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Literary Impressionisms

Camilla Storskog

Part I: Lirerary Impressionism. A variety of concerns

2. Review of previous research

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1The most complete overview of how the concept of literary impressionism has been used, internationally, in literary criticism and in the writing of the history of literature is to be found in the Swedish scholar Hans Lund’s study, Impressionism och litterär text (1993; Impressionism and Literary Text). To the scholar interested in the history and the evolution of this notion, Lund’s work is of immense value, as it examines the use of the term during the eleven decades following its coinage in 1879. Three chapters of his book (Lund 1993: 25-103) chronologically analyze the understanding of literary impressionism within four cultural fields: the French, the English-speaking, the German, and the Scandinavian. An additional chapter (1993: 105-59) explores four widespread interpretations of literary impressionism retrieved in the international debate on the theme: (1) impressionism as a literary style expressing itself through grammar and syntax; (2) as literary writing emanating from its painterly equivalent; (3) as a matter of perception and phenomenological concerns; (4) as a term employed both ahistorically and limitedly within a clear-cut period in the history of literature. Lund’s study is thus a matchless exposé of the global history of this critical notion, focussing on how different language areas have repeatedly charged the term with mutable substance in the course of the twentieth century. The importance of his work also lies in incorporating, for the first time, the Scandinavian perspective into the more than centenarian transnational discussion regarding impressionism and literature. It is therefore unfortunate that Lund’s achievement should not have reached a broader readership through translations.

2As a source of information on the critical fortune of the term ‘literary impressionism’, Lund’s work is comprehensive and its value cannot be overestimated. My discussion of the state of scholarly research revolving around impressionism in literature therefore concentrates on the latest research output that has emerged in the years left untouched by Lund’s examination and will, when necessary and only briefly, assess previous definitions of literary impressionism with reference to the results stemming from Lund’s seminal investigation. During the more than twenty years that have followed the publication of Impressionism och litterär text, several new studies on the subject have come to light, so much so that the British scholar Max Saunders (2008c) has highlighted, as mentioned earlier, the ongoing renaissance of scholarly interest in this category and welcomed the revitalization of a critical notion that, in his view, helps to «explain the transition from late nineteenth-century realist or aesthetic writing to early twentieth-century modernism»1.

2.1. French literature

  • 2   Ferdinand Brunetière (1879) first used his own coinage «impressionnisme littéraire» to describe A (...)
  • 3   The dissertation was published in a slightly different version with the title L’Impressionnisme l (...)
  • 4   In his scrutiny of the history of literary impressionism as used by French scholars, Lund observe (...)

3Though none of the recent publications that will be discussed in the following pages has adopted Hans Lund’s broad and historical perspective, it is noteworthy that in France, where the painterly counterpart to literary impressionism first appeared and where the term was coined, in 1879, by Ferdinand Brunetière – in French and on the subject of a French novel2 – the coinage «impressionnisme littéraire» has reverberated but intermittently until recent years. In the words of Virginie Pouzet-Duzer, author of a doctoral thesis entitled L’Impressionnisme littéraire: capture de l’insaisissable (2008; Literary Impressionism: Capturing the Unattainable)3: «‘Literary impressionism’ du champ anglo-saxon, ‘Impressionismus’ allemand n’ont pas, dans les manuels littéraires scolaires et universitaires actuels, d’équivalent français» (Pouzet-Duzer 2008: 2; «the English-language ‘Literary impressionism’, the German ‘Impressionismus’, do not have a French equivalent in contemporary handbooks of literature for schools and universities»)4.

  • 5   In 1928, Luise Thon published the study Die Sprache des deutschen Impressionismus (Thon 1928; The (...)
  • 6   It should be added that Berrong (2013: 23-24) has chosen not to employ the terms ‘impressionist l (...)

