Impressionism Versus Traditional Art: Thoughts of a Commercial Photographer

Impressionism Versus Traditional Art: Thoughts of a Commercial Photographer

Whether you think about conceptual art, impressionism, or high fashion, they are all deviations from the traditional art expressions. Is the emperor naked, or do these forms of art have nothing to do with that well-known story? Is it possible to make more profit from impressionism than from traditional photography?


Whether it's photography, paintings, or motion pictures, the philosophy of art is the same: visuals that have a certain impact on the viewer. The result of that impact could be propaganda, fame, praise, or profit. I know "propaganda" may sound scary for some readers, but that's the word that explains the act of propagating ideas to an audience. Some works of art may contain several of these purposes together.

An example of combining (many times) propaganda, fame, praise, and profit, is the advertisement. Its name means "to turn towards." Works of artists who want to "bring awareness" can be put in the group of those propagating ideas. Amateurs most of the time seek praise and fame by shooting non-commercial work and then sharing it with the world.

Artists of old times, such as painters and sculptors, were frequently propagating ideas related to religion or mythology. Others were drawing moments from their time: battles, landscapes, daily routines, and peculiar or common people. They were creating themes that were digestible by everyone. Young and old could understand what that piece of art was showing even though there might be details that were not known (e.g., a specific battle story, or a story from the Bible, or a character from the Greek mythology).

Rembrandt - The Night Watch

Not long ago, traditional painters began to observe another movement that was gaining strength: impressionism. It was contrary to the traditional art form. It was presenting ideas that were not known to the general public. The majority of the general public does not comprehend that form of art. However, there are already societies of artists, art buyers, and art admirers who are all about impressionism.

Vincent van Gogh - Starry Night

Later that form of art started to impact modern activities, that the readers of Fstoppers are more familiar with: photography and video.


Traditional forms of photography include images of objects and ideas that are understood by the general audience. When a wedding photographer shows portraits of the bride and the groom, there's no need to explain that. Children and old people know what this is. People pay for that photography because they see personal and historical value in it.

Wedding portrait

It's the same with photography of still objects where a company displays their products through nicely crafted images, so that buyers may be "turned towards" their business and buy something. This is the way the company makes a profit. Corporate portrait photographers make portraits of working people, which portraits form the image of a company to the world.

Traditional fashion portraits

Traditional fashion photographers shoot portraits of models who are wearing certain clothes or accessories, so people may find them pleasing to the eye (both models and products) and eventually make a purchase from that company. I doubt a couple, that is going to be married, will rush to an impressionist to ask them to photograph their wedding, because the grandmother of the bride won't understand the final images (so to say). No company wants to display vague imagery to customers who won't associate it with their products or services.

Impressionists are not like that. They don't seek to please everybody. They live in their own world where they show work, hope to receiveĀ praise, and make a profit. Profit is not something an impressionist can easily achieve yet, because there are not as many art buyers like there are for traditionalists. "Porsche" also doesn't have lots of buyers, but the general public appreciates their cars, whether or not they can afford them. Impressionistic art, on the other hand, is not consumed by the general public, and even though some could afford it, they might not invest in it. This makes impressionism more challenging to make money from. Despite that, the movement gains more and more publicity. But is that publicity widely spread for the sake of propagating ideas of "something different," or it is gaining more and more followers because the general public starts to appreciate it?

High fashion is a form of impressionism. It was originally meant to be a dressing style for the rich people. Today it's not quite like that. Many times you see a dressing style that you won't see on the street or even at high-society events. Obviously, the purpose of the photograph is not to sell a certain clothing line. Yet high fashion shows, photographers, magazines, online media, TV programs, etc., manage to make a living from something that has no tangible value for the common people.


Traditional filmmaking still dominates in the world of motion pictures. If a two-hour movie was based on impressionism it wouldn't make a dime at the box office, because a movie is usually aimed to be consumed by a wider audience. It is not meant to hang on someone's wall. Maybe that's the reason feature films won't embrace impressionism in the near future.

However, that movement has found its way in the video industry through music videos. They are short and while people are listening to the audio, the imagery that supports it could be anything. The difference is the storyline: in a music video, the music and the lyrics are the main hooks that will keep someone watching impressionistic art. In the music industry, people pay for the audio, not for its accompanying video. In films, however, images and story go together, and people pay for consuming both of them. If they don't understand any of these, they won't recommend it, and the film won't make a profit. That's why we don't see much deviation from the traditional visual stories there.

