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About Impressionism

Impressionism was a style of painting that emerged in the late nineteenth century in France. Characterised by loose brushstrokes and bright or pastel colours, it is perhaps one of the best-known art movements in art history and paved the way for modern painters in the twentieth century.

Watch this National Galleries of Scotland video for a brief introduction to Impressionism, then find out more about the movement through the themes below.

Modern life

Impressionism started in the 1860s when a group of young artists decided they wanted to capture their impression of the things they saw around them – rather than subjects from history or mythology that artists were traditionally 'supposed to' paint.

The Impressionists were especially interested in capturing scenes of contemporary life. They painted busy streets, bustling bars and cafés, and people dancing or relaxing in public parks. 

Summer's Day

Summer's Day about 1879

Berthe Morisot (1841–1895)

The National Gallery, London

They also painted exciting new technological developments such as railway stations and steam trains.

The Gare St-Lazare

The Gare St-Lazare 1877

Claude Monet (1840–1926)

The National Gallery, London

Impressionist painters often worked outside in the open air (an approach known as 'en plein air' – a French phrase that translates as 'outdoors'). They wanted to put down on canvas the changing light and colours of a scene at a particular moment in time and paint their overall impression of a scene rather than its details.

They also, importantly, wanted to capture, with loose expressive brushstrokes, how what they saw made them feel.

Rouen Cathedral: Setting Sun (Symphony in Pink and Grey)

Rouen Cathedral: Setting Sun (Symphony in Pink and Grey) 1892–1894

Claude Monet (1840–1926)

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

A break with tradition

'There are no lines in nature, only areas of colour one against another.' – Edouard Manet

Impressionist artists moved away from using realistic perspective, contours to indicate form and three-dimensional tonal effects. Their technique of using short, or gestural brushstrokes to break up the surface of their paintings makes them look abstracted.

This was a very different approach to the dominant style of painting in the nineteenth century. The French art world of the 1850s and 1860s was controlled by the Académie des Beaux-Arts (the Academy of Fine Art in Paris). The Academy thought paintings should look realistic and be neatly finished so the brushstrokes couldn't be seen. They championed dark, more sedate colour palettes (which looked serious and formal).

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey 1833

Paul Delaroche (1797–1856)

The National Gallery, London

The Academy also thought that serious artists should only paint certain subjects. They listed subjects in order of importance and at the top of the list were historical subjects (such as scenes from Greek or Roman mythology, battle scenes or other significant historical events). Religious themes were considered the next most important subject followed by portraits (of important people).

At the bottom end of the list, were landscapes, still life paintings, and scenes of everyday life (often referred to as 'genre' scenes). These were the very subjects that attracted the Impressionists.

At the Café

At the Café c.1875–1877

Edgar Degas (1834–1917)

The Fitzwilliam Museum

When the Impressionists first had an exhibition of their work in 1874, the response from the traditional art world, critics and the public was overwhelmingly negative. They thought Impressionist paintings looked unfinished and amateurish. One critic wrote:

'Wallpaper in its early stages is much more finished than that.'

Impressionism and modern art

Impressionism is generally thought of as the first modern art movement which paved the way for the development of abstraction in the twentieth century. Their interest in the abstract properties of colour and light showed that painting didn't have to look realistic.

Their focus on how we see was key to Cubist ideas and the later Op Art movement. By allowing for the expression of individual ideas and emotions, they opened the door for Fauvism and other expressionist movements of the twentieth century.

Two Women (Zwei Frauen)

Two Women (Zwei Frauen) 1912

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884–1976)


The Visit

The Visit 1966–7

Willem de Kooning (1904–1997)


Did you know?

The term 'Impressionism' was originally a criticism.

Art critic Louis Leroy wrote a negative review of Impressionist painting in which he mockingly twisted the title of one of Claude Monet's paintings – Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) to coin the term 'Impressionism'.

Find out more about Impressionism

Discussion activity: introducing Impressionism

Introduce Impressionism to your students by comparing these two paintings as a class. 

William-Adolphe Bouguerau's painting is typical of the French Academic style of the official Paris Salon. Berthe Morisot painted this summer scene of her daughter and her maid 'en pleine air' at Bougival, a suburb west of Paris where she spent the summers of 1881 and 1882.

Ask students to discuss the similarities and differences between the paintings. Use the discussion prompts below the images if helpful.

Discussion prompts

  • Are there any similarities between the two paintings?
  • What is the subject of the paintings? (What can you see?)
  • What is the setting or background for the figures in each painting?
  • Compare the different styles the artists have used. Which painting do you think looks the most realistic? Which painting do you think looks the most modern?
  • Compare the formal elements each artist has used. How have they used colour, tone and brushstrokes?
  • What is your response to each painting? How do the paintings make you feel when you look at them? Which painting do you like most?
  • What do you think were the artists' aims or intentions? What were they trying to put across in their paintings?

