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How Impressionism Changed the Art World and Continues to Inspire Us Today

Defining Characteristics

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.


Thick Brushstrokes

Impressionist Art

Claude Monet, “The Japanese Bridge”, ca. 1918-1924 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

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

History of Impressionism

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Dance at Le moulin de la Galette,” 1876 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

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

Impressionism History

Claude Monet, “Haystacks, End of Summer,” 1871 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

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.”


Everyday Subjects

What is Impressionism Art Impressionism Definition Art History

Camille Pissarro, “Rue Saint-Honoré,” 1897 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

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.


Creative Cropping

What is Impressionism Art Impressionism Definition Art History

Edgar Degas, “The Rehearsal Onstage,” 1974 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

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.

Related Articles:

How Van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night’ Came to Be and Continues to Inspire Artists

Why Post-Impressionist Painter Paul Cézanne Is Known as the “Father of Modern Art”

How Flowers Blossomed Into One of Art History’s Most Popular Subjects

How Japanese Art Influenced and Inspired European Impressionist Artists


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