Impressionism: A simile to reality

22 Mar

              It only takes a moment to form an impression. It is a wholly subjective experience based on previous events in which we take the external world and internalize it. Through this experience, we are able to create. This process holds true for writers and artists alike. Though the two art forms have their obvious differences, particular elements in a body of work remain uniform among all artistic media. Impressionist paintings rely on subjectivity in much the same way that literature does. Artists and writers use their perceptions of reality to create. Ultimately, we often see the reality formed by these subjective artistic creations to be more truthful than their objective counterparts. Thus, impressionism in art and literature uses subjectivity to convey a truthful sense of reality.

            Before looking at the connections between impressionism in literature and art, one must understand what impressionism is. Impressionism in painting is defined by its use of color over line. As in Camille Pissarro’s Le Recolte des Foins a Eragny (which boarders on pointillism, an offshoot of impressionism), shapes are created by the contrast of color.

Le Recolte des Foins a Eragny

In addition, the impressionist movement focused on light and movement. It dismisses the still life images of its forebearers and rather depicts everyday life and cityscapes. The shift from classicism to impressionism is clear when comparing Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps and Mary Cassatt’s Lydia Leaning on Her Arms.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps

Lydia Leaning on Her Arms

Impressionism also introduced the idea of painting “en plein air,” or “outside.” This technique allowed artists to view the changing appearance of landscapes and the movement of people within a city. Impressionists were also some of the first to rely on an artist’s subjective viewpoint. Water could be blue, orange, or green depending on how the individual artists viewed the scene in front of them. This trait not only defined the impressionist movement, but also rendered the art necessary within a new and shifting culture. With the appearance of the camera in the 1600’s, artists and critics wondered if their talents would still be necessary when a photograph could depict reality truer to form than any painting. Instead of succumbing to futility, painters turned to “the one thing they could inevitably do better than the photograph—by further developing into an art form its very subjectivity in the conception of the image, the very subjectivity that photography eliminated,” (Levinson). 

            Thus, one can begin to understand the importance of subjectivity to impressionism. The origin of the term “impressionism” is synonymous with Claude Monet’s painting Impression: Soleil Levant (1874).

Impression: Soleil Levant

The painting is a typical impressionist piece that emphasizes color over lines, visible brushstrokes that focus on light and movement, and a commonplace subject.  It is essential to notice that these characteristic impressionist qualities portray an inkling of the sun rising and do not attempt to recreate the exact image as a camera would. Monet referred to this notion of the sun rising as an impression, not a replication, and thus the impressionist movement was born.  This movement did not seek to represent reality, but rather a sense, an allusion, a suspicion of the scene, which allowed the artist’s subjective interpretation to dominate landscape. Impressionist paintings take into account their effects on emotions, the consciousness of experience, and the perception of the mind. All of these things compose the definition if “impression” according to In this sense, an impression is not real; it is the compilation of reality and subjectivity experienced by an individual. The impressionist movement was anticipated by Emile Zola who said, “an artist should express his personality and his temperament, and not reproduce reality,” (Kronegger). Thus, Impressionism is like reality; it is a simile to reality that embodies subjectivity. Monet’s The Japanese Bridge is a perfect example of subjective interpretation.

Japanese Bridge at Giverney

The brushstrokes are choppy and visible and consequently the viewer is aware of Monet’s presence.  There are no lines between the bridge and the sky. The shapes blur to create an abstraction that contradicts objectivism. Monet’s bright use of color borders on absurdity. The striking reds and yellows are hardly an exact representation of the scene’s true colors. These eccentricities emulate Monet’s eyesight problems and individual perception more than the truth. This is the impressionism in which “artists started from perception. They rejected the traditional emphasis upon order, thought, and clearness. Through sensory experience, the impressionist opens a new relationship with the everyday world. Its stimulus affects the senses; the senses affect the mind,” (Kronegger). The subjective perception of environment alludes to the Cartesian defense of knowledge, “I think, therefore I am.” This universal axiom stems from what impressionists attempt to do in their paintings—highlight the importance of the individual perception. Impressionist work is not a recreation or commentary on reality. It is a simile. Impressionist paintings are like reality in the same sense that our own subjective perception of our surroundings is only like the actual reality—always tainted by prior experiences, biases, and beliefs. This same theory applies to literature.  The images and ideas created by writing are only like reality, which gives us a sense of the author’s imagined scene. Thus the “interpenetration of the arts is bound up with the interpenetration of sensation… color and sounds follow the same principles as words … there is a unity in art appealing to all the senses together. With the impressionists, painting becomes a form of art, which is closely related to music and poetry, and likewise, literature to painting and music, and music to painting and literature. This new relationship between poetry and painting, and letters and art is all-important,” (Kronegger).            

