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What is Impressionism?

By T Thompson
Updated May 17, 2024
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"Impressionism" is a term that was first used to describe visual art in the late 19th century that emphasized the conveyance of an overall impression of a particular scene, usually outdoors, using primary colors and short brushstrokes to represent the appearance of reflected light. The desired result of impressionism was to capture the artist's perception of the subject rather than the subject itself. Artists of this movement desired to portray images in the way that someone might see something if he or she merely caught a glimpse of it.


Impressionist paintings contain very bright, bold colors and tend to have very little detail. The founders of this movement were Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. They were soon followed by such notable artists as Camille Pissarro, Gustave Caillebotte, Edgar Degas, Frederic Bazille, Edouard Manet and Mary Cassatt.


Although the Impressionist movement was begun by painters, musicians were quick to follow suit. Music composers began avoiding the traditional harmony of thirds and started using more discordant chords and diverse arrangements to convey personal impressions and moods. This allowed the musicians to suggest moods and places through vague rhythms and vibrant, shifting harmonies. This style of music was first introduced by Claude Debussy, whose compositions attempted to create visual images by suggesting light and color schemes through variations in pitch, tone and rhythm. Many composers quickly followed in Debussy's footsteps, most notably French composer Maurice Ravel, who was greatly influenced by American jazz and frequently borrowed ideas from the Far East, Greece and Spain in order to "paint" rich sounds into his music.

Writings and Poetry

Writers and poets also embraced Impressionism and began to use imagism and symbolism to convey their impressions, rather than the objective characteristics of certain events and objects. The impressionist style of fiction writing often centers on the mental life of the characters by observing their impressions or sensations instead of interpreting their experiences. Impressionistic poetry often implies a response to an event or subject rather than describing the actual feelings that are evoked. This allows the reader to form his or her own ideas as to what the writer is trying to convey, as opposed to the writer telling outright how he or she sees and feels about a subject.

Influence on Art

Impressionism paved the way for a broader, more expansive way of looking at art in general. Artists were encouraged to express their own visions in their work and were free to experiment with traditional forms to create their own unique work. As a result, both artists and their audiences have evolved over the years, becoming as eclectic and innovative as the world around them.

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Discussion Comments
By anon196270 — On Jul 13, 2011

For an example of impressionistic writing, take a look at Huysman's "Against Nature" or Proust's "In Search of Lost Time." There isn't much of a traditional plot structure. The text deliberately meanders, in an attempt to imitate the way our minds interpret the world. It's a precursor to Modernism's "stream of consciousness" style, but the two are not the same.

By anon97055 — On Jul 18, 2010

do you know the different characteristics of impressionism in music?

By anon52268 — On Nov 12, 2009

The simplest way to see impressionistic writing is relating to the character's environment through the character's five senses rather than narrative, omniscient description. The world is the character's impression, not the narrator's description. So the environment becomes the character's reality, not a narrator's cage for the character.

This actually reads better in nonfiction narrative. With skillful interviewing, a writer can learn how a "character" interacts with his or her world through the filter of senses shaped by a lifetime of experience.

For example hold a cup of coffee and what do you see, smell, taste, hear, feel, and how does it affect your alertness, your mood, your ability to receive information from your senses.

Simple? A central African culture (which I don't recall) has 16 names for a cup of liquid based on its purpose. They translate loosely to, a warming, a cooling, satisfier, or if you plan to throw it on someone, a word that means an instrument of annoyance. It's still the same cup and the same liquid.

I hope that helps. --HJ, St. Louis

By anon23324 — On Dec 21, 2008

I cannot understand the part about writers. Can anyone explain it in more simple terms?????

By anon22257 — On Nov 30, 2008

Can anyone compare and describe the impressionism of Claude Monet's "Waterlilies" to Debussy's Piano Prelude La Fille aue cheveux.

By fafobushy — On Feb 28, 2008

im looking for these questions:i need to:

Gather information about impressionism (time, period, place, reasons for and artists of impressionism.)

*talk about the most significant characteristics of impressionism

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