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Related to impressionism: Post impressionism


, in music
impressionism, in music, a French movement in the late 19th and early 20th cent. It was begun by Debussy in reaction to the dramatic and dynamic emotionalism of romantic music, especially that of Wagner. Reflecting the impressionist schools of French painting and letters, Debussy developed a style in which atmosphere and mood take the place of strong emotion or of the story in program music. He used new chord combinations, whole-tone chords, chromaticism, and exotic rhythms and scales. In place of the usual harmonic progression, he developed a style in which chords are valued for their individual sonorities rather than for their relations to one another, and dissonances are unprepared and unresolved. Although conceived in reaction to romanticism, musical impressionism seems today the culmination of romanticism. Its influence was widespread and is evident in the music of Ravel, Dukas, Respighi, Albéniz, de Falla, Delius, C. T. Griffes, and J. A. Carpenter.


See C. Palmer, Impressionism in Music (1973).


, in painting
impressionism, in painting, late-19th-century French school that was generally characterized by the attempt to depict transitory visual impressions, often painted directly from nature, and by the use of pure, broken color to achieve brilliance and luminosity. It was loosely structured in that many painters were associated with the movement for only brief periods in their careers. Their association often came about more for the purpose of exhibiting their works than from an approach to painting held in common.

The Birth of Impressionism

The movement began with the friendship of four students of the academic painter Marc Gleyre: Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Bazille. These four met regularly at the Café Guerbois in Paris with Cézanne, Pissarro, and Morisot, and later with Degas, Manet, the critics Duret and Rivière, and the art dealer Durand-Ruel. The painters repudiated academic standards and reacted against the romantics' emphasis on emotion as subject matter. They forsook literary and anecdotal subjects and, indeed, rejected the role of imagination in the creation of works of art. Instead they observed nature closely, with a scientific interest in visual phenomena. Although they painted everyday subjects, they avoided the vulgar and ugly, seeking visual realism by extraordinary stylistic means.

Impressionists and Postimpressionists

The subject matter of their painting was as diverse as the various artists' personalities: Manet chose Old Master themes which he treated in a novel and stunningly direct way so that his canvases were the focus of acid controversy and scandal. Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro were the most consistently impressionist in style. Their subject was landscape and the changing effects of light. Degas painted horse races, the ballet, and portraits of ordinary people, all with a photographic sense of “accidental” composition. Renoir, painting his idealized women and children and his lush landscapes, developed divisionism; omitting black for shadows and outlines from his palette in the 1860s, he used pure, bright color to separate forms. Monet painted many series of the same subject at different times of day so that the character of light became his subject and the forms of objects seemed to dissolve, as in the series of Rouen Cathedral.

The interests and attitudes of these painters influenced the postimpressionists Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. Toulouse-Lautrec gained from a study of Degas's paintings; Matisse, Vuillard, and Bonnard all owed a debt to the landscape painters. However, impressionist objectivity was limiting; the severe and total rejection of both the function of imagination and of the enduring aspects of reality began to pall. Gauguin and Van Gogh used color imaginatively and violently for its expressive emotional value. Immediate impressions and flickering light gave way to heavier subjects, solid with “meaning,” in the works of the impressionists' successors.

See postimpressionism and articles on individual artists, e.g., Renoir.

The Legacy of Impressionism

Impressionism and postimpressionism ran their course and produced aesthetic revolution from within and without, putting hosts of painters to come greatly in its debt. At first, with a few exceptions, the works of the impressionist and postimpressionist schools were received with hostility from critics and public alike. This situation continued until the 1920s. By the 1930s impressionism had a large cult following, so that in the 1950s even the least works by painters associated with the movement commanded large prices.

Throughout the next three decades, impressionism and postimpressionism became increasingly popular, as evidenced by the major exhibitions of Monet and Van Gogh at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in the 1980s, both of which drew enormous crowds. Record prices to date include two 1990 sales, one at Sotheby's of Renoir's Au Moulin de la Galette for $78.1 million, the other at Christie's of Van Gogh's Portrait du Dr. Gachet for $82.5 million.


