Impressionism in Art and Literature


Impressionism which started in the late 19th century in France is one of the most influential art movements. It stood against the conventional style of painting which demanded the depiction of people and landscapes in a realistic manner. Impressionism focused on capturing transient moments of everyday life. Impressionist artists used loose brushstrokes and bright colours with an emphasis on light and movement.

The Origin of the Term ‘Impressionism’

Talking about the origin of the term ‘impressionism’, a critic named Louis Leroy coined it in 1874. A group of artists with an innovative style for their time exhibited their works in Paris in 1874. The group included some celebrated names like Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, and Camille Pissarro. Leroy’s use of the term was kind of panning, not praise. Like Leroy, many other critics of art thought that these works were not paintings; they were mere sketches. However, there were the likes of Edmond Duranty who appreciated this style. Duranty wrote an essay in 1876 with the title La Nouvelle Peinture, which means The New Painting. In this essay, he appreciated this style as suitable, innovative, and revolutionary. He found it appropriate to depict the contemporary way of life. Later, however, the term ‘impressionism’ used for panning became a title for this mode of art.

Characteristics of Impressionism

Impressionism concentrated on capturing the effects of light and colours. Impressionists preferred working en plein air, that is, outdoors. They painted scenes from everyday life. Their paintings exhibited the impact of changing light on the atmosphere of a scene in different phases of a day. Impressionists avoided the blending of colours. They applied a technique known as ‘broken colour’. This technique involved applying dabs of colour in small strokes. This practice made their paintings more vibrant. The use of bright colours attracted instant attention to the subject.

The subject of impressionists, as has been mentioned earlier, was everyday life. Impressionism expressed how a random scene may be presented with artistic beauty. It is all about capturing it in detail that generally goes unnoticed. Impressionists selected activities taking place in city streets, parks, cafes, and picnic points as subjects of their paintings. They captured fleeting moments of modern everyday life.

Significance of Working en plein air

The French term en plein air means ‘in the open air.’ It was a practice preferred by impressionists. Instead of working in a studio, they worked outdoors. In a sense, they were directly inspired by nature, and their paintings reflected this inspiration. This practice enabled impressionists to capture the immediate visual experience of a scene. Instead of relying on memory, imagination, and sketches, impressionists worked on real-time experience. It gave their works a spontaneity of expression that was close to real life. This feature was a distinctive quality of impressionism. However, it is not as easy in practice as it seems in the description. The depiction focused not only on the scene but also on the mood, which is quite challenging to delineate. Impressionism won acclaim for its focus on the portrayal of a true-to-life mood. It allowed a peep into the mindset of the painter or subject.

Some Famous Works of Impressionism


Here is a list of titles of some famous works of impressionism in paintings.

  • “Impression, Sunrise” by Claude Monet
  • “Water Lilies” series by Claude Monet
  • “Starry Night Over the Rhone” by Vincent van Gogh
  • “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat
  • “Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
  • “The Poppy Field” by Claude Monet
  • “Woman with a Parasol – Madame Monet and Her Son” by Claude Monet
  • “The Luncheon of the Boating Party” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
  • “Haystacks” series by Claude Monet
  • “The Dance Class” by Edgar Degas

Influence of Impressionism

Impressionism proved a revolutionary art movement. It had profound impacts on the art world. Many other movements like Post-impressionism and Fauvism show the influence of impressionism. Even the literature of the time could not resist its influence.

Impressionism in Literature

Impressionism in literature proved a successful means to express subjective experiences. In impressionist literature, we find the same tendency of capturing fleeting moments of everyday life as in impressionist paintings. With the popularity of the stream-of-consciousness novel, the action of the novel became an amalgam of both physical to mental. The writers presented not only physical responses to an event but also psychological reactions to the same. These psychological reactions, because of their transitory nature, were best presented through impressionism. The writers focused on sensory impressions, specifically visual and auditory impressions. They recorded the impact of these impressions on a character. Impressionism gave the writers the liberty to analyze the impact of these impressions with a subjective approach. They used vivid and evocative language in literature. There is a vast gallery of renowned impressionist characters in literature. These characters see life from a different angle with a different perspective.

