The age of Impressionism was a unique time of innovation and rediscovery in art. It was characterized by the artists' desire to think outside of the box and detach from the mold that had been the defining forces of that time. The height of this age has typically been defined as being between the years of 1876 and 1886. During this time, there were many cultural, political, and religious norms that put restrictions on the artists of the day. A few of those are mentioned here.
The French Academy of Fine Arts was the ultimate deciding force of what was considered to be good art during that time. The academy favored art with much Romantic flavor, such as those depicting religious or historical themes. Soon, a problem arose. It became evident that many artists were branching out and tampering with new ways of expression. New artists enjoyed painting still lifes and landscapes; they began using vibrant, dominant colors to depict natural light; and they had the audacity to leave their colors unblended. Thick, harsh brush strokes were being used, and the finished project was only a mere impression of the subject rather than a finely tuned masterpiece, according to critics. The leaders of the academy were appalled and turned countless works away. It had come to a point where more works were being rejected than were being accepted. Emperor Napoleon the 3rd noticed this, and in response he created The Salon of the Refused. Here, artwork which had been rejected by the French Art Academy was accepted and displayed. Much to the dismay of art critics, the crowds loved what they saw.
Another cultural conflict which greatly affected artists was the Church's rejection of their gifts. The Church could not see that art was a credible, worthwhile calling from God. Artists were not considered by the Church to be bad people; however, their chosen career path was not supported. Because of this, many artists found themselves estranged from their churches. The separated relationship between the Church and art could be traced back to the Middle Ages when art had been viewed by Protestants as sinful because of its representative nature. Art in that sense was viewed as many forms of idols which were frowned upon by God. This strained relationship even began, in the Romantic era, to be twisted into the belief that artists were, in fact, a special "breed" of humans found far above the rest of normal society. A tragic reflection of these issues was found in the life of Vincent Van Gogh. He unfortunately suffered from mental illness, and was therefore not considered as part of the elite society. He spent most of his life searching for a way to serve God and the Church. He tried to be a pastor; however, this was not where his talents were found, and he failed miserably. His church refused to support his gifts of artistry, so he found himself torn between serving God and what he thought to be a cursed gift: art. He spent much time in the mental hospital of Saint-Remy to find relief from his hallucinations. Here, he painted some of his best works, his most famous being The Starry Night. Later, in one of his bouts of relapse, Van Gogh took his own life. He could have been saved had the Church seen his vocation as given and blessed by God.
Van Gogh, The Starry Night
A third influence on Impressionism was the idea that, also stemming from the Romantic era, took the objectivity out of the doctrine of the Church and relied heavily on the feelings of subjectivism and relativism. By this philosophy, Christianity became less influential, and artists began to find worth in secularism. Edouard Manet's Luncheon on the Grass was an example of artists' lack of value in morally appropriate subject matter (although this piece did not necessarily have the objective of "appropriateness" for the viewer). In addition, many artists began to convey scenes of still lifes, landscapes and the high affluence of high class society. One of the first artists to be rejected by the French Academy of Fine Arts was Claude Monet with his painting of Impression Sunrise. This is when the the art critic, Louis Leroy, used the word "impression" as an insult before the term became widely accepted as the name of the era. Edgar Degas also focused his intentions on the beauty of the human form and sometimes clumsiness. Art became less about the explicitly religious and more about beauty found in unlikely things.