Impressionism: a painting style




a painting style

starting page

Impressionism firstly must be seen as a painting style. This must be distinguished from Impressionism as an impressionist art-movement. The different aspects of this painting style will be described here below, with links to extended information. Short descriptions from books and other sources will be rendered. Than you will find a list with descriptive questions. The more affirmative answers, the more an artist can be seen as an Impressionist. In the left (or bottom) menu you will find all the partakers of the 8 ‘impressionist’ expositions. For each artist you will find the answer on the question: was this artist an Impressionist?


Impressionism as a painting style:
First of all Impressionism is a painting style. It is known for rendering an overall impressionism of a scene, focussing on the influence of light on the colours of the objects. To establish this, the artist paints en-plein-air and in a sketchy way. Not calling this sketch a study, but seeing this fast way of painting as the best way to capture the fleeting moment. It is known for it’s bright vibrant colours and the lively, juxta-posed brushstrokes. I think the shortest definition for Impressionism is purple shades.
The impressionists in France started this style in the late 1860s and found it’s mature form in the mid 1870s. Duret saw Impressionism in this way and stated there were just 5 impressionists: Monet, Morisot, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley. In a later edition he added Cézanne and Guillaumin. I will call them key-Impressionists.
To define Impressionism as a painting style, it should be compared with pre-impressionist landscape paintings, with Realism and Naturalism, not with Néo-Classicism. This impressionist painting style is applied later by other artists, also from other countries and even can be applied today.
(note: In the future I will add links leading to pages treating the several aspects.)


Some descriptions of Impressionism:
Rivière noted (1877/04/06) ‘Treating the subjectin terms of the tone and not of the subject itself, this is what distinguished the impressionists from other painters.’ (R1,p338)
Rewald remarks: “Rejecting the objectivity of Realism, they had selected one element from reality -light-  to interpret all of nature.” (R1,p338)
The caeful observation of the fluid play of light (R1,p338).
Do away the traditional dark shadows and to adopt bright pigments (R1,p338)
Blurring the outlines of objects and merging them with the surrouondings (R1,p338).
(Note: more descriptions will be added later.)


Selective questions:

These selective questions define the impressionist painting style. The more affirmative answers, the more an artist can be seen as an Impressionist.

  1. Did the artist use bright colours?
    1. Is there use of bright colours instead of brownish, greyish and sub-dued tones?
    2. Is there emphasis on colour, instead on line?
    3. Is there use of blues and violets instead of blacks for the shade parts?
    4. Does the artist render bright colours which are perceivable in nature, but by emphasizing he makes them slightly unnatural? Such as oranges provoked by a setting sun, pinks in the twilight sky, lilacs in the sand.
  2. Did the artist use a vivid brush stroke?
    1. Is the brushstroke visibel and lively?
    2. Is there use of juxtaposed brushstrokes?
    3. Does this brushstroke make the colours vibrate?
  3. Does the artist give an indication of time of day, season or weather?
    As well in the title as in the painting itself?
  1. Is there an indication of time?
    For example: sunrise; morning; midday; clear day; twilight / dusk; sunset; moonlight.
  2. Is there an indication of season?
    For example: Effect of snow; autumn; springtime; end of the summer; the midst of June.
  3. Is there an indication of weather conditions?
    For example: rough; stormy; calm; clear; grey weather; gust of wind; melting snow; frost effect; effect of sunlight; effect of rain; fog.
  • Does the artist try to render the ever changing moment?
    Especially the influence of (sun)light on the colours of the painted subject?

    1. Does the artist render the moment by a sketch-like way of painting, with a ‘lack of finish’?
    2. Does the artist render the leaves-filtered-sunlight?
    3. Are persons cut off at the edge of the painting as if they were seen in a glimpse
      (instead of carefully being composed in the middle of the painting)
    4. Is it a subjectieve rendering of a personal impression?
      (instead of a photographic rendering of the objective reality)
      (still the object is central and not the personal mood, ideas or symbolic meaning)
    5. Does the artist paint in series to show the influence of sunlight on the colours of the repeated subject?
  • Does the artist give an indication of place?
    As well in the title as in the painting itself?

    1. Does it indicate painting outdoors (en-plein-air) in stead of painting an idealized landscape or a historical, mythological, biblical or patriotic scene?
    2. Is there a global indication of place?
      For example: At Pontoise; the Seine at Bougival
    3. Is there a more detailed indication of place?
      For example: Honfleur, Rue de la Bavolle; The railway bridge at Argenteuil; Étretat, the rock needle seen through the Port d’Aval (which can make it able to locate for example on Google-maps).
  • Does the artist make impressionist portraits?
    1. Does the model blend with the background?
    2. Is the model caught in the moment not aware of being painted?
  • Did the artist paint what he saw?
    1. The landscape as it is?
    2. Every day life in the city
      (In this the Impressionists differed from the Barbizon-painters, R59, p209)

      1. as well the harsh realism of life
        (which in fact is a more realist component)
      2. as the leisure of the new bourgeois
        For example: sailing; café’s; restaurants; ballet; the opera; theaters.


It’s not good to put a painter in a box by putting a label on him, for example: ‘Renoir is an impressionist’. It denies the uniqueness and the development of the painter. Still it’s good to see certain similarities and to discover a sort of movement or school. Maybe it’s good to see it this way: Like a cook, a painter uses certain ingredients. And as you can say that by using certain ingredients something is Italian food, so we could say that the more a painter uses the ‘ingredients’ as mentioned above, the more he was painting in an impressionist style.


Additional references (=aRx):

  1. (extended article on the characteristics of impressionist painting; =iR426)


Recommanded citation: “Impressionism: a painting style. Last modified 2024/01/09.”