Word Gallery: Impressionism

Throughout art history, scholars have devised a special vocabulary to talk about art. These terms are very useful, but they are not always self-explanatory. Enter into the art historical word gallery, where we provide some definitions commonly used to describe artistic styles, techniques, or movements in art.


Camille Pissarro. Apple Harvest, 1888. Oil on canvas. Dallas Museum of Art, Munger Fund, 1955.17.M

One of the most popular movements in art history, Impressionism refers to a style of painting that emerged in France between and around 1860–1900, and in particular work produced in the late 1860s to the mid-1880s. Impressionism developed as a reaction against the academic Salon’s aesthetic preference for realism and history painting popular at the time. The Impressionist style stems from of a confluence of influences and technological developments, including Japanese printmaking, the invention of photography, and the introduction of portable oil paints packaged in tubes.

The movement’s most well known practitioners—among them Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Camille Pissarro—painted landscapes and scenes of modern life, often from direct observation en plein air, or outdoors. Stylistically, Impressionist works employed pure, intense colors to illustrate the momentary effects of light. Using visible brushstrokes, Impressionist painters flattened the picture plane in a marked departure from traditional depictions of perspectival space.

In 1874, the group put on their first exhibition outside the Salon setting. "Impressionism" was at first used as a derogatory label to describe the radical, seemingly unfinished character of the artwork. Quickly adopted by critics and supporters alike, the term aptly communicated the group’s attempt to represent the experiences and sensations—rather than the mere reproduction—of modern life.

Camille Pissarro (1830–1903), often called the “dean of Impressionism,” is the focus of an exhibition opening at the Legion of Honor this Saturday, October 22. Pissarro’s People emphasizes the artist’s skillful rendering of the human figure. An Impressionist through and through, Pissarro was a catalyst for the organization of Impressionist group shows, and was the only artist to participate in all eight exhibitions.