The Impressionists and Photography


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The emergence of Impressionism can be seen, in part, as the artists’ response to photography. Light became an element with huge potential to exploit, capable of changing shapes themselves. Using this innovation as a starting point, the Impressionists experimented with new forms of expression.

Photography could capture moments never seen before, impossible gestures and body postures which painters could then transfer to their canvases. It granted artists a wholly different viewpoint and spurred them to bring photographic techniques into their creative approach and visual output.

Colours, perspectives and the magic of light

Witnessing the phenomenon of an instant trapped in an image must have been something akin to magic; the use of this technique changed painting forever. The artificial eye of photographers such as Le Gray, Cuvelier, Nadar or Disderi became a stimulus for artists like Monet, Manet and Degas in the development of an innovative way to view the world.

The camera obscura reflected the full chromatic range of visible colour, while the black and white images characteristic of photography’s pioneers revealed the intensity of these shades, revealing the previously unseen richness of the greyscale. 

Photography’s spatial representations also served as inspiration, changing frontal vision through the way cameras and different lenses (telephoto and wide angle) could capture and express space. Similarly, artists’ approaches to perspective, focus and visual field were also affected. And with regards to the deconstruction of movements, such as steps or sequences, the photographic experiments of Eadweard Muybridge are of particular significance.

Photography also impacted on the themes addressed in painting, as well as sparking an interest in spontaneity and the chance of capturing an instant of any given action.

The discovery of the electromagnetic spectrum opened up a whole new field to artists; painters, more than ever before, started to become more sensitive, analytical and conscious of the way in which light is capable of changing our perception. Morning sunlight is not the same as that of a long summer’s afternoon. And this was definitively expressed by photography.

Painting and photography in continuous dialogue

Photography and painting have long interacted side by side, with one good example being the work of Degas, who used both media. 

Influenced by Impressionism, some photographers began to take an interest in the physical nature of their images. They searched for formulas to make their photographs less precise and more painterly, like the works of the Impressionists they so much admired.

Over time, photographers have moved on from the exclusively technical use of a camera to chronicle or bear testimony to any given circumstance; they have reached the sublime, with artistic proposals that compete on a par with painting.

The fundamental role that photography has acquired in contemporary art is of enormous significance, managing as it has to convert a technology which was at first only viewed as “utilitarian” and achieve its recognition as art. An art form with infinite and incredible possibilities.     

Exhibition: The Impressionists and Photography from 15 October 2019 to 26 January 2020 at Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza

Curator: Paloma Alarcó

Photography: Oscar Rivilla 

Translation: Rebekah Jane Rhodes

Music: Dr Symtosizer

Art direction: Oscar Rivilla & Carolina Verd


Main Picture: red dress by Antonio García estudio; high heels by Pura López both courtesy of Finally Press

Picture 2: red dress by Hannibal Laguna; high heels by Pura López courtesy of Finally Press

Picture 3: red dress by Roberto Verino; high heels by Pura López courtesy of Finally Press