As an expert art historian (or bull-shitter, you tell me), I have decided to divulge to you 5 telltale signs to look for when trying to identify an Impressionist painting.

1)    Light Effects: Impressionist artists were interested in the effects of light on the atmosphere. To accurately capture this, many artists would paint en plein air (literally translating to “in plain air”), meaning they ventured outside to paint. This gave pieces a freshness otherwise not seen in art at that time.

How to Identify an Impressionist Painting

Artist: Claude Monet
Title: The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train
Movement: Impressionist
Location: The Fogg Museum – Harvard’s University Oldest Museum, Cambridge, Boston


2)    Impasto Brushstrokes: The term “impasto” refers to the thickness of the application of paint to the canvas. In the case of Impressionism, one sees copious amounts of paint layered on top of one another. They are unblended, giving the painting a softness and depth that may otherwise be hard to discern from the subject matter. You can see each individual brush stroke and the gestural motions of the artist are palpable (but please, for the sake of art-lovers everywhere, do NOT touch the art!!).


3)    Subject Matter: Unlike artists trained in the Beaux-Arts tradition, the Impressionists did not paint pictures of heroic, muscular men or of epic adventures; instead, they focused on the events from daily life (see below) to a woman bathing. In doing this, the Impressionists were able to make their work more relatable to the public and accessible to the masses (kind of like Artsnapper!).

How to Identify an Impressionist Painting

ArtistPierre-Auguste Renoir
TitleBal du moulin de la Galette (commonly known as Dance at Le moulin de la Galette
Movement: Impressionist
Location: Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France


4)    Color: The way Impressionists used color is similar to how a printer prints a picture from Google. As said before, the artists chose not to blend colors, instead relying on optical mixing to merge the colors together. To understand this idea, think of a comic book picture. When you look closely, you see a lot of little dots of color placed next to one another. They are either primary or secondary colors, and close up they are easily discernible. From far away, however, the eye blurs them together to create a pinkish skin tone from red dots on a white background, or a violet flower from different amounts of red and blue dots.

When you look at an Impressionist painting, you see something similar to this. The brushstrokes, when seen close, look like a random array of color. Standing farther back, however, one sees that a few strange marks become the refection of light in the water, or a sole splotch of black becomes a fisherman standing in the morning’s light.

How to Identify an Impressionist Painting

Artist: Claude Monet
Title: Impression Sunrise (1872)
Movement: Impressionist
Location: Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, France


5)  Movement: From ripples of water to a dancer spinning across a stage, the Impressionists were very interested in the way the world moved around them. Many of these artists lived in or near Paris, a bustling cityscape, and they captured the zeitgeist of the City of Light (and the modern age) through the application of paint on the canvas. Quick, bold, and small, the brushstrokes are kind of similar to the people living in the city; each stroke is individual, but they work together to create a perfect picture of life at that time.

Now, it’s your turn: how do YOU identify an Impressionist painting?




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