Impression Sunrise Claude Monet

“Impression, Sunrise” Claude Monet – Its Historical Significance

Put Impression” is what Claude Monet said when they needed a title for the catalog for the first Impressionist exhibition in the 1800s. He used this title for his oil painting Impression, Sunrise (1872). In this article, we will discuss this famous Monet sunrise painting and how it became one of the most important defining artworks of Impressionism.  



Artist Abstract: Who Was Claude Monet?

Oscar-Claude Monet was born on November 14, 1840, and was reported to have died in 1926, December 5 due to lung cancer. He was from Paris, and his parents were Claude Adolphe Monet and Louise Justine Aubrée Monet. He grew up interested in art and studied at the Le Havre secondary school during 1851 and eventually studied at the Académie Suisse in Paris during 1858 and 1860. He also served in the military and traveled to Algeria during 1861 and 1862, which influenced his perceptions of art.

Monet met and studied with various prominent artists and was known as one of the founders of the art movement Impressionism.

Impressionism Founder Portrait of Claude Monet, by the photographer Nadar in 1899; Nadar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons



Impression, Sunrise (1872) By Claude Monet in Context

Impression, Sunrise (1872), known in French as Impression, Soleil Levant, by Claude Monet is an oil painting depicting the Le Havre harbor and the sun rising in the distance. This painting evoked various responses and critiques when it was exhibited, becoming one of the most important paintings of Impressionism.

In the article below, we will explore an Impression, Sunrise analysis, starting with a brief contextual analysis around the painting’s exhibition and the evolution of the name “Impression”. Additionally, we will also provide a formal analysis, looking at the subject matter in more detail and the unique style Monet painted in.

ArtistClaude Monet
Date Painted 1872
Medium Oil on canvas
GenreLandscape painting
Period / Movement Impressionism
Dimensions48 x 63 centimeters
Series / Versions Part of a series of paintings of Le Havre
Where Is It Housed?Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris
What It Is Worth Estimated worth is around $250 – $350 million 


Contextual Analysis: A Brief Socio-Historical Overview

The famous Monet sunrise painting anchored the name of the Impressionist art movement during the 19th century, albeit derived from somewhat facetious critique. Monet painted it as part of a series of other landscapes or waterscapes that depicted the harbor in the city called Le Havre in Normandy, France.

Titled Impression, Sunrise, Monet exhibited it with various other artists in what was known as the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris during April 1874; the location of the exhibition was reported to be the photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, otherwise Nadar’s, studio.

Impressionism Group Cover of the catalog of the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874; unknown / desconocido / inconnu, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the artists included prominent names like Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Piere-Auguste Renoir, and many others. These artists were also part of the collective group, the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs, meaning “Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers”. This group was created with the idea for artists to become independent of the then-dominant exhibitory system from the Salon, which had strict rules and prerequisites for how paintings should be.

It followed criteria based on academic art rules, which, for some artists, did not fit with their progressive painting styles in the prevalent modern era, as we shall see from Claude Monet’s artwork. 


“The Exhibition of the Impressionists”

When the exhibition was held in 1874 Monet’s sunrise painting was heavily critiqued by Louis Leroy, a writer, artist, and critic at the time, of which, he was a journalist for the La Charivari newspaper. His review of the first Impressionist exhibition was titled “The Exhibition of the Impressionists”, published April 25, 1874.

In this review Leroy wrote about Monet’s Impression, Sunrise: “Impression – I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it…and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape”.

Claude Monet Sunrise Painting Impression, Sunrise (Impression, Soleil Levant) (1872) by Claude Monet; Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As snide and tongue-in-cheek as the review was, not only about the Monet sunrise painting but many others, it also remained in the minds of the many and it became the term that would define and name the art movement for all history and future. Maybe Leroy indirectly did all the Impressionists a favor? Fortunately, the negative associations tied to the term did not remain and the movement grew into its own.


Impressionism Before Impressionism As We Know It

It is important to note that before the Impressionist movement became what we know it as today, its legacy comes from the Barbizon School, which was composed of important artists like Théodore Rousseau, Jean-François Millet, Édouard Manet, and others.

