Impressionism By Alexis Speicher

The age of Impressionism was a unique time of innovation and rediscovery in art. It was characterized by the artists' desire to think outside of the box and detach from the mold that had been the defining forces of that time. The height of this age has typically been defined as being between the years of 1876 and 1886. During this time, there were many cultural, political, and religious norms that put restrictions on the artists of the day. A few of those are mentioned here.

The French Academy of Fine Arts was the ultimate deciding force of what was considered to be good art during that time. The academy favored art with much Romantic flavor, such as those depicting religious or historical themes. Soon, a problem arose. It became evident that many artists were branching out and tampering with new ways of expression. New artists enjoyed painting still lifes and landscapes; they began using vibrant, dominant colors to depict natural light; and they had the audacity to leave their colors unblended. Thick, harsh brush strokes were being used, and the finished project was only a mere impression of the subject rather than a finely tuned masterpiece, according to critics. The leaders of the academy were appalled and turned countless works away. It had come to a point where more works were being rejected than were being accepted. Emperor Napoleon the 3rd noticed this, and in response he created The Salon of the Refused. Here, artwork which had been rejected by the French Art Academy was accepted and displayed. Much to the dismay of art critics, the crowds loved what they saw.

Another cultural conflict which greatly affected artists was the Church's rejection of their gifts. The Church could not see that art was a credible, worthwhile calling from God. Artists were not considered by the Church to be bad people; however, their chosen career path was not supported. Because of this, many artists found themselves estranged from their churches. The separated relationship between the Church and art could be traced back to the Middle Ages when art had been viewed by Protestants as sinful because of its representative nature. Art in that sense was viewed as many forms of idols which were frowned upon by God. This strained relationship even began, in the Romantic era, to be twisted into the belief that artists were, in fact, a special "breed" of humans found far above the rest of normal society. A tragic reflection of these issues was found in the life of Vincent Van Gogh. He unfortunately suffered from mental illness, and was therefore not considered as part of the elite society. He spent most of his life searching for a way to serve God and the Church. He tried to be a pastor; however, this was not where his talents were found, and he failed miserably. His church refused to support his gifts of artistry, so he found himself torn between serving God and what he thought to be a cursed gift: art. He spent much time in the mental hospital of Saint-Remy to find relief from his hallucinations. Here, he painted some of his best works, his most famous being The Starry Night. Later, in one of his bouts of relapse, Van Gogh took his own life. He could have been saved had the Church seen his vocation as given and blessed by God.

Van Gogh, The Starry Night

A third influence on Impressionism was the idea that, also stemming from the Romantic era, took the objectivity out of the doctrine of the Church and relied heavily on the feelings of subjectivism and relativism. By this philosophy, Christianity became less influential, and artists began to find worth in secularism. Edouard Manet's Luncheon on the Grass was an example of artists' lack of value in morally appropriate subject matter (although this piece did not necessarily have the objective of "appropriateness" for the viewer). In addition, many artists began to convey scenes of still lifes, landscapes and the high affluence of high class society. One of the first artists to be rejected by the French Academy of Fine Arts was Claude Monet with his painting of Impression Sunrise. This is when the the art critic, Louis Leroy, used the word "impression" as an insult before the term became widely accepted as the name of the era. Edgar Degas also focused his intentions on the beauty of the human form and sometimes clumsiness. Art became less about the explicitly religious and more about beauty found in unlikely things.

Visual Art

Claude Monet is an example of an Impressionist artist who depicted his wife and son in his painting Woman with a Parasol. This work of art is a reflection of the fading out of religion as a subject of painting. It uses unblended colors and bright, primary colors to show a light, yet mysterious, theme. The way the light bounces off of the subjects and is brought to the forefront of the viewer's attention is a reflection of this time in art.

