Canvassing the Masterpieces: Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet

Completed in 1873, it serves as a place holder in the history of art and set the stage for thousands of works to come...

By Cécile Martet | 09 Aug 2023

Impression, Sunrise is undoubtedly Claude Monet’s most famous creation but it is also the work to know from the Impressionist movement because it’s the namesake! Completed in 1873, it serves as a place holder in the history of art and set the stage for thousands of works to come. So, without further ado, let’s dive right into it at the port of Le Havre.


A Lasting Impression

Claude Monet (1840-1926) was one of the founders of the Impressionist movement. He and his friends, Sisley, Pissarro and Renoir, among others are responsible for the conception of this anti-academic movement that started in the 1870’s.

The choice of themes, visible brushstrokes and the relaxed representation of figures shocked the public at the time. And yet, Impressionism will go down in history as the most illustrious art movement that influenced generations of artists to come.

L’Œuvre à la Loupe : Impression, soleil levant de Claude Monet
Impression, Sunrise, 1872, oil on canvas, by Claude Monet (Public domain)

Monet had originally named this painting View of Le Havre but when he chose to exhibit it in April 1874 for the Anonymous Society of artists, painters and sculptors, he changed the title. In the catalog the title read, Impression.

Critics often belittle an artist’s work with a simple adjective and then the artist re-purposes the derogatory term to describe their work, giving it a new connotation. Such is the case here. The art critic, Louis Leroy mocked this new venture in an article published that same year when he said…

“What does this painting represent? Impression! Impression, I knew it. I was also thinking, since I’m impressed, there must be some impression in there.”

To drive his point home, he even called it “The Impressionists’ Exhibition”.


Three Details You Don’t Want to Miss

1. The Rising Sun

The sun is the central point of this composition, easily distinguishable by its warm colours. Sitting in the sky as a point of geometric contrast to the rest of its surroundings, it shines over the misty port.

Many studies have been carried out about this scene and historians often debate: is it rising or setting? So in 2014, the Marmottan Museum (that houses this painting) published an extensive study on the work and its date/time of execution.

L’Œuvre à la Loupe : Impression, soleil levant de Claude Monet

Thanks to their work and topographical study of tides, weather reports and celestial trajectories, we can now be sure that this is indeed a sunrise.

The researchers even stated a precise date and time for its creation: November 13, 1872 at 7:35 am, just thirty minutes after dawn. Monet spent only a few hours on this painting while sitting in his hotel room on the Quays of Southampton. Little did he know that this work would forever change the course of art.


2. The Industrial Port

Monet was raised in Le Havre. He was well familiar with this landscape and the industrial activity that took place there. This port is one of his favourite subjects, a true embodiment of the Industrial Revolution, which was at that point, rather recent and utterly fascinating to many artists.

However, Monet was not the first to paint sunrises and sunsets. He was inspired by the works of William Turner. The difference between the two artists lies in the fact that Monet chose not to depict an awe-inspiring beach or cliff-side. Rather, he painted a familiar scene, which was far less romantic but much more topical.

L’Œuvre à la Loupe : Impression, soleil levant de Claude Monet

The smoke from the factories blurs the emerging sunlight, changing the atmosphere and colours. Within the smudged-looking air, we can see smoke billowing out of factory smokestacks and steamboats. But if you look even closer on the right hand side, you can make out the outline of a few cranes, which are commonly found on docks.

The scene displays a port that is in full operation, especially at dawn. Such is representative of the heavy development of maritime commerce that took place in the second half of the 19th Century.


3. That Impressionist Touch

Leroy, the critic coined the name “Impressionism,” added in his article that “the wallpaper in its embryonic state is better made than this ‘art’ “. In this instance, he is condemning Monet’s rapid, visible brush strokes that give the canvas its “unfinished” touch.

This technique is the defining factor of Impressionist art. Now referred to as a “painterly technique” by art historians, at the time it was shocking. Art was supposed to be academic and focused on the rules of composition. What’s more, Neoclassical art was all the rage. It was very uncommon to depict subjects that had little to do with antiquity, myths or biblical stories.

L’Œuvre à la Loupe : Impression, soleil levant de Claude Monet

Impressionists, on the other hand, painted “en plein air” (outside) and do so relatively quickly. The colours are not well-blended and are almost always juxtaposed in a barely realistic manner.

At the bottom of the canvas along the surface of the water, Monet applies long brushstrokes to portray movement and reflections. This was a truly revolutionary approach that made way for the creative development that brought us Pointillism and Fauvism in the decades to come.

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