The birth of impressionism now has an exact date and time: it was invented at 7.35am on 13 November 1872, according to an astrophysicist who has calculated exactly when Claude Monet painted Impression: Sunrise, his smoky dawn vision of the port of Le Havre.
This makes a nice headline, but history, sadly for journalists, does not work like that. Things never really happen in a neat, packaged way. That’s why the first historian, Herodotus, dedicated so much of his epic book about the wars between Persian and ancient Greece to a digressive discussion about the entire history of the known world: he was trying to get at the complexity of cause and effect.
Art is just as complex as war. When Monet called his intensely atmospheric morning scene Impression: Sunrise he coined a name for this art movement in which French painters dedicated themselves to capturing the fleeting light of never-to-be-repeated moments. But it was not until they had a group exhibition in 1874 that they were recognised as fighting for a common cause. On the other hand, the ideas impressionism was to make notorious, then famous, then revered, were not new at all.
At the heart of impressionism is a desire to paint the immediate, sensual passing scene, in city or country – ideally and mythically – by placing an easel in the open air. John Singer Sargent beautifully captures this ideal in a portrait of Monet at work in the flux of nature, his easel set up amid the balmy elements.
But this idea did not appear like a flash when Monet painted Impression: Sunrise at 7.35am on 13 November 1872. It had evolved over nearly two centuries – at least. Oil sketching in the open air was already common in the 18th century, when it reflected a Newtonian belief in empirical truth and the Romantic pursuit of oneness with nature. The Welsh 18th-century artist Thomas Jones was a particularly bold Georgian proponent of painting in the open air.