The dominant characteristic of this school was to redefine the status of landscape paintings from its low-tiered position among the ranks of the hierarchical system of paintings outlined by the Academy, with History painting being at the top of the hierarchy. Artists enjoyed painting in the en plein air style, which simply means “in the open air” in French; artists painted outdoors. Their style was also characterized as being freer in the usage and application of brushstrokes and paint. 

This style influenced the Impressionists artists, notably Monet, who visited the location of the school near the Fontainebleau Forest and learned the painting styles from various Barbizon School artists.



Formal Analysis: A Brief Compositional Overview

Below, we will take a closer look at Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, a composition that gives rise to inklings of forms in swathes of colors and textures. At first, we might not understand what it represents. In fact, it relays an impression of a scene, but the subject will unfold the more involved we become in it. 


Subject Matter

As we mentioned above Claude Monet painted a scene of Le Havre harbor, which was among other renditions of the port based on his experimentation with colors and light. He is widely quoted as having said about these series of paintings depicting the harbor in different times of the day, namely:

“During dawn, day, dusk, and dark and from varying viewpoints, some from the water itself and others from a hotel room looking down over the port”.

In Impression, Sunrise Monet reportedly depicted the harbor from his room viewpoint at sunrise. Near the middle left foreground, there are three rowboats. The one closest to us, the viewers, is darker and appears silhouetted. Behind the above-mentioned rowboat is another in a lighter shade of gray to suggest that it is moving further into the hazy distance of the misty background. This is followed by a third rowboat sailing into seeming obscurity, almost becoming one of the brushstrokes of paint that are wholly recognizable and questionably part of the subject matter itself.

Impression Sunrise Analysis Details of Claude Monet’s Impression Sunrise (1872); Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In front of us is a vast composition of water, and the background depicts scraggy forms suggestive of different kinds of ships like steamships, clipper ships, and pack boats. We will notice thick billows of smoke rising into the sky from the ships from the left background, moving towards the right-hand side of the composition.

The ships in the background to the right are more unrecognizable.

Between the ships to the left and right-hand side, we will notice a gap where the water leads into the far distant background of what appears to be either the rest of the landscape or possibly the rest of the city. However, this water leads to the orange-red ball that is the rising sun, which is positioned slightly towards the right and almost in the central background.

Monet Sunrise Painting Analysis Close-up of Impression Sunrise (1872) by Claude Monet; Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

We see the expanse of the sky around the sun and above the harbor and water. It is as if Monet creates a meeting point between the water and the sky with the harbor and its ships in the middle ground. The light of the morning sun dapples the water in the foreground.

An interesting point about this composition is that there were apparently houses to the left. However, Monet did not depict these due to the focus he wanted to place on the emerging industry, which he depicted through the various ships, chimneys, cranes, and smoke rising into the air.

Monet Sunrise Painting Close-Up The (left) background of Impression, Sunrise (1872) by Claude Monet; Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The theoretical work of Paul Tucker, an art historian, is often referred to regarding this painting. He proposed that Monet’s painting was a reference to the rebuilding of France after the war with Prussia in 1870. Tucker is quoted as having written how the painting has characteristics of being art that could “lead”.

He further explained, “While it is a poem of light and atmosphere, the painting can also be seen as an ode to the power and beauty of a revitalized France”. The port of Le Havre was undoubtedly a beacon of this revitalization, and some sources also suggest that the sunrise symbolizes this too.


Color and Light

Monet utilized color and light in Impression, Sunrise to convey the early hours of the morning. The main colors used comprise cooler blue-grayish tones, which are contrasted with the orange from the rising sun. We will notice this orange color in the sky, giving it more warmth, as well as the sun’s reflection of the water.

We see this scene as a misty morning; the colors dominate what is visible to us and the subject and formal elements become interchanged. The orange from the sun becomes a dominating factor too and it catches our eyes.

Monet utilized a close selection of almost complementary color schemes here. 