Teacher notes: comparison thoughts – similarities and differences


  • Both paintings are depictions of women with children. The compositions are similar, with the figures centrally placed.
  • Bouguereau's family group are in an urban setting. The buildings are classical in style – with Greco-Roman architectural details. Although it is a genre painting, the classical buildings make the subject look historical – and conform more closely to the 'rules' of the traditional Academy. The classical buildings also add a serious mood to the painting.
  • Morisot painted her woman and child in a landscape setting – a field in the countryside with long grass and a hedgerow. The setting looks natural and is timeless – you can imagine seeing families in parks or rural settings like this, today.

Woman and Child in a Meadow at Bougival

Woman and Child in a Meadow at Bougival 1882

Berthe Morisot (1841–1895)

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

Style and formal elements

  • The styles of the paintings are very different. Bouguereau's painting looks visually more 'realistic' with its careful details, perspective and modelling of the figures. Its smooth surface reminds us of a photograph. But the light and movement of Morisot's painting bring it to life – we can almost feel the breeze and sunshine of this countryside scene and relate it to our own experiences. 
  • The formal elements used by each artist are also very different. Bouguereau has used darker, more sombre colours. He has used tone to mould the forms of the figures – making them appear more three-dimensional. His brushstrokes are almost invisible – the surface of the painting is smooth and untextured.
  • Morisot has used light, saturated colours (colours mixed with white). There is very little tone or modelling in the painting – and the figures almost disappear into the background. The effect of the light colours and lack of tone, makes the scene look as if it is awash with bright daylight. Morisot's brushmarks are gestural and loose – she has dabbed the paint onto the canvas using separate brushstrokes, with no attempt to blend them and create a smooth surface. This adds texture and movement to the surface of the painting – there is a real sense of the grass moving in the breeze.

Message and meaning


Charity (La famille indigente (The Indigent Family)) 1865

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905)

Birmingham Museums Trust

  • Bouguereau's painting has a moral message about the importance of charity and helping the poor.  He made sure that we as viewers understand this message by including a poster on the wall behind the figure group. By including this moral message, and by giving the painting a historical look, Bouguereau raises it above being a genre painting (a painting of an everyday scene) – the lowest form of painting as dictated by the Academy of Fine Art in Paris.
  • Morisot wanted to paint an everyday scene of contemporary life – a woman interacting with a child in an outdoor setting. Her aim was to capture and convey the light and movement of the scene as well as the relationship between the woman and the child.

Who is Berthe Morisot?

Berthe Morisot was the only female artist to exhibit in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 and her paintings were included in all but one of the subsequent Impressionist exhibitions. (The one exhibition she missed was due to her being unwell after giving birth to her daughter.)

She was a respected and influential member of the Impressionist group – it is thought that she persuaded Edouard Manet to experiment with Impressionist methods, particularly painting outdoors.

Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets

Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets

1872, oil on canvas by Édouard Manet (1832–1883)

Born in 1841 to a well-off family, Morisot was allowed to study art when she was young, which was unusual for girls. This led to a lifelong passion for painting and a determination to be an artist – at a time when it was not easy for women to do so. In 1864, when Morisot was only 23, two of her landscape paintings were exhibited in the Paris Salon – an almost unheard-of achievement.

Subjects and inspiration

Although being a woman from a respectable family barred her from going to the places where many male artists went to paint their scenes of modern life (such as bars, brothels and dance halls) she made the most of the spheres she was allowed to move in.

Summer's Day

Summer's Day about 1879

Berthe Morisot (1841–1895)

The National Gallery, London

She sketched and painted her friends and family in contemporary domestic settings or in landscapes – and her daughter Julie became one of her favourite subjects.

Berthe Morisot Drawing, with Her Daughter (Berthe Morisot dessinant, avec sa fille)

Berthe Morisot Drawing, with Her Daughter (Berthe Morisot dessinant, avec sa fille) 1889

Berthe Morisot (1841–1895)

The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust)

Her domestic subjects may seem relatively tame, but her radical approach makes them look anything but! Gestural brushstrokes and shards of bright colour give her paintings an abstracted quality.

Girl on a Divan (Jeune femme au divan)

Girl on a Divan (Jeune femme au divan) c.1885

Berthe Morisot (1841–1895)


Discussion activity: look closer at Berthe Morisot's technique

Task students with looking closely at this painting.

