looked like unfinished preparatory sketches.
The annual Salon exhibition, organised by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, was the most important event in the French art calendar. Artworks were selected by an Academy jury which, of course, favoured Academic art over all others. 
Academic compositions, such as this painting, The Funeral of Patroclus by Jacques-Louis David, were based on the art of ancient Greece and Rome. In Europe, from the Renaissance until the late nineteenth-century, classical art was considered to be the finest form of art. Artists were expected to paint serious historical, religious, or mythological stories in an idealised manner. The skills of drawing and modelling were most highly prized, and paintings were supposed to be highly finished with no visible brush marks or areas of unpainted canvas left exposed. The intention was to create the illusion that a painting was a window into an idealised world.
Detail from Berthe Morisot (1841–1895), Le Corsage Noir, 1878
Detail from Berthe Morisot (1841–1895), Le Corsage Noir, 1878
Impressionist artists broke from Academic tradition by experimenting with subject-matter, technique and composition. They chose to depict scenes from contemporary life rather than the imagined past. They painted directly, spontaneously and en plein air. Their compositions were not always balanced; figures and forms in their paintings appeared blurred and blotchy by conventional standards. They did not try to conceal their brush marks or smooth the painted surface of the canvas.

In this work, Berthe Morisot depicts the figure of a seated woman with loose brushstrokes and dashes of paint. Even though the model would have been required to pose over several sittings, the picture appears as though it was painted rapidly. Critic Louis Leroy, who is credited with first describing the artists as ‘Impressionists’, mocked Morisot’s approach to painting in his review of the first Impressionist exhibition for the journal Le Charivari