The impressionist movement began in the visual art world of Paris in the 1860s. The painters who were considered the first “impressionists,” including Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), and Claude Monet (1840–1926), among others, were influenced by contemporary advances in the science of optics that dealt with various aspects of light and color, recent philosophical ideas about the nature of time, and the relatively new study of psychology, which posited notions about perception and comprehension. Their work makes use of color, light, and shadow in ways that attempt to convey one’s immediate perception of a scene on the canvas. Their primary concern was with expressing the nature of reality through their artistic medium rather than in establishing a “school” of art. The word “impressionism” came to be associated with these ideas rather by accident, when a critic assigned the title of an 1873 Monet painting (Impression, Sunrise) to the group—with derogatory intent.
Impressionist painting techniques were initially a reaction against the traditional techniques of realism espoused by the art schools of Paris in the latter half of the nineteenth century, coupled with new discoveries about the nature of color and how the eye perceives it. Painters experimented with ways of depicting light and color, juxtaposing spots of color, for example, and letting the eye—or the brain—fuse them together in the mind of the perceiver, thus producing more intense hues than could be produced by mixing the colors on the palette.
Many who did not appreciate the works of the early impressionists supposed that the painters were settling for less than they were capable of—exhibiting unfinished sketches as though they were finished pieces, for example. Rather than belabor the minute details of a scene, these painters often worked quickly, frequently supplying minor brush strokes to provide suggestions rather than more fully rendered depictions of objects. The aim of such renderings, however, was not to depict a photographic reality but to capture the essence of a fleeting moment—a glimpse, rather than a long gaze—on the canvas. Such an aim demands suggestion and innuendo rather than infinitesimally exact details because by its very nature a momentary glance can provide little else. These artists believed that reality is frequently less than exact; one’s perception of a scene can be blurry or obscured. In addition, they reasoned that because time is ever-moving and our perceptions are ever-changing, the same object appears differently at various times and from various vantage points. This acknowledgment of perceptive diversity prompted some painters to depict in a series of works the same object presented from different angles or at different times of the day.
Impressionism is not confined to the visual arts alone, however. It is also a significant movement in music and literature. The art world of Paris in the 1860s and 1870s was a vibrant community in which painters, musicians, and writers frequently discussed ideas and shared their experiments with each other. Thus, impressionism as a movement developed simultaneously in painting, music, and literature, and the intermingling of artists in various media established new relationships among the art forms as well.
The term “impressionism” was very controversial for the first several decades of its use. In the 1890s it was considered the antithesis of Victorianism. According to the critic Edwin H. Cady, “it stood for the liberation of the artist from the academy and tradition, from formalism and ideality, from narrative, and finally even from realism; for realism demanded responsibility to the common vision and impressionism responsibility only to what the unique eye of the painter saw. It was also a swearword for conservatives of every variety” (p. 132). In terms of literature, however, the word has had more varied connotations. While some have used it with derision, others have applied it much more positively. Cady comments that “it was repeatedly the highest praise of Joseph Conrad and Edward Garnett in England that [Stephen] Crane was an impressionist; it made him triumphantly avant garde” (p. 132).
LITERARY IMPRESSIONISM: AN AESTHETIC
When impressionism is manifested in literature it can be addressed both as an aesthetic and as a collection of specific techniques. As an aesthetic, impressionism assumes that the only way people live and come to any understanding of human life is through sensory experience. The primary purpose of impressionism, then, both in the visual arts and in literature, is to render the sensory nature of life itself. In painting, this means that artists attempt to render what they actually see—the reflections of light on objects or water, the shimmer of a summer day, or the blurry surfaces of a rain-swept street. In literature, the writer’s interest becomes making the reader “see” the narrative described. The effect, in the words of the literary critic James Nagel, is “to convey to the reader the basic impressions of life that a single human consciousness could receive in a given place during a restricted duration of time” (p. 21). The early-twentiethcentury author and critic Ford Madox Ford (1873–1939) emphasizes the role of immediacy in impressionist description when he claims that any piece of Impressionism, whether it be prose, or verse, or painting, or sculpture, is the record of the impression of a moment; it is not a sort of rounded, annotated record of a set of circumstances—it is the record of the recollection in your mind of a set of circumstances that happened ten years ago—or ten minutes. It might even be the impression of the moment but it is the impression, not the corrected chronicle. (P. 41)
Thus impressions are immediate and complete; commentary or explanation is not provided. They are presented directly, as a means of producing similar impressions on the reader as they did on the writer and conveying these impressions along with the associated meaning of related sensations. Because the reader is never told how to respond to these details— the details themselves are the conveyors of meaning—meaning itself tends to operate more on an emotional than intellectual level, though both are possible.
