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Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: Difference Explained

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Impressionism and Post-impressionism are art movements that originated in late 19th century France. I know they sound dangerously academic or aesthetic terms, but they are pretty relatable to our daily experiences. Once understood, we can find numerous similarities in our perception of the world and art.

Difference between Impressionism and Post-impressionism in Art:

c. 1860 to 1900c. 1880 to 1905
– Artists used pure and generally milder colors.– Artists used dark and mixed or shady colors.
– There were no distinct boundaries or outlines. The overall painting would create a blurry image.– There were rigid outlines,  and evident shapes were visible in the structure.
– It focuses on the fleeting effect of light, movement, and atmosphere.– It focuses on symbolic content, order, and structure.
– The artists were in a unified group sharing similar artistic traits or common features.– Artists were inclined toward individual exploration. Every artist had a unique style of painting.
– The paintings were done en Plein air (in the open air) within a short span.– The paintings were created indoors, and it was a more time-consuming process.

Because these movements were central to art, the content available is not extensive for impressionism and post-impressionism in literature. In the article, I have tried to jot down as much as I could read about them in literature.

Let’s understand what impressionism and post-impressionism really are.

Contents of the Article:

– What is Impressionism?

– What is Post-impressionism?

– Why are they called Impressionism and Post-impressionism?

– Impressionism in Literature

– Understanding views on literary impressionism

– Post-Impressionism in Literature

– Notable Figures in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism

– Conclusion

What is Impressionism?

Impressionism is a late-19th century art movement in France that focused on loose brushstrokes and the movement of light through color patterns in paintings. The aim was to present a fleeting “impression” created on the artist’s mind at first glance. It usually involves an urban setting. 

What is Post-impressionism?

Post-impressionism is an extension and at the same time a rejection of impressionism. Rather than focusing on the impressions of the fleeting light, post-impressionism focused on the subject’s feelings and emotions, the inner state of the artist’s mind. Thus, there are many individual experiments in post-impressionism, all connected through the presence of symbolism in their works.

Didn’t it sound like the comments people pass in art galleries and museums?

I know it is hard for amateurs like us to find all the “layers of meaning” that art connoisseurs see in randomly splashed colors! 

On a serious note, I am sure if we understand these concepts properly, we will be able to see art in a new light. 

(I have started recognizing impressionist paintings. How fascinating they look!)

Understanding the concepts:

Let’s create a picture for you.

Do you ever pause or notice your surroundings? 

How the light falls through a dense tree… 

How the hustle and bustle of the traffic come to a pause at the signal light… 

How rain blurs boundaries, white-washes the world… 

These are all fleeting moments, lost in a glance. Urban life passes rapidly in front of our eyes. The impressionists realized this – ‘You cannot freeze a passing moment, you can only witness it in a state of hurry.’ That’s what they wanted to depict in their paintings—the shifting time and impressions of the world over us. 

Impressionism originated from the need to express how the world is perceived in the subject’s eyes and mind. It was to get away from realism and naturalism, which focused on depicting reality in its minutest details. The strictness of truth made an artist’s perception limited. Thus, impressionists started capturing daily-life experiences and everyday things with vibrant color techniques and short, broken brushstrokes to create the effect of shifting light. 

Light played a huge role in their artworks. They portrayed how light falls on common objects and shifts in a single moment. This makes their art more of a movement than a stationary object. You will not be able to notice rigid outlines or shape fulfilled forms in impressionist paintings. Objects start merging or dissolving into each other. The brush strokes are short and looser. Impressionists avoided using dark color palettes and focused more on pure and natural colors. Such use of colors helped them to make the art lively and flowing, creating a shifting effect. Also, by avoiding mixed colors they represented their surroundings in vibrant and vivid patterns. The colors were untamed and rich.

Post-impressionism, on the other hand, grew from the same artists who earlier practiced impressionism. As they realized a few limitations holding them back, they explored new art forms and experimented on an individual level. Just like any ‘post-‘ movement derives meaning from its predecessor, Post-impressionism, too, is an extension, at the same time, a rejection of the limitations of Impressionism. The fundamentals remain the same, such as the use of color and the artificiality of the painting. But post-impressionists didn’t want to focus only on the external world or the impression it made on the subject’s mind but rather on the emotions it evoked in the onlooker. They tend to see deeper than what is on the surface, thus incorporating symbolism in their art. 

