How Indian artists reinvented Impressionism

Detail from the watercolour on paper work, 'From Gateway of India' (1951), by Baburao Sadwelkar, whose work drew on elements of Impressionism. Courtesy: DAG
Detail from the watercolour on paper work, 'From Gateway of India' (1951), by Baburao Sadwelkar, whose work drew on elements of Impressionism. Courtesy: DAG


2024 marks 150 years since the Impressionists held their first exhibition in Paris. In India, rather than imitate, artists combined elements of Impressionism with indigenous ideas to create a unique visual language

It was in 1991-92, while studying at École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, that Atul Dodiya first saw Impressionist masterpieces by artists such as Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas at the Musée d’Orsay. Before that, he had only seen reproductions of these paintings while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in art at the Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai. “As arts students in India in the 1970s-80s, we learnt so much from these masters but were unable to view even a single one of these original paintings. We only knew of them through reproductions, or if someone showed 35mm slides," says Dodiya, a leading contemporary artist who is currently showing his solo, I Know You. I do. O’ Stranger, at the Galerie Templon, Paris.

His exhibition coincides with an important milestone in art history—2024 marks 150 years since the first Impressionist exhibition was held in Paris. Dodiya reflects on that moment when he first entered the Musée d’Orsay, which has one of the largest collections of works by Impressionist artists. The ground floor featured a work by Honoré Daumier, who painted life on the street and in the train carriage. “His work was not entirely Impressionist, but was along those lines. On display on the upper floor of the museum was the controversial work Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) by Edouard Manet," he recalls. The large oil on canvas, painted between 1862-63, featured a nude female with two fully-dressed men, while on a picnic somewhere in rural France.

Also read: Seeing Atul Dodiya in a new light

It was not just the large works that impacted Dodiya but also small-scale landscapes by Monet, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley. “I continue to visit the museum during every visit to Paris," he says. “I take profound delight in the way these artists painted. There is a lifelike quality, and yet the rendering isn’t rooted in realism. Rendering is one thing and transforming is another. In these works, we can see the transformation of life, light and time, which is very critical to Impressionism." He isn't the only Indian artist to have learnt from and been inspired by the Impressionists.

Fishing Harbour, Navgav, near Alibag, Maharashtra, (1947), by Prema Pathare, who like the Parisian Impressionists responded to the immediate environment with a sense of intimacy. Photo: courtesy DAG
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Fishing Harbour, Navgav, near Alibag, Maharashtra, (1947), by Prema Pathare, who like the Parisian Impressionists responded to the immediate environment with a sense of intimacy. Photo: courtesy DAG


What makes Impressionist artists so popular across the world—including in India—150 years after they first exhibited at the studio of photographer Nadar in Paris? To understand this, one has to look at the history of this movement, which was rooted in an act of rebellion. In the middle of the 19th century, a jury of artists from the Académie des Beaux-Arts would select artworks and award medals as part of its official exhibition Salon de Paris. In 1874, however, artists such as Monet, Degas and Pissarro decided to organise an exhibition that didn’t subscribe to the style of academic realism—rooted in Biblical and mythological themes—preferred by the Salon. So, 30 artists, who collectively called themselves the Société Anonyme des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs et Graveurs, came together in this landmark show, which heralded the birth of Impressionism as a movement.

“The independent artists, despite their diverse approaches to painting, appeared to contemporaries as a group. While conservative critics panned their work for its unfinished, sketch-like appearance, more progressive writers praised it for its depiction of modern life," writes Margaret Samu, then of the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, in Impressionism: Art and Modernity, published on the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in October 2004.

It was, however, a negative review that led to the name. A critic, Louis Leroy, panned several works, especially, Monet’s Impression, soleil levant (Impression, sunrise), about which he wrote, “a preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this". Several essays, over time, have chronicled this moment when Leroy’s review appeared in the satirical magazine Le Charivari with the mocking headline “The Exhibition of the Impressionists". Somehow that name came to define this art movement, with the artists adopting it themselves by the time of their third exhibition, in 1877. The Impressionists—with the numbers of artists varying over time, some pegging it as 58 in all—held eight exhibitions over 12 years.


