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Modernism and Impressionism: Capturing Waterfalls in Early 20th Century Art

Welcome back to our art-inspired journey through waterfalls! This series aims to provide inspiration for participants in our Monthly Challenge by exploring how various art movements have depicted the beauty of waterfalls. In our previous posts, we delved into Neoclassicism, Realism, and Luminism, highlighting how these styles captured the essence of cascading water. Today, we turn our attention to Modernism and Impressionism, exploring the works of J.E.H. MacDonald, Ferdinand Hodler, and John Singer Sargent, and their unique approaches to portraying waterfalls.

Understanding Modernism and Impressionism

Modernism emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a response to the rapid changes in society and technology. This movement sought to break away from traditional forms and embrace innovation, experimentation, and new perspectives. Impressionism, a precursor to Modernism, focused on capturing the fleeting effects of light and color, often through quick, loose brushstrokes. Both movements played a significant role in transforming how artists represented natural landscapes, including waterfalls.

Masterpieces and Techniques in Modernism

J. E. H. MacDonald: The Little Falls Sketch

James Edward Hervey MacDonald, a prominent member of the Group of Seven, is celebrated for his vibrant and expressive landscape paintings. In The Little Falls Sketch MacDonald employs bold, dynamic brushstrokes and a rich color palette to capture the movement and energy of a small waterfall. The interplay of light and shadow, along with the vivid autumnal hues, brings the scene to life, showcasing MacDonald’s ability to evoke the raw beauty of the Canadian wilderness.

J. E. H. MacDonald’s painting 'The Little Falls Sketch,' depicting a vibrant and expressive landscape of a cascading waterfall with bold brushstrokes and vivid colors.
J. E. H. MacDonald. The Little Falls Sketch

Ferdinand Hodler: Forest with a Mountain Stream

Ferdinand Hodler, a Swiss painter, is known for his Symbolist and later Modernist works, characterized by rhythmic compositions and a strong sense of symmetry. In Forest with a Mountain Stream, Hodler captures the serene and harmonious relationship between the flowing water and the surrounding forest. The painting’s vibrant colors and detailed depiction of the rocky streambed reflect Hodler’s meticulous observation of nature and his ability to infuse his landscapes with a sense of tranquility.

Ferdinand Hodler’s painting 'Forest with a Mountain Stream,' depicting a tranquil mountain stream flowing through a vibrant, structured forest.
Ferdinand Hodler. Forest with a mountain stream

Masterpieces and Techniques in Impressionism

John Singer Sargent: A Waterfall

John Singer Sargent, renowned for his portraiture, also created remarkable landscape paintings that showcased his masterful use of light and brushwork. In A Waterfall, Sargent captures the dramatic descent of water down a rugged cliffside. The dynamic brushstrokes and rich, contrasting colors convey the powerful energy of the waterfall, while the play of light and shadow adds depth and realism to the scene. This painting exemplifies Sargent’s ability to blend realism with impressionistic techniques to create a captivating depiction of nature’s forces.

John Singer Sargent’s painting 'A Waterfall,' showcasing a powerful waterfall cascading down rugged rocks, illuminated by dramatic sunlight.
John Singer Sargent. A Waterfall

John Singer Sargent: A Mountain Stream, Tyrol

In "A Mountain Stream, Tyrol," Sargent captures the lively motion of water cascading over rocks in a mountain stream. The painting is filled with dynamic brushstrokes that convey the energetic flow of the stream, while Sargent’s use of light and shadow adds depth and realism to the scene. The lush green tones of the surrounding landscape and the white froth of the water create a vivid contrast, highlighting Sargent’s ability to depict the natural world with both accuracy and artistic flair.

John Singer Sargent’s painting 'A Mountain Stream, Tyrol,' depicting the dynamic movement of water cascading over rocks in a lush landscape.
John Singer Sargent. A Mountain Stream, Tyrol

Practical Takeaways for Artists

  • Experiment with Light and Color: Both Modernist and Impressionist painters used light and color to capture the transient beauty of waterfalls. Try experimenting with different times of day and weather conditions to see how light and color change the scene.

  • Dynamic Brushwork: Use bold, dynamic brushstrokes to convey the movement and energy of water. This technique can add a sense of vitality and realism to your waterfall depictions.

  • Focus on Nature’s Details: Pay attention to the details in nature, such as the texture of rocks, the flow of water, and the surrounding vegetation. Capturing these elements can enhance the authenticity of your work.

  • Embrace Innovation: Don’t be afraid to break away from traditional techniques and experiment with new approaches. Both Modernism and Impressionism encourage innovation and creativity in capturing natural landscapes.


Exploring the works of J.E.H. MacDonald, Ferdinand Hodler, and John Singer Sargent reveals the diverse approaches within Modernism and Impressionism to capturing the beauty of waterfalls. These artists used light, color, and dynamic brushwork to bring their scenes to life, offering valuable lessons for artists today. As you continue with our Monthly Challenge, let these masterpieces inspire your own creative journey. Stay tuned for our next blog, where we will delve into the Romantic era's depiction of the majestic Niagara Falls, exploring how artists like Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church captured its grandeur.

Image Credit: All images of paintings in this post are sourced from and are under a public domain license.


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