Although all the artists from the post-impressionist period were experimenting with varied and individual styles, one can see symbolism as the thread holding them together under the category of Post-impressionism. From pointillism to synthetism or Japonism to Fauvism, post-impressionists played with opticality and color structures. They rejected the impressionist idea of no unifying structure and tried to show order behind random colors put on a blank sheet. (For instance – pointillism. When seen too closely, they all just appear randomly placed color dots beside each other, but it takes one to look at it from a distance to see an ordered structure emerge.)

But why are these art forms called impressionism and post-impressionism? And who coined these terms?

Why are they called Impressionism and Post-impressionism?

Both these labels were not chosen by the artists themselves but attributed to them by the critics. In the 1874’s Impressionist exhibition, Louis Leroy accused the group of painters of only painting “impressions” which he, and most of the population then, considered unfinished and amateurish. 

“In a hostile review of the creative collective’s 1874 exhibition, Louis Leroy accused the group of only painting “impressions” of things. Leroy grabbed the Impressionism term from Monet’s 1873 painting, Impression, Sunrise.Despite the hostility with which they received this moniker, the Impressionists began to embrace it. In later decades, the Impressionists also called themselves “Independents,” a name stemming from the rebellious opinions of the Societe des Artistes Independants.”

Art in Context (https://artincontext.org/impressionism/)

Another critic, Roger Fry, gave the ununified group of post-impressionist painters their label. Unlike Leroy, Fry’s reaction was positive. 

“Like the artists of the group, Fry was convinced that art should be a stimulus to the imaginative life rather than a copy of life.”

Alexander, Pigment Pool (https://pigment-pool.com/difference-between-impressionism-and-post-impressionism-art-history-insights/)

I hope you have a solid ground for the basics of impressionism and post-impressionism. 

Our next question is – how did these art movements influence writers? 

And how impressionism and post-impressionism were practiced in literature?

Let’s find out! 

Impressionism in Literature:

It is also known as Literary Impressionism. Just like the group of artists didn’t identify themselves as impressionists, the writers, too, never used the label. Yet they were deeply influenced by impressionist traits which could be seen in their works. The major figures in literary impressionism are Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, and Stephen Crane. In fact, these writers lived close to each other and often met to discuss their works. Before we list any of their works, let us first understand what impressionism means in literature. 

Literary Impressionism:

Literary Impressionism could be defined as the transition from 19th-century realism to 20th-century modernism. Any other kind of definition would be too vague or contradictory to characterize literary impressionism. Yet it is obvious that literary impressionism shares many features with its parent movement, some of them are as follows –

  • It focuses on the characters’ consciousness and perception of the external world. There is always a hint of indeterminacy and uncertainty.
  • The episodes are fragmentary, creating transient impressions. At the same time, the recollection of a memory is often intense and vivid.
  • Characters are found in a grip of passion. They become unreliable narrators. The reader can only see the world from these confused impressions. It becomes difficult to ascertain reality.
  • There is an emphasis on time. Years pass by in a blink, whereas a moment could feel like a century. Time is always passing – either too quickly or too slowly.
  • The play of light and color is visible in impressionist writing.
  • There is a discontinuity to the plot – no ends or beginnings, just unfinished ill-chronologically arranged events.
  • Imagery (especially visual) is employed to transport the reader into the character’s place.

Understanding views on literary impressionism:

Conrad’s preface to his novel The Nigger in Narcissus is considered a manifesto for literary impressionism. According to him, art 

“…is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colours, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter and in the facts of life what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential – their one illuminating and convincing quality – the very truth of their existence.”

Conrad 10

Art becomes the whole of forms and colors, light and shadows, convincing the reader/viewer of their truth and existence. Such art then appeals to the senses of the reader and it must if it has to reach the most human parts of ourselves. Our emotions are evoked only when we are made to feel, to pause and reflect, to see what is in front of us – not the way it is, but the way we see it. The task of a writer is to gift these moments to the reader – To snatch in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time, a passing phase of life…” (13).

Ford Madox Ford was probably the only one who characterized himself as an impressionist throughout his life. His famous essay “On Impressionism” and one of his most renowned works – The Good Soldier can get you a good start in this field. To the impressionist writer, Ford advises –

“Always consider the impressions that you are making upon the mind of the reader and always consider that the first impression with which you present him will be so strong that it will be all that you can ever do to efface it, to alter it or even quite slightly to modify it.” (Ford as quoted in Saunders 151)Max Saunders’ commentary on Ford and other impressionists is a study of value. You can check out it here – https://www.jstor.org/stable/44871665?refreqid=fastly-default%3A3370a260b03d0dea3a4158c1aa749561&seq=1

I would like to mention an extract from Walter Pater’s “Conclusion” to his Studies in the History of the Renaissance. I believe it captures the essence of impressionism roundly.