Monet Sunrise Painting Details Color and light in Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872); Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Scholars like Dr. Margaret Livingstone, a Neurobiologist, have studied Impression, Sunrise in more depth. There is a lot to be said about the idea of luminance and how it is conveyed in this painting. In fact, Dr. Livingstone has explained that when viewed as a black and white copy, the sun “disappears [almost] entirely”.

This points to how Monet managed to convey light as we perceive it with color.

Furthermore, Dr. Livingstone has researched the different areas of how our brains process what she describes as two different areas in the human visual system, namely, color and luminance. Her publication Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing (2002) provides extensive research about the above-mentioned and how this affects the way we see art; in this case, Monet’s Impression, Sunrise painting.


Brushstrokes and Texture

If we look at Monet’s use of brushstrokes it conveys a complete departure from what was expected from painting. Instead of perfectly executed brushstrokes and well-contoured outlines, we see the actual markings from the brushwork. Some might think it appears rudimentary in its execution; however, this was also a typical characteristic of Impressionism and an example of how artists employed the en plein air style, often painting in a single sitting.

Monet Sunrise Painting Detail Brushwork in Impression, Sunrise (1872) by Claude Monet; Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, the way Monet painted in a seemingly rushed manner and brushstrokes could also suggest his focus on wanting to create a scene that simply represented a quick “impression” of the harbor, so to say. Some sources also point to what scholars like Paul Smith have suggested about the painting, that it may have been Monet’s way of expressing his “individuality” and his search for “spontaneous expression”.


Perspective and Scale 

If we look at the perspective, Monet presents a scene from what appears to be a slightly elevated vantage point. We are seemingly looking downwards at the boats and the expanse of water, and our viewpoint seems to be more at eye level with the rising sun.

Monet created the representation of a large body of water that appears to be on all sides of the composition and does not end anywhere in our line of sight; the water runs to the left, right, and into the distance. The background is set with the hazy boats lined up in the harbor and the three boats in the foreground diminish in size as they move further towards the background.

Monet Sunrise Painting A close-up of Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872); Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons



Critical Impressions

Monet’s Impression, Sunrise created quite an impression when it was first exhibited, and it has often been described as becoming one of Monet’s more popular pieces because of its infamy, so to say. This was a different type of painting compared to others of the time, although it was not only Monet’s painting that was different. Back then, it was 19th century France, a time when art was conservative and expression followed rules and restraints.

However, a few artists started challenging the rules with more progressive and expressive ideas, and Monet was one of them.

With that, it is worthwhile to know how others responded as we have already mentioned the impression Louis Leroy communicated in his review, mentioned above. Other critics and journalists like Théodore Duret explained Monet’s approach to painting and that the artist diverted from painting “the immobile and permanent aspect of a landscape” and instead painted the “fleeting appearances which the accidents of atmosphere present to him”, furthermore, Duret explained that Monet presented a “striking sensation of the observed scene”.

Monet Sunrise Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872) framed on the wall of an Impressionist exhibition; Ministério da Cultura, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The art critic and journalist Jules-Antoine Castagnary, who wrote a review in the newspaper Le Siècle in April 1874, stated that the group of Impressionists were a “collective force within our disintegrating age” and that they did not “aim for perfection, but to be satisfied with a certain general aspect”.

He also wrote that the term “Impressionists” was the best word to describe them, and further explained how the group of artists focused on producing the “sensation” inherent in the landscape and not so much the actual landscape itself. He continued to say that the word “Impression” has become part of the language used by the artists, and that “the Sunrise by Monet is called not landscape, but impression. Thus they take leave of reality and enter the realms of idealism”. 

There were other negative reviews not only of Monet’s painting but also of the Impressionist’s exhibition. However, these were catalysts for the evolution of the Impressionism art movement and the artists associated with it who started using the term to describe their art style.

What was once derogatory and misunderstood became something positive and expressive.



Impressing a Name 

Monet is also often quoted as having said in an interview that a landscape is “only an impression” and something that is “instantaneous”, he continued to explain that this is why they are called Impressionists and that it was because of him.