            It is through this connection between literature and art that one finds literature to be as subjective as impressionism. As established, impressionist paintings work in much the same way that a simile does. It is like reality. These techniques are also found in literature.  Paragraphs and imagery work to create a scene that is like the artist’s imagined representation, which can be like reality. The tools used by writes are not unlike the techniques used by artists. A simile is a literary technique used to describe an object using “like” or “as.” The grass rippled like ocean waves; the tiger ran like the wind. Yet there is in an inherit sense of subjectivity found within any simile. It takes an individual and their subjective view of an object to compare it. Michael Décaudin referred to this as an ‘impressionist tendance,’ which he found poetry and obscure prose (Kronegger). In Ezra Pound’s, In the Station of the Metro a reader is struck by impressions. Pound describes people as “petals on a wet black bough.” The point of the poem is not to explicitly describe actually, but give readers and impression of his emotions. The importance of individual perception then transcends the creator to the observer.  The readers are called upon to visualize their own interpretation of the poem, which is the definition of subjectivity. Individual perception works not only for ideas, but words themselves. In writing a word upon a page, we call upon a person’s impression of the word. As Kronegger has said, “in writing, the word stimmung, “atmosphere,” or etats d’ame (sorry, the blog wouldn’t let me put in accents!) becomes all important. This fusion of the individual’s consciousness with the world creates a unity between visual appearance and mental reality.”  The memories one recalls with the word or picture “pink flower” will be highly individualized and based on my previous impressions. Jesse Matz synthesizes this while quoting Marcel Proust:

                        “Each of us has within us an ‘inner book of unknown symbols,’ a book that   only we can read, and the translation of which is the only valid basis for  art…this book, more laborious to decipher than any other, is also the only one which has been dictated to us by reality, the only one of which the  ‘impression has been printed by reality itself.’ In essence, only through   intense laboring and analysis can we find books that decipher perceptions and create art.”

 Thus words become an author’s brushstrokes and paragraphs become shapes that have to be carefully chosen to depict a specific emotion and memory that can be deciphered by viewers. Realizing this is an “an understanding of perceptual consciousness,” (Kronegger). It was this idea that has come to define literary impressionism.

            Literary impressionism not only emulates impressionist painting’s subjectivity, but also its techniques as well. “Impressions destroy standard perceptual distinctions between thinking and sensing, believing and suspecting,” Matz says. Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and Virginia Woolf used the word impressionism to describe their fiction (Matz). According to Henry James, “Fiction is an impression.” Proof of this is found within Marcel Proust’s In a Budding Grove. Proust’s character looks from his window and sees a changing picture. There are violet skies, but also blue skies that match the ocean, as well as the color of sunset. Matz argues that this is literary impressionism because there are “pictorial descriptions of shifting light and color, subjective accounts of sensuous experience, transmission of immediate and evanescent feelings.” These are the components that define impressionist art. Thus, the two forms of art begin to parallel each other. “The way impressionist writers saw the physical world and apprehended reality was shaped by pictorial experience,” said Kronegger.  The connections created by imagery can also be seen in Zola’s The Masterpiece.  Looking at pages 208 to 209 of The Masterpiece, it is clear that Zola focuses on the images and impressions. Zola describes a lighted Paris at night, the Quai du Louvre, the Seine, and other cityscapes, which is typical of impressionism. What is interesting about this paragraph is Zola’s famous quote that followed the publication of his work. He said, “I did not only defend the Impressionists, I also translate them into literature through the strokes, notes and colour of many of my descriptions.” Theses similarities become apparent when analyzing the paragraph. The passage describes “specks which scintillated and grew smaller and smaller, “confused masses of monuments and building,” and “bridges stretched bars of lights, ever slighter and slighter, each formed of a train of spangles ground together and seemingly hanging in mid-air (Zola). These descriptions emulate impressionist brush strokes that range in size and grow “smaller and smaller.” Monet’s lilies are “confused masses” if you stand to close to painting. Additionally, a focus on light is a general trait of all impressionists. One can come to the conclusion that Zola’s descriptions are like impressionism, and impression is like reality. Thus, literature, painting, and subjectivity are combined to form an impression of reality.

