Debussy is often called a musical Impressionist, invoking an analogy to the emerging trend in French painting in which, in Paul Henry Lang's pithy phrase, the how dominates the what. Detail of a Renoir painting of a water lily, showing the vivid, discrete brushstokes that give the distinctive Impressionist look As Lang and Jonathan Kramer noted, much as earlier painters used color and light to illuminate realistic objects, musicians' textures had always served to articulate or enrich their melodic, harmonic or rhythmic structures, but Debussy was the first composer to create music of sheer sonority that simply was allowed to exist, without constantly having to progress toward a prescribed goal. As David Ewen put it, for Debussy color, nuance, mood, atmosphere and sensation were far more significant than drama or realism - his music is intended to appeal to the senses, not the intellect.
Debussy chafed at the comparison with the Impressionist painters, since his work was far less representational (although perhaps he would have felt differently had he known the very late works of Cezanne and Monet, in which their subjects are far less apparent). Indeed, by its very nature music is abstract, free from the realistic imagery to which the visual arts are inexorably tied. Rather, he aligned himself with the Symbolist poets, who reveled more in the sound of words than in their actual meaning, and sought to suggest reality through a dream-world of metaphor and symbol.