Published: June 23, 2008
The central role that French art and artists played in shaping American painting in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century is nowhere more evident than in the field of Impressionism. The up-and-coming US artists who flocked to Paris to study after the Civil War were exposed to developing French styles and fanned out into the countryside to practice their craft. Many returned as converts to the Impressionist aesthetic.
From the flowering of naturalistic landscapes in the 1840s to the onset of the Barbizon School, through Impressionism’s golden age later in the century and beyond Post-Impressionism into the 1920s, Americans followed the French lead in transforming landscape painting with innovative techniques and unconventional styles. Impressionism came late to America, but once established, it became enormously popular with painters and collectors.
“Landscapes from the Age of Impressionism,” a fascinating exhibition organized by the Brooklyn Museum and drawn from its impressive collection, explores landscape painting as practiced by French artists and their American counterparts during this time. Comprising 40 paintings, it is on view at the Denver Art Museum through September 7.
The transformation of French art from history painting to landscapes can be traced to 1822, when Camille Corot began to paint softly veiled, plein air landscapes around the Forest of Fontainebleau. By the 1830s, he was joined by a group of French artists who abandoned their studios for the open air of the countryside around Barbizon, on the edge of the still primeval forest, where old ways of life prevailed.
The silvery, evocative landscapes of Corot and paintings by Charles-Francois Daubigny, Jean-Francois Millet and Theodore Rousseau sought to capture the ephemeral effects of nature, which became a hallmark of the Barbizon School movement.
Their work influenced Realist painters like Gustave Courbet †and caught the imagination of those soon-to-be-dubbed Impressionists. When Frederic Bazille, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley traveled together to Fontainebleau in the 1860s, they depicted areas made famous by Barbizon School artists.
Courbet (1819‱877), the supreme Realist, influenced many contemporaries with his vivid, naturalistic landscapes. He began painting his famous “wave” paintings, capturing a single surge of water at the point of breaking, in the late 1860s.
Eventually, in the 1870s, a group of Parisian artists led by Monet coalesced around a more colorful and daring style of painting in depictions of nature and everyday modern life. Banding together for an 1874 exhibition that included paintings by Monet, Eugene Boudin, Gustave Caillebotte, Camille Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley, they caught the public’s attention with canvases that rendered not so much a landscape per se as the impression produced by a landscape.
For a dozen years after 1874, the core group of artists organized seven more exhibitions; by the third, in 1877, they were being referred to as Impressionists. The landscapes of these painters of modern life depicted not only fields, rivers and roads, but such signs of technological progress as bridges, factories and trains †plus an occasional human figure. Preferring to work in natural rather than studio light, the Impressionists introduced a palette of bright colors applied with energetic brushstrokes.
For all their affinities, the Impressionists were never a homogeneous school with a unified program and clearly defined principles, but a loose association of gifted artists linked by common ideas and banded together for purposes of exhibiting. Yet the movement had sufficient coherence to influence the course of French †and American †art.
An early standout was Boudin (1824‱898), who employed soft, loose brushwork and a high-keyed palette in plein air seascapes and views of families at leisure on beaches, like Trouville, under luminous skies. By contrast, Jules Breton (1827‱906) expressed his empathy for peasants in paintings that emphasized their austere dignity.
Two of the principal organizers of the Impressionist shows, Pissarro (1830‱903) and Caillebotte (1848‱894), are increasingly recognized as stars among the group. Pissarro, influenced by Corot and Monet, utilized short, broken brushstrokes to create fields of shimmering color in an appealing body of work. Caillebotte’s emphatic, evocative town and country views, still lifes and boating scenes are exemplified by “Apple Tree in Bloom,” circa 1885.
The most influential of the Impressionists, Monet (1840‱926) and Renoir (1841‱919), painted together and attracted many admirers on both sides of the Atlantic. Monet’s predilection for systematic renderings of the same subject at different times of day and in different seasons, most famously haystacks, found little resonance among American painters. But his flickering brushwork, affinity for sunlight and shadow and bright palette inspired numerous American artists. A number of them sojourned in Giverny, hoping to advance their careers through advice or at least by proximity to the French master. In works like “The Islets at Port-Villez,” 1897, and “The Doge’s Palace at Venice,” 1908, Monet’s daubs of green, indigo and violet recreate the impression of rippling waves in memorable fashion, influencing Childe Hassam and others.
Renoir, perhaps the most individual of the French Impressionists, was known for his daring tonal arrangements, “rainbow palette” of luxurious colors, manipulation of light and rapid brushwork, as reflected in “Les Vignes a Cagnes (The Vineyards at Cagnes),” 1906. He made a big impression on counterparts across the Atlantic, notably William Glackens.
Two women exhibited regularly with the Impressionists †Berthe Morisot (1841‱895), who favored landscapes and women with children, and the only American, Mary Cassatt (1845‱926), who specialized in mothers and children. Art critic Robert Hughes says, “Cassatt was not only the best of the American Impressionists, but the outstanding woman painter of the Nineteenth Century.”
In the second half of the Nineteenth Century, record numbers of American art students traveled to France for training and to soak up inspiration. Drawn at first to the Barbizon School, they later took up Impressionism. In particular, the light tonality, pure colors and informal subjects of Monet, Pissarro and Sisley provided inspiration.
