Art is about emotion. How it invokes it, though—particularly in terms of method and tone—varies from piece to piece. A great example of this can be found by examining the works of expressionism vs impressionism, two styles of art that emerged at different times and in different places, but that are both rooted in the stark manifestation of the human experience.

So, what is the difference between expressionism vs impressionism? To understand how these two styles compare, it helps to look at each of them on their own, examining what artists of that school sought to achieve and how they worked to achieve it. Here’s what to know about expressionism vs. impressionism in visual art, with a brief look at how these styles compare in music as well. 

What Is Expressionism?

The expressionist movement began in Germany and Austria in the early 20th century, largely as a critique of the changing, and often demoralizing, societal structure brought on by industrialization. The name was coined by Czech art historian Antonin Matějček in 1910 and is meant to connote the opposite of the popular impressionist paintings that were already in style.

An artist painting in the expressionist style is unbound by traditional shapes or colors. Instead, expressionism is a purposeful break from realism, relying on the abstract form, exaggerated brushstrokes, and unusual color choices to convey physical reality. These pieces are entirely subjective, though they were often created as a very direct and very criticism-heavy response to the problems of the day.

Expressionism Examples

Probably the most iconic expressionist painting is Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” an abstract depiction of Munch’s own struggles with mental illness.

the scream
Source: Wikimedia
Edvard Munch’s The Scream, 1893.

Other famous works of expressionist art include “The Old Guitarist” by Pablo Picasso (1903-1904) and Franz Marc’s “The Yellow Cow” (1911).

Source: wikimedia
“The Old Guitarist” by Pablo Picasso.
yellow cow
Source: Gandalf’s Gallery via Flickr Creative Commons
“The Yellow Cow” by Franz Marc.

Notably, expressionism wasn’t always used as a commentary on societal issues. Franz Marc’s “The Yellow Cow,” for example, is a sentimental display of femininity, created in honor of his marriage to Maria Franck in 1911.

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What Is Impressionism?

Impressionism dates earlier than expressionism, the latter of which was actually in many ways a response to (and admonishment of) the semi-realism depicted in impressionist works. It originated in Paris in the late 19th century and was a way for modern artists of the day to critique the rapidly changing urban landscape. Characteristics of impressionism include the use of vibrant colors, which were often used to depict outdoor scenes. Paint is applied in short strokes, with colors left unmixed as if the artist merely glanced at a scene before putting it to canvas. There is also a strong focus on the accurate representation of natural light.

Impressionism Examples

The term impressionism itself comes from Claude Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” (1872). The piece exemplifies the qualities of impressionist art, leaving viewers with the feeling that the artist has captured a fleeting moment in time.

Source: Raw pixel
“Impression, Sunrise” by Claude Monet.

Many of Monet’s other Impressionist paintings are equally renowned, such as “Woman with Parasol” (1875) and “The Water Lily Pond” (1899).

Source: Raw Pixel
“Woman with Parasol” by Claude Monet.
water lily pond
Source: Gandalf’s Gallery via Flickr Creative Commons
“The Water Lily Pond” by Claude Monet.

Another famous impressionist example is Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Jeanne Samary in a Low Necked Dress” (1877).

Source: Instagram
“Jeanne Samary in a Low Necked Dress” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

What Is Expressionism and Impressionism in Music?

The difference between expressionism and impressionism extends to music as well, though the meanings are quite the same. Expressionist music is a more abstract take on traditional Western tones that aims to convey deep emotion. Impressionist music, meanwhile, is all about capturing the mood of a moment.  

Composers associated with expressionist music include Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and Béla Bartók, while Claude DeBussy, Maurice Ravel, and Isaac Albéniz are all composers who embody the impressionist movement.

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Written by:

Alli Hoff Kosik