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Created by Anne-Marie Robinson                                                              

Link back to Encyclopedia of Modern American Literature


I.  Overview of Impressionism

II.  From Art to Literature: Characteristics of Impressionist Writing

III.  The Development of a Genre: Impressionism's Effect on Modernism

IV.  Examples of Impressionist Art


  Mary Cassatt. Summertime (c. 1894)


 I. Overview of Impressionism

     Largely responsible for the trail-blazing of what would eventually become modernism, Impressionist art functioned as a segue way genre of experimentation and renovated realism for modern thinkers.

    Impressionism began as a late 19th-century art movement, obtaining its name - originally intended as a critical jab in an editorial review - from Claude Monet's painting Impression, Sunrise (Impression, soleil levant).  Centered in Paris, the Impressionist movement developed as a common set of techniques shared by artists such as Claude Monet, Pierre August Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas, and Paul Cezanne.  

    Most notable Impressionist artistic techniques include experimental attention to primary colors and the use of visible brushstrokes.  Interested in objectively recording reality according to the principles of light and color, subscribing artists relied on spontaneous impressions of the visible world rather than exact, detailed depictions of reality.  Impressionist painters sought to "capture the immediate impact of a visual expression" (Denvir 107). Valuing natural outdoor lighting over artificial studio lighting, Impressionist painters abandoned stationary subjects and chose instead scenes of movement: urbanites walking city streets and plainclothes rural residents become popular subjects.  Edgar Degas, for example, favored the female ballet dancer as his theme of choice.  However, the human body was not the only acceptable inspiration; even in-transit industry and pastoral scenes grew in esteem.

    In 1898, artistic Impressionism debuted in the United States through a group of precocious artists eager to disprove the poor reputation of American art.  Known as "The Ten," these artists, chief among them William Merritt Chase and Edmund C. Tarbell, sought to conquer the Parisian art form through formulaic means, but critics generally disapproved of their academic approach.  In addition, the American artist Mary Cassatt, a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania native,  became a reknowned influence both for her American translation of the European-born impressionism and for her female perspective in a male-dominated field.  Most notably, she became close friends with Edgar Degas, influencing his interpretation of impressionism.  In the United States, her fame extended beyond the role of artist, as she served as an activist for budding American impressionists.  Later, American impressionism would evolve to dominate the literature field, finding its niche in the early impressionism of Wallace Stevens and, even further, in the imagery of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and the like. 


 II.  From Art to Literature: Characteristics of Impressionist Writing

    The Impressionist genre of literature corresponds with the Impressionist genre of art in its reliance upon sensory associations.  In order to achieve such associations, the impressionist writer focuses his or her attention on a character's impressions: those feelings, emotions, and general sensations gathered from a character's sensory perceptions.  The author, like the artist, engages sight, sound, touch, smell and taste to create strong, vivid imagery.  Without necessarily interpreting those impressions (a characteristic which at times leads to considerable abstraction), the author faithfully records them, ideally leaving the reader with an overall, spontaneous, sensational impression.  In this way, impressionism engages sensory perceptions as the primary means of ordering imagery, essentially relying upon these perceptions as the substance of reality. 

    Most notable literary Impressionists include Virginia Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway) and Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness). 


 III.  The Development of a Genre: Impressionism's Effect on Modernism

    Impressionism simultaneously acted as both precursor and inherent substance of modernism; the numerous overlaps of the two genres present difficulty in distinguishing them from each other.  As the forerunner of modernism, impressionism encouraged sensory perception - a technique which eventually spawned Ezra Pound's imagism - and psychological associations.  For example, the poetry of Wallace Stevens concerns itself with a developed form of impressionism, as evident in the vivid imagery of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:"



Among twenty snowy mountains,

The only moving thing

Was the eye of the blackbird.



I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.



The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.

It was a small part of the pantomine.



A man and a woman

Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird

Are one.



I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.



Icicles filled the long window

With barbaric glass.

The shadow of the blackbird

Crossed it, to and fro.

The mood

Traced in the shadow

An indecipherable cause.



O thin men of Haddam,

Why do you imagine golden birds?

Do you not see how the blackbird

Walks around the feet

Of the women about you?



I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.



When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles.



At the sight of the blackbirds

Flying in a green light,

Even the bawds of euphony

Would cry out sharply.



He rode over Connecticut

In a glass couch.

Once, a fear pierced him,

In what he mistook

The shadow of equipage

For blackbirds.



The river is moving.

The blackbird must be flying.



It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar-limbs.


    Stevens' impressionism, based on thirteen different sensory perceptions of the same image, borders on cubism, a tangential genre of impressionist art.  Spanish artist Pablo Picasso was the forerunner of cubism and, to this day, is considered revolutionary for his ability of perceive reality through multiple, rearranged perspectives.  As with artistic cubism, literary cubism - such as Stevens' - rearranges perspectives of a single image in order to fully represent the truth of the image.  Such technique is thought to be more faithful to reality. 

    Perhaps the most notable effect of impressionism is its profound influence on the quintessential manifestation of modern literature: imagism.  Avant-garde poet Ezra Pound is credited with generating the imagist movement. 


 IV. Examples of Impressionist Art


Claude Monet. Impression: Sunrise. 1873. Oil on canvas. Musée Marmottan, Paris, France.

As the leader of the Impressionists, Monet began this artistic movement with Impression: Sunrise which depicts the sun through the mist at Le Havre. In his work, Monet sought to capture the spontaneity of nature.



Edgar Degas. The Bellili Family. 1858-60.

Degas was the most modern of the artists of his time as he tried to incorporate the remote and recent past into his work. The painting may be considered one of the first masterpieces of impressionism.



Mary Cassatt. Children Playing on the Beach. 1884.

This well-known, classic image exemplifies Cassatt's expert eye for lighting as well as her personal fascination with children as subjects.  Often, Cassatt preferred painting mothers and children. 


 Works Cited


American Impressionism to Modernism: A Brief History http://www.tfaoi.com/newsm1/n1m548.htm


Denvir, Bernard.  The Chronicles of Impressionism: A Timeline History of Impressionist Art.  Boston: Bullfinch, 1993. 


WebMuseum: Impressionism  http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/glo/impressionism/


Sanford & a Lifetime of Color: Study Art  http://www.sanford-artedventures.com/study/g_impressionism.html












Comments (2)

Anonymous said

at 10:21 am on Apr 2, 2007

A good beginning, Anne Marie. I think you could add a few more visuals, but more pertinent is trying in some way to connect impressionism to other aspects of the course as a whole. Impressionism is in some ways modernist, and in other ways a kind of precursor to modernism. Do you have any sense of how what the impressionists are doing relates to concerns of our writers (or even direct influences on our writers). For one thing, you could at least note the way in which impressionism is concerned with how we perceive the world,how sensory impressions are organized into images. This concern with perception is fairly widely spread in Modernist work. Steven's, for instance is probably more concerned with cubism, but the concern with perception is obviously there in both cubism and impressionism. Picasso, starting out, was more or less an impressionist, so cubism can be understood in part as an extension of a certain impulse within impressionism, even while it transcends impressionism proper.

Anonymous said

at 7:42 am on Apr 25, 2007

Anne Marie, good solid page textually. I wonder if an image up front would be useful visually (I like what you have at the end, but you could easily include more, it seems to me). I would think about whether there are some more links to external material that you could create within your text.

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