See J. Rewald, The History of Impressionism (1980); T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life (1984); W. H. Gerdts, American Impressionism (1984); D. Bomford et al., Impressionism (1990); B. Denvir, Encyclopedia of Impressionism (1990); C. Moffett, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism (1991).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a movement in the art of the last third of the 19th century and the early 20th century. Impressionism developed in French painting in the late 1860’s and early 1870’s. At the time of its maturity (1870’s through the first half of 1880’s) it was represented by a group of artists, including Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, Sisley, and Morisot, who had united in a struggle to renew art and overcome the official academicism of the salon. For this purpose they organized eight exhibitions between 1874 and 1886. Manet, who had anticipated the new direction in art as early as the 1860’s and who had much in common with it in the 1870’s and 1880’s, was not a member of this group of artists. The term “impressionism” originated at the exhibition of 1874, with the showing of Monet’s Impression: Sunrise (1872; now in the Museé Marmottan in Paris).

Representational arts. Continuing the process of liberating art from the conventions of classicism, romanticism, and academicism, which had been begun by the realists between the 1840’s and 1860’s, impressionism affirmed the beauty of everyday reality and simple, democratic motifs and sought vivid authenticity in artistic representation. Impressionism imparted aesthetic significance to contemporary life in its natural state, in all the richness and glitter of its colors, capturing the visible world with its inherent changeableness and reconstituting the unity between man and his surroundings.

Accentuating a fleeting moment in the uninterrupted flow of life, as if it had accidentally been captured by a glance, the impressionists renounced narration and storytelling. In their landscapes, portraits, and multifigured compositions they endeavored to preserve the force, freshness, and unbiased quality of the “first impression,” which allows us to grasp the unique essence of what we perceive without delving into separate details. Depicting the world as a constantly changing optical phenomenon, they did not endeavor to emphasize its constant, deep-lying qualities. In impressionism, knowledge of the world is based for the most part on a keen power of observation—on the visual experience of the artist, who, in attempting to be artistically convincing, makes use of the workings and laws of natural visual perception. The process of this perception and its dynamics are reflected in the structure of the work, which, in turn, actively directs the viewer’s perception of the painting.

However, impressionism’s emphasis on empiricism, which links it with naturalism, at times led its adherents to indulge in self-sufficient visual pictorial experiments, limiting the possibilities for artistic knowledge of the essential features of reality. As a whole, the works of the impressionists are distinguished by a joie de vivre and an enthusiasm for the sensual beauty of the world. Only in some works by Degas and Manet are bitter, sarcastic notes encountered.

The impressionists were the first to create a multifaceted picture of the everyday life of the modern city, reproducing the uniqueness of its landscape, the appearance of its inhabitants, their customs and, less often, their work. Moreover, diversions characteristic of the city were often the theme of their paintings. Their art was not, however, sufficiently concerned with themes of social criticism. Striving for a true representation of the everyday natural world surrounding man, impressionist landscape painters, particularly Pissarro and Sisley, developed the traditions of the Barbizon school. In continuing the plein-air experiments of Constable, and the Barbizon school, as well as of Corot, E. Boudin, and J. B. Jongkind, the impressionists brought the plein-air style to its peak. In their landscapes the motif of everyday life is often transformed by an all-penetrating lively sunlight, which introduces a festive sensation into the painting. Painting outdoors gave them the opportunity to re-create nature in all its liveliness, to analyze subtly and reproduce instantaneously its transitional states, and to capture the slightest changes in color produced by the vibrating, fluctuating world of air and light that organically unites man and nature and that becomes, in some impressionist art, an independent object for representation. (The latter phenomenon is encountered chiefly in Monet’s works.)