4In her own attempt to get to the substance of literary impressionism, Pouzet-Duzer falls back on the tradition that has stressed the vagueness of the term as she sets out by underlining its fleetingness in the very title of her doctoral thesis, introducing what she calls «cette étrange catégorie stylistique» (Pouzet-Duzer 2008: 3; «this curious stylistic category») as «un art de la fuite, une manière stylistique de résister justement aux catégories» (2008: 2; «an art of escape, a style shunning categories»). She also claims that the perfect impressionist writer is nowhere to be found as he is but «une fiction critique, […] une création idéalisée» (2008: 2; «a fiction of the critics, […] an idealized creation»). When outlining her methodology, Pouzet-Duzer indicates the ‘German’ approach to literary impressionism as her initial point of departure (2008: 6-7): in an early stage her project wished to trace, with the help of modern information technology, the impressionist character of French literary prose in the wake of the German scholar Luise Thon’s theory of an impressionist grammar based on asyndeta, omission of verbs, uncommon positioning of adjectives denoting colour, etc5. This strategy was subsequently abandoned because the results were not judged to be scientifically objective (2008: 7). In its final version, the methodology at work in L’Impressionnisme littéraire: capture de l’insaisissable, Pouzet-Duzer acknowledges (2008: 13), draws on and attempts to surmount the two opposite approaches to literary impressionism revitalized in the current French debate on the subject. On the one hand, in an essay entitled L’Impressionnisme littéraire: une révision, Bernard Vouilloux has problematized the stylistic peculiarities of literary impressionism, advocating a return to the study of syntax and grammar in order to get to the heart of the phenomenon (Vouilloux 2000). On the other, Richard Berrong, in his article Modes of Literary Impressionism, and in the book Putting Monet & Rembrandt into Words, has instead attempted to re-establish the ancient connection between literary impressionism and the aesthetics of impressionist painting on the subject of the French writer Pierre Loti (Berrong 2006 and 2013)6.

5Consequently, Pouzet-Duzer is approaching her subject both as a writing dependent upon the impressionism of the painters (the relationships between impressionist painters and writers being, in her words, the «condition sine qua non» [2008: 18] for the existence of literary impressionism) and as a literary style. Through the juxtaposition of paintings and texts, the attempt is to prove that writers and painters such as Édouard Manet, Zacharie Astruc, Émile Zola, Stéphane Mallarmé, Edgar Degas, and Paul Valéry, were guided by the same cognitive concepts and principles of representation. Through close readings, the author then proceeds to determine how these relationships influenced, in particular, the writing of the Goncourt brothers and Alphonse Daudet, whose style is compared to those of their contemporaries. Having established that the fragment is the ultimate expression of impressionist literature, the study concludes by examining representations of scenes of Parisian city life in words and images.

  • 7   The conference, arranged by the Centre d’étude et de recherche Éditer-Interpreter (CEREDI), was h (...)
  • 8   Pouzet-Duzer speaks of «un sursaut d’intérêt pour cette thématique outre Atlantique» (2013: 10; « (...)

6Given the number of recent critical contributions, Vouilloux (2000; 2012a; 2012b), Berrong (2013 and 2006), Pouzet-Duzer (2008 and 2013), to which a conference on the subject Impressionnisme et littérature held in Normandie in 2010 should be added7, Virginie Pouzet-Duzer’s deduction that we are currently going through a phase of renewed interest in the critical province of literary impressionism seems applicable also to a French perspective8.

2.2. The English-language context

7A milestone in the history of the critical notion of literary impressionism within the English-language context was the Symposium on Literary Impressionism held at Indiana University, Bloomington, in 1968. Although there are voices in the conference proceedings (Remak and Weisstein 1968)9 indicating a wish to do away with a term causing «nothing but confusion» (Brown 1968: 59), in the following thirty years a great number of publications in the English-speaking world have challenged Brown’s request for reticence as to discussing impressionism in literature. In 2008, for example, Max Saunders (2008a: 158) would claim that «there has been a noticeable return to the idea of literary Impressionism in some of the best recent studies of literary history and theory»10.

8In the early 1990s, where Lund’s investigation ends, the discussion continued with shorter contributions by Adriaan De Lange (1992), Suzanne Ferguson (1994) and Brian May (1994), and was unquestionably relaunched at the beginning of the new millennium by studies, often in the form of monographs – and often rejecting the presumption that literary impressionism needs to be definied as patterned after impressionist painting – by Tamar Katz (2000), Robin Hoople (2000), Jesse Matz (2001 and 2012), John G. Peters (2001) and, more recently, Melissa C. Reimer (2009; 2010 and 2011), Max Saunders (2004a; 2004b; 2005; 2005a; 2008a; 2008b; 2011 and 2013), Young Sun Choi (2011), Adam Parkes (2011), and Rebecca Bowler (2016).

