Impressionism (Art Essentials) by Ralph Skea

Review by Liz Dexter, 28 January 2020

Another volume in the excellently done Art Essentials series, this volume on Impressionism is written by Ralph Skea, an artist and academic who has published several books on individual Impressionists with Thames & Hudson, so a good choice with a great depth and width of knowledge.

The book puts Impressionism firmly in its context as a reaction against the realist painting of often Classical subjects which artists in France were forced into learning how to do and reproducing.
The book puts Impressionism firmly in its context as a reaction against the realist painting of often Classical subjects which artists in France were forced into learning how to do and then reproducing. It is also clear about the precursors in the artists around the time the movement was starting, either those in other countries or those who were not content with vying for the Prix de Rome at the prescribed schools. Just to add to the shifting nature of the context, it wasn’t even a clear-cut matter of either attending the schools and being a realist or being eschewing the schools and being an Impressionist, as some people who ended up being Impressionists did in fact study at the schools then move away from their influence. There were also artists who embraced Impressionism early in their careers and were influenced by it, but then branched off into Pointillism, Fauvism, etc. For example, Gaugin moved away from the movement as he thought there was too much emphasis on just observation of everyday surroundings and not enough on interpreting feelings and thoughts. There’s a good emphasis on just how many and varied artists were involved in the radical group exhibitions.  And this stretched-out context means the book is far from being just a catalogue of those well-known paintings from right in the middle of the movement – and there’s more of that width of context to come, too.

Chapters on the American and Australian Impressionists introduced artists that were new to me, but clearly fit within the tradition, and it appears from the text that some of these artists’ reputations have been recently reclaimed. There is also good coverage of women artists, for example Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, who was the only American to exhibit with the French Impressionists.

Once these areas have been covered, the book talks about the influence of Impressionism, first of all making claims for re-including people in discussion of the movement such as Cezanne, for the Provencal watercolours of his late career. It’s clear that this is one of the major movements in art history (which we probably knew), with pieces in all major museums in the Western world and the movement and its artists being researched all over the world. The author also makes a convincing case for the legacy of the artistic principles of Impressionism around exploring the complexities of colour and light, and accepting that only a subjective, fleeting impression of the environment can often be captured.

The book is clearly laid out with illustrations on every page – 100 colour illustrations in all, and not just of the paintings you know, unless you’re also an expert. There are timelines for French, American and Australian Impressionism, a glossary, further reading and an index. It’s a great introduction to those attracted to the well-known pieces who want to know more, and the series as a whole certainly gives that experience on a huge range of art topics: the last one I reviewed was on street art.

Liz Dexter enjoys an Impressionist and spent a happy afternoon at Monet’s house in Giverny in her teens. She blogs about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Ralph Skea, Art Essentials: Impressionism (Thames & Hudson, 2019). 9780500294369, 175 pp., ill. paperback

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2 thoughts on “Impressionism (Art Essentials) by Ralph Skea

  1. Pingback: Book reviews – Harold Nicolson – “Journey to Java” and Sarah Henshaw – “The Bookshop that Floated Away” #amreading | Adventures in reading, running and working from home

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