4 minute read


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.


Berson, Ruth. The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886: Documents. 2 vols. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1996.

Brettell, Richard. Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860- 1890. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000.

Callen, Anthea. Techniques of the Impressionists. London: Orbis, 1982.

Clark, Timothy J. The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Herbert, Robert L. Impressionism: Art, Leisure and Parisian Society. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.

Moffet, Charles S. The New Painting: Impressionism 1874–1886. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1986.

Rewald, John. A History of Impressionism. 4th revised ed. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1973.

Rubin, James H. Impressionism. London: Phaidon, 1999.

Tinterow, Gary, and Henri Loyrette. Origins of Impressionism. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994.

James H. Rubin

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Hydrazones to IncompatibilityImpressionism - Impressionist Practice And Purpose, Neo-impressionism And Beyond, Bibliography