What is Impressionism?

by mitchellgallery


George Agnew Reid (Canadian, 1860-1947). Portrait of Mrs. Reid, 1902. Oil on canvas.

The artistic movement called Impressionism seeks to record the instant that a particular perception comes to the senses—to sight—but to record the perception as just that: an impression. But all of this is barely the beginning of an understanding of the movement. First of all, what does it mean to capture the impression of something?  Let’s address this question through a look at the painting above by George Reid, a portrait of his wife.

A woman sits in the partial shade of a tree which must stand just outside of the frame. Sunlight, filtered by the leaves above, falls on her hair and shoulders directly. The clearing over her shoulder in the background provides the other source of direct light, illuminating her from behind. The turn of her shoulders and neck instigates a sort of spiral in the composition, which begins in the lower folds of the dress, moves upward to merge with the blur of grass and wildflowers on the left-hand side of the painting, follows the curve of her neck, and culminates in the upward twist of her hair. Yet the motion doesn’t end there—the turn of her neck is imitated and enhanced by the flow of the brushstrokes of trees and foliage that frame her body.

Now, leaving form behind and focusing on color, something important is revealed. This painting, in terms of its composition, deals with color and the expression of the strokes by which it is applied more than anything else—more than sharp, pure lines, for instance. It looks like the initial appearance, unfiltered by the mind is the impression. When first opening your eyes in the morning, you have only an impression of light, and then gradually color, and then shape. It takes some adjustment (and perhaps even some mental work) for the colors to arrange themselves in the shapes of objects we’re used to. What is so vibrant about this painting are the strokes of unmixed color, and the movement they seem to engender among themselves. Much of what would be delineated in a careful, realistic reproduction of the face is conspicuously absent.

How does this affect the way we see the “subject” of the painting? This painting is a portrait, but the nominal subject of it, the artist’s wife, eludes our attempt to call her the subject. Having turned her face away from the viewer, she seems almost indifferent. The subject is more the impression of this woman, and, more than that, the way in which she’s merely a part of the scene around her. The light tints in her hair are reflected in the bright strokes in the grass, and these follow the spiral form of her dress. Even the blue in her sash is reflected in the small branch that pokes upward from the lower right corner.

At the root of Impressionism  is an effort to depict the world as it appears to the viewer. The spirit of this new view is described by Cézanne, who remarked, “To paint after nature is not a matter of copying the objective world, it’s giving shape to your sensations.” No longer is the subject depicted identifiable as such in Impressionism. There has been a movement away from a deliberate focus on a single, coherent subject, and toward a view of the world as it presents itself to the artist in all its perceived color, light, and motion.

Cézanne Quotation credit: Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.


Sophy Schulman – St. John’s College