Understanding Impressionism

In the here and now, Impressionism is applauded and appreciated for its uses of colour and light. Its ability to capture and convey how starkly different a subject is under different lighting is a style emulated to this day, standing strong after more than 150 years. But what exactly is Impressionism? How is it defined and where did it come from?

To understand Impressionism, one must look back to its history to see how the style developed and grew, in the face of repressive and stifling institutions, and in the shadow the post-industrial pre-modern world.

A short history of the Impressionist movement

The impressionist movement began in France, during 1860’s, though wouldn’t flourish into full fruition until the 1870’s. Artists Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renior, Alfred Sisley, Frederic Bazille and Eduoard Manet would meet weekly at a café near Manet’s studio to discuss technique and style, often taking trips to the country to paint in the open air together. This ran counter-current to the traditional trends, where artists would only typically sketch their subject in the open and paint in a studio, Manet’s group of artists, who met under the name of the ‘Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors, and Engravers’, painted the landscapes they visited, focusing more on the colours at play and the shifting light of the day, rather than the subject displayed, opting to slap wet paint on wet paint, and mix on the palette and canvas, affording them the speed needed to catch the shifting lights.

The traditionalist art schools of the era rejected this emerging style off the cuff, criticising the pieces as looking unfinished, and decried the subject matter; contemporary and leisure life, portrayed through still life, landscapes, and views of bustling streets and quiet cafes. The rejection had left little room for the Impressionists to showcase their work, until the April of 1874, when they self-funded their own exhibition in the photography studio of Felix Nadar. At the time, the entire affair was considered revolutionary, from the artworks, to the décor that they hung in, to the purchasing of works right off the walls.

Critics and art academics lampooned the event, and one such criticism of Claude Monet’s ‘Impression Sunrise’ (the work was declared ‘impressionistic’) gave the growing movement its name; Impressionism.

Ultimately the Impressionists would run 8 exhibitions between 1874 and 1886, though the core group of artists than began the exhibitions did not show work at every one of them. Eventually, they would go their separate ways, focusing on their own careers, either moving onto new styles, or refining the Impressionist style.

Defining the style

As mentioned above, the defining characteristics of Impressionism were its subject and style. Unlike the traditionalist art at the time, much technical focus was dedicated to hiding the artists hand and strokes, as well as glazing the canvas and paint upon completion. However, courtesy of Manet, Impressionism uses drastically different techniques. Brush strokes are much shorter, and more spontaneously placed, helping to convey the feeling and sight of moving and reflecting light.

Colour was often used in ways that hadn’t yet been considered at the time. Given the propensity to paint at times of transient light, artists would place wet paint on already wet paint, blending the edges of colours and giving everything a softer look, as outlining of the painting’s subjects was avoided. Outside of Manet’s works (who never referred to himself as Impressionist); artists would eschew the shade of black in favour of colourful vibrancy, reflecting the deep colour changes of transient light.

The layers on layers of paint, as well as the staccato brush technique leads to a uniquely textured final piece, where each moment of the artists hard work can be seen. While the process of Impressionist work is typically quick, the quality and care that has gone into each piece is immediately obvious.

Some examples from Art Selectors

Below are some of our selections from our Impressionist collection to help you gain further understanding of the Impressionist movement, as well as showcase some truly compelling pieces:

Fieldscape no. 5 by Joseph Villanueva

Fieldscape no. 5’ is a prime example of Impressionist art. From the prominent brushstrokes forming prominent clouds, and suggestive wisps of such, to the textured beauty of the tilled field below, one can see how the layers of paint have been added to give untold depth to the piece. It doesn’t just feel like the land stretches off into the horizon, but that the sky is incalculably deep. The touches of blue poking out from underneath the upper layers of paint suggest puddles, as if only recently rain had fallen upon the field.


Like a moth to flame by David Clare

Like A Moth To Flame by David Clare

As with ‘Fieldscape no. 5’, ‘Like a moth to flame’ features the prominent display of short brush strokes to give depth and presence to the sky and the clouds forming over a deep, calm and beautiful sea. The deep blue of the sea contrasts with the pink upon the clouds, hinting that the day is drawing to its close, and its use of colour and light is a fine example of classic Impressionism.


A Stitch In Time - Plein Air by Michelle Keighley

This piece exemplifies the use of layers within Impressionism to define shape, depth and weight. The darkness of the leaves offset by the whiteness of the sky allows the subject in the foreground to ‘pop’. As mentioned above, darker colours are usually avoided, but in this piece are used to great effect, giving the branches of the trees weight, and a sense of mass. The leaves are formed with strong, well defined brush strokes, in classic Impressionist fashion.

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