In order to preserve the freshness and variety of nature’s colors in a painting, the impressionists (with the exception of Degas) created a system of painting that is distinguished by the breaking down of compound tones into pure colors and by the interpenetration of separate strokes of a pure color. The method seems to blend in the viewer’s eyes a light, vivid gamut of colors, a wealth of tones and reflexes, and colored shadows. The three-dimensional forms seem to dissolve into the cover of light and air in which they are enveloped and to dematerialize, their outlines oscillating. The play of diverse strokes, both pastose and watery, imparts a flickering quality—a state of relief—to the coat of colors, thus creating an unusual impression of incompleteness, of the formation of an image before the eyes of the viewer. All of these qualities are connected with the artist’s desire to preserve in his painting the effect of improvisation, which, in the period preceding impressionism, had been allowed only in sketches and had usually been lost when they were recast as completed works. Thus, impressionism brought together the sketch and the painting and often merged several stages of work into one uninterrupted process.

The impressionist painting is a photographic still—a fragment of a lively world. On the one hand, this explains the equal importance of all parts of the painting, which are born simultaneously under the artist’s brush and participate equally in the painting’s construction of images. On the other hand, it accounts for the seemingly accidental quality and lack of balance, the asymmetry, the bold cuts of the figures, and the unexpected points of view and complex foreshortenings that energize the spatial construction, so that, losing depth, space sometimes “shakes loose” from the plane or passes into infinity. The impressionist methods of composition and space show the influence of the Japanese print and, to some degree, of photography.

Having exhausted its possibilities as an integrated system and unified tendency and having provided the impetus for the further evolution of art, impressionism began to decline around the mid-1880’s. Attributing aesthetic significance to many aspects of reality, impressionism introduced new themes into art. The works of mature impressionism are distinguished by a colorful and immediate lifelike quality. At the same time, impressionism was characterized by the unveiling of purely aesthetic values and of the new expressive possibilities of color, by an emphasis on aesthetic execution, and by the baring of the formal structure of works. These features, which had only been conceived in the works of the impressionists, would be further developed by the neo-impressionists and post-impressionists. From the 1880’s through the second decade of the 20th century, impressionism had an important influence on many painters outside of France (for example, M. Liebermann and L. Corinth in Germany and K. A. Korovin, V. A. Serov, I. E. Grabar’, and the young M. V. Lavrionov in Russia). Among the manifestations of this influence were a growing familiarity with new aspects of reality, the mastery of plein-air effects, a lightening of the palette, a sketchlike style, and the assimilation of various techniques.

Principles of impressionism, such as the endeavor to convey instantaneous movement and the instability of forms, appeared to varying degrees in sculpture between the 1880’s and the second decade of the 20th century in the work of Degas and Rodin in France, M. Rosso in Italy, and P. P. Trubetskoi and A. S. Golubkina in Russia. At the same time the heightened pictorial quality of impressionistic sculpture often conflicted with the tactile, corporeal qualities inherent in sculpture as an art form.

The tradition of impressionism can be sensed in many of the realistic currents in 20th-century art. To a certain degree, impressionistic painting influenced the development of means of expression and the formation of some impressionistic principles in literature, music, and drama. However, in these art forms, impressionism did not become an integrated artistic system, nor did it have the significance of a turning point.

In literature impressionism is viewed, in a broad sense, as a stylistic phenomenon that originated in the last third of the 19th century and included writers of diverse convictions and methods. In a narrow sense, literary impressionism is considered a turn-of-the-century trend with a definite method and an attitude verging on decadence. Characteristic of the so-called impressionistic style are the absence of a precisely established form and a striving to convey a theme in fragmentary strokes that instantaneously record each impression but also reveal their hidden unity and ties when surveyed as a whole. As a special style, impressionism, with its principle of the value of the first impression, offered opportunities to carry on the narrative through details. Because they had apparently been seized upon at random, these details seemed to violate the strict coordination of the narrative plan and the principle of selecting the essential. However, their “oblique” truth imparted to the narrative unusual brilliance and freshness and to the artistic idea, an unexpectedly multifaceted quality.