9Katz inserts literary impressionism into the modernist movement and uses the term to explain female subjectivity in modernist novels; Hoople describes the hostility encountered in many of the early American reactions to the prose of Henry James as an incapacity to grasp the idea of literary impressionism; finding it «suggestive at best but at worst misleading», Jesse Matz (2001: 46) looks with suspicion upon the results of interart comparison that has occupied much scholarly work on impressionist fiction and attempts to remap literary impressionism by stressing the latter part of the term thus tracing – through Walter Pater, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, and Virgina Woolf – the aesthetics of the ‘impression’ back to the philosophy of John Locke and David Hume. In his discussion of Joseph Conrad’s impressionism, Peters, too, does away with literary impressionism’s traditional connection to the visual arts, basing his personal definition both on narrative techniques and on philosophical and socio-political groundings.

10From a more customary cross-disciplinary perspective, Reimer has worked extensively on Katherine Mansfield’s writings in relation to impressionist and post-impressionist painters. Two of her articles (Reimer 2009 and 2011) examine the allegiance to impressionism in the pictorial qualities of Mansfield’s work, indicating possible painterly sources. In her doctoral dissertation (Reimer 2010), Reimer further explores the style and technique with which Mansfield treated three of her dominant subjects – domestic interiors, urban landscapes, and rural scenery – and compares this treatment to that of those impressionist painters who cherished the same subjects. The characteristics held up for comparison include Mansfield’s manner of conveying overall impressions, her use of grammatical categories «for impressionistic purposes» (Reimer 2010: 52); her swift moves between characters and from scene to scene without authorial intervention; her own references to impressionist paintings.

11Interart analogies are also at play in Choi’s study, where Katherine Mansfield’s art is again scrutinized with reference to the aesthetics, techniques, and themes of the impressionists. In a bid to study the interaction between texts and contexts, Parkes, instead, connects the aesthetics of the impressionist language and literary style in the writings of authors such as Walter Pater, Joseph Conrad, and Virginia Woolf, to historical forces present in the period from the 1870s to the 1930s: sexual politics, anarchism, terrorism, feminism. Rebecca Bowler studies the impressionism of Dorothy Richardson and H.D. and May Sinclair, writers generally absent in discussions on literary impressionism, and reads their texts in the light of Ford Madox Ford’s impressionist dictums, also engaging with the writers’ attempts to employ cinematic styles.

12Max Saunders has worked extensively on literary impressionism and its relation to modernism through the examination of Ford Madox Ford’s authorship (Saunders 2004a; 2004b; 2005a; 2008a; 2008b; 2011 and 2013). He is also the author of entries on literary impressionism in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Saunders 2008c) and in A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture (Saunders 2005), in with he explains literary impressionism as «a category that can help explain the transition from late nineteenth-century Realist or Aesthetic writing to early twentieth-century Modernism» (2008c).

2.3. Scandinavia

13Before the publication of Lund’s work, research on Scandinavian literary impressionism either focussed on individual authorships such as Herman Bang’s (Nilsson 1965), Cora Sandel’s (Rykkja 1976), and Jonas Lie’s (Gustafson 1940: 25-72), or concentrated on literary impressionism predominantly as a phenomenon regarding style (Dahl 1981: 68-93) or rhetoric and grammar (Møller Kristensen 1955). Among the contributions – not mentioned by Lund – to the critical debate on literary impressionism in Scandinavia, is Pil Dahlerup’s article Impressionismen – ‘En Unatur, som dog findes i Naturen’ (Impressionism – ‘an Unnatural Aspect of Nature’), focussing on Mathilda Malling and J.P. Jacobsen (Dahlerup 1987), as well as Christine Pullwer’s unpublished M.A. thesis investigating impressionist tendencies in Christian Krohg’s novel Albertine and in his homonymous painting (Pullwer 1991).

