Why the Impressionists did not create Impressionism

Originally published in Journal of Cultural Economics

The Impressionist painters are often believed to have formed the first coherent avant-garde group to break with the establishment both stylistically and institutionally. Recent scholarship has, however, emphasized that they were not interested in collective recognition. We empirically analyze exhibition patterns and contemporary reception of the eight alternative exhibitions traditionally associated with Impressionism to demonstrate that there was no consistent group of artists who contributed to these exhibitions, and that the exhibitions were not predominantly understood as Impressionist exhibitions in contemporary reviews. To the extent that the painters were perceived as a collective there existed various competing labels of which Impressionists, Independents and Intransigents were the most important ones. We then provide a theoretical interpretation to suggest why the alternative exhibitions were organized: they contested the monopoly of the Paris Academy and the associated official Salon and provided more, and different opportunities to exhibit. But the development of a collective identity and market category of Impressionism would have required overlap of interests and collective action. This did not take place because few artists were willing to promote a collective identity at the expense of their individual reputation, and sub-groups among the artists pursued different goals through the alternative exhibitions. Finally, we consider some third-party actors who had an incentive to promote Impressionism as a market category. We demonstrate that they had limited success and provide some preliminary evidence that the collective identity of Impressionism was only firmly established decades after the exhibitions were organized.

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