top of page

Human bodies in Impressionism and Pop Art

As per any art forms, change has always been the only constance in visual culture. Whilst everything surrounding the artists shifted, their minds followed with the move, hence, their products altered with the train of thoughts. Witnessing the relentless flow of historic events, there trailed the movements of art, representing that period in time (Hughes, 1991). Yet throughout the magnificent history of art, the human body has never failed as one of the most celebrated muse. There was something about it that persistently intrigued and inspired artists, regardless of their ideals. Nonetheless, the portrayals inevitably changed from one art movement to another (Heartney, 2018). Two of those movements has to mention Impressionism and Pop Art. Despite sharing less than little in stylistic approaches, the role of human body, in both movements challenged the former artistic definitions and reflected changes in society.


Fig. 1. Impression, soleil levant. Claude Monet (1872)

In the late 19th century, the classical approach in academic art was challenged by Impressionism (Sorabella, 2008). The term and movement was brought about through heavy criticism of Claude Monet’s Impression, soleil levant (“Impression, Sunrise”) (Figure 1) (Lumen, n.d.). The painting was considered an insult towards academics because Monet was presenting a seemingly unfinished piece of work, ‘art that offered mere impressions of the world rather than deep, serious renderings’ (Rochman, 2008).

Yet this controversy eventually led a movement, one that celebrated the instantaneous beauty of colors and lights in the moment under quick brush strokes (Lumen, n.d.). The purpose was to capture the lively movements of life as we saw it right in front of our eyes (Tate, n.d.). The main themes from this movement was equally simple, landscapes and everyday activities. These mundane topics may seem normal nowadays was considered unworthy back when it first started. Prior to Impressionism, art was u

Fig. 2. The Reader. Mary Cassatt (1877)

sed to portrayed much greater moments like wars and mythological stories (Tate n.d.).

That segwayed into how women of different classes became the subject of Impressionist artists. Although yet to cut the tie with the domestic sphere, they were shown doing and enjoying various activities in and outside of home (as shown in Figure 2-4) (The Art Assignment, 2019). From this point onwards, Impressionists raised the discussion on human body, especially female ones, and its representations in art and society (Heilburn, 2011). Artists, at this point in time, no longer separate the female subject from the background, bringing to a new perspective of the feminine silhouette and the way these women relates to their background.

Fig. 3. Under the Lamp. Marie Bracquemond (1877)
Fig. 4. The Cheval-glass. Berthe Morisot (1876)

The process of human movements, in this case, focusing on the females, in the communication of body and harmony was the underpinning of the aesthetics and overall ideals of some of the most important pieces of Impressionist art (Tsoumas, 2013). Ignoring all the tough and unpleasant aspects of life, Renoir only depicted the harmonious and his idealized version of peace. Throughout his works, despite the present of the male figures, the females were shown in superior, maginalising the male next to her (Tsoumas, 2013). When gazing at these masterpieces (Figure 5-6), one is almost guaranteed to be drawn in by the curvaceous and contoured beauty of the women, whilst the men remain hidden. The female charms here seem to cancel out the dominating ‘guiding’ position of the males, proving a more feminine power in entertainment. Through the exploration of an unexplored movement of the human body, Renoir was able to paint pieces which proven to be considered the climax of Impressionism.

Fig. 5. Dance at Bougival. Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1887)
Fig. 6. Dance in the country. Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1886)

Fig. 7. Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe. Eduard Manet (1863)

Taking it a step even further, Manet shocked the public at the time with his depiction of contemporary nude women. To name his major works, one has to mention Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe and Olympia (Figure 7-8). Taking after Courbet’s footsteps, Manet also went on to portray naked women in contemporary settings. His works, such as Woman with a Parrot (Figure

Fig. 8. Olympia. Eduard Manet (1865)

9). Both of them, alongside many other Impressionist artists, received major criticism for painting such naked figures without nymph (Sorabella, 2008). They were taking such sophisticated image of undressed women, normally seen in mythical high-brow paintings, and drawing them into ordinary setting, such as taking a bath. In the words of academic nudes, these painting did not represent women at all

Fig. 9. Woman with a Parrot. Gustave Courbet (1866)

and therefore, did not signify any deeper meaning. It took a long ride with much controversies until the critics finally came to acceptance with what Manet would call ‘the ambition to paint modern beauty’, to recognize the art in the simplest daily scenery (Loyrette, 1994). Since the impact of Impressionism, nude paintings became the foundation of true science. Only when human body was drawn free of all restrictions, the body became the art in itself with its pure truth and beauty. Hence, it produced complete artists. From every point in art history, nude had always been “a subject so dear to artists” but also equally means “a necessary feature of success” (Loyrette, 1994).

Impressionism was one of the pioneers of a series of avantgarde movements in visual culture. Manet realized that the most efficient way to break from the norm is to “break away from the codes of normal painting” and take it away from the beauty within (Loyrette, 1994). That is why some of the nude paintings from early Impressionism still reflects the details of the academics. Artists from that point progressivevly challenge tradition and taking on modern notions of what art could potentially become (The Art Assignment, 2019).

