No, The Impressionists Didn’t Need Glasses

If you’ve ever heard the name Claude Monet, you’ve probably also heard of his famous blurry waterlilies. If you’ve ever looked at one of his paintings in a museum, you might have heard a passersby remark “wow he really needed glasses didn’t he?” Or maybe you even thought this yourself.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Two Figures on a Path (Deux figures dans un sentier), c. 1906 (Barnes Foundation)

And this assumption is valid. After all, pictures like Monet’s are really blurry. But artists like him could actually see quite well. We know this because most of them also painted clear paintings, (check out this Monet still life from the Getty Museum), which proves they were capable of seeing properly. So why did they paint so many blurry flowers and sunsets? The reason is simple and poetic: light.

In the mid 19th Century, a French Academy called the Académie des Beaux-Arts, was the ultimate authority on art in France. The Academy historically defined “great” paintings as paintings that captured historical scenes or religious narratives. But by the 1870s, many artists were getting fed up with these restrictions.

As the world became more and more industrialized, these artists found themselves in awe of how fast-paced society moved and how the movement of life in cities was so different from the way nature moved in the countryside. These artists started painting outside, a technique called “en plein air” and capturing what they felt in the moment rather than what they saw. They wanted to capture changing atmospheric conditions in motion to highlight how much the world was changing.

Claude Monet, Impression Sunrise, 1872 (

To these artists, the best representation of rapid change was the movement of light. Think of how drastically different the same landscape can look just an hour before sunset and during sunset. Artists like Monet wanted to capture these differences. They used rapid brush strokes and small commas of color to capture moments as they changed. In doing so these artists deliberately depicted the impression produced by a scene, rather than what the scene actually looked like. This is how they got their name: the Impressionists.

Detail from: Berthe Morisot, Woman at Her Toilette, 1875/80 (Art Institute of Chicago)

To better understand this concept, try out a quick experiment next time you take a picture on your phone or with a camera. If you hold your camera very still, you will capture the moment exactly as it was in front of you. But if you move the camera even slightly, the picture will be blurry. This second type of picture is what the Impressionists wanted to create. They wanted to show how the world moved and explore how that made people feel.



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Quinn A.

Lover of the humanities exploring topics in art history, literature, travel, and more…