10 Most Famous Impressionist Paintings

Characteristics of an Impressionist painting include distinctive brush strokes, vivid colors, ordinary subject matter, candid poses and compositions and most importantly, emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities and unusual visual angles. Impressionism emerged in France in the middle of the nineteenth century. Prior to this art movement, still lifes and portraits as well as landscapes were usually painted in a studio. Impressionists broke convention and often painted outdoors capturing realistic scenes of modern life. Although the movement was initially criticized, it soon gathered a following and led to analogous movements in music and literature. Here are 10 of the most famous paintings of this revolutionary art movement.

#10 The Floor Scrapers

The Floor Scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte
The Floor Scrapers (1875) – Gustave Caillebotte
French Title:Les raboteurs de parquet
Location:Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
Artist:Gustave Caillebotte

One of the first paintings to feature the urban working class, The Floor Scrapers illustrates Caillebotte’s continued interest in perspective and everyday life. Note how beautifully Caillebotte captures the light through the window and the resulting shadows. The painting is also known for being as realistic as a photograph. It was rejected by France’s most prestigious art exhibition, the Salon, because the depiction of seminude working class men was deemed a “vulgar subject matter”. Now this painting is considered one of Caillebotte’s finest and is used by his admirers to compare him favorably to his contemporaries by citing the realism, rawness and preciseness with which he has depicted the scene.

#9 The Absinthe Drinker

L'Absinthe by Edgar Degas
The Absinthe Drinker (1876) – Edgar Degas
French Title:L’Absinthe
Location:Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
Artist:Edgar Degas

This famous painting by Degas is a representation of the increasing social isolation in Paris during its stage of rapid growth. The painting depicts a woman staring dully before her with a glass of Absinthe in front of her. A man who looks like an alcoholic sits beside her. Degas asked the famous actress Ellen Andrée and Bohemian artist Marcellin Desboutin to pose as two absinthe addicts in his favorite Parisian café, the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes in Paris. The people in the painting were considered by English critics to be shockingly degraded and clumsy and the woman was even derided as a whore. Some viewed the painting as a warning lesson against absinthe and the French in general. Later, L’Absinthe gained popularity and influenced works of many artists. It is now known for its uniqueness and considered a masterpiece.

#8 Pont Boieldieu in Rouen, Rainy Weather

Pont Boieldieu in Rouen, Rainy Weather
Pont Boieldieu in Rouen, Rainy Weather (1896) – Camille Pissarro
Location:Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada
Artist:Camille Pissarro

This painting marks the return of Camille Pissarro, the dean of impressionist painters, to Impressionism after a decade of experimenting with Post-Impressionism and Pointillism. Pissarro did a series of paintings of this bridge and its surrounding areas in different light conditions and weather. This is the most famous among them. Pissarro himself describes the painting as: “The theme is the bridge near the Placede la Bourse with the effects of rain; crowds of people coming and going; smoke from the boats; quays with cranes; workers in the foreground; and all this in grey colors glistening in the rain.”

#7 Luncheon of the Boating Party

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881) – Pierre-Auguste Renoir
French Title:Le dejeuner des canotiers
Location:The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., U.S.
Artist:Pierre-Auguste Renoir

In Luncheon of the Boating Party, Renoir uses elements of design like balance and harmony; and rich colors characteristic of Impressionist style to create a delightful image. Famous for its richness of form and masterful use of light, this painting is a romanticized portrait of Renoir’s friends enjoying an afternoon on a balcony along the Seine River. Among the people in the painting are Renoir’s future wife and another famous Impressionist painter, Gustave Caillebotte. The painting represents the changing character of French society in the late nineteenth century as a result of the industrial revolution; when restaurants welcomed people of many classes. Actor Edward G. Robinson said that for thirty years he periodically visited this masterpiece and stared at it, thinking of ways to steal it.

#6 Paris Street; Rainy Day

Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte
Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) – Gustave Caillebotte
Location:Art Institute of Chicago, U.S.
Artist:Gustave Caillebotte

Considered one of the greatest pictures of urban life in the 19th century, this painting is Caillebotte’s most famous and ambitious work. The piece depicts the Place de Dublin, an intersection near the Gare Saint-Lazare, a railroad station in north Paris. Even though there are no raindrops to be seen, Caillebotte masterfully creates the impression of rain through lighting, lack of strong shadows and impression of water on the street. Like many of Gustave’s paintings, this is also noted for its preciseness which gives it the appearance of a photograph. Paris Street Rainy Day remains widely critiqued especially its portrayal of the modern man, isolated and alone in the city.

