In the middle of the nineteenth century, Paris underwent an enormous rebuilding programme, which involved the demolition of the medieval neighbourhoods. A network of new parks, squares and wide avenues, lined with magnificent townhouses, was laid over the previously crowded and polluted city centre.

The workers and industry were moved to the outskirts of the town, leaving the centre as the domain of middle-class life. Paris became the city of the elegant bourgeoisie, pleasure-seekers and artists who, attracted by the flair of the metropolis, flocked to the banks of the Seine from all over the world.

All this was captured by the Impressionists, who left their studios and made their way into the new “cultural capital of the world.” They painted the lives and habitats of the new city-dwellers – the exclusive boulevards, newly-built pleasure-centres, modern railway stations, the picnics and group excursions into the countryside.

The Impressionists often painted out of doors, where they loved to show the atmosphere or the specific effects of light and colour at a particular time of day. In order to capture these fleeting moments, they had to work very quickly, applying the paint in small strokes of pure colour.

When viewed up close, these short brushstrokes look quite messy and unreal. But when we step back from an Impressionist painting, they blend together and we can see the subject – usually a colourful landscape, the effect of sunlight on water or people engaged in outdoor activities and scenes of pleasure.

Although they painted subjects from modern life, the Impressionists avoided social commentary. Claude Monet’s landscapes are as bright and cheerful as Renoir’s images of the weekend entertainments at the Moulin de la Galette. Degas portrayed high society at the race-course, while Édouard Manet was fascinated by the atmosphere of the Folies-Bergère, which was equipped with the very latest technical achievements, including electric lighting.

The art of most Western nations passed though a period of Impressionism in the last third of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Each country developed its own national version of the movement with its own special features. A truly international cultural phenomenon, Impressionism pervaded all forms of fine art, literature, music and the theatre, influencing people’s visions and outlooks.

Russian art was no exception and and can boast such masterpieces as Valentin Serovs Girl with Peaches and Girl Illuminated by the Sun, Konstantin Korovins portraits, landscapes and still-lifes, Isaac Levitans Birch Grove and March, Ilya Repins studies for the group portrait Ceremonial Sitting of the State Council, Igor Grabar's February Azure and Mikhail Larionovs Rose Bush. Several generations of famous and not-so-famous Russian artists extolled the beauty of their native land, contributing to the unique nature of Russian Impressionism.

The first examples of Impressionism were already perceptible in Russian art in the 1820s and 1830s, in a series of landscapes painted by Sylvester Schedrin, Mikhail Lebedev and Alexander Ivanov. In the 1850s and 1860s, Nikolai Ge, Valery Jacoby, Alexei Bogolyubov and Fyodor Vasilyev were also interested in the effects of an environment saturated with light and air. Alexei Bogolyubov, Alexander Beggrov, Ilya Repin, Vasily Polenov and Konstantin Makovsky all attended the early exhibitions of the French Impressionists in Paris in the 1870s.

Each artist perceived the experiments of the French Impressionists in his own way. Alexei Bogolyubov and Alexander Beggrov remained at the stage of Eugène Boudin’s moderate Impressionism. Ilya Repin was influenced by Édouard Manet in Lady Leaning against a Chair. Returning to Russia, he painted On a Turf Bench in 1876. This is a typical example of early Russian Impressionism, with its interest in the poetic state of nature and light study-like technique.

The principles and devices of Impressionism enriched the Realist painting of Ilya Repin, Vasily Polenov and Vasily Surikov. Combined with Vasily Polenov’s work as a teacher at the Moscow School of Painting and Sculpture, this helped to accelerate the changes taking place in Russian art. The canvases painted by Valentin Serov, Konstantin Korovin, Isaac Levitan, Ilya Ostroukhov and Jan Ciagli?skj in the second half of the 1880s were important for Russian Impressionism. Young artists rejected analysis and complicated psychological characteristics in their portraits and genre scenes, resolving them as studies full of life and spontaneity, in a cardinally new approach for the 1880s.

The Russian Impressionism of the 1880s reflects lyrical interpretations of life, based on intimate moments in the lives of contemporaries. Dynamic and fragmentary in terms of composition and painted in an energetic, study-like manner, such works reflected all that was typical of the young generation of artists – quests for a means of expression corresponding to the new disposition of the world and a rejection of narrative and a positive ideal. Unlike the French Impressionists, the Russian artists of the 1880s mixed their paints on the palette. As in Scandinavia and Germany, the Russian Impressionists were indifferent to the spectrally pure paints and blue-violet shadows of the French.

The 1890s witnessed an exciting panorama of searches for a Russian national line, with particular interest in the countryside and traditional ochre tones. In the mid-1890s, Konstantin Korovin and Valentin Serov enriched Russian painting with a series of works painted in silver tones. A broad manner of painting acquired popularity, reflecting the spread of Art Nouveau. Victor Borisov-Musatov was the first to employ the colourist discoveries of the French Impressionists.

The heyday of Russian Impressionism was the 1900s. The movement was represented at the exhibitions of all art groups and societies, particularly the Union of Russian Artists. The Impressionist portraits of Ilya Repin, Osip Braz, Boris Kustodiev, Sergei Malyutin, Leonid Pasternak and Mikhail Shemyakin captured the men and women of the day and age in all their spontaneity – government officials, artists, journalists and musicians.

The Impressionists rediscovered the world of Russian nature, depicting the light and air of its bracing winters, frost sparkling in the sun, poetic springs, quiet birch groves, endless skies and boundless expanses. They untiringly painted studies of the eternally fickle Mother Nature, filled with light and air. The Impressionists were the first to turn their attention to the provinces, the custodian of Russian national traditions, with their ancient towns, quaint churches, motley signboards, noisy bazaars and exotic local lifestyle.

In the mid-1900s, Impressionist painting underwent a series of changes. Light paints gradually supplanted the favourite ochre and silver tones of the turn of the century. The brushstroke became shorter and more agile, and the shadows became brighter. Such young artists as Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova and David Burliuk embraced Impressionism as a vehicle for fighting against artistic routine and a step along the way towards avant-garde painting.

Although Russian Impressionism continued to exist throughout the 1910s, popular interest in the movement was eclipsed by the experiments of the avant-garde and Neoclassical Revival artists. A new wave of painters – Nicolai Fechin, Abram Manevich, Arnold Lakhovsky, Mikhail Yakovlev and Alexander Gerasimov – swelled the ranks of the Impressionists in those years. Realising the rich potential of the method, Konstantin Korovin, Ilya Repin, Alexander Yakovlev, Alexander Gerasimov, Nicolai Fechin, Leonard Turzhansky, Konstantin Pervukhin and Arkady Rylov created a series of outstanding works.

Unlike in France, where the time barriers are clear-cut, Impressionism underwent a long and complex evolution in Russia. It often developed in parallel to other movements, interacting, influencing and enriching them with its own devices. Impressionist paintings by Russian artists sometimes include features of Symbolism, Art Nouveau, Fauvism and Cézanneism. Existing from the 1870s to the 1910s, each new decade of Russian Impressionism brought with it specific new features. Likewise, there were distinct differences between the Impressionist schools of the two Russian capitals – Moscow and St Petersburg.

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