Background Information

Featuring over 120 works on paper—pastels, watercolors, and drawings—by some of the most famous artists in the history of Western European art, Impressionism: Masterworks on Paper is an exhibition with a game-changing thesis. Older students can dive into what is fresh in art history as a result of this new scholarship, while younger students can engage with works by Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, Cézanne, and others. Notably, these works on paper are rarely seen because they are extremely delicate and sensitive to light. Works on paper are generally shown for only three months at a time, after which they must go back into storage for at least three years.

You probably already know the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists represented in this exhibition—but did you know that these artists created art other than painting? Many of their most experimental and groundbreaking techniques and ideas were fleshed out on paper rather than on canvas. They mixed materials, chose nontraditional subject matter, and pushed conventions. Here, you and your class will have a chance to explore these artists’ innovations firsthand.

Impressionism was revolutionary because it introduced a different way of thinking about art than traditionally taught and recognized by the official art academies in France during the 1800s. Artists who aligned themselves with the movement wanted to create an art that reflected modern times and were interested in capturing atmosphere—of light, of a landscape, of daily life—to give the effect of immediacy to the viewer. They also painted in a style that was freer, looser, and more experimental. Post-Impressionists combined the style and interest in atmosphere that the Impressionists heralded with a desire to depict emotion (often that of the artist him or herself) in their brushstrokes.

Since painting has dominated the discussion on the effect these two avant-garde movements had on the development of modern art, it comes as a surprise to some that the Impressionists included drawings and watercolors in all their Salons (or exhibitions); in fact, 40 percent of the artworks in these shows were works on paper. These works were mostly finished pieces in their own right, rather than preparatory studies for oil paintings. This exhibition is among a limited, but growing, examination into these Impressionist works on paper as significant artworks in themselves—apart from their relation to paintings.

You can find out more about the artists and their contributions to art history in the Exhibition Walkthrough. The Technique & Vocabulary page features a glossary of the media that artists use when working on paper. There is also a guide for talking about Nudity and Art with your students.