While each of these artists had a distinct style, there were certain elements that were common to them: the act of creating a finished painting en plein air (outdoors), short broken brushstrokes leading to spontaneity, showcasing a specific frame from a scene, use of vibrant colour—a sharp contrast to the academic style—and creating a relationship between colour and the movement of light.

There were many sociopolitical factors that also led to the advent of Impressionism. The Franco-Prussian War had just ended, and portions of Paris were being reconstructed, with lush gardens being laid out. Impressionist artists enjoyed painting in these open spaces. Railways brought vacationers to different parts of France, and led to newer forms of recreation as well. “Degas and Caillebotte focused on working people, including singers and dancers, as well as workmen," writes Samu. “Others, including Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, depicted the privileged classes. The Impressionists also painted new forms of leisure, including theatrical entertainment (such as Cassatt’s 1878’s In the Loge, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), cafés, popular concerts, and dances."

According to Dodiya, this particular “ism" in art history was all about revelling in freedom. These artists were surrounded by poets like Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, and photographers like Nadar. “They were all influencing one another. It is important to understand the context that they painted in. Significant movements such as Fauvism, Expressionism, Pointillism and even Cubism have their roots in Impressionism. (Henri) Matisse—a Fauvist and one of the most important colourists of the 20th century—was influenced by it. Pablo Picasso’s blue and rose periods have their roots in it," he says. Paul Gaugin’s foray into Primitivism stemmed from his initial work with the Impressionists.

‘Fishing’ (1862-63) by artist Edouard Manet is an early example of an Impressionist painting, and was inspired by elements from landscapes by Peter Paul Rubens. Later Impressionist works relied less on figuration. Photo: Getty Images
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‘Fishing’ (1862-63) by artist Edouard Manet is an early example of an Impressionist painting, and was inspired by elements from landscapes by Peter Paul Rubens. Later Impressionist works relied less on figuration. Photo: Getty Images


In art colleges across India, just before independence, academic realism was the primary focus. “Europe had moved on to other traditions, starting with Impressionism and going on to Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Dadaism, and more," says Kishore Singh, senior vice-president, DAG. “But in India, there was no access to any of these movements at art schools. There weren’t enough journals with images to have a strong impact."

At that time, across the country, artists were turning to their roots and creating their own artistic styles—as is evident through the various hybrid schools of artistic practice that emerged of their volition. “The whole idea of Impressionism filtered in very late to India (in the decades leading up to independence), when the Western world of art had moved way beyond it," elaborates Singh. “We were caught in this time capsule, where we didn’t know where we fit in."

Artists who were trained in academic realism tried to make sense of it, and experimented. Many began to travel to art schools in Europe for higher education and observed works by Monet, Degas and Pissarro at close quarters. “Some of them worked with the trope of Impressionism for the greater bulk of their career, while others toyed with it for a short while and moved on to other things, eventually creating a language that resonated with them," says Singh.

Some artists worked with Impressionism, others moved on and created a language that resonated with them

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Indian artists such as V.B. Pathare and K.C.S. Paniker started painting outdoors. Paniker began to explore the relationship between light and colour with great proficiency in his landscapes. The Edge of the Canal, Malabar (1953), for instance, from the DAG collection, is an Impressionist canvas that shows a lush landscape with boats in the backwaters and thatched houses on the horizon. The artist later abandoned this style in favour of indigenous modernism, which formed the basis of the Madras Art Movement.

Another artist who briefly dabbled in Impressionism was Jamini Roy. “Some of his Impressionist landscapes such as House at Jamshedpur are brilliant, before he left it all for a more folk idiom. He was to develop a more Indian form of practice that people responded to at a gut-level," says Singh. N.S. Bendre, a pioneering modern artist and one of the founder members of the Baroda group, took to a certain aspect of Impressionism—Pointillism—in the second half of his career and created a brilliant language around it.

