What is Impressionism?

Daniel Lee-Jacobs Daniel Lee-Jacobs

Quickly-applied broad brushstrokes capture the essence of an outdoor scene.

What is Impressionism?

Do you ever feel trapped working inside all day, peering out of the window and longing to be outside enjoying a warm summer’s afternoon? In the 19th century, a group of French painters felt a similar way. Restricted to their studios, they longed to be outside, engaging in their practice in the open air. So they decided to escape to the outdoors and paint, Et voilà, the practice of Impressionism was born!


An impressionist painter will plant him or herself outdoors, take in a scene e.g a rolling landscape or a busy city square, watching passers by and experiencing the sensational qualities of changing light. Characterised by quickly applied broader brushstrokes, the goal is not necessarily to paint a realistic picture of what is in front of them, but an impression of how it appears and is perceived.


Impressionist Art began as an anti-academic movement in the 19th Century that rejected the restricting lifestyle of painting in a studio; where Artists would spend spend countless hours trying to master a specific technique, style or subject with the aspiration that their work would be accepted into a prestigious Salon and shown to the public (and, hopefully, well received). Rather than sketching a landscape or scene only to then bring this back to the studio whereupon it would be transformed into a painting, artists decided to paint directly whilst observing their subject matter. They called this en plein air - in the outdoors.

Their goal was to capture the moment in its immediacy, including the transience of sunlight and the passage of time - thought of as important aspects of the how humans experience and perceive their environments. This mantra was matched with a new artistic technique: Impressionism is characterised by quickly applied, very short brush strokes. The rhythm with which Impressionist artists painted thus matched the fleeting nature of rapidly changing light and time. It was extremely inventive for the time, as it marked a shift from representing the details of a subject in favour of capturing the essence of perception, and the ways our eyes receive information.

Famous Examples

In 1874, artists such as Monet, Renoir, Degas and Cézanne put together a group exhibition that rebelled against the Salon (the official and conventional exhibition of art run by the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris between the mid 18th century to the late 19th century). They showed their artworks and this new artistic technique to the public, and it was not well received. In fact, the famous critic Louis Leroy ridiculed one of Monet’s paintings, entitled Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) and coined satirically the name of the movement ‘Impressionism’.

Regardless, these radical artists continued to rebel against the academy and show their vanguard works to the public in subsequent independently organised exhibitions. Slowly, the public came around to appreciate the new style for its innovation, well before the critics did. These persistent French Impressionists included Pissarro, Berthe Morisot, Eduard Dégas, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzalès, Armand Guillaumin and Stanislas Lépine.

Whilst mostly French, the movement did spread its influence abroad in places like the UK and the USA. In Britain, the key players were Walter Richard Sickert, Philip Wilson Steer and James McNeill Whistler, who established British Impressionism in the 1889 exhibition London Impressionists, with the backing of the New English Art Club (NEAC) that was founded in 1886.

Contemporary context:

Today, impressionism is incredibly widely adopted and makes up a significant proportion of the work of many amateur and professional painters alike. It’s subject matter of landscapes and scenes of everyday life, although ubiquitous now, were once a stark contrast to the grand battle scenes and religious iconography of previous centuries. In many ways it paved the way for other ‘modern’ art movements such as fauvism and abstract art which are commonplace in our society today.

Check out these masterpieces:

Claude Monet (1840-1926) - Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), 1872
Oil on canvas - 48 cm × 63 cm; 18.9 in × 24.8 in 
Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris/FR

Claude Monet (1840-1926) - Water Lilies, 1906
Oil on canvas - 89.9 x 94.1 cm; 35 3/8 x 37 1/16 in.
Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection, 1933
Art institute of Chicago, Chicago IL

Edgar Degas (1834–1917) French, Paris c. 1874
Oil over pen-and-ink drawing on woven paper mounted on canvas
54.3 x 73 cm; 21 3/8 x 28 3/4 in.
H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Gift of Horace Havemeyer, 1929
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York NY

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) - Summer’s Day, 1879
Oil on canvas - 45.7 cm × 75.2 cm; 18.0 in × 29.6 in
Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917
The National Gallery, London/UK

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) - The Boulevard Montmartre at Night, 1897
Oil on canvas - 53.3 x 64.8 cm
Purchase of the Courtauld Fund, 1925
The National Gallery, London/UK

Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942) - Girls Running, Walberswick Pier, 1888-94
Oil on canvas - 62.9 x 92.7 cm; 86.0 x 117.0 x 9.5 cm (framed)
Presented by Lady Augustus Daniel 1951
Tate, London/UK