The Beginnings of Impressionism

As a young girl studying classical piano, I fell in love with Claude Debussy and his music, especially the beautiful piece, Reverie.


Debussy is considered the most important French composer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His compositions revolutionized music and became the foundation for what is known as impressionism.

Debussy hated the term. He once wrote:

“I am trying to do something different — in a way, realities — what the idiots call `Impressionism,’ a term used as badly as possible.”

I suppose loving impressionist music as I always have, it was only natural that I would also love impressionist art, and that now, as I learn to become an artist in oil paints, that I would be drawn to this style.

But what is impressionism and how did it begin?

Perhaps it began with British artist  Joseph Mallord William Turner and his painting Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway. 


One critic called Turner’s work ” a picture of nothing.” Another referred to it as “tinted steam.” Debussy, however, praised Turner, calling him “the finest creator of mystery in art.”

Without doubt, mystery does play a key role in good impressionist art. Just as with Debussy’s music, we find a dreamlike world with shimmering hues, blurred outlines, and luminous shapes. We see imaginative landscapes that can take us to places that only exist in emotions and feelings.

Even when depicting something very real and tangible — as Turner did in his railway painting — there is something deeper and more meaningful hidden within the vague impressions he painted. Impressionism appeals to us, perhaps, because it allows us to understand art a very personal level. We’re not shown everything but are, instead, given subtle hints. The painting speaks directly to us so that our experience with and connection to the work becomes a highly personal one.

Another painting of Turner’s is this:

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

You may be familiar with the painting as it is one of Turner’s most popular works, but if you’re not…can you tell what’s depicted here? Without knowing the title, what are your thoughts and feelings?

Toru Takemitsu

As I’m exploring impressionism more in art, my ideas toward it are changing, a fact brought about, I think, from the hours I’ve been spending at the piano, reacquainting myself with Debussy and Ravel, playing their piano pieces, and also listening to works by other impressionist composers, including modern-day impressionists such as Toru Takemitsu and Yann Tiersen.

Whereas I once believed an artist’s message — or vision — should be conveyed clearly enough for any viewer to immediately see and understand it, I’ve now come to think that the real meaning of any work of art — not only visual art, but in music, dance, story-telling, poetry, sculpture and any other art form that exists — has little to do with the artist and everything to do with the recipient.

Since beginning to paint, I’ve always felt compelled to explain my landscapes, to talk about my feelings, my memories, my thoughts and intentions about the work. I’ve focused only on myself, and while all of my personal experiences are important to my expression in art, they cease to have real value once a work is finished. It then becomes a work for others to experience. It is what others think and feel that is paramount, and that’s how it should be.

If I create a work of art that can only be interpreted in a single way, I’ve done the viewer a disservice, I’ve cheated the viewer of the opportunity to explore the painting from his or her own personal perspective.

It’s been a somewhat mind-boggling, eye-opening change in my thinking, and as I’ve learned more about the beginnings of the Impressionist movement in art, I am finding a new sense of impressionism stirring within myself.

By the way, a very interesting discussion on Rain, Steam, and Speed can be found here:

Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway at Kahn Academy

I love finding new freedom in art, new opportunities to involve my imagination more in the creative process. I am excited to see how these new thoughts and feelings become part of my landscape art.


  1. The second picture appears to me as a boat in storm.And the storm seems like it will end everything that will come in way. It was wonderful to read about the beginning of impressionists.


  2. Yep, yep! That’s why I’ve loved so many of your paintings that were inscrutable (or “flawed”) to you but which carried such meaning to me. (Squiggly lines? That’s movement and energy ! ) Your work has often reminded me of Turner’s.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting. I’ve heard that comparison before and never thought I had anything in common with Turner. It is fascinating to see my work through someone else’s eyes, and I’m finally starting to understand that art can mean many different things. That realization is opening up a lot of new possibilities for me.


    1. The French artists played a major role in impressionist art, certainly! Just as the French impressionist composers are my favorites in music, so, too, are the French artists my favorites in painting.

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  3. I love how you brought classical music and Debussy into your personal impressions on Impressionism. There is indeed a musicality into the “fleeting moment” of Modern Life captured by Impressionist painters. I believe it is that figment of life and movement that still makes these works resonate with us until today. Lovely read!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I plan to read more about Turner and learn more about his paintings. I do wonder how and why his style changed as he created works like “Rain, Steam, and Speed”. I often find myself stuck a bit, too, between Romanticism and Impressionism in music.

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  4. Yes, Impressionism began in France, around the Paris region. Among its founders were Monet, Renoir, Sisley (they painted en plain air together), just to name a few. Some of the members where rejects of the Paris Salon. Painting en plein air is probably one of the most noted aspects of Impressionism, along with the study of light and mixing dark colors to achieve more accurate shades of black. I am leaving out a bunch of stuff!

    Can you please play the piano for us, Judith?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. First our piano is in dire need of tuning! You wouldn’t want to hear anything before that happens. 🙂 You mentioned plein air painting, and yes, that’s something I know I need to do. For me, it’s still such a formidable challenge, and I know for sure it’s not coming to happen until spring. At least that gives me a little time to plan and prepare and figure out the logistics involved. I’m open to all advice and suggestions!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, yes, I did start drawing outdoors last summer, and I really enjoyed my “nature time”. I look forward to doing a lot more drawing outdoors when spring comes. Hopefully I’ll also be able to get comfortable painting outdoors, too.

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