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Bendre had a huge influence on the vocabulary of Kishori Kaul (1939-2018), who created a vivid language of blues, greens and yellows. Her highly Impressionist oeuvre featured paintings, which represented her transformation at every point of her artistic career—from student years in Vadodara, where she studied under Bendre, to referencing the environs of her homeland, Kashmir, in the latter part of her career. Anant Art, Delhi, exhibited her works in a retrospective, How Green Was My Valley?, in September 2023. In her essay accompanying the exhibition, Meera Menezes drew connections between the teacher and the student. She wrote that Bendre’s interest in landscapes took him all over India—he also travelled extensively abroad and was greatly taken by Rembrandt and the French Impressionists. He ended up creating a language with elements of French Impressionism and German Expressionism. “Bendre’s influence can especially be seen in Kaul’s paintings during her initial years at Baroda," writes Menezes. “This is evident in the paring down of forms, both humans and objects, in her oil on canvas works dating from 1959."

K.K. Hebbar's ‘Untitled (Versova Beach, Bombay)’ captured the beauty of the open ocean in quick brushstrokes and through the movement of light. Courtesy: Uma Nair
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K.K. Hebbar's ‘Untitled (Versova Beach, Bombay)’ captured the beauty of the open ocean in quick brushstrokes and through the movement of light. Courtesy: Uma Nair

Of those who consistently worked with the language of Impressionism, the most prominent name was that of Jehangir Sabavala (1922-2011). He called his art a mixture of academic, Impressionist and cubist texture, form and colour—which acquired a distinct style in the mid-60s. His education, starting with the Sir J.J. School of Arts, and moving on to the Academie Andre Lhote from 1948-51, and Academie Julian in Paris from 1953-54, hugely influenced his language. According to Singh, the artist started with a strong modernist outline, a Picasso-esque kind of transformation of the image into plane distortion, eventually journeying into a kind of surrealism, based entirely on Impressionism. Sabavala ended up combining two critical movements, creating a very sophisticated form of his own.

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Several key artists from Bengal, such as Gobardhan Ash and Nikhil Biswas, incorporated Impressionist elements into their visual vocabulary at different phases of their careers—never imitating the Western concept, but making aspects of it their own. Indra Dugar, born in Jiagunj, Murshidabad, West Bengal, came to be known for his evocative landscapes such as Mist and Mountains (1961) and Symphony in Green and White (1960). “Prasanto Roy (a Bengal school artist, 1908-1973) merged the tradition of the Bengal wash style with Impressionism, which was so poetic in nature," elaborates Singh. Then there are equally evocative paintings by Gopal Ghose (1913-80), one of the key members of the Calcutta group, done in oils. Early Modernist Sailoz Mookherjea (1906-60) combined simplicity of form and vitality of colour, as evident in works by Matisse, with an idiom derived from folk art and miniature paintings.

“The Bengal school developed separately at the time, with its wash technique, from the Bombay School, where artists were trained in academic realism and later introduced to Impressionism. Before the progressives came into being, artists like N.R. Sardesai, Baburao Sadwelkar and Prema Pathare were looking at landscapes and pilgrimage spots in their work," explains Singh. Of these, Sadwelkar delved deep into the light-based treatment of landscapes in and around Mumbai, in the en plein air style favoured by Impressionists, in works such as From Gateway of India (1951), Early Morning at Horniman Circle (1951), Around Fort Area (1951), and more.

According to Delhi-based curator-art historian Uma Nair, Impressionism gave a new impetus to lovers of atmospherics and evanescent imagery. “Take, for instance, works by K.K. Hebbar, who loved figurative works, but his beach trots in Mumbai invited his love for Impressionist character ," she says. While he was influenced by Rajput and Mughal miniatures, Ajanta frescoes and Jain manuscripts, his education at Academie Julian in Paris under Impressionist painter Professor Cavailles added another dimension to his practice. As a result, besides paintings rooted in his everyday reality, Hebbar would paint seascapes. “In his love for the sea breeze, as well as Versova sunrises and sunsets, he captured the beauty of the open ocean and the ebb and flow of the waves as they broke along the shoreline," says Nair. “He paid careful attention to where the distant horizon met the vast blue sky, and his quick brush strokes were his elixir."


