Design Trend Report: Impressionism

Impressionism, of the various 19-century design styles, carves out its own niche in an otherwise crowded art landscape. It combines several factors that other design trends may use in their compositions, but it uses them in a purposeful approach to style that makes this trend worth noting and memorable.

As with many 19th-century design movements, such as Art Nouveau, Impressionism originated in Europe, a hotbed of creativity at the time that gave rise to numerous styles designers all over the world still learn from and incorporate to this day. Because it was revolutionary for its day, breaking with the so-called norms of the art world back then, it faced a good deal of resistance and even criticism from the elites and establishment of the art community.

The Impressionists of their day were seen as nothing more than radicals who arrogantly flouted the rules of academic design and painting. Ironically, more than 100 years after its founding, this design trend is studied, copied, and serves as inspiration for countless young designers, creatives, and artists who want to leave their mark.

The Origins of Impressionism

To understand how this movement came to exist, we have to look at the cultural and political landscape of Europe at the time, during the mid to late 19th century. It was a time when Napoleon III—the heir and nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, who himself contributed to the growing popularity of slab serifs—went to war and rejuvenated Paris.

Against this backdrop of upheaval, one notable exception of consistency and stability was The Académie des Beaux-Arts, an academic association that exists to this day as part of The Institut de France. Think of the Académie as the gatekeeper of the traditional French approach to painting, especially where style and content were concerned. It was the gold standard of everything art and design in that moment in time.

The Académie had strict rules for the aesthetics it deemed acceptable in French paintings. These included:

  • Realistic images that were carefully painted
  • Accurate brush strokes that had the effect of concealing the painter’s hand in the works
  • Toned-down colors, thanks to the addition of golden varnish
  • Portraits, religious themes, and historical scenes (while landscapes and still life were held in contempt)

The Académie enjoyed throwing its weight around by holding yearly art shows called the Salon de Paris, where juries would decide which artists’ works entered in the show would get prizes and therefore have their reputations greatly enhanced. Think of it as the Academy Awards—for lack of a better analogy—of 19th-century Paris’ art scene. Of course, the prizes awarded at the Salon de Paris were more a reflection of the inflexible standards the Académie imposed, rather than always being a show that decided works based on actual merit.