Art Guides · French · Modernism

A Guide to Impressionist Painting

Woman and Child on a Balcony by Berthe Morisot
Berthe Morisot,Woman and Child on a Balcony (1871-2). Oil on canvas. Private Collection. (Public Domain via
The style is best known for
  • Water lilies by Claude Monet
  • Ballerinas by Edgar Degas
  • Pretty ladies by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
  • Mothers and children by Mary Cassatt.
How to recognize it
  • Paintings have a sketch-like or fuzzy appearance.
  • Subjects are recognizable from a distance, but they dissipate into brush strokes as you get closer.
  • Forms are flat, without much illusion of three dimensions (which would be called “chiaroscuro”).
  • You look at things from unusual viewpoints – from above or below, at a strange angle, or cropped like a photograph.
  • Predominantly soft or bright colors; less often deep or dark ones.
  • Emphasis on lighting.
  • Common subjects include country landscapes, urban Parisian establishments like cafes, ballerinas, horse races, and middle-class parties.
  • Multiple paintings of the same subject under different conditions.
Haystacks (Effect of Snow and Sun) by Claude Monet
Haystacks (Effect of Snow and Sun) by Claude Monet (1891). Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)

The style began in France in the 1860s, but it eventually spread to other countries. and became quite popular, so aspects of it can sometimes be seen today. In the second half of the 19th century, France (particularly Paris) was coming into an exciting new modern era. Conventional European painting (“academic art”) wasn’t keeping up, making it very much out of touch with the real world and people’s actual experiences. A group of young artists wanted to portray this new urban reality, so they chose modern, middle-class subjects instead of the traditional (upper-class, classical, sentimental) ones. They also aimed to capture the immediacy of modern life without staging or idealizing it. The Impressionists set themselves against Realist art, though they did share some of its characteristics.

Sentier de la Mi-Cote by Alfred Sisley
Alfred Sisley, Sentier de la Mi-Cote Louveciennes (1873). Oil on canvas. Musee d’Orsay, Paris. (Public Domain via
Underlying Ideas
  • Capturing the way things look at first glance rather than after careful study.
  • Recording the ways that weather, seasons, times of day, and other factors affect appearances, often by painting the same scene repeatedly (“in series”) under changing conditions.
  • Acknowledging the fleeting nature of appearances.
  • Painting en plein air (outside in the landscape, rather than in the studio).
  • Showing things from viewpoints you might experience in everyday life, where the most important figure isn’t necessarily in the center, the composition isn’t perfectly balanced, or something blocks part of a view.
  • Depicting modern Parisian life.
Bouquet of Chrysanthemums by Auguste Renoir
Auguste Renoir, Bouquet of Chrysanthemums (1881), oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection. (Public Domain)
Key Artists
  • Gustave Caillebotte
  • Mary Cassatt
  • Edgar Degas
  • Claude Monet
  • Berthe Morisot
  • Camille Pissarro
  • Pierre-Auguste Renoir
  • Alfred Sisley
Don’t Confuse It With
  • Realist painting – In theory, the Impressionists set themselves against the Realists (who strived to be as true to life as possible through careful study). In practice, there was some overlap, particularly when the Impressionists painted urban settings.
  • Post-Impressionist painting – As the name implies, it came after Impressionism. Post-Impressionist artists (think of Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh) built on the Impressionists’ move away from careful, studied realism but took it in a different direction. For example, they often used very simple, flattened shapes and shockingly bright colors.


Look for guides to more important artistic and architectural styles coming up soon. Thanks so much to my friend Alicia Whavers for giving me very helpful feedback on the first few installments of these art guides. I really appreciate her insights and encouragement. Thanks, Alicia!

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