Particularly among great writers such as Chekhov and Bunin, impressionism remained a stylistic phenomenon, never signifying a break with the artistic principles of realism but manifesting itself in the enrichment of realistic principles and the steady growth of the art of description. (An example is Chekhov’s description of thunder in the novella The Steppe. L. N. Tolstoy remarked on the impressionistic features of Chekhov’s style.) Around the beginning of the 20th century several stylistic variations of impressionism arose, based on realism. The brothers J. and E. Goncourt (“poets of the nerves,” “connoisseurs of imperceptible sensations”) were the fathers of “psychological impressionism,” whose refined technique can be observed in the novel Hunger by K. Hamsun, the early works of T. Mann, particularly the short stories, the works of S. Zweig, and the lyrics of I. F. Annenskii. A plein-air, flickering pictorial quality can be sensed in the works of the Goncourts, in the style of Zola’s descriptions of Paris (A Page of Love), and in the works of the Danish writer J. P. Jacobsen (the novel Mogens). In imitation of a painter, the German poet D. von Liliencron expressed lyric situations by means of impressionistic techniques such as syntax and rhythm. The English writers and neo-romantics R. L. Stevenson and J. Conrad developed the exotically colorful characteristics of impressionism. Their style was continued in the “southern themes,” which are encountered in literature up to the short stories of Maugham. In Verlaine’s Songs Without Words trembling of the soul and pictorial sparkle (“shadows alone captivate us”) are accompanied by a musical mood, while the verses Poetic Art (1874; published, 1882) resound simultaneously as a manifesto of impressionistic poetry and a forerunner of symbolist poetics.

Later, in the works of Hamsun and a number of other early 20th-century writers, impressionism more or less drew away from the principles of realism and became a special vision and attitude (or method)—a vague, undefined subjectivism that partly anticipated the stream of consciousness style of writers such as Proust. With its “philosophy of the instant,” this type of impressionism made the meaning and moral foundations of life subject to doubt. The cult of the “impression” forced man back into himself. Only that which was fleeting, elusive, and beyond the grasp of anything but the senses was valued and considered real. Fluctuating moods revolved primarily around the theme of “love and death.” The artistic image was constructed on indefinite, incomplete comments and obscure hints that only slightly lifted the veil over the fateful play of unconscious elements in man’s life. Decadent motifs characterized the Viennese school of impressionism (for example, H. Bahr and A. Schnitzler, particularly the latter’s one-act plays The Green Parrot, 1899, and The Puppets, 1906) and the works of the Polish writers J. Kasprowicz and K. Tetmajer. Impressionism influenced such writers as O. Wilde and H. von Hofmannsthal (lyrics, including the Ballad of Outer Life, dramas, and librettos). In Russian literature, the influence of impressionism is encountered in B. K. Zaitsev’s psychological sketches and K. D. Balmont’s lyrics of the “fleeting moment.” By the mid-20th century impressionism had exhausted itself as an independent method.

Music. To a large extent, the term “impressionism” can only be conditionally applied to music, inasmuch as musical impressionism was not directly analogous to impressionism in painting and did not coincide with it chronologically. (Impressionistic music flowered in the 1890’s and the first decade of the 20th century.) Most important in impressionistic music is the conveying of moods that assume the significance of symbols and subtle psychological nuances, as well as a tendency toward poetic, landscape program music. Refined fantasy, poeticizing the past, exotica, and an interest in timbre and harmonic coloring also characterize impressionistic music, which shares with impressionistic painting an enthusiastic attitude toward life. The expression of sharp conflicts and social contradictions is avoided. Debussy’s works are classic examples of impressionism in music, some of whose features are also found in compositions by Ravel, P. Dukas, F. Schmidt, J. J. Roger-Ducasse, and other French composers.