#5 The Luncheon on the Grass

Le dejeuner sur l'herbe
The Luncheon on the Grass (1863) – Edouard Manet
French Title:Le dejeuner sur l’herbe
Location:Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
Artist:Edouard Manet

A nude woman casually lunching with two fully dressed men was an affront to the propriety of the time and Manet shocked the French public by exhibiting this painting at the Salon des Refuses in 1863. Although not a realist painting, it is a statement in favor of the artist’s individual freedom. Ever since it was first published, this painting has puzzled audiences and critics alike. There are various interpretations of the painting and people still discuss them at great lengths. According to famous French writer Emile Zola “The Luncheon on the Grass is the greatest work of Edouard Manet, one in which he realizes the dream of all painters: to place figures of natural grandeur in a landscape.”

#4 Impression, Sunrise

Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet
Impression, Sunrise (1872) – Claude Monet
Location:Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, France
Artist:Claude Monet

This painting is famous for giving a name to the Impressionist movement and has now become a quintessential symbol of Impressionism. It was not well taken by the critics and the term Impressionist was coined in a satirical review by Louis Leroy in which he went to the extent of saying: “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.” The Impressionist movement, however, soon became so popular that it spread to music and literature as well. The subject of the painting is the harbor of Le Havre in France. It is noted for very loose brushstrokes that suggest rather than define it. Monet uses color as the main factor to capture the very essence of the scene. An interesting thing about this painting is that if you make a black and white copy of it then the sun disappears almost entirely.

#3 A Bar at the Folies-Bergere

Un bar aux Folies Bergere by Edouard Manet
A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1882) – Edouard Manet
French Title:Un bar aux Folies Bergere
Location:Courtauld Gallery, London, U.K.
Artist:Edouard Manet

Last major work by Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere is noted for its detailed representation of a contemporary scene, which is shown through a mirror behind the central figure. The rich details in the painting provide clues to social class and atmosphere of the period. According to art historian Larry L. Ligo, the dish of oranges in the foreground implies that the barmaid is a prostitute, as Manet associated oranges with prostitution in his paintings. Another critic T.J. Clark says that she is represented “as both a salesperson and a commodity—something to be purchased along with a drink.” The painting has been a subject of much debate and some critics have accused Manet of ignorance of perspective, alleging various impossibilities in the painting. However, in 2000, a photograph taken from a suitable point of view of a staged reconstruction was shown to reproduce the scene as painted by Manet.

#2 Dance at Le moulin de la Galette

Bal du moulin de la Galette by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Dance at Le moulin de la Galette (1876) – Pierre-Auguste Renoir
French Title:Bal du moulin de la Galette
Location:Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France
Artist:Pierre-Auguste Renoir

One of Impressionism’s most celebrated masterpieces; and described as “the most beautiful painting of the 19th century”; this painting depicts a typical Sunday afternoon at Moulin de la Galette in the district of Montmartre in 19th Century Paris. The Moulin de la Galette was an open-air dancehall and café that was close to Renoir’s home. He frequently attended Sunday afternoon dances at this café and enjoyed watching the happy couples. So for him, it provided the perfect setting for a painting. Renoir reveals his true talent in Dance at le Moulin de la Galette, linking the art of collective portrait, still life, and landscape painting. It was Renoir’s most ambitious figure painting and no artist before him had created a canvas capturing an aspect of daily life of this magnitude.

#1 Water Lilies

One of the paintings from the Water Lilies Series by Claude Monet
French Title:Nympheas
Location:Various Museums
Artist:Claude Monet
Year:1896 – 1926

Monet’s series of the “Nympheas” have been described as “The Sistine Chapel of Impressionism”. The series consists of approximately 250 oil paintings which were painted by Monet during the last thirty years of his life. They are now on display in museums all around the world. The dazzling complexity of color and light in the “Nymphéas” panels opens the viewer’s eyes to the incredible diversity of nature and to the depth and mystery of the life it sustains. An amazing thing about these works is that Monet’s eyesight was badly deteriorating due to cataract while he painted most of these masterpieces. Giovanna Bertazzoni, Christie’s auction house director and head of impressionist and modern art, said “Claude Monet’s water-lily paintings are amongst the most recognized and celebrated works of the 20th Century and were hugely influential to many of the following generations of artists”.

9 thoughts on “10 Most Famous Impressionist Paintings”

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