14The first decade of the new millennium saw the publication of an essay by Dag Heede entitled Herman Bang og seksualiseringen af litteraturhistorien. Eller: er impressionismen en homoseksuel fortælleteknik? (Heede 2003; Herman Bang and the Sexualization of Literary History. Or: is Impressionism a Homosexual Narrative Technique?)11. Published a few years earlier, Birgitta Ney’s Bortom berättelserna: Stella Kleve – Mathilda Malling (Beyond the Stories: Stella Kleve – Mathilda Malling) contains a section on impressionism and the prose of this Swedish novelist and short story writer (1993: 135-61) and the scholar returns to the issue in 2005, in a short essay entitled Impressionism och modernitet hos Stella Kleve (2005; Impressionism and Modernity in Stella Kleve). Axel Lindén’s doctoral dissertation dedicated to Herman Bang, Förnimmelser: en fenomenologisk analys av Herman Bangs författarskap (2009; Perceptions: a Phenomenological Analysis of Herman Bang’s Authorship), touches the question of the Danish author’s impressionism marginally in the analysis of the act of perception in his novels. In addition, Simon Stensson Johansson’s unpublished M.A. thesis, examining impressionist stylistic devices in the 1906 poetry collection Skyarne (The Clouds) by the Swedish poet Ivar Conradson (Johansson 2011), is available online for consultation12.

15Before concentrating on individual, subjective, decodings of literary impressionism in Bang, the review Impressionisten, and Strindberg, all central to the definition of the notion in Scandinavia, I will briefly trace handbook explanations of the concept in an attempt to gather the wide array of definitions into a concise and unified overview.


1 Accessed 18 May 2013.

2   Ferdinand Brunetière (1879) first used his own coinage «impressionnisme littéraire» to describe Alphonse Daudet’s 1879 novel Les Rois en exil (Kings in Exile).

3   The dissertation was published in a slightly different version with the title L’Impressionnisme littéraire in 2013 (Pouzet-Duzer 2013).

4   In his scrutiny of the history of literary impressionism as used by French scholars, Lund observes that in the early 1880s, Jules Lemaître, as well as Louis Desprez, picked up this notion to define the style of the Goncourt brothers, a line subsequently continued by Pierre Sabatier in the 1920s. In this decade Charles Bally also published his study Impressionnisme et grammaire (Impressionism and Grammar), exploring the stylistic and grammatical specificities of literary impressionism (Bally 1920), cf., Lund 1993: 25-29. In 1952, two publications dealing with impressionism and French literature appeared: Ruth Moser’s L’Impressionnisme français: peinture, littérature, musique (Moser 1952), and Helmut Hatzfeld’s Literature through Art. A New Approach to French Literature (Hatzfeld 1952). Both authors tie the idea of literary impressionism to Paul Verlaine and, according to Lund, «ser impressionismen som en epokal stil kring sekelskiftet 1900. Båda anför vissa stilistiska drag som typiska: erlebte Rede, substantiverade adjektiv, korta meningar, pars pro toto» (1993: 71; «look at impressionism as the style of an epoch, i.e., the fin de siècle. Both claim certain stylistic traits to be typical: free indirect speech, the nominal use of adjectives, short phrases, pars pro toto»), especially Hatzfeld, Lund adds, «mottogs med tvekan» (71; «was received with reservation»). René Marill Albérès is, according to Lund (1993: 92), one of the few French scholars to have demonstrated an interest in literary impressionism in the second half of the twentieth century. His research, carried out in the 1960s, deals, on the one hand, with English-language authors such as Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Katharine Mansfield, and Virginia Woolf and, on the other, with the French nouveau roman through a phenomenological approach with no connection to Brunetière’s idea of literary impressionism’s close relationship to its painterly counterpart, cf., Lund 1993: 79. A small monographic study dedicated to Mallarmé’s impressionism, apparently unknown both to Lund and to Pouzet-Duzer, was published in Italy in the 1950s, Luigi De Nardis’s Impressionismo di Mallarmé (De Nardis 1957). Enzo Caramaschi instead deals with Balzac’s impressionist landscapes in a study from 1985 (Caramaschi 1985), and Kronegger (1973b) discusses authors ranging from Flaubert to Sartre. A discordant voice against the general background offered by Lund, and also against Pouzet-Duzer’s opinion on the French situation, is represented by Bernard Vouilloux, who, although not unaware of the term as a fleeting and problematic category, has recently spoken of literary impressionism’s «longue et féconde carrière dans le champs de la critique littéraire, des histoires de la literature et de la langue françaises, ainsi que dans le domaine des études stylistiques et même linguistiques» (Vouilloux 2012b: 1; «long and fertile career in the field of literary criticism, in histories of French literature and language, just as in the area of stylistic and even linguistic scholarly work»), quoting the examples of Gilles Philippe and Julien Piat’s La Langue littéraire. Une historie de la prose en France de Gustave Flaubert à Claude Simon (The Literary Language. A History of French Prose from Gustave Flaubert to Claude Simon) from 2009, and Louis Petit de Julleville’s Histoire de la language et de la literature française des origines à 1900 (A History of the French Language and Literature from their Origins to 1900) from 1899, both containing chapters on impressionist language and literature.

