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Squint and you might miss it. But open your eyes wide, get closer to the canvas, look at the individual brush strokes by the likes of Claude Monet, J. M. W. Turner, Camille Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, or Eva Gonzalès, and you may see that the painting you thought you saw was half an illusion—a series of brushstrokes that evoke realism while hiding it in the haze of the artist’s interpretation.
This is impressionist art. And while it depicts realistic qualities—like the bending of sunlight in water—it also represents a sudden left turn in the world of painting. Impressionism in art moved away from strict realism and toward the subjective emotional experience of the viewer.
Perhaps more than any other art movement, impressionism art revealed that a work can be more than the sum of its parts. But what paintings define impressionism, and how can you spot it when you see it? It’s time to stop squinting, get closer to the canvas, and see the emotional subtext behind the world’s most famous impressionist paintings.
What better way to tackle a question like “What is impressionist art?” than to look at the painting that gave the movement its name?
In Claude Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise,” we have a subject almost begging for a realistic portrayal. The port of Le Havre, Monet’s hometown. A striking sunrise over the water, with boats clearly visible in the foreground and industrial structures in the background.
Yet that’s not quite what the painting gives us.
Look at Monet’s reddish morning sky and you won’t see clouds; you’ll see almost self-conscious brushstrokes that reveal the existence of the painter. Ditto for the reflections of the ruddy morning sun in the water—you can almost see Monet’s brush moving side-to-side.
Traditional painting techniques might have called for a traditional landscape. In earlier years, viewers enjoyed idealized settings and realistic techniques. The overall scene here is clearly a real image Monet saw, but the final painting is more like a still frame out of a dream. It was, for lack of a better term, a more frank depiction of the artist’s impression than the objective reality of the scene.
What is impressionist art if we set out to define it specifically? Impressionism represented the first move away from idealization and realism into more abstract interpretations of scenes. In painting, it typically means the following techniques:
- Short, conscious paint-strokes with minimal “gussying up” to polish the paint into fine, realistic detail. An impressionist painter is not too concerned with you seeing the technique; in fact, they often leave it there in plain view.
- Minimal color-mixing on the palette to create starker flashes of color on the canvas. This is what makes Monet’s sun “pop” from the haze of a painting.
- Wet-on-wet paint application lets the mixing happen on the canvas. This contributes to the blurring, “hazy” effect that typifies impressionism.
- Emphasis on natural light and scenery, especially relating to the sun’s location. Frequent subjects of impressionism include outdoor landscapes, water, sunsets, and daytime activities in the outdoors.
Of course, knowing these facts without reviewing a few samples won’t help you when you’re buying art for yourself. You need to know how to spot impressionism at a glance. To help you, let’s look at some famous—and some not-so-famous—examples.
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“Water Lilies” by Monet is an entire series of paintings on the subject. One interesting thing to note: how little Monet uses blue in these paintings. Even without the color, he still manages to leave a clear impression of the movement and fluidity of water on the viewer.
Monet’s series on “Haystacks” reflects a similar exploratory phase for the painter. In “Haystacks,” Monet studied the effects of sunlight on his landscapes, almost as if one painting wasn’t enough to capture the full meaning of a subject.
In this series on water lilies, Monet seems to be telling the viewer that just as no painter will look at water lilies the same, there are no two scenes in real life that are exactly alike. The water keeps moving down the stream; what you looked at an hour ago is no longer there. We keep only the impression the moment made on us.
Pissarro’s “Boulevard Montmartre” reveals how impressionist artworks sometimes look when depicting people. Note the emphasis on the natural elements—even the tree branches seem to have more detail and precision than the misty silhouettes of pedestrians and domesticated, wagon-drawing horses.
Some passersby even seem to fade into the haze of the scene; figures on the lower left-hand side melt into the streets and sidewalks, showing how Pissarro prioritized the details of the city over the people inhabiting it.
It’s worth noting Pissarro’s effect on the impressionist movement. In beginning to paint more firmly on his own interpretation of the scene rather than the reality of it, Pissarro set the stage for even more omnipresent post-impressionist painters like Vincent Van Gogh.
Un bar aux Folies-Bergère
Not all impressionism artworks fade their details into the background. In this painting from Manet, we have other contrasts with the typical impressionistic style. He gives us unnatural lighting, clearer details, and no landscape at all.
Yet look at the mirror behind the bar and you’ll see the details less in focus and the meanings less clear. Who is the man who appears to be facing her? Why is her face in focus and his is almost incomprehensible?
It’s clear at this point, late in Manet’s life, he had learned how to use the impressionist style to tell deep, complex stories—some of which remain up for interpretation to this day.
The Donkey Ride
The paintings of Eva Gonzalès show influence from Manet, but also introduced a new style of portraiture that typified many famous impressionist paintings. In “The Donkey Ride,” we see a portrait that uses color and background techniques to bring the horse-riding woman into focus. The man blends into the tree and the horse, ignored by the woman, who is presented in more vibrant and striking detail.
Morning on the Seine
Monet’s paintings often include meditations on repeated subjects—haystacks, water lilies, sunrises—and this work from the 1890s reveals how difficult some impressionist artworks can be to interpret. There is so little to dwell on here that it almost becomes a painting about the technique itself, perhaps foreshadowing later movements like cubism and modernism.
Without any context, some impressionist art appears to have an “unfinished” quality. In “Impression, Sunrise,” there’s the sense that Monet was purposefully sketching a scene rather than realizing it fully. There may have been a reason behind the name “Impression.” Monet never intended to capture the scene for its literal detail. He wanted to show the impression the scene made on him.
By the late 1800s, photography was already putting realism out of business. Color photography wouldn’t be far behind. But painters still had a subjective experience to show their viewers. Whether it’s a coincidence or not, impressionism marked a clear change in the role of the painter. No longer were they journalists and portraitists; they were now interpreters.
Everything that came after—from Van Gogh’s imaginative “Starry Night” and impressionistic dot patterns to Jackson Pollack’s highly abstract drip expressionist paintings—can trace its roots back to the first painters who departed from strict realism.
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