            In both media, impressionist paintings and literature, there remains a common theme that the perception of reality to the individual is more important than reality itself. “With the impressionists’ perceptive experience, the reality of the novel changes; the traditional frozen form of description (Balzac) set themselves  into motion spatially. The protagonists see reality from several angles of  vision at once and the object are released without losing sight of their earlier positions,” says Kronegger. Yet this is exactly what we do in real life. We are in “motion spatially” and view life from “several angles.” Our subjective experiences are is the topic of most impressionist paintings and literature. Impressionism created painting in “plein form” or outside and it is through this setting that artists are able to view real life. Neo-classic and romantic paintings were created based on myths and heroic events intentionally glorified its subject. They were created in a studio without viewing the actually scene. Realism took a step toward reality, but even Gustave Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio was pre-arranged and Courbet called it “an allegory reality.” It isn’t until impressionism that an artistic movement embraced subjectivity and its inconstancies allowing one to say, honestly and truthfully, that their creations were reality to the artist. “The impressionists had seen the world subjectively…there is nothing in common between Monet’s cathedrals can Cezanne’s still-life,” said Kronegger. The changing subjectivity of impressionism represents one thing, the truth. This is found not only in impressionist paintings, but also in literature. For example, Theodore Drydan’s Sister Carrie is an example of realist literature that is supposed to depict an objective view of reality and present Chicago as it actually was. However, a modern view of the novel cannot ignore Dryden’s blatant sexism. Additionally, Dryden is unable to remove himself from the story and his literary goals are apparent. He introduces his characters in a sudden way without any background information. Through this “deliberate leaving out of the information, it presents the reader an inherently a subjective presentation of the work’s subject matter,” (Mehran).  Thus, even the most realist novel cannot convey a true reality. Therefore, the impressions the Pound’s poem portrays are more real that a falsity presented as reality. One then comes to the conclusion that a subjective form of art may be superior to its objective counterparts because it admits and embraces prejudice instead of covering it up.

            Through a comparison of impressionist paintings and literature, it becomes clear the both art forms real on subjectivity to convey reality. From Monet’s quintessential impressionist paintings to Proust’s descriptions, we find the impressionism works like a simile to reality by portraying imagery that is like actuality. However, the reality portrayed in this subjective way is more truthful than realism (in both literature and art). Through this, we find that impressionism and subjectivity often triumph over their counterparts and leave a lasting legacy in the art world.


Kronegger E., Maria. Literary Impressionism. Connecticut: College and University Press Services, Inc., 1973. 25 Jun. 2011 <;

Levinson, Paul. Soft Edge; a Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution. Routledge, London and New York, 1997.

Matz, Jesse. Literary Impressionism and Modernist Aesthetics.United Kingdom: University Press, Cambridge, 2001.  25 Jun. 2011 <;

Mehran. Subjective Realism and Interactionalist Readership. 24 July 2010 <;

Zola, Emile. The Materpiece. Trans. Ernest Alfred Vizetelly. 21 Jun. 2011 <;

Pictures from:,r:1,s:0


One Response to “Impressionism: A simile to reality”

  1. Lucy March 31, 2011 at 11:54 am #

    This introduction to a translation of “L’oeuvre” might be interesting :

    And this book in general should be of help:

    as might the introduction to this one :

    For basis contextual info on the relationship between Zola & the Impressionists, I can email you a copy of an old (but solid) article by F. W. J. Hemmings entitled “Zola, Manet, and the Impressionists (1875-80)” if you would like.

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