5   In 1928, Luise Thon published the study Die Sprache des deutschen Impressionismus (Thon 1928; The Language of German Impressionism), which came to set the scene for Sven Møller Kristensen’s scrutinity of Danish literary impressionism in 1955. Thon determined the impressionist character of the prose of authors such as Johannes Schlaf, Stefan George, Gerhardt Hauptmann, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, Arno Holz, Detlev von Liliencron, Thomas Mann, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Arthur Schnitzler, on the basis of linguistic, grammatical, and stylistic elements (parataxis, polysyndeton, nominal phrases, etc.) present in their texts. This approach, thus based on formal, linguistic investigation, is representative of the understanding of literary impressionism flourishing among German scholars in the 1920s (Loesch 1919, Richter 1927, Wenzel 1928). These studies mark their distance from the earlier use of the term in Germany and in Austria where, from the late nineteenth century onwards, Impressionismus or Eindruckskunst had been synonymous with the opposition to naturalism in the view of several authors, for example Hermann Bahr (1894). In the German thirties the term carried a stigma, and because of its connection to French decadentism it was seen in opposition to ‘true’ German values, cf., Lund 1993: 36-45. More recently, Hartmut Marhold has taken up the issue of literary impressionism’s relationship to German poetry, see Marhold 1985 and 1991. In a recent article entitled L’Impressionnisme et la littérature allemande. Les modalités d’un double transfert culturel (Impressionism and German Literature. The Modes of a Double Cultural Transfer), Beate Langenbruch discusses Austrian and German literary impressionism in relation to their French counterpart. She also gives a concise overview of late twentieth-century studies dedicated to the specifities of the phenomenon in the German-speaking literary context, see Langenbruch 2012: 107, note 6. According to this list, no major study of German literary impressionism seems to have emerged in recent years.

6   It should be added that Berrong (2013: 23-24) has chosen not to employ the terms ‘impressionist literature’ and ‘literary impressionism’ in his study so as not to add to what he sees as a conceptual «confusion». Instead, he discusses specifically «Loti’s success in recreating Monet’s type of Impressionism» (35).

7   The conference, arranged by the Centre d’étude et de recherche Éditer-Interpreter (CEREDI), was held in Rouen, 9-11 June 2010. The proceedings of the conference were published in 2012 in a volume edited by Gérard Gengembre, Yvan Leclerc, and Florence Naugrette, entitled Impressionnisme et littérature (Gengembre, Leclerc and Naugrette 2012). The essays present in this work deal, on the one hand, with the relationships between painters and writers and, on the other, with literary impressionism in terms of «un mythe, un malentendu, ou une réalité» (Rubin 2012: 7; «a myth, a misunderstanding, or a reality»).

8   Pouzet-Duzer speaks of «un sursaut d’intérêt pour cette thématique outre Atlantique» (2013: 10; «a surge of interest for this theme in America»), characterizing the early twenty-first century.

9   Also available at Accessed 7 February 2018. Pages 69-72 of the proceedings from the Symposium are a bibliographical compilation of critical writings concerned with literary impressionism.

10   Some, but not all, of the following English-language publications are briefly discussed by Lund (1993: 98-102): Kronegger 1973a, Armstrong 1976 and 1987, Ferguson 1979, Nagel 1980, Stowell 1980, Kirschke 1981, Schnitzer 1988, Van Gunsteren 1990. As Lund observes (1993: 102), the writers generally considered evocative of English literary impressionism are Henry James, Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, and Katherine Mansfield. The aforementioned scholars concentrate on the act of perception and on the relationship to the visual arts in their interpretation of literary impressionism and, unlike the German scene, few researchers operating in the English-language cultural context investigate the possibility of an impressionist language and grammar, with the exception of Todd K. Bender and Sue M. Briggum’s survey Quantitive Stylistic Analysis of Impressionist Style in Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford (Bender and Briggum 1982).

11   Heede’s essay will be discussed in the section of the present work dedicated to scholarly views on Herman Bang’s impressionism, see 4.1.1.

12   Available at Accessed 7 February 2018.


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