Impressionism and Industrial Revolution — What we can learn

Saeed Zeinali
6 min readMay 3, 2020


The First Industrial Revolution designates several advances in manufacturing and transportation means. These advancements took place between 1760 and 1840 and led to radical changes in society and culture. The most notable inventions led to the mechanization of the textile industry and the use of steam power to run locomotives.

This transition gave rise to evolution in arts, including painting and music. For example, we can consider the advent of photography in the 1830s as one of the factors leading to the rise of Impressionism in painting. Impressionism was most prominent in the 1870s and 80s and it is widely recognized as a prelude to Modernism.

Put in more general terms, advances in technology can and do influence artistic approaches and styles. I propose to consider this as an effort to remain relevant, or rather competitive, i.e. having “added value”.

Early History of Photography

Let us travel back in time, to the next to last decade of the First Industrial Revolution. Then the French Nicéphore Niépce, known as the inventor of photography, created the earliest surviving photograph. He used camera obscura, a pinhole image, to photograph a view from the Window at Le Gras.

View from the Window at Le Gras — Nicéphore Niépce 1826–27

Some ten years later, Louis Daguerre realized the first photography to include people. He used the process he invented, known as daguerreotype, to photograph a view from the Boulevard du Temple in Paris. A year later, in 1839, the first human portrait was photographed using the same process, this time in the United States.

View of the Boulevard du Temple — Louis Daguerre 1838

The advent of this new “technology” affected orders made to painters for portraits. Daguerreotypes were affordable. Besides, the sitting time for the customer wanting a photograph was rather short.

About Impressionism

The 1870s was an eventful decade. This is true not only for politics, economy, and scientific evolution but also for visual arts. In painting, we have an enthusiastic generation of painters, mostly in France. They were trying to challenge existing definitions and traditional platforms. Their group’s nickname was Impressionists. Thirty French painters from the group held their first exhibition in 1874 in Paris. The most prominent figures were Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissaro, Edgar Degas, and Alfred Sisley. Impressionists held eight exhibitions in Paris, the last of which took place in 1886.

Impressionists had been, however, rejected and mocked a decade ago. In 1863, the jury of the Paris Salon rejected Édouard Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass. It was then exhibited in the Salon des Refusés — Exhibition of the Rejected.

The Luncheon on the Grass — Édouard Manet 1863

Impressionism and the Industrial Age

In 1877, Claude Monet created a series of twelve paintings of the oldest Parisian train station, the gare Saint-Lazare. These are important in that they depict the beginnings of modern times. Impressionism being a modern — Modern — movement, these pieces of work are, if we may say, doubly modern. Modern both in their subject and the artistic approach to them.

Lines defining spaces, people, trains, and rails get lost in the huge clouds rising from all that steam. The painter’s view is thus “blurred”, which corresponds to the way he represents the scene.

The Gare Saint-Lazare — Claude Monet 1877

Origins of Impressionism

Impressionists took influence from both realists and romanticists. The most influential realist painter was Gustave Courbet. Romantic sources of inspiration include Eugene Delacroix and William Turner. Impressionist landscapes can be considered as influenced by the realist Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot.

The Seine at Pont-Marly, The Wash-house — Camille Pissaro 1877

Impressionist Influence

Impressionism is widely known as a prelude to, if not the real beginning of Modernism in painting. Towards the end of the 19th century, we encounter, in France once again, “impressionistic” musical compositions. The most well-known examples are pieces created by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. There is also an influence in literature, as later seen in some work by Marcel Proust. Examples of Impressionism in cinema include Abel Gance’s films in the 1920s.

Impressionism vs Photography

Impressionists had an interest in analyzing the effect of light on colors and objects. Stepping out their workshops helped them with it. This liberty of movement was, indeed, an advantage they made use of. But photography provided no such liberty and permitted very limited movement.

Impressionism vs Realism

Impressionists indeed challenged realists, such as Courbet and Corot. But their work can be seen as in continuity with realistic painting. Indeed, what they did remained “realistic” representations. One of the elements they added was the momentary effects of light on what they painted. It was as if they tried to capture that very special moment, with all the reflects of light.

Bridge at Mantes — Jean Baptiste Corot 1868–70


I am aware of the fact that I am oversimplifying matters. I also acknowledge this is not supposed to be an art expert opinion. Let us then conclude that the arts have always been adapting themselves to the actual demand. This has been an effort to remain competitive, relevant, and up-to-date.

As we saw, painters diverged from realistic depiction in the second half of the 19th century. One of the factors that may have played a role in this transition is the advent of photography. Let us put it more simply. Painters may have seen that making realistic portraits would no more make sense. They could never compete with photography in that respect. Thus, they turned to other techniques to give painting pertinence and “added value”*. The techniques the Impressionists used are of the sort. Yet another advantage of painting vs photography was the liberty of movement. Impressionists used it at their best, going out and painting in nature.

Let us consider another illustrative example of this effort to remain relevant. We are in the second half of the 18th century. In music, we have the transition from the Baroque to the Classical period. The transition corresponds to the very beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. In the Baroque era, the most usual form of composing music was polyphony**. The great German composer Johann Sebastian Bach transcended the technique to perfection. It would then be meaningless to do the same afterward. Post-Baroque Classical composers such as Haydn, Mozart, and later Beethoven turned to harmony***.

Once again from a non-expert point of view, we can see that arts are adapting to advances in technology. The period we briefly reviewed provides a “living proof”. I propose we can compare arts to business, in this respect. After all, do arts adapt to “survive”?

* Still, we need to bear in mind that the period in question was one of the radical changes, in many aspects of human life. The emergence of photography was in line with many other inventions. Challenging realism in painting is a complex question. It is far more than a mere response to the introduction of the newfangled “apparatus”.

** Polyphony is music consisting of two or more lines of simultaneous melody.

*** In a harmonic composition, we have one main line of melody accompanied by harmonic lines. These come often in the form of arpeggios, broken chords.

****All photos and images in this article are taken from Wikipedia.



Saeed Zeinali

Healthcare, Business and Tech enthusiast. Passionate about arts, food, and road-running.