Impressionistic criticism: A type of practical criticism that centers on the critic’s subjective impressions of a literary work, particularly the feelings and associations elicited in experiencing it. Impressionistic critics deny the possibility of absolute, objective judgment and instead view literary criticism as a means of explaining and appreciating a given work. They often take a sympathetic approach, glorifying the artistic temperament and employing anecdotes and personal reminiscences to engage the reader. As English critic William Hazlitt declared in An Essay on the Principles of Human Action (1805), “I say what I think: I think what I feel. I cannot help receiving certain impressions from things; and I have sufficient courage to declare (somewhat abruptly) what they are.”
Impressionistic criticism arose with the advent of romanticism, which privileged the individual and subjective experience, eclipsing judicial criticism, the dominant mode during the Renaissance and Neoclassical periods, over the course of the eighteenth century. Noted impressionistic critics aside from Hazlitt include English critics Walter Pater and George Saintsbury, French writer Anatole France, and American music critic James Gibbons Huneker. France expressed the impressionistic viewpoint in La vie littéraire(4 vols.; 1888—92) when he described the “good critic” as “he who relates the adventures of his soul among masterpieces” and asserted that “[t]here is no such thing as objective criticism any more than there is objective art, and all who flatter themselves that they put aught but themselves into their work are dupes of the most fallacious illusion. The truth is that one never gets out of oneself.” Impressionistic criticism came under increasing attack in the twentieth century, particularly by the New Critics, who viewed it as superficial and arbitrary and believed that it was erroneous to interpret texts according to the psychological responses of readers, a practice they termed the affective fallacy.