Impressionism also involves a philosophical assumption related directly to the nature of reality: it posits that there is a distinction between reality as it is perceived and reality itself. Nagel points out, the logic of Realism depends on a consistent reliability of both interpretation and perception; the logic of Impressionism suggests that this correspondence is never certain and that the inscrutability and flux of life are its fundamental reality. Impressionistic fiction involves the constant interplay between experience and comprehension . . . qualified by the constant awareness that any description or presentation of reality is dependent upon the clarity with which it is perceived. (P. 22)
The impressionist aesthetic, focusing on the sensory nature of life, the immediacy of perception, and the subjective interpretation of reality, is conveyed by writers through several techniques or combinations of techniques that involve narrative methods, characterization, figurative devices, and structure and form. The most common form of narration is limited third person, which limits the narrator’s perceptions to the level of a character in the story. Narrators may be objective or subjective, and their perceptions may blur with those of a character at times. Characters, especially protagonists, are often in flux, seeking understanding about their lives or their situations but not always achieving a clear vision of such. They are very much affected by what happens to them in the moment, and their perceptions change as their experiences influence them. Figurative devices are primarily sensory images, often focusing on color and light, whose meaning must be derived from context because the narrator’s grasp of the “truth” may be in question. Meaning for the impressionists is arrived at through suggestion rather than concrete presentation. Through the use of reflections, eroded contours and blurred images, impressionists often evoke a mood or sensation rather than deliver a complete physical description.
Maria Kronegger, in her study of Literary Impressionism (1973), aptly points out that in the work of the impressionists there is more stress on connotation than denotation (p. 47). As a result, the form or structure of an impressionist work is often fragmented or episodic. Because the sensory images are passed along directly and in a series of fragments whose meaning is contained in the juxtaposition of these images, impressionism requires the reader to be an active participant in the process of making meaning.
The early-twentieth-century critic Harry Hartwick, in The Foreground of American Fiction (1934), clearly puts into perspective the roles of the writer and the reader regarding the handling of sensory imagery within the impressionistic narrative: “Impressionism is a sensory kodaking, a confused mosaic of details, a rivulet of hyphenated photographs, which the reader . . . must fuse into some eventual relationship” (p. 37). Hartwick and others have described it as a “telegraphic style” in terms of the speed and brevity of the presentation. It might also be likened to the telegraph in its form; the procession of images passes along in chunks and then is reconstructed at the other end. Reliance on this flood of images wreaks havoc on the traditional form and structure of the novel as “experience becomes a series of ‘intense moments’; plot loses its importance, and from an interest in the larger aspects of [one’s] product, the author turns to an interest in ‘the bright, particular world’” (p. 37). For the impressionists, “experience . . . should be broken into fragments, each fragment to be respected for its own sake, each passing moment or passion to be welcomed individually and squeezed dry before it can escape us” (p. 41). It is in this way, via the passing on of sensory fragments, that the impressionists seek to convey a representation of reality to the minds of readers where it can be received and understood with directness and immediacy.
STEPHEN CRANE: THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE
The author Joseph Conrad (1857–1924), himself a practitioner of impressionist prose, once admiringly called Stephen Crane (1871–1900) “the foremost impressionist of his time” (p. 126). Although Crane’s works have been variously described as realistic, naturalistic, imagistic, symbolistic, and impressionistic—indeed there are elements of all such styles in his canon—the lens of impressionism is perhaps most instructive, especially when considering his masterpiece, The Red Badge of Courage (1895). This story focuses on an especially stressful time in the life of its protagonist Henry Fleming, namely his involvement in a series of engagements during the Civil War. The changes that Henry undergoes ostensibly lead him to a comfortable conclusion at the end of the novel, but the duration of his comfort is not ensured. In fact, the constant vacillations that Henry experiences throughout the novel somewhat undermine his apparent epiphany at the end of the piece because he has had several similar instances in the course of the story in which he has felt convinced that his actions and his emotional responses were most accurate and appropriate, only to change his mind a moment later with a change of circumstances. These continual changes, highlighted by techniques such as limited narrative point of view, emotionally charged description, and irony, help Crane to underscore the instability of the world and the consequent uncertainty and fallibility of human perception, traits that are fundamental to an impressionist worldview. The people who populate this world must constantly confront change as they attempt to understand reality, a challenge that raises more doubt and apprehension than certainty.
