Impressionism for Beginners #7: The First Impressionist Exhibition, 1874

This is a series of short articles offering a simple yet detailed overview of art movements – an attempt to make art history more “digestible.” The series begins with a look at Impressionism.

The first Impressionist exhibition took place from April 15 to May 15, 1874. It was held in the former studio of photographer Nadar, which was located at 53 Boulevard des Capucines in Paris, France.

As mentioned in the previous entry of this series, this exhibition had been organised by a group of artists whose works had been repeatedly rejected by the French Academy and, therefore, not exhibited at its regular official and state-supported Salon. It also marked the first time that a group of artists organised an independent exhibition of this kind.

During the exhibition, 30 artists displayed more than 200 works. Notable works displayed included Paul Cezanne’s A Modern Olympia, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Dancer and Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise – which will be discussed in more detail in the next entry. The entrance fee was one franc. According to many sources, the works were seen by about 4000 people.

The Dancer. Pierre-Auguste Renoir. 1874. This was one of the works exhibited during the first Impressionist exhibition.

As expected, the vast majority of the art critics of the time were short-sighted and had little good to say about the first eight Impressionist exhibitions that took place from 1874 to 1886. It’s more than likely that this was because in doing so, they would be protecting the interests of Academic Art values, which they championed as part of the system that monopolized artistic production in France.

Louis Leroy was a critic who became particularly notorious for titling his derisive review of the inaugural 1874 event as “The Exhibition of the Impressionist,” taking his queue from one of Monet’s painting, Impression, Sunrise. What meant to be a derisive term provided the group of artists with a clear identity and by their third exhibition, they started promoting themselves as Impressionists.

Not all critics were unfavourable to the Impressionists. Jules Castagnary, for example, was among their earliest supporters. In response to the works exhibited in the first exhibition, he wrote that they were “lively, brisk, light – captivating. What a rapid grasp of the object and what an amusing fracture. It’s summary, agreed, but how spot on the marks are!”

Jules-Antoine Castagnary. (1830-1874). One of the first art critics to embrace Impressionism.

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