“At first sight experience seems to bury us under a flood of external objects, pressing upon us with a sharp and importunate reality, calling us out of ourselves in a thousand forms of action. But when reflexion begins to play upon those objects they are dissipated under its influence; the cohesive force seems suspended like some trick of magic; each object is loosed into a group of impressions-color, odor, texture-in the mind of the observer. And if we continue to dwell in thought on this world, not of objects in the solidity with which language invests them, but of impressions, unstable, flickering, inconsistent, which burn and are extinguished with our consciousness of them, it contracts still further; the whole scope of observation is dwarfed into the narrow chamber of the individual mind. Experience, already reduced to a group of impressions, is ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us, or from us to that which we can only conjecture to be without. Every one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world.”

(Cain, William E., et al. 717)

(Citation – Cain, William E., et al., editors. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. W.W. Norton, 2018.)

Even if one grasps the last line, the sense of impressionism is conveyed. Individuals view the world in isolation and create their own images, a prisoner of their imagination and perspectives. It suggests that meaning resides not outside or inside but in that interaction between the two.

Moving onto post-impressionism – 

Post-Impressionism in Literature:

As complicated as it was to put literary impressionism in words, it gets doubly hard to give definitions to post-impressionism. I will list the features here to make it easier, but some of them have grounds in literary impressionism –

  • There is a sense of order and structure to fragmentary episodes and unreliable narration when looked at as a whole (Seurat’s pointillism). It is like holding a book too near to the eyes, and you won’t understand a word, but hold it far enough and everything starts to make sense.
  • The characters’ subjective emotions are reflected through their interaction with the objective world.
  • Writers use the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique or ‘interior monologues’ to describe the inner workings of the characters’ minds.
  • Writers emphasize thoughts and processes going on in the characters’ minds through abstraction and vagueness.
  • Use of subtle or evident symbols.
  • The play of light and color is dominant. Shades and hues don’t just describe the physical setting but also the mental setting of the character
  • Momentary and imaginary feelings are more focused on than characters’ physical appearance, age, occupation, etc.

Post-impressionist writing could be seen in Virginia Woolf’s works. Her visit to the post-impressionist exhibition held in London in 1910 changed her perspective on art and writing. One of the most quoted lines from her essay ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown – “…on or about December 1910, human character changed” shows her influenced state of mind. (Woolf as quoted in Blair 03)

You can find a similarity between Mrs. Dalloway’s stream of consciousness and Seurat’s pointillism. The entire plot (like the entire painting) makes sense when the reader looks at the work as a whole, joining different parts and finding underlying structures.

Notable Figures in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism:

For further studies, refer to the following table of writers and artists in impressionism and post-impressionism –

Art– Claude Monet
– Edgar Degas
– Frédéric Bazille
– Berthe Morisot
– Camille Pissarro
– Pierre-Auguste Renoir
– Alfred Sisley
– Mary Cassatt
– Gustave Caillebotte
– Vincent van Gogh
– Georges Seurat
– Paul Gauguin
– Paul Cézanne
– Édouard Manet
– Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
– Henri Rousseau
– Edouard Vuillard
– Paul Signac
– Charles Laval
– Pierre Bonnard
– Émile Bernard
– Théo van Rysselberghe
– Odilon Redon
– Charles Angrand
– Georges Lemmen
LiteratureMajor writers in Impressionism:
– Joseph Conrad
– Stephen Crane
– Ford Madox Ford
– Henry James
– Marcel Proust
– Thomas Hardy
Other Writers in Impressionism:
– Frank Norris
– W. H. Hudson
– H. G. Wells
– Jack London
– Rudyard Kipling
– Erskine Childers
– R. B. Cunninghame Graham
– Edgar Rice Burroughs

– Virginia Woolf
– Katherine Mansfield
– James Joyce


Impressionism is the depiction of “impressions” formed in the artist’s mind by his contact with the material world. It focuses on fleeting moments that are fragmentary and influenced by the artist’s perceptions. Post-impressionism goes beyond this material reality and dives deeper into the artist’s consciousness to make sense or find order in the world around them. It is more inward than impressionism and chooses to see symbols in ordinary surroundings. Both are art movements that later influenced music, literature, architecture, and so on.

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