KATE CHOPIN: THE AWAKENING
Crane’s contemporary Kate Chopin (1851–1904) also uses an impressionistic approach to explore changes that her protagonist, Edna Pontellier, undergoes in The Awakening (1899). However, while Crane focuses on a singular series of events, Chopin is more interested in examining a wide spectrum of experiences and relationships in one woman’s life, ultimately developing an enigmatic character who defies easy definitions and interpretations. Although Edna begins to assert herself and make her own decisions, there are always attendant complications that raise questions about how truly liberated she might be; indeed, some see her throughout the novel as a lost soul who lacks a sense of purpose or understanding of her world. The impressionistic techniques that Chopin employs (including limited third-person narration and an unclear distinction between the narrative consciousness and that of the protagonist), Edna’s marginalized and solitary nature, a connection between sensory description and emotional response, and the close juxtaposition of reality and dreams all contribute to the confusion in interpreting Edna’s character, and, true to an impressionist aesthetic, she remains an enigma to the end.
HENRY JAMES: THE AMBASSADORS
Unlike Crane and Chopin, Henry James (1843–1916) did not embrace an impressionist approach early in his career. In fact, after viewing the Second Exhibition of impressionist artists in Paris (May 1876), he wrote a decidedly negative response to the show. However, as his career progressed his opinion gradually changed, and his novel The Ambassadors (1903), infused with impressionism, becomes the vehicle for examining the protagonist Lambert Strether’s ever-changing perception within an ever-changing world. Rather than an enigmatically soul-earching protagonist as Chopin’s is, however, James’s protagonist instead discovers truths about himself while focusing his concern on others. As a result the novel examines the process by which Strether reverses his initial position about Chad Newsome, his life in Paris and the Woolett business concerns, and consequently his own personal relationship with Mrs. Newsome. The techniques that James uses emphasize the process of seeing through gradual perception, constant questioning, and reinterpretation of what is seen and understood. Using light and shadow, colors and shapes, he underscores the visual subjectivity of impressions, and by tying a character’s emotions to a particular scene, he emphasizes the idea of subjective perception. His use of multiple perspectives highlights the relativity of reality and enables him to examine the protagonist not only in the process of changing his mind but ultimately in the process of changing his heart.
In The Ambassadors, Henry James uses the techniques of impressionism to emphasize the process of seeing through gradual perception. He had just made out, in the now full picture, something and somebody else: another impression had been superimposed. A young girl in a white dress and a softly plumed white hat had suddenly come into view, and what was next clear was that her course was toward them. What was clearer still was that the handsome young man at her side was Chad Newsome, and what was clearest of all was that she was therefore Mlle. de Vionnet, that she was unmistakably pretty—bright, gentle, shy, happy, wonderful—and that Chad now, with a consummate calculation of effect, was about to present her to his old friend’s vision. What was clearest of all indeed was something much more than this, something at the single stroke of which—and wasn’t it simply juxtaposition?—all vagueness vanished. It was the click of a spring—he saw the truth. He had by this time also met Chad’s look; there was more of it in that; and the truth, accordingly, so far as Bilham’s inquiry was concerned, had thrust in the answer. “Oh, Chad!”—it was that rare youth he should have enjoyed being “like.” The virtuous attachment would be all there before him; the virtuous attachment would be in the very act of appeal for his blessing; Jeanne de Vionnet, this charming creature, would be—exquisitely, intensely now—the object of it.
Henry James, The Ambassadors (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1930), pp. 151–152.
A BRIDGE TO MODERNISM
The result of employing impressionism in a work of fiction varies from writer to writer. However, there are some commonalities. By undermining the notion of a single, authoritative reality, the subjectivity and potential inaccuracies of perception are reinforced. In the absence of an authoritative reality, the notion of truth also becomes questionable. The sweep and fluctuation of life is highlighted in a number of ways, through episodically presented events and seemingly kinetic scenic description as well as through characters whose ideas and attitudes are changing constantly. The resulting works recognize that people and their situations are constantly in flux and that holding fast to some notion of reality is often nearly impossible. In contrast to some works of realism, impressionist works can be confusing, providing more questions than answers even for careful readers—and this is a reflection of the impressionist aesthetic, which sees the world and people as confusing and ever-changing, the essence of which impressionist literature seeks to capture in its pages.
