Late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century movement centered on optical experience, with particular attention to fixing contemporary subjects in momentary perceptions of light and color. Inspired by the French tendency, the American movement nevertheless took on a distinctive character. Most notably, American artists generally refrained from dissolving solid objects into sensations of light. In place of the French artists' screenlike arrangements of small, individually colored paint strokes, American artists typically clung to the academic training most of them had sought, as they superimposed brilliant effects on compositions constructed tonally, in terms of light and dark. This more intellectual approach promoted intelligible representation within three-dimensional pictorial space, while French delight in surface favored perception at the expense of knowledge. Consequently, the French style seemed unpleasantly extreme to American artists, critics, and patrons alike. Similarly, sustaining an interest in the figure as a carrier of meaning, Americans characteristically shied away from French impressionists' depersonalized treatment of individuals. Although less radical in such respects than its French counterpart, the American movement nevertheless often accommodated up-to-date expressive ends by incorporating aspects of other progressive currents, such as symbolist reverie or postimpressionist interests in order, stability, and decorative design.
In France, originating in the late 1860s, impressionism culminated in the 1870s and early 1880s. During those years, with the exception of Mary Cassatt, the only American to exhibit in the canonical impressionist exhibitions in Paris, and her friend, Louisine Havemeyer, an early collector of impressionist work, Americans almost entirely ignored the French movement. The first significant exhibition of French impressionist painting in the United States dates to 1886, the year of the impressionists' final group show in Paris. Although such sophisticated internationalists as James Abbott McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, and William Merritt Chase had already responded to aspects of impressionism, American artists more generally did not admire the practice until later in the decade. By then, demonstrating that impressionism's classic moment had passed, most of its French adherents had begun to pursue interests in formal structure or in symbolic meanings. Thus, if they studied the most recent examples, American artists encountered French impressionist art when it had arrived at a new stage in its own history. Despite Americans' initial hesitancy, during the 1890s no other country surpassed the enthusiasm seen in the United States for impressionism. Moreover, remaining viable for at least another quarter of a century, the American version's popularity forced nearly all significant younger painters, along with many of their elders, to reckon with its aesthetic and methods. American painters who embraced impressionism, during at least part of their careers, include Frank Weston Benson, John Leslie Breck, Dennis Miller Bunker, William Glackens, Philip Leslie Hale, Childe Hassam, Ernest Lawson, Lila Cabot Perry, John Twachtman, Robert Vonnoh, and J. Alden Weir. Many artists associated with tonalism accommodated aspects of impressionism to poetic, intuitive ends.