The event recognized as the first Impressionist exhibition took place on April 15, 1874. This was a little over a decade after the 1863 Salon des Refusés, which I talked about in the previous article of this series.
That exhibition had been organised by the state-supported French Academy and had featured works that had been rejected by an official committee tasked with the selection of art works for the Academy’s regular Salon.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the Salon des Refusés had been a success because it helped draw attention to the existence of a new tendency in art that differed from the artistic values championed and promoted by the Academy.
Yet, it was not followed by a second edition between 1863 and 1874. This was arguably because the French Academy had recognised that success and seen it as a threat to its monopolisation of artistic production in France.
As a result, artist petitions and pleas to encourage the Academy and the state to organise another Salon des Refusés were constantly ignored. This led to a growing frustration among artists whose works were constantly rejected by the Salon’s selection committees and would eventually convince them to organise their own independent show.
The first Impressionist exhibition was organized by a group of 30 artists that would be known as the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (in English, the Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers). They would not refer to themselves as Impressionists until 1877.
The exhibition displayed a total of 165 art works. It would also have impacted art history significantly whether it would have marked the birth of a major art movement or not. In fact, no group of artists had ever organised a self-promoted show outside of the Academy’s annual Salon before.
Among the 30 artists of the group, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley and Frédéric Bazile stand out, as they represent a break with the values of Academic Art. The four had, in fact, studied under the Academic artist Charles Gleyre but had discovered a shared interest in landscape and contemporary life rather than the historical and mythological scenes.
Other major artists of the group were Edgar Degas, Camille Pisarro and Berthe Morisot. Many sources refer to Degas, Monet, Renoir, Pisarro and Morisot as the leaders of the group.
However, it is important to point out that no artist claimed to be the leader of the group. Furthermore, unlike many other art movements in history, Impressionism never had an official manifesto.