These ideas, and the methods by which they are rendered in fiction, constitute a significant effort on the part of several American writers to push the notions of reality and perception beyond those of realism, pointing toward concerns that would come to characterize the twentieth century. The works of Crane, Chopin, and James solidly establish the impressionist aesthetic in American literature. Significant explorations by Harold Frederic, Hamlin Garland, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and others extend its implications and move the essence of literary experimentation forward. In concert, their efforts show that as a literary movement impressionism forms a significant bridge between realism and
Impressionist Practice and Purpose: Impressionism transformed the Western conception of landscape painting from timeless and nostalgic idealizations of distant places to accurate and brilliantly colored representations of existing, often familiar sites seen at specific moments. Responding to calls for modernity and naturalism—to reflect the environments of contemporary (French) humanity—the Impressionists recorded their peers at both work and play. Although today we take for granted the practice of painting on the spot directly from observation, in the nineteenth century that commitment was controversial. It was inseparable from debates over the role of modern subjects in art (as opposed to classical ones), accompanied by pejorative comparisons to photography, which was considered mechanical, hence noncreative. Impressionist practices were also fraught with political connotations, conditioned by the new prosperity and related democratic aspirations. With their views of specifically contemporary activities, whether in Parisian cafés, on beaches or in flowery fields, or of the economic life on waterways, railways, and boulevards, the Impressionists made their paintings sensitive and inclusive reflections of modernity.
The name Impressionism was coined, following the first Impressionist exhibition, by a satirical critic named Louis Leroy. He made fun of Monet's Impression: Sunrise (1873, Musée Marmottan, Paris) a sketch-like view of the harbor of the painter's native Le Havre: "Impression : I was sure of it. I was telling myself, since I'm so impressed, there must be an impression in it. And what freedom, what ease in handling! A sketch for wallpaper is more finished than that there seascape!" Another name, Intransigents, though eventually abandoned, referred to a broader revolutionary significance. Following the Paris Commune (1871) by just a few years, the Impressionists elicited memories of radical politics because of their independent movement and their free and broken brushwork, which challenged the official art salons' monopoly on public exhibitions and defied the traditional craft of academic art, which taught careful draftsmanship and polished finishing.
Although there are wide variations in Impressionist style, especially when comparing the relatively traditional handling of Degas (A Carriage at the Races, 1869, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) to the fragmented brushstrokes of color that Monet and Renoir (La Grenouillère, 1869, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm) developed side by side on the banks of the river Seine, the artists shared a commitment to the representation of modern life based on exacting observation of their own world. For those like Monet, Pissarro (Red Roofs, 1877, National Gallery, London), and Sisley (The Bridge at Villeneuve-la-Garenne, 1872, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), who painted primarily landscapes, working out of doors or en plein air, was an important step away from the artifices of the studio. Their more urban colleagues Manet (A Bar at the Folies Bergère, 1883, Courtauld Institute, London) and Degas surveyed the dance halls and the Opéra, as well as shops and boulevards for scenes of pleasure and material consumption, while the female Impressionists, Morisot (The Cradle, 1872, Musée d'Orsay, Paris) and Cassatt (Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), given the limitations of their access to the primarily male public world, developed a flair for domestic scenes.
For many, modernity was exemplified by countryside locations and sporting activities (Caillebotte, Rowers on the Yerre River, 1877, private collection). But Monet, Guillaumin (Bridge over the Marne at Nogent, 1871, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Pissarro, and Cézanne (in his early years) included as a counterpart to leisure scenes evidence of the productivity, infrastructure, and technologies that underlay French progress in the new industrial age. Indeed, the poet Charles Baudelaire, while lamenting the loss of taste occasioned by the rise of the bourgeoisie, urged modern artists to somehow capture the essence of their world, which for him was one of constant change, including the flow of crowded commercial avenues and socializing at sidewalk cafés. In addition, the productive processes and speed associated with factories and train travel were as much a part of the landscape of modern vision as were ladies on beaches and promenades among poppy fields. The liberal art critic Jules Castagnary actually called for a modern landscape that would reflect contemporary progress built on democratic change.
