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Impressionism Definition

May 07 2011
{Articles >> Art History - Periods}
Impressionism Definition
Claude Monet, La Gare Saint-Lazare, 1877, via Wikimedia Commons

Impressionism, the French art movement from the last quarter of the 19th century, is defined by its goal to capture the visual truthfully. Not truthfully in the sense that Realism attempts to create an illusion of reality, but in the sense that the fleeting aspects of a moment are communicated through the painting. These aspects might include light, shadow, movement, color, atmosphere, as well as emotion and mood. These general concepts behind Impressionism translated in practice, for artists like Claude Monet, to intense observation, scientific enquiry into the nature of color, experimentation in the application of paint, and painting everyday scenes and landscapes. Rather than contrive a still life or Romantic fantasy in the studio, the Impressionist painter would work from real scenes of the moment; a busy dance hall (Renoir's Le Moulin de la Galette), a train station (Monet's Saint-Lazare Train Station), ballet dancers in motion (Degas's many works with dancers), or a domestic scene (Mary Cassatt's The Bath).

Caillebotte, The Floorscrapers, 1875, via Wikimedia Commons

Because of the requirements of intense observation combined with spontaneity and speed, Impressionist paintings often have a sketch-like quality (especially compared to works of Realists and Romanticist of the 19th century), with visible, active brushstrokes. Gustave Caillebotte's scenes are an exception to this; they appear carefully rendered, and do not convey the rapidity of someone like Monet. However, Caillebotte's compositions have a "captured moment" feeling, and often show a figure in mid-movement; this probably demonstrates the influence of photography on artists of the late 19th century. This interest in movement is particularly apparent in the work of Degas. Although he is best known for his images of dancers, he also produced several work of racehorses and their riders.

Mary Cassatt The Bath
Mary Cassatt, The Bath, 1893 via Wikimedia Commons

Rather than mix their paint colors on the palette, Impressionists would often place pure colors side by side on the canvas to give an overall appearance of a blend of colors. The Post-Impressionists, although they departed in many ways from the Impressionists, would continue this experimentation with color theory and use of pure color in the place of mixed color. The Pointillist Georges Seurat's work is an example of this.

Impressionism is best embodied by the early works of Claude Monet. His later works, while holding true to the tenets of Impressionism, take on new abstract and emotive qualities.