Future and Sustainability

Sustainable art is the art that makes a profit. Yes, non-profit photographers who shoot impressionism may continue doing that, but it won't make their ideas live much longer because their work won't have publicity. When their work doesn't have publicity it won't be appreciated and little by little that form of art will die out. The current impressionism is backed up by magazines, modern-art galleries, people in the fashion world, and they all do that for profit. If they don't do that, modern art will be gone.

Traditional art doesn't need that much of a publicity because its consumers and clients are in a close vicinity. These artists don't need mediators who explain to potential buyers what is the value of that kind of work, because it is comprehensible, and most people feel the need to own such art.

Do you think impressionism in photography and video will last long? We don't have any historical evidence for the fate of such an art form, and it's hard to make predictions. Traditional art has endured the test of time and is still going well.

Are you going to take the risk and work in the area of impressionism rather than being traditional?

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Anonymous's picture

I have no interest in impressionism, either as an artist or consumer, but, unlike in generations past, given the number of people in the world and the current ease of communication between them, an art style doesn't need wide appeal to be sustainable. 1/100th of 1% of the population is still a whole bunch of people.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Practice shows that the modern art museums nowadays are almost empty, while the traditional ones are full of people. I don't know if 99% of the people are there, but it's a good-to-know fact from commercial standpoint.

Also, the communication is not between the whole population of the world, becuase there are many who don't have access to that communication.

If you read articles or watch videos on that topic you can make a statistic of your own on how many people appreciate or don't impressionism. The numbers may surprise you even more.

Anonymous's picture

Maybe this isn't useful from a commercial point of view but I would think most art, along with everything else, is disseminated online. It's becoming increasingly difficult to find book stores, much less one containing a book on this subject. Online...easy.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

As someone working in the commercial world for years, I see most (commercial) people don't understand modern art and don't pay for it. That can be counted as an offline research, I guess.

Despite the availability of the internet, people still don't understand it. That's why the mediators of modern art specific museums, art galleries, editors, art collectors. Otherwise people won't make a difference between a child drawing or a modern art drawing. That's the problem with modern art. Traditional art is easily distinguishable, because it's hard for a child or anyone inexperienced to achieve such results. If we take just museums or modern art galleries, sometimes they get some small payment from the author, but that's not what they make profit from. They make profit from visitors. However traditional galleries and museums do make profit while the modern art ones are strugging, meaning the owner has to pour money in to keep them alive. That's not profitable unless the purpose is propaganda, i.e. spreading certain ideas of the "new beautiful."

Anonymous's picture

Do you understand impressionism? I sure don't. And, yes, I see little difference between a lot of it and a child's drawing. :-)

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I don't. Most of the time it's just provocative. Its purpose is not to be "beautiful." Modern art is the reason for they coined the term "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Whoever wants to be provocative, let them be. I focus on objective beauty.

Anonymous's picture

I'm interested in your assessment on modern vs traditional museums. My own experiences show the opposite: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC (traditional) is losing traffic and had to scrap a major renovation, whereas MOMA (modern) is packed full and expanding it's building and the new Whitney (also modern) has been an enormous hit. The Met has even opened a new museum solely for modern art (Met Bruer).

It seems from my admittedly unprofessional eye that at least in New York, modern art is thriving. Do you recommend any readings or videos that show the opposite being the case?

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Europe is quite different from the US. In the US the presence of variety of cultures, accents has made the tolerance much higher than in Europe where nations are mostly having their own way of living, heritage, and culture. That's why (I think) traditional art is more appreciated.

Anonymous's picture

OK I see. Now that you bring that point up, it could also be the case that the older cultures of Europe have a greater affinity for the traditional pieces, because they have a much longer history of art to call form.

I wonder if the same could be said in photography: that Europeans were more skeptical of embracing photography as art because of their leanings towards the traditional, where Americans (I'm think of Steichen, Stieglitz, Cunningham, Weston, etc.) were able to bring acceptance of photography as a modern artform faster?

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I think the question about photography is a question about tools and technology, not about content, which is what we are currently discussing.

Anonymous's picture

I don't believe so. How the photographic content was received by audiences (whether photographic images could be considered "art" and bought and hung in museums as such) may have been expedited by America's ability to accept more modern forms of art in comparison to the traditionalists of Europe. It's conjecture, but I think it still fits in the conversation.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

That was my point: people were not about what was displayed but if it had been captured with a click of a button or it had been painted diligently by a master painter that took him a long time.

Today, whether it's a click of a button or a smear of a brush, traditional vs impressionistic is quite evident.

