Cubism! by Herman Kaur

Impressionism vs. Cubism: A Beginner’s Guide

Sara Mansour April 19 2023


The early 19th-century advent of industrialization elicited crucial philosophical paradigms of modernity. Responding to these values, artists of the time developed styles of art, such as impressionism and cubism. As they were reactionary for the period, their visual arts promoted novel, revolutionary efforts to coexist with vibrant pluralistic values and progressive lifestyles.

1. Impressionism

In an avant-garde revolt against classical forerunners, the late 1800s Parisian artistic milieu sought to embrace modernity and create poignant visual art that paralleled their socio-cultural conditions. Impressionists used several methodologies, exploring the combination of light and colour to complement the black line work and create realistic definition.

"En plein air painter on the Côte d'Argent" by Anthony Baratier

It was common for impressionists of the time to practice a plein air technique. Translated from the French meaning “in the open air,” it refers to artists leaving the studio to capture the spirit of a panoramic landscape outdoors. The presence of natural contrasts, vivid hues, and movement is a staple of the Impressionism ethos. These elements were consolidated by esteemed painters Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

“George Painting" by Suzie Baker

En plein air painting was possible thanks to American inventor John Rand, who invented a portable tube for pre-mixed paint in 1841, which facilitated artists to pursue their outdoor creative process. Rand’s technological innovation allowed spontaneity and casual features to become hallmarks of impressionist styles.

Known for his remarkably realistic art, Edouard Manet’s techniques, such as improvised brushstrokes and dynamic use of vibrant colour and lighting, held early influence in espousing modernism in the art world. These techniques are evident in his 1863 oil canvas, Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, meaning “The Luncheon on The Grass”. The naked painting showcases a nude woman with modestly attired men in the foreground and another provocatively apparelled woman in the middle ground, all enjoying a picnic captured in rural scenery.

"Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe' by Edouard Manet

Additionally, pointillism emerged as a prevalent subset of Impressionist techniques, characterized by small dots of assorted shades to produce a cohesive visual. This is epitomized in French painter George Seurat’s renowned oeuvres, specifically in his piece, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

"A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" by George Seurat

2. Cubism

Similar to Impressionism’s rise as a reaction to rigid art conventions, Cubism arose between 1907-08 as a distinct approach to deriving visual art from reality. Spanish painter Pablo Picasso is largely accredited with creating the movement. His renowned oil on canvas, Demoiselles D’Avignon, meaning “The Young Ladies of Avignon”, depicts five nude women whose faces are characterized by Iberian sculptures and African masks. The naked painting contains the hallmarks of the cubist style, including flat and jagged planes, distinct geometric shapes, and fragmented objects or figures to convey a profound philosophical nature.

"Demoiselles D’Avignon" by Pablo Picasso

The term is believed to originate from the shrewd commentaries of eminent French art critic, Louis Vauxcelles, regarding the 1908 exhibition of eclectic artist Georges Braque. It was a radical presentation that rebelled against creative conformity and realistic art by employing intricate designs in simplistic cube forms.

"Klinom Krasnim" by El Lisitskiy
"SAY YES!" by Shepard Fairey

Cubism’s elaborate and sharp geometric patterns highlight multiple viewpoints at once to evoke depth, alluding to a three-dimensional subject while emphasizing the two-dimensional depiction. Picasso drew inspiration from African tribal masks, using their stylized and geometric representation of the human visage in his paintings and masks. It is important to recognize the problematic nature of this “inspiration”, as it reduced an important aspect of African culture to an artistic aesthetic.

Picasso’s tribal masks from the ethnographic museum in the Palais du Trocadéro in Paris

Notable offshoots of the style include Analytical Cubism and Synthetic Cubism. Prevalent from 1908-12, Analytical Cubism uses austere brushstrokes with an amalgam of planes and subtle achromatic hues of black, grey, and ochres. Conversely, Synthetic art, assumed to originate with its earliest techniques from 1912- 14, is classified by minimalistic shapes, vivid colours, and fragmented composition. The composition of these works included miscellaneous elements such as newspapers, an inclusion that commenced the cornerstone practice of including objects in modern visual art.

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