No study of art history in India can be complete without a reference to the Progressive Artists’ Group, who paved the way for a Modernist language anchored in the hopes and aspirations of a young nation. In the early phase of their careers, Modernists such as F.N. Souza, M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza, Tyeb Mehta and Akbar Padamsee understood that the relationship of colour with the actual light falling on objects, and the use of quick expressive brushstrokes was something that would lead them to a path of contemporary reality. “They reinvented this using their own intelligence and a sense of immediate reality. In this context, they paved the course for generations of artists like Arpita Singh, Bhupen Khakhar, Sudhir Patwardhan, Gieve Patel, Atul Dodiya, and others," Delhi-based art historian and curator Yashodhara Dalmia says.

Raza dabbled with Impressionism during his time at the Sir J.J. School of Art, where he loved to capture the varying seasons and the lights of Mumbai. His early works demonstrate impressionistic tendencies, capturing streets, urban landscapes, buildings and city dwellers. Nair quotes the German critic Rudi von Leyden, who described Raza’s practice in the early 1940s as the artist’s “age of Impressionism". “He says that this period had a litany of fluid colourful landscapes in watercolours as well as gouache," Nair says.

Souza too was highly influenced by such Western modern styles and encouraged artists to merge these with Indian themes and subjects. His early landscapes were a medley of furious Impressionist-style brushstrokes, featuring impasto and intense colour. “Souza then went on to create his own form based on the scenes and sounds around him in Mumbai, London, New York, and more. His work started to feature ghoulish forms, which were a depiction of the dark side of human nature, which needed to be faced," says Dalmia, adding that Souza’s frontal nudes of women showed the free and bold feminine spirit, which was curbed over time by both Brahmanical and colonial rules. “This is how practices evolve with time."

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The 150th year of Impressionism is an opportunity for both art enthusiasts and experts to look back at beautiful bodies of work, some of which have been lost in the mists of time. “It is nice to have a conversation such as this, to look at one of the many ways in which you could shine the spotlight on practices of Sadwelkar, Pathare, Biswas, and more—some who consistently worked with the language of Impressionism, and others, for whom it was a brief whisper," says Singh.


‘Charu listening/ Amal singing’ (2023) from Atul Dodiya’s solo, ‘I Know You. I do. O’ Stranger’, at the Galerie Templon, Paris. Though he works on different concepts in his practice, in Dodiya’s realistic paintings, one can see influences of Impressionism in the thick application of paint. Courtesy: Atul Dodiya
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‘Charu listening/ Amal singing’ (2023) from Atul Dodiya’s solo, ‘I Know You. I do. O’ Stranger’, at the Galerie Templon, Paris. Though he works on different concepts in his practice, in Dodiya’s realistic paintings, one can see influences of Impressionism in the thick application of paint. Courtesy: Atul Dodiya

150 years hence, traces of Impressionism can be perceived in works by senior contemporary artists. Delhi-based curator and art historian Ina Puri cites the example of Manu Parekh, who has been deeply inspired by Impressionism but in a rather interesting way. “He says that looking back, it was most definitely Claude Monet’s Water Lilies that inspired him to paint his own Banaras series (1980s onwards). So, even if it wasn’t the school of Impressionism that directly inspired him, it was a leading Impressionist," she says.

Dodiya too has been deeply impacted by the life and times of Impressionists such as Cezanne and Monet. However, he often uses the camera—and now the mobile phone—as a sketch for a painting, rather than going out into the public spaces to paint. “I keep going back to the Impressionists and their approach to life and painting, which I love very much," he says. “Though I explore different concepts and themes in my practice, when I work on paintings that are realistic—such as the ones on show at Galerie Templon—there are influences of Impressionism in the rendering of thick application of paint."

Then there is Shibu Natesan, whose brush strokes often capture views similar to the French Impressionists. Sunaina Anand, founder of the Delhi-based gallery Art Alive, says Natesan captures the trajectory of light, and its dispersal, with meticulous detail. His small-scale paintings, often completed in a single sitting with the use of quick brushstrokes to retain the freshness of emotion, also hark back to the Parisian movement.

