How the Impressionists Used Texture in Their Brushstrokes

Exploring the meaningful qualities of painted marks in art

Christopher P Jones
6 min readAug 19, 2022

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The Beach at Trouville (1870) by Claude Monet. Oil on canvas. 38 × 46.5 cm. National Gallery, London, UK. Image source WikiArt

How is it possible for a brushstroke to be expressive? How can paint in itself register on an emotional level?

There was once a time when artists made their paintings with a deliberate attempt to hide their brush marks, to blend and soften them as much as possible, so that they disappeared from view. The French Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was a master at the alchemy of transforming paint into a variety of other textures and materials — satin, skin, feathers, pearls — as his La Grande Odalisque aptly demonstrates.

La Grande Odalisque (1814) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Oil on canvas. 91 × 162 cm. The Louvre, Paris, France. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Then, as the 19th century progressed, artists began to experiment with the idea of formal elements of paintings — that is, the colours, shapes and textures of a painting — as having emotional qualities in themselves.

Developments in the psychology of perception, along with the invention of photography, spurred artists to consider the activity of painting as having its own unique qualities, with the potential to allow the artist an idiosyncratic response from direct and somewhat untamed painting.

The “content” of a work of art could be located in the sensory participation in a scene — by which I mean the possibility of different colours and textures having experiential values. In this way, the instance of a single brushstroke could be a bearer of meaning, transferring directly from the artist’s hand to the viewer’s eye.

View from Louveciennes (1870) by Camille Pissarro. Oil on canvas. 52.7 × 81.9 cm. National Gallery, London, UK. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Take for example this painting by Camille Pissarro, View from Louveciennes, painted in 1870, which shows a country lane in a town not far from Paris. The lane is rendered in shades of brown with small trees on either side. It is a simple painting that celebrates the rustic appeal of rural life in the outside elements. One can almost feel the breeze blowing as the sky bubbles up with clouds from just beyond the horizon.

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