Pop Art

Taking on the string handed over by Impressionism, Pop Art was the representation of avant-garde in the early 20th century. Abstract Expressionism took center stage as the mainstream during World War II (Johnson, 2011). Too many so-called ‘artists’ were replicating the style without any manipulations or signs of personalization. The lack of authentic art moved them away from the connection with the public. In the 1950s, a number of emerging artists moved away from the mainstream and inspired by the mass media, they started to create images that really relates to the public (Johnson, 2011). Modern critics at time was dismayed by the idea of associating art with such ‘low’ subject matters (Tate, n.d.). Yet just like Impressionism, there were always two sides of the coin, waiting to be flipped over. Impressionists put the human body on the pedestal and surrounds them with the mundane and natural setting. However, when we travelled to the 20th century, the scenery was no longer there. Pop artists did follow Impressionists to work directly from nature, just that their version of ‘nature’ now was saturated with faces and figures on mass media (Walker, 2001). It started out from the Independent Group (IG) in early 1950s, with the efforts of forerunners like Richard Hamilton.

Fig. 10. $he. Richard Hamilton (1958-61)

One of his most prominent piece of work was $he (Figure 10). When other artists were still differentiating the ‘work’ (painting nudes) and the ‘leisure’ (everything else), Hamilton was the first to merge them together. He saw the cultural distinction between women in former high arts and women on mass media and decided that the border was not necessary (Walker 2001). At the time, his work did call upon feminists because he was not critising the use of women figure on advertisement. The piece was calling upon the pit of consumerism.

Unlike British Pop Art where artists are inspired by American culture from afar, American Pop Artists created from what they actually saw and experience within the culture (Tate, n.d.). Whilst the British maintained the last bits of their academic approach to create irony in their works, trying to mock on American mass culture, American Pop Artists recreated a much more direct image from comics and televisions. The name most called upon in this setting was probably Roy Lichtenstein.

Fig. 11. Girl with a Ball. Roy Lichtenstein (1961)

Lichtenstein was heavily criticized for the lack of originality in his work. Critics would say he “seemingly rearranged nothing, he has stayed reverently close to the originals except for greatly enlarging the scale” (Beaty, 2004) (Figure 11 for example). However, others would argue that he has added much more artistics values to the plain advertisement picture. From his painting techniques to the composition of her hair, every little detail was intented to provide pleasure and intellectual interest (Walker, 2001).

Similarly, Andy Warhol was another notable artist who took an iconic image of Marilyn Monroe and replicated it multiple times on a grand scale (Figure 12). This was not simply an act of replication but rather have a profound underlying intention. He was trying to point out the dark side of the entertainment industry. Despite having a miserable live, Marilyn was the icon of pleasure for Hollywood. The smile that she wore as a mask was further exaggerated through the use of colours and repetitions of Warhol, or how he would put it “the difference of sameness” (Walker, 2001). With all the subtle messages under his work, it shows that the ‘mix and match’ action of Pop Art was supposedly better then shallow replica produced in late Abstract Expressionism.

Fig. 12. Marilyn Diptych. Andy Warhol (1962)


Coming from various different points in time and space, the role of human portrayals in Impressionism and Pop Art has myriad differences to offer. Whilst one reflected the changes of ideals in modernism, the later bring the string of avant-garde even more forward in postmodernism (Wood, 1999). While human presentations in Impressionism provided a discussion for feminism and build a foundation for ideals of modern beauty, Pop Art, using the inspiration from mass media, artists were heavily criticing mass culture and consumerism. Despite the various creative approaches in brush strokes and setting, the two generations represents a different way to look at the world to challenge its former artistic movements. And most importantly, they both share the core value of being very open-minded to all the possibilities of art and to become artists of their own time.


Beaty, B. (2004). Roy Lichtenstein's Tears: Art vs. Pop in American Culture. Canadian Review of American Studies, 34(3), 249-268. doi:10.1353/crv.2006.0031 [Accessed 10 December 2019].

Heartney, E. (2018). Art & Deformation: Celebrating Human Imperfection. In: Art & Today. London: Phaidon Press, pp. 194-215.

Heilbrun, F. (2009). Impressionism and Photography, History of Photography, 33(1), 18-25. Available from DOI: 10.1080/03087290802582889 [Accessed 10 December 2019].

Hughes, R. (1991). The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change. London: Thames & Hudson.

Johnson, W (2011). Comparing and Contrasting Expressionism, Abstract, and Pop Art. University of South Florida Scholar Commons. Available from [Accessed 10 December 2019].

Loyrette, H (1994). The Nude. In: Tinterow, G. and Loyrette, H. (eds) The Origins of Impressionism. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York. 95-123.

Madoff, S., 1997. Pop Art: A Critical History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rochman, H., 2008. Impressionism. The Booklist, 105(5), p. 52.

Sorabella, J., 2008. The Nude in Baroque and Later Art. In: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tate (n.d.). Impressionism. Tate. Available from [Accessed 10 December 2019].

Tate (n.d.). Pop Art. Tate. Available from [Accessed 10 December 2019].

The Art Assignment (2019). The Case for Impressionism. YouTube. Available from [Accessed 10 December 2019].

Tsoumas, J. (2013). Performing “Fine Arts”: Dance as a Source of Inspiration in Impressionism. Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities. 5(2), 52-64. Available from [Accessed 10 December 2019].

Walker, J (2001). Art Uses Mass Culture. In: Walker, J. (ed) Art in the age of mass media. Chicago: Pluto Press, 15-183.

Wood, P (1999). The challenge of the avant-garde. New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press in association with The Open University


Valutazione 0 stelle su 5.
Non ci sono ancora valutazioni

Aggiungi una valutazione
bottom of page