Nair rates Paramjit Singh as India’s Impressionist master. The handling of bristled vegetation in a suite of landscapes is a delight to behold. Once at a solo show at Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi, he told Nair: “My love for impressionist details began early because I used to look at the mustard fields in Punjab and Haryana. For me the scenic imagery of Nature was my source of artistic sustenance. While you see the physical elements like trees, water, my works always had a tendency to lean towards abstraction even though it seems like Impressionism."

Mid-career and younger contemporary artists might be working with different media and subjects, and yet you might find a murmur of Impressionism in their practice—perhaps in the approach to paint or in the act of painting outdoors. Kolkata-born artist Praneet Soi’s earliest memories of landscape painting hail from a series of books that his parents had on different periods in art history. Published by Hamlyn, titled Landmarks of the World’s Art, the set had an entire series dedicated to the Modern World, which included Impressionism. It was the act of depicting a landscape that fascinated him.

“Beauty is born through familiarity that comes from ‘repetitive looking’. The idea of beauty is not about painting an attractive vistas. Rather, it is about recognising the multiplicity of relationships that activate the eye," says Soi, who is now based in Amsterdam. This complexity, as practised by artists such as Manet, allows artists to connect with the world around them. This is what has been filtered by Soi, whose paintings often juxtapose seemingly disparate imagery threaded together by personal experience. He has recently begun working en plein air, carrying his canvas with him on a cycle to sites he has marked. It interests him to see how constant looking at a subject, in this case a particular view, sensitises one to how active a frame can be.

‘Skin Beneath’ (2015) by Soghra Khurasani, who is inspired by the idea of working ‘en plein air’. She embarks on long walks, creating small impressions during that time. Courtesy: Soghra Khurasani and Tarq
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‘Skin Beneath’ (2015) by Soghra Khurasani, who is inspired by the idea of working ‘en plein air’. She embarks on long walks, creating small impressions during that time. Courtesy: Soghra Khurasani and Tarq

Like Soi, for Vadodara-based artist Soghra Khurasani, working outdoors establishes a linkage with the Parisian artists across time and space. Living near vast agricultural lands, the artist embarks on long walks, creating small impressions during these sojourns and using them in her work. “I create rough sketches and build them into my work in my style. Since the time I was pursuing master’s in print making at the M.S. University, Vadodara, the simplicity associated with Impressionism appealed to me, and that it is not important to show everything—something should be left to the imagination," says Khurasani, who takes simple forms from the landscape and works into them complex issues of growth, hope, death and life.

For the young contemporary artist Biraaj Dodiya, it is particularly the figurative work of artists such as Manet and Renoir that have left an indelible impression. With leading artists Atul and Anju Dodiya for parents, the 31-year-old grew up looking at a lot of art, and her father passed on his fascination with Impressionists to her. Later, when she went to study at the Art Institute of Chicago in the US, she was able to view a large collection of Impressionist art there. A work that impacted her deeply was Paris Street: Rainy Day (1877) by French artist Gustave Caillebotte, which showed a number of people, holding umbrellas, walking through the Place de Dublin in north Paris. “It was one of the first times that I encountered the idea of temperature of colour and paint, and how weather comes into the atmosphere of a painting," says Biraaj. “I still carry that in my work." She also recalls a painting by Renoir of a woman at a piano, with a blue sash across her waist—the brush strokes stood out. As a young artist, with a plethora of materials and technologies available to her, it was deeply impactful to discover that there was something only paint could achieve. She felt the hierarchies of the media collapse.

If she had to choose one artist who continues to actively impact her work, it would be Manet. “He is one of the greatest painters to work with the colour black and its many tones. I think about the richness and audacity of black in my own work," says Biraaj. Last year, she saw the exhibition Manet/Degas, which explored the complex relationship between the two Impressionists, at the MET, New York. “As a contemporary artist interested in working between painting and sculpture, Manet’s painting The Dead Christ with Angels especially moves me. There is something so monumental about this painting. The central figure has an immense gravity and weight. To be able to translate paint into this tactile, living thing is a skill that Impressionists were proficient in, and I hope to emulate in my own work."

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