Monet, Woman with a Parasol

Caspar David Friedrich depicted a pair of works very somber in nature. These are Monk by the Sea and Abbey in the Oakwood. In these paintings, Friedrich uses the power and vastness of nature to depict the glory of God, rather than a specific piece of religion. He does play with light in a way in the second painting. The lack of a majority of light is used as a reminder of what is missing. There is an immense feeling of what has been lost in this painting. This may reflect the rejection he felt as an artist because he had been labeled "Hitler's favorite artist."

Friedrich, Abbey in the Oakwood


Franz Liszt depicted the period of Impressionism in his music well. An example of this is "The Fountains of the Villa d'Este" in 1877. This music is very light, with tinkling sounds on the piano. It gives a picture of the urban life and natural light that was so commonly shown in the paintings of the time.

Another musician whose music reflected the Impressionist period was Claude Debussy. His music was different from any other, and it was extremely unique. An example of this is "Preludes II - Ondine" which used sounds that deviated from the typical structure of music. The chord structure was unexpected and unusual. This was how Debussy's music was considered Impressionist was its ability to stray from the "typical," or what was known, and form its own path to fame.


A work of literature that reflects the time period of Impressionism is Charles Baudelaire's volume of poetry, "The Flowers of Evil." Like Impressionist art, Baudelaire tries to capture the essence of his subject in his poetry, rather than completely replicating it. This would be found in paintings as the thick brush strokes and lack of blending that makes the viewer see the subject as if it were only at a glance. This poetry gives the same idea of only an impression of its subject.

Charles Baudelaire

Edvard Munch, "The Scream"

Impressionism followed the Romantic period. During this time, the goal of art was to convey passion. This made art highly personal to the creator because he was put with the task of trying to evoke that same feeling of intense emotion in his viewers. The level of intensity in emotion was less in Impressionist art than that found in Romantic art. The artists in the more recent era wanted to depict something less realistic, but with the same level of meaning behind it. In addition, the difference in technique was great. Romantic art was precise and tuned, whereas Impressionist art seemed at first glance to be unfinished and messy. Art critics were not pleased with the direction artists were heading.

Impressionism soon paved the way for Post-Impressionism and Modern Art. Paul Cezanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Bibemure Quarry is an example of the introduction to a form called Cubism. Cubism was the art of capturing the essence of an object; this practice eventually reduced those objects down to their original shapes. This painting by Cezanne illustrates the movement toward Cubism (which was heavily used by Pablo Picasso) in its defined depiction of ideal forms of the mountains and trees. He has essentially turned them into versions of triangles and squares.

Cezanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Bibemure Quarry

I have learned much about the art of the Impressionist period. I particularly enjoy the look of the paintings. I find it interesting that the viewer can not always see the face of the subject (if the subject is a human) because of the obscurity of the work. This is formed by the common use of unblended, thick brush strokes. Another thing I learned about Impressionism is the artists' true desire to convey deep feeling. This is done by focusing on things such as nature, death, light, and those things bigger than humans. Even if it is a still life, the artist is always aiming to convey some meaning behind his subject. Finally, I have enjoyed learning about the artists' desire to convey the essence of their subjects. By making "mere impressions," the artists are hoping for the viewer's glimpse to catch the ultimate feeling behind the subject. These paintings are also realistic in the sense that each person will see their own version of reality. Friedrich's Monk by the Sea and Abbey in the Oakwood, Van Gogh's The Starry Night, and Monet's Woman with a Parasol are my personal favorite works of this era. I like Friedrich's works because they represent power that humans can not control, and he depicts the need for reverence well. I enjoy Van Gogh's work because it depicts his inner turmoil so well, but also able to be seen is the relief he found through his work. Finally, I favor Monet's work because he shows the beauty of his wife and the innocence of his son. He shows how he sees them, and it carries into the eyes of all viewers.

Credits & Acknowledgements

Google Images

Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature by Gene Edward Veith, Jr.

State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe by Gene Edward Veith, Jr.



Created with images by irinaraquel - "Vincent Van Gogh - The Starry Night" • hannibal1107 - "Impressionism" • stevepb - "piano music score music sheet" • condesign - "book book pages read"

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