Neo-Impressionism and Beyond: Implicit in the word impression are two ostensibly opposed concepts: that of the rapid glance or instinctive judgment and that of the exact imprint, as in a photographic impression. Hence Impressionism could appear to some, such as Leroy, a shoddy and unskilled practice, whereas to others the intuition that light is the basis of vision, and color its medium in art, was scientifically true. In addition, Impressionism's commitment to direct observation and its evocation of progressive change are generally associated with the spirit of positivism, a contemporary philosophy developed by Auguste Comte and applied to art by his disciple and specialist in the psychology of perception, Hippolyte Taine. Comte's quasireligion of progress based on scientific attitudes was followed by Taine's deterministic theories on the history of art. Their ideas might be stated as the relationship between art and its immediate physical and social environment, expressed through the empirical perceptions of the talented individual. Their follower, the novelist Émile Zola, a childhood friend of Cézanne, through whom he met the Impressionists, wrote famously that "art is no more nor less than a corner of nature seen through a temperament."
The association between these ideas and Impressionism can be gauged by the neo-Impressionist critique of their achievement. Certain artists of the next generation, especially Georges Seurat (Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1886, Art Institute of Chicago), according to the critic Félix Féneon, sought to make Impressionism more socially responsible and democratic by developing a collective technique accessible to all. Seurat's dot-dash or pointillist method reduced the labor of painting to a repeatable formula, while at the same time creating the sensation of duration over time rather than a spontaneously grasped instant. On both grounds, neo-Impressionism claimed greater objectivity, thus challenging the individualist basis of Impressionist naturalism in favor of a shared and more permanent, hence more classical, vision. Through Seurat's eyes, then, Impressionism celebrated merely momentary, superficial pleasures and casual, intuitive craft rather than the mental and physical concentration derived from rational calculation and rigorous effort. This moralizing argument fit a political critique of bourgeois society that came to be associated with avant-garde painting of both the Right and the Left after Impressionism.
By contrast, while adhering always to the Impressionist model of painting directly from the motif with dabs of color, Paul Cézanne also managed to transcend the Impressionist sense of moment to produce what he called "a more lasting art, like that of the museums" (Montagne Sainte-Victoire, c. 1882, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In ways more fruitful than Seurat, his increasing abstraction led toward future styles of the twentieth century, especially Cubism.
In the other arts, however, Impressionism's impact was limited. The sensitive, mobile surfaces of Auguste Rodin's bronze sculptures caught the light in ways associated with Impressionism. Claude Debussy's music came to be called Impressionist because it challenged past styles and evoked certain motifs in nature associated with Impressionist painting. In the literature of Henry James, the term refers to the literal naturalism of settings described in so much detail that it both overwhelms and yet concentrates our anticipation of the narrative.
In painting, almost every country had its Impressionist school; the British and the American, with their direct ties to Monet's circle, were the strongest. In later art, the abstract expressionism of artists like Jackson Pollock has been traced to Claude Monet's late Water Lilies, and the contemporary painter Joan Mitchell, who spent much time near Monet's former residence in Giverny, has been called an "abstract Impressionist." However, perhaps the greatest legacy of Impressionism is that it is the most popular style for so many amateur art colonies and Sunday painters, who celebrate both nature and leisure while working hard to develop their personal techniques.
After all the memoirs, biographies, and correspondence written by the painters and their contemporaries, Impressionism studies began in earnest with John Rewald, who used such documents to trace the Impressionist painters almost day by day and site by site. Interpretations of their art, however, remained within the legend of revolutionary aesthetic innovation and celebration of its seminal step toward modernist departures from literal representation.
The first writer to take seriously the social dimension to Impressionism's significance was Meyer Schapiro in his lectures at Columbia University and in a few short articles. He was followed by Robert L. Herbert, whose disciples in particular have stressed the relationship between the artists and the history and significance of places they inhabited. At the same time, the social art historian T. J. Clark has focused on Impressionist paintings as documents of the changing physical environment and its social implications. Feminist scholars led by Linda Nochlin have focused on the female Impressionists as well as on the role of women as subjects of the male Impressionist gaze. Finally, a number of younger scholars have explored the relationship between Impressionism and politics.