Some Characteristics of Impressionist Characters

Impressionism in literature is directly connected with the working of the psyche of the characters. Therefore, the characteristics of impressionist characters are also related as much to an inner world as an outer one. So, impressionist characters in literature often remain isolated from the world around them. Their perception of a situation or event is quite different and sometimes bizarre. Impressionist characters often possess a split personality. They cannot break with their immediate surroundings and society, but they cannot live in the physical world permanently. These characters are always oscillating between the physical world and the psychological world. All these factors create the following characteristics in impressionist characters:


Impressionism is the art of looking at the world through a subjective lens. The writers use impressionist characters to convey their subjective thoughts about social issues. The subjectivity of impressionist characters develops out of some personal trauma or tragedy. It may also result from some unfulfilled desire. These factors change the vision of the characters and they begin to think differently.

Sensory Perception

What light and colours are to impressionism in painting, sensory perceptions are to impressionism in literature. Impressionist characters are readily reactive to sensory perceptions. They are too sensitive to ignore sensory experiences like light, colours, sound, and texture. Their reactions to these sensory experiences reveal their internal conflicts.


Impressionist characters are profoundly emotional. Therefore, their reactions, both physical and mental, violate the standards of rationality. Sometimes, impressionist characters develop emotional attachments with other characters that have no personal relation or connection with them. It is a result of an emotional outburst of sympathy or realization of the similarity of circumstances. Violent or bizarre reactions, emotionally charged words, and unusual exclamatory gestures are signs of emotionality.


Impressionism is a study of how characters get affected by the world around them. Impressionist characters exhibit the influences of their surroundings and the people they meet. They have a tendency to connect these influences or impressions with their subjective approach.


It has been mentioned repeatedly that impressionism captures fleeting moments. So, impressionist characters that live in these fleeting moments may have a sense of transience. Everything around them is always in a state of transition. It lends a sense of impermanence to the ideas, opinions, and emotions of impressionist characters.

To sum up, impressionist characters are complex, sensitive, and receptive.

Important Works of Literature Using Impressionism

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

It is an autobiographical novel that consists of seven volumes. Marcel Proust captures his growth from childhood to adulthood as a continuous search for truth. The way Proust describes his fantasies at different phases of his life is an ideal of impressionism. The novel deals with the themes of memory, time, and subjectivity.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Gustav Flaubert wrote this realistic novel that features one of the most famous impressionistic characters, that is, Madame Bovary. This novel is the story of a woman, Emma Bovary. She feels dissatisfied with her unsophisticated provincial life. Her romantic fantasies provide her with a temporary escape from this situation. Flaubert’s description of Emma’s fantastic escapes is a masterpiece of impressionism. However, Emma’s tragic end is a comment on the harsh world of reality.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is one of the most celebrated female novelists of all time. In her novel, Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf made use of impressionism as one of the narrative techniques. The novel covers only one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a woman representative of contemporary aristocratic circles of London. Clerissa’s mood continues to fluctuate throughout the novel. The description of these fluctuations of mood is ideally impressionistic.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

To the Lighthouse is another famous novel by Virginia Woolf. The story revolves around Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. However, Woolf connects their story with that of others in a skilful way. The characters in this novel face certain conflicts within themselves. They are emotional, receptive, and reactive. Woolf, an expert in stream-of-consciousness narrative technique, unfolds the inner selves of the characters through impressionism. The novel explores the themes of time, memory, and subjective experience through the perspectives of multiple characters.

Dubliners by James Joyce

Dubliners is a collection of short stories by James Joyce. In these stories, Joyce depicted everyday life in Dublin, Ireland. He presents various aspects of life in Dublin through the perspectives of different characters. The stories have an impressionist outlook for their setting.

Many other works of art follow the same tradition of impressionism as found in painting.


Impressionism, both in art and literature, enabled artists and writers to look deep into subjective aspects of life. It broadened the possibilities of analyzing the patterns of the psyche. Even today, artists and authors employ it to depict how a character lives life in various layers.

Also read this article: Sonnet – History Structure Types

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