Impressionistic music inherited many characteristics of the late romantic and national schools of music of the 19th century (for example, the Russian Five, Liszt, and Grieg). However, in contrast to the precise relief of contours, heavy materiality, and oversaturation of the late romantic musical palette, the impressionists practised an art characterized by emotional restraint, transparent, thin texture, and fleeting images.

The creative work of the impressionistic composers greatly enriched the expressive means of music, especially harmony, which attained great beauty and refinement in their compositions. Impressionistic harmony combines complex chord sequences with a simplified, almost archaic modality. In orchestration, pure colors, capricious patches of light, and unsteady, elusive rhythms prevail. The impressionists paid the most attention to modal-harmonic and timbre devices, strengthening the expressive significance of each tone and chord and unveiling previously unknown possibilities for expanding modality. Frequently drawing on song-and-dance genres, elements of the music of the peoples of the Orient and Spain, and early forms of Negro jazz, the impressionists brought a particular freshness to their compositions.

At the beginning of the 20th century impressionistic music spread beyond France. Its development was enriched by the original contributions of M. de Falla in Spain and A. Casella and O. Respighi in Italy. Original features are characteristic of English impressionism, with its feeling for the “northern” landscape (F. Delius) or exotica (C. Scott). In Poland the exotic trend of impressionism in music was represented by K. Szymanowski (until 1920), who had a predilection for ultrarefined images of antiquity and the ancient East. At the turn of the century impressionistic aesthetics influenced some Russian composers, particularly Scriabin, who was also influenced by symbolism, and Stravinsky. Although he was the leader of the anti-impressionistic tendency in Western European music in the postwar period, Stravinsky had begun his creative career under the influence of Russian impressionism, which, oddly enough, was combined in his work with the influence of the Rimsky-Korsakov school.

O. V. MAMONTOVA (representational arts) and I. V. NEST’EV (music)

Theater. In theater at the turn of the century the attention of directors and performers was increasingly focused on the problem of conveying the atmosphere of the action, the mood of a given scene, and the unveiling of its concealed meaning. Thus, the authentic feeling and richness of life were conveyed by means of intentionally fleeting references combined with vividly expressive details that disclosed the shaded feelings of the hero, his thoughts, and the impulses behind his actions. Sudden changes in rhythm sound effects, and bright, colored sets and costumes were used by directors to create in the performance a certain emotional saturation, which uncovers the internal growth of dramatic tension hidden in routine existence. The expressive means of impressionism were applied in productions by A. Antoine (France), M. Reinhardt (Germany), and V. E. Meyerhold (Russia) and in presentations by the Moscow Art Theater (for example, productions of Chekhov’s plays). Contemporaries noted characteristics of impressionism in the performances of such actors as G. Réjane (France), E. Duse (Italy), and V. F. Komissarzhevskaia.



Mauclair, C. Impressionizm: Ego istoriia, ego estetika, ego mastera. Moscow, 1908. (Translated from French.)
Meier-Graefe, J. Impressionisty. Moscow, 1913. (Translated from German.)
Venturi, L. Ot Mane do Lotreka. Moscow, 1958. (Translated from Italian.)
Rewald, J. Istoriia impressionizma. Leningrad-Moscow, 1959. (Translated from English.)
Impressionizm. Leningrad, 1969. (Translated from French.)
Chegodaev, A. D. Impressionisty. Moscow, 1971.
Bazin, G. L’;poque impressionniste, 2nd ed. Paris, 1953.
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Danckert, W. “Das Wesen des musikalischen Impressionismus.” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschkhte, 1929, vol. 7, part 1.
Koelsch, H. F. Der Impressionismus bei Debussy. Düsseldorf, 1937. (Dissertation.)
Schulz, H.-G. Musikalischer Impressionismus und impressionistischer Klavierstil. Würzburg, 1938.
Kroher, E. Impressionismus in der Musik. Leipzig, 1957.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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