A Woman and Child in a Garden

A Woman and Child in a Garden c.1883–1884

Berthe Morisot (1841–1895)

National Galleries of Scotland

Discussion prompts

  • What does the painting show?
  • Do you think the painting was painted outside or in a studio? What makes you think this?
  • What does the weather look like in the painting? What clues in the painting make you think this?
  • Describe the composition. (How has Morisot arranged the different elements within the painting?)
  • What do you notice about the edges of the painting? How does this make us look at the painting?
  • How would you describe Morisot's brushmarks?
  • What colours has Morisot used? Are the colours pale or dark? Is there a lot of contrast between dark and light tones? What is the effect of this?

Now choose a section of the painting and look at the different marks Morisot has made. You could explore the painting more closely as a class on a smartboard or large screen using the National Galleries of Scotland's interactive zoom tool (the magnifying glass logo below the painting).

Detail of 'A Woman and Child in a Garden'

Detail of 'A Woman and Child in a Garden'

c.1883–1884, oil on canvas by Berthe Morisot (1841–1895)

  • How many different types of brushmarks can you see?
  • Can you see the underpainting?
  • How has Morisot used marks to suggest people, objects or elements within the landscape?
  • Imagine you could watch her at work – what sort of gestures do you think she would make with her hand while painting?

Teacher notes: About the painting

This painting shows the artist's daughter, Julie, with a nurse or female companion in a rural setting. Its gestural and sketchy approach suggests that it was painted on the spot – rather than being carefully planned, composed and finished in the studio. The quick messy brush marks look as if she is rushing to capture what she can see in that moment. There are dabs, gestural brushstrokes, dots and squiggles. Notice how, with just a few brushstrokes, she has painted the stool.

It looks sunny – the figures wear straw sun hats and bright natural light seems to flood the scene. We can see the sunlight reflecting off the water and off Julie's white dress.

The figures are centrally placed in the composition with vegetation framing the scene. The boat is right in the middle and its white sails draw our eyes in.

A tree trunk divides the composition down the middle – making the figures, in their individual activities, seem separate in their own worlds.

The edges of the painting seem unfinished. The marks fade out and we can see the ochre colour of the primed canvas at the edges. This adds to the spontaneous, unplanned appearance of the painting. It also echoes how we look at the painting – focusing our gaze on the centre of the image.

Analysis activity: be an Impressionist art critic

Task students with writing a review of an Impressionist artwork. This could be a homework activity.

They could choose an artwork from the carousel below or explore more Impressionist artworks on Art UK

Task outline

Imagine that it is the 1880s and you are an art critic (someone who looks at and reviews exhibitions for newspapers or magazines).

You have been tasked with writing about an Impressionist exhibition and see this painting (your chosen Impressionist artwork) on the wall. The painting is very different to most of the paintings at the time – which generally show subjects from history or mythology.

Writing tips

  • Look closely at the Impressionist painting you have chosen to review.
  • What is your initial response to it?
  • Do you like the painting? What does it make you think and feel? Are you shocked or excited?
  • Describe the subject the artist has chosen and the artist's technique – the colours and brushmarks that they have used. What do you think the artist is trying to capture or put across in the painting?
  • You could compare the painting to other, more traditional paintings made at a similar date (such as the one below). How is the Impressionist artwork different? What makes it look radical?

Edward V and the Duke of York in the Tower

Edward V and the Duke of York in the Tower 1831

Paul Delaroche (1797–1856)

The Wallace Collection

Research tips

Art activity: explore Impressionist colour and mark-making

The Impressionists were interested in the variations between local colour and how we see colour depending on the light and the other colours around it.

They were inspired by developments in colour theory and visual perception in the nineteenth century – such as the research carried out by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who added his own ideas to Isaac Newton's colour wheel.

Goethe's symmetric colour wheel with associated symbolic qualities, 1809

Goethe's symmetric colour wheel with associated symbolic qualities, 1809

Separate dabs of colour

Impressionist painters used colours side by side, instead of mixing them. By keeping the colours separate on the canvas they appear brighter and more vibrant. 

Look closely at this painting by Georges Seurat.

Study for 'A Sunday on the Island of La Grand Jatte': Couple Walking

Study for 'A Sunday on the Island of La Grand Jatte': Couple Walking

Georges Seurat (1859–1891)

The Fitzwilliam Museum

  • Notice how he has used separate brush strokes of different colours next to each other.
  • He has also used the size and spacing of the brush strokes to create the impression of light and perspective.
  • The painting looks quite abstracted close-up – but step back and the colours and marks blend together.

Complementary colours and shadows

Impressionist painters didn't add black to colours to create darker tones but instead added complementary colours. Complementary colours are colours which are opposite one another on the colour wheel – such as red and green or blue and orange.

Colour diagram

Colour diagram

Look at this painting by Claude Monet. What colours can you see in the shadow formed by the haystack?

Haystacks: Snow Effect

Haystacks: Snow Effect 1891

Claude Monet (1840–1926)

National Galleries of Scotland

Teacher notes: Activity outline

Task students with painting a simple still life as a first step to exploring Impressionist colour and technique. (This could also be a drawing activity using pastels or oil pastels.)