When he further explained how the name bore so much weight he said that a name was needed for the catalog and he told them to “Put down ‘Impression’”.

Impression, Sunrise has long been regarded as the painting that marked the name for the Impressionists, who all painted their own versions of impressions from outdoor scenes, conveyed through their utilization of color and light to depict sensations and atmosphere.

Other examples from Monet’s oeuvre include his Haystacks series from 1890 to 1891, his Water Lilies series from around 1896 to 1920, as well as his Rouen Cathedral series from 1892 to 1894. From these series, we will also see the artist’s expressive exploration of not only luminance but also how colors and form almost become the subject matter, alongside the effects and changes of the natural environments.

Impressionism Painting Haystacks (1885) by Claude Monet; Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons



Leaving a Lasting Impression

Claude Monet became one of the best-known artists from the 19th century, not only because of his role in laying the foundations for the Impressionism art movement, but also for his unique artistic style and approach to his environment.

During his last years, he lived in Giverny, France, which was his home for numerous years and the source of his famous Water Lilies series mentioned above. Furthermore, it was also the source of great creativity because the artists built his famous Japanese gardens there too. This period also marked increasing prosperity for the artist.

Impressionism Painting by Monet Waterlilies (c. 1906) by Claude Monet; Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Monet left a lasting impression for other art movements to come, for example, the notable Abstract Expressionism and its pioneers like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko drew inspiration from what has been described as Monet’s “semi-abstract” compositions. Pop Art and Minimalists also drew inspiration from Monet’s oeuvre, especially regarding paintings and pieces made in a set or series. 


In Monet’s paintings, we will undoubtedly find a beguiling world made up of colors and brushstrokes that define the perception of light and form, something that Monet was indeed particularly fond of exploring as we have explored in the “Impression, Sunrise” analysis above. Monet art lovers will certainly find “Impression, Sunrise” an enticing portrayal and example of Impressionism, which upended the notions of how reality was depicted. “Impression, Sunrise” is housed at the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris. This museum also houses other important artworks by Monet, including paintings from his famous series mentioned above.



Take a look at our Impression, Sunrise webstory here!



Frequently Asked Questions


Who Painted Impression, Sunrise (1872)?

Oscar-Claude Monet painted Impression, Sunrise in 1872 as part of a series of paintings. He was regarded as one of the fathers of Impressionism.


Why Is Impression, Sunrise (1872) an Important Impressionism Painting?

Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise is an important painting because it gave the art movement Impressionism its name. After the painting’s exhibition when Monet used the term “impression” in the title and the art critic Louis Leroy used the term pejoratively in a critical review. This set the foundations for the group of artists who referred to themselves as the Impressionists afterward.


What Place Did Monet Paint In Impression, Sunrise (1872)?

Claude Monet painted Impression, Sunrise from his window overlooking the Le Havre harbor. Le Havre is in Normandy, France, a place where Monet also lived when he was a younger boy; his family moved there in 1845.


What Is the Worth of Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872) Painting?

Monet’s Impression, Sunrise painting is estimated to be worth between $250 to $350 million, however, many of Monet’s paintings could also be argued to be priceless in their value.


Where Is Monet’s Impression, Sunrise (1872) Now?

Impression, Sunrise is housed in the Musée Marmottan Monet, which is in Paris, France. Many of Claude Monet’s other famous artworks are also housed here, including paintings from his famous Water Lilies series from 1896 to 1920, comprising over 200 compositions, and paintings from his Rouen Cathedral series (c. 1892 to 1894).


Cite this Article

Alicia, du Plessis, ““Impression, Sunrise” Claude Monet – Its Historical Significance.” Art in Context. January 19, 2022. URL:

du Plessis, A. (2022, 19 January). “Impression, Sunrise” Claude Monet – Its Historical Significance. Art in Context.

du Plessis, Alicia. ““Impression, Sunrise” Claude Monet – Its Historical Significance.” Art in Context, January 19, 2022.

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