Which 5 Characteristics Define Impressionist Art?

Impressionist art can be recognized for several key defining features which broke with tradition and signaled the dawn of modernism.

Jun 2, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

characteristics of impressionism art


Often cited as the first modern art movement, Impressionism rejected formal, painterly traditions for a new language that was fresh, bright, airy and full of light. Rejecting the French traditions for mythological and Biblical subjects, the Impressionists built on the work of the Barbizon School and the French Realists, painting everyday scenes directly from life. However, we can distinguish Impressionism from these two schools by its light, airy colors, dappled brushstrokes and sparkling, light-infused subject matter. We take a closer look at the 5 key characteristics of Impressionist art, that had a remarkable impact on the development of modern art.


1. Impressionist Art Featured Loose, Dappled Brushstrokes

impression sunrise claude monet 1872
Impression, Sunrise by Claude Monet, 1872


One of the hallmark features of Impressionism was a distinct type of brushstroke that was short, dappled and repetitive. Some Impressionists such as Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet adopted this way of working in a more obvious and direct way, while others incorporated these loose brushstrokes alongside more detailed and careful areas of painting, such as John Singer Sargent. This painting style suited the Impressionists because it allowed them to work directly from life as quickly as possible, capturing the fleeting essence of the moment as light flickered through patchy skies or onto dappled grounds.


2. Pale and Bright Colors

camille pissarro jardin a eragny
Jardin a Eragny by Camille Pissarro,1893, via Christie’s


Pale, luminous colors were another defining feature of Impressionism. Many Impressionists banned the use of black from their color palette, because they believed it interfered with the soft and airy tones in the rest of their paintings. Instead, they often painted darker areas of shadow and definition with a contrasting darker hue. For example, in many of Claude Monet’s paintings he creates darker areas by mixing together blues and oranges, and in Pissarro’s paintings, green trees are interspersed with patches of dark red to add definition. 


3. Impressionist Art Often Features Cropped Compositions

the dance class degas ballet history
The Dance Class by Edgar Degas, 1874, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


Cropped compositions and unusual viewpoints can be seen in the work of many Impressionist painters, and these concepts came from several key cultural influences. Japanese prints were being imported into Europe for the first time during the mid to late 19th century, and many modern Impressionist artists sought to replicate features of these artworks into their own work, including chopped designs and high vantage points, including Camille Pissarro and Gustave Caillebotte. The invention of photography in the mid-19th century also had a profound influence on the way Impressionist artists designed layouts for their artworks. Some sought to emulate the ‘snapshot’, framed nature of photography in their art, as seen in the paintings and drawings Edgar Degas made at the Parisian ballet.


4. Light, Airy Subjects

luncheon boating party renoir impressionist art
Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre-Auguste-Renoir, 1880-81, via the Phillips Collection


Impressionism can be recognized today for its emphasis on bright, light and airy subjects. Artists predominantly worked outdoors directly from a source, or painted interior scenes lit by natural light coming in from a window. The type of subjects they favored included landscapes, cityscapes and people enjoying leisure pursuits or Paris’ burgeoning café culture. Many, including Monet, Alfred Sisley and Pierre Auguste Renoir were fascinated by the play of sunlight on water, painting its rippling surface as it flickered and changed through the temporal changes in times of day and weather patterns.

5. ‘En Plein Air’ and Everyday Scenes

Young Mother Sewing by Mary Cassatt, 1900 impressionist art
Young Mother Sewing by Mary Cassatt, 1900


Taking influence from the Barbizon School, the majority of French Impressionists worked ‘en plein air’, or ‘in the open air’, directly from life. This allowed them to respond quickly and intuitively to the subject before them, resulting in paintings that were swiftly painted, with a fresh, fluid and spontaneous quality. As influenced by the French Realist painters including Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet, many Impressionists also painted scenes from everyday life, observing people going about their daily routines. Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt both made intimate portraits of family members during normal activities, painted with tenderness and warmth.

Author Image

By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.