Anonymous's picture

Got it. Good point.

user-156818's picture

You make a good point. Region and cultures definitely play into marketability and artistic sensibilities.

user-156818's picture

Corporate offices, doctor's offices, hospitals, homes, etc...all would not agree with you. Many have impressionistic art hanging on their walls. Then again,. maybe those clients aren't considered commercial.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Try having an in-depth conversation with those who purchased that art. All of them will tell you that they do it not because they like it, but because they have been told it's beautiful.

Most offices, hospitals, and homes here in my country have traditional art on their walls. I'm curious if that wasn't the case there in your country and recently they have changed them to make the interiors "modern."

user-156818's picture

Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir, Cezan... I disagree with your classification of impressionistic art not being understood.

Monet's ballerinas are still very popular and a child could not recreate them.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I answered your other comment prior this one and there I stated that old impressionism was much closer to the traditional art. Modern impressionism has gone way too far from the first attempts.

Anonymous's picture

I don't know I would classify a lot of that as impressionistic. I guess it is but I always think of the examples in the article which, aside from (reproductions of) Van Gogh, I don't typically see in those locations.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Probably they use impressionism, because it's cheaper to produce (e.g. give a child a cookie and as it to draw something) while traditional art is much more expensive.

user-156818's picture

I was recently at a Bed and Breakfast and they had Manet's victorian women holding parasol while looking out at sea on their wall. There are different kinds of impressionism. Impressionistic art can still resemble something identifiable to the masses, it's just not photo-realistic.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I agree there are different kinds of impressionism. The oldest forms were very close to the traditional art (speaking about paintings), just looked a bit "not so detailed". Today's forms are extremely stylized. That's speaking about details.

Speaking about storytelling, today's impressionism has to be explained while older impressionism was just laking the details and excellence of the master painters while the idea was digestible by the masses.

user-156818's picture

Maybe you are referring to a different kind of art. According to art historians, Impressionism ended around 1910. I'm not sure what modern impressionism is called, but we are probably speaking of different art forms. Your Van Gogh example falls under impressionism, but your high fashion examples do not.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

That's what Wikipedia says (other sources say otherwise), but every genre has a formal description with elements that are visually distinguishable. Based on these elements we conclude that a piece of art is of a specific genre.

The key elements of impressionism is introducing odd ideas with more stylistic approach. The official information divides the periods into impressionism and post-impressionism, but all of them have these 2 elements in common. Today's impressionism has those 2 elements at hand but they try to call it a different name, while it isn't different in its concept.

user-156818's picture

Please don't insinuate I referred to Wikipedia. I retrieved the information from my university textbook. Also in the art reference book, it stated post-impressionism has ended in the 1900s, too, and that the next movement was futurism. Maybe you are referring to futurism, which is influenced by impressionism, but is not impressionism or post-impressionism.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I haven't said that you referred to Wikipedia, but that Wikipedia says that too.

For example in our textbooks today they are changing the history we've studied 20 years ago into 180 degrees. Not minor changes, but quite the opposite. It's the same as if your textbooks used to say Washington was the first president and now they say he has never lived.

That's why I try to believe more on my eyes and understanding than unquestionably accepting that a textbook says "this is an orange" while it's clearly grapes.

The principles of impressionism, post-impressionism, futurism, modernism, are all the same: (over)stylizing and introducing odd ideas to the public.

Terminology is good when it's kept in sync with the content it represents. When terminology changes but the actual meaning is the same we better call things with their real names.

The general public understand traditional art. The general public doesn't understand and doesn't call "beautiful" what today we see as strange heavily stylized ideas.

In the next comment I will post two interesting examples.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Both of these are called impressionism (call it post-futurism if you like or modern art). One of them is made by a human being. The other one is by a chimpanzee. Can you guess which is which?

Both may be called "beautiful" by those who claim to understand that art, but I can't make a visual difference in these two and I think that's weird.

The term "impressionism" is well thought. It aims to impress (or rather shock), but not with "beauty," but with ideas and a stylized approach.

user-156818's picture

To me and to what I've learned, impressionism is what you refer to as "early impressionism." Everything that falls after it is part of different art movements/genres.

The images you post are modern art, not impressionism, to me. Impressionistic art represents reality. It's about the brush strokes and the representation of reality. You can find a subject in it. It's just very stylized. The images you posted do not have a subject so they are not considered impressionistic.

There I can agree with you. I do not find modern art marketable to the masses and again I agree, you can't tell if it's made by and artist or a chimp.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Thanks for clarifying the terminology. You got my point too. I'm glad about that.

user-156818's picture

This example may help. Jackson Pollock who is famous for his drip paintings is considered part of abstract expressionist movement. Note that it's not impressionism.

With that in mind, I'd consider your examples from the artist and the chimp "abstract expressionism."

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