Key Factors in Identifying Impressionist Paintings

By | 1:48 PM
Developed in the 1860s early impressionists broke the rules of then established academic painting. They began by giving colors and shades primacy over lines. Radicals in their time, they set out to recreate the sensation in the eye that views the subject, rather than simply recreating the subject. The rise of the impressionist movement is often considered a reaction by artists to the newly established medium of photography.

Afternoon tea party. Digital ID: 1266694. New York Public Library
Afternoon Tea Party. Mary Cassatt

Bazille, Frédéric - Chailly
Chailly. Frédéric Bazille

Initially photography's presence seemed to undermine the artist's depiction of nature and their ability to mirror reality. Both portrait and landscape paintings were deemed somewhat deficient and lacking in realism as photography produced true to life images in a quicker more efficient fashion. The photographer taking fixed or still images through the reliable film exposure process challenged painters as a new way of capturing reality.

One of the key factors to keep in mind when looking at art of this style is the lack of fine detail.  This is due to the emphasis of impressionists to portray the overall visual effects instead of details. Short, thick strokes of paint are used to quickly capture the essence of the subject. They abandoned traditional perspective, and avoided the clarity of form which was previously how paintings were distinguished as having greater and lesser elements in a picture.  This has resulted in many critics accusing impressionist paintings of looking unfinished or amateurish. The perception of such critics is enlightened by understanding the meaning of the word impression: “an idea, feeling, or opinion about something or someone, especially one formed without conscious thought or on the basis of little evidence” - Oxford dictionary (American English).  Impressionism draws on the senses not so much the sensibilities.

The use of color is also an important key in identifying impressionist works. The Impressionists loosened their brushwork, and lightened their palettes with pure, intense colors. Colors are applied side-by-side with as little mixing as possible, creating a vibrant surface. Impressionists used mixed and pure unmixed color, not smoothly blended or shaded as was customary, in order to achieve the effect of intense color vibration. The optical mixing of colors is intended to occur in the eye of the viewer. Grays and dark tones are produced by mixing complementary colors. In pure impressionist paintings the use of black paint is avoided.

Edouard Manet - Grand Canal à Venise (1874)
Grand Canal in Venice. 1874 Edouard Manet
"There are no lines in nature, only areas of color, one against another."-Edouard Manet

Impressionist painters purposefully took the act of painting from the studio to the outside world changing the effect of light in their paintings. Previously most still-lifes and portraits as well as landscapes were painted indoors. The impressionists found that they could capture the transient effects of sunlight in the moment by painting en plein air (outdoors).  

Using the en plein air technique, shadows are boldly painted with the blue of the sky as it is reflected onto surfaces, giving a sense of freshness and openness not captured in other types of paintings. Blue shadows on snow are the effect said to have inspired this technique. Painting in the evening produces effets de soir - the shadowy effects of the light in the evening or twilight. The evening lighting would look no different from the mid-day when done with the subject indoors instead of outdoors.  Lighting is an important element of impressionism, not all paintings are done en plein air, however, it is highly regarded by purists.

Garden scene by Renoir
Garden Scene in Brittany. 1886 Pierre-Auguste Renoir

"If the painter works directly from nature, he ultimately looks for nothing but momentary effects; he does not try to compose and soon become monotonous."-Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Another factor to look for in impressionist paintings is how the paint was applied. Impressionists do not exploit the transparency of thin paint films (glazes) which other styles of artists build up carefully to produce effects. The surface of an impressionist painting is typically opaque. Wet paint placed into wet paint “alla prima” without waiting for successive applications to dry produces softer edges and an intermingling of color. The paint is often applied impasto which has a thick texture that seems to be oozing out from the canvas.

Sailboat landscape art
Régate à Argenteuil. circa 1872 Claude Monet

As outlined in this article impressionist paintings can be determined by taking into consideration the following key factors:
  • lack of high detail with boundaries blurred suggesting a three-dimensional plane, rather than a clearly realistic depiction 
  • colors not smoothly blended yet close attention paid to the reflection of colors from object to object
  • the play of natural light is emphasized
  • use of thick brush strokes producing a nontransparent finished painting  

images used in this essay are public domain. Courtesy: The New York Public Library and Wikimedia Commons
Newer Post Older Post Home