A simple still life of lemons

A simple still life of lemons

  • Set up a simple still life of one or two brightly coloured objects – such as fruit, clothing, crockery or toys – on a plain white surface.
  • Task students with painting the still life using short separate dabs of colour. (It might help to provide a narrow range of colours, e.g. if the still life is a lemon, provide only yellow, orange, red, and blue or violet)
  • Encourage them not to draw any outlines but to use colours and tones to create the shapes and forms of the objects.
  • They should use complementary colours to suggest shadows – adding the colours in short brushmarks next to the main colour of the object.
  • For the shadow made by the object/s on the white surface, ask them to use complementary colours. For example, if the object is yellow, they should use blues and violets for the shadows.
  • Point out reflective colour – some colour from the object/s might be reflected on the white surface.
  • They could use the direction of their brushmarks to help suggest the forms of the object.

Matthew Smith was a British artist working in the early twentieth century and often used complementary colours in his paintings.


Apples 1919–20

Matthew Arnold Bracy Smith (1879–1959)


Art activity: paint an 'en plein air' painting

Highgate Ponds 1

Highgate Ponds 1 1953

James Boswell (1906–1971)

Burgh House and Hampstead Museum

Students will need:

  • Thick paper ideally A2 size or larger
  • Drawing board (or the hardback of a drawing pad)
  • Water-based paints (acrylic or gouache) and a round brush
  • Viewing frame

Teacher notes: practicalities

If you have a playground, an outside area around your school, or a local park, use this as the setting for this painting activity. Or you could task students with painting outside as a homework activity.

Ideally, provide students with a small set of acrylic or gouache paints (five or six primary and secondary colours). If this is not possible, provide students with palettes with ready-poured paint. Alternatively, students could draw outside using pastels or oil pastels.

Encourage them to work on a large scale – minimum A2 size (if possible). This will encourage them to use fluid, bold brushstrokes.

Ask students to make paper viewing frames before heading outside.

Make a frame from paper to help you focus on a subject

Make a frame from paper to help you focus on a subject

Task outline and tips

  • Inspired by the Impressionist 'en plein air' approach, paint an outdoor scene using separate brushstrokes and bright, complementary colours.
  • Use a viewing frame to select the view you want to paint. (This will help you with the composition of your painting.)
  • You could loosely sketch the main elements of your composition with your brush – but don't draw in lots of details – Impressionism isn't about creating an accurate rendition of a scene but painting your impression of it!
  • Paint the lights and shadows that you see using bright colours dabbed next to each other. Use complementary colours for shadows and darker tones.
  • You could vary your brush marks (as Berthe Morisot did) from small dabs or dots to big, loose, gestural marks – to reflect the different objects and elements that you see.

Explore more Impressionist and Impressionist-style paintings for inspiration in the carousel below.

Art activity: paint an Impressionist-style portrait

Task students with painting a portrait or self-portrait using Impressionist-style brush marks and bright colours. They could work from life (using a mirror for a self-portrait) or a photograph (this could be on a phone or tablet).

Students will need:

  • Thick paper, ideally A2 size or larger
  • Drawing board (or the hard back of a drawing pad)
  • Water-based paints (acrylic or gouache) and brushes. Alternatively, students could use crayons, pastels or oil pastels for their portraits.
  • Mirror (for a self-portrait) or photograph to use as source material.

Girl on a Divan (Jeune femme au divan)

Girl on a Divan (Jeune femme au divan) c.1885

Berthe Morisot (1841–1895)


Impressionist artists were keen to capture contemporary life in their paintings – encourage students to choose a background setting, clothing and props that reflect their everyday life and tell us something about the sitter.

Young woman with a mobile phone

Young woman with a mobile phone

Task outline and tips

  • Inspired by Impressionist portraits and genre paintings, paint a portrait using separate brushstrokes and bright, complementary colours.
  • You could ask a friend or family member to pose for you or paint yourself in a mirror.
  • Or you could use a photograph on your phone or tablet as your source material.
  • Think about how you want your sitter (or yourself) to come across. Think about their pose and expression.
  • You could also think about how to use colours and brush marks to put across the mood of the painting. Carefully painted dots or dabs will give the portrait a very different mood than looser, more gestural brushstrokes.
  • Impressionist painters were keen to paint people in everyday scenes. What background setting could you use? What will they be doing? Think about clothing and props (objects) to include in your portrait that reflect contemporary life.
  • Paint the lights and shadows that you see using bright bold colours dabbed next to each other. Use complementary colours for shadows and darker tones.

Explore more Impressionist and Impressionist-inspired portraits for ideas in the carousel below.

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