Since its conception, Impressionism has been defined by a set of characteristics. These include: painterly brushwork, distinctive colors, depictions of common subject matter, a focus on light, and compositions inspired by photography.
Painterly brushwork is perhaps Impressionism’s most recognizable trait. Unlike the carefully blended brushstrokes distinctive of previous movements, Impressionist artist employed thick, sketch-like strokes. These quick marks capture the ephemeral, fleeting nature of moments in time, and allowed artists to experiment with color and the ways in which different tones interact on the canvas.
Distinctive Color Palette
In addition to brushwork, Impressionists also exhibited a unique approach to color. Rather than mix paint to achieve certain tones, they instead grouped together individual brushstrokes of various colors. This method is particularly apparent in Impressionist depictions of shadows and snow, which, respectively, are never simply black and white.
Impressionist paintings also often feature neutral color schemes with vivid pops of red that both draw in the eye and add balance to compositions.
Focus on Light
Many Impressionist artists—most notably, Claude Monet—had a penchant for painting en plein air, or outside. With this approach, artists were able to closely study the light and its effects on landscapes, buildings, and other outdoor sights.
“For me,” Monet said, “a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life—the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value.”
Another avant-garde aspect of Impressionism is the everyday nature of its subjects. Typical content portrayed in Impressionist paintings includes still life depictions, landscapes, portraits of friends and family, and modern city scenes—a far cry from the historical, mythological, and allegorical scenes found in traditional French paintings.
Inspired by photography—a new and pioneering practice at the time—Impressionists produced paintings that acted as authentic snapshots of specific moments in time. With this muse in mind, artists began framing their scenes in more ‘natural’ ways, resulting in asymmetrical compositions cropped like candid photographs.
However, these “snapshots” often actually required ample planning and premeditation. “I assure you no art was ever less spontaneous than mine,” Degas, who is known for his creative use of cropping, said.
Legacy & Presence of Impressionism Today
Naturally, as the starting point of modernism, Impressionism influenced many ensuing movements. Post-Impressionists adopted its painterly brushwork; Abstract Expressionists found inspiration in Monet’s unconventional approach to form; and many contemporary artists even continue to work in a Neo-Impressionist style.
By reinterpreting and reimagining the movement’s iconic aesthetic, these artists invite present-day audiences to see Impressionism in a new light—literally.