Many of these Americans returned home with fresh palettes, loosened brushwork, a commitment to plein air painting and an interest in working in groups. Over time, art colonies led by Impressionist painters flourished in Cos Cob, Greenwich and Lyme, Conn., Gloucester, Mass., and on the Isles of Shoals off Maine and New Hampshire.
When the venerable National Academy of Design and its alternative, the Society of American Artists, proved too hidebound, a group of leading Impressionists, led by Hassam, John H. Twachtman and J. Alden Weir, withdrew from them and formed the Ten American Painters to showcase their work. Exhibiting together for 20 years, they drew attention to the achievements of homegrown Impressionists.
During his student days in Paris around the mid-1870s, Weir derided the avant-garde work of the Impressionists, dubbing their 1877 exhibition a “Chamber of Horrors.” It was not until a full-dress show of French Impressionists at the Durand-Ruel gallery in New York City in 1886 that he and a number of his compatriots began to warm to the movement.
Within a few years, Weir began painting decidedly Impressionist landscapes, including atmospheric views around his farm in Wilton, Conn. (now preserved as a National Historic Site), and sunlit, misleadingly benign views of bustling industrial sites, such as “Willimantic Thread Factory,” 1893.
In many ways, Impressionism was made for optimistic Americans. As William Dean Howells projected for American novelists, so the nation’s painters could comfortably concern themselves with “the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American.”
Consistent with that advice, in picking their subjects, most American Impressionists ignored the fact that urbanization, industrialization and immigration were changing the face and landscape of the United States. They homed in on such “smiling aspects” as gardens, villages, lively urban streets, sea scenes and the wonders of rural landscapes.
In part because so many Americans had frequented Giverny, the French master’s influence was wide and deep with leading American artists. Theodore Robinson (1852‱896), who spent considerable time with Monet, fully embraced the Frenchman’s aesthetic, and as the first American to introduce Impressionism in his native country, had a great impact on other painters. Not only the Impressionist trailblazer but a superb painter, his achievements remain somewhat under-recognized. Robinson’s debt to the French master was demonstrated in paintings of loosely rendered figures in sunny settings and panoramic landscapes, but he did his best work around Giverny, rather than back home.
John Singer Sargent (1856‱925), an expatriate who also knew Monet, embraced Impressionism off and on. Best known for his bravura portraits of the Anglo American leisure class, he did some of his best figure and subject pictures in the Impressionist manner, such as “Dolce Far Niente,” circa 1907, a plein-air painting characterized by shimmering color and fluid brushwork dating from a summer sojourn in the Italian Alps. Sargent’s popularity greatly influenced other Americans to take up Impressionism.
Often considered Sargent’s equal by contemporaries, Cecilia Beaux (1855‱942) created insightful Grand Manner portraits in an Impressionist manner. While her work did not match Sargent’s exuberant virtuosity, Beaux’s scintillating brushwork, fluid paint application and deft use of light and color made her likenesses special.
William Merritt Chase (1849‱916), a leading painter of his day, started out employing the dark palette, fluid brushstrokes and heavy impasto of his Munich training, but around midcareer began to apply Impressionist techniques to sparkling depictions of Central Park and Eastern Long Island. Chase’s canvases, bathed in fresh air and sunlight, with bright-blue skies, vibrant green grasses and spots of brilliant color, added luster to the American branch of Impressionism, and encouraged others to follow suit.
Monet had a particularly profound impact on the work of Weir, Hassam and Metcalf, all members of The Ten. Hassam (1859‱935), who studied in Paris but claimed not to be influenced by Monet, showed the most pronounced affinities in the high-keyed, flickering light of sunny, picturesque depictions of New England. During stays on Appledore Island, among the Isles of Shoals off the Maine-New Hampshire coast, he used small touches of pure color to capture the riotous hues and evocative setting of Celia Thaxter’s old-fashioned, seaside garden in numerous oils and watercolors, including “Poppies on the Isles of Shoals,” 1890.
Hassam’s deft depictions of Manhattan streetscapes and buildings made him, in the words of art historian Oliver W. Larkin, “the Sisley of Madison Avenue.” The American’s celebrated flag series, immortalizing patriotic displays of Old Glory and emblems of other nations on Fifth Avenue during World War I, echoed paintings of years before by Monet and Pissarro of Parisian streets decked with banners.
Metcalf (1858‱925), who trained in Boston, sojourned in Giverny, and was fascinated like Monet with the cycle of seasons, made his reputation with sunny and wintry New England landscapes. His elevated view of New York City from his Central Park West apartment, “Early Spring Afternoon ⁃entral Park,” 1911, recalls Monet’s bird’s-eye views of Paris.
Twachtman (1853‱902), the most original and imaginative of the group, employed a muted palette in wintry landscapes and shimmering marines, like “Reflections,” circa 1893‹4. His paintings of the brook, waterfall and pond on his small farm in Greenwich are memorable. Twachtman, who used Impressionist devices to achieve effects that were poetic rather than realistic, and bordered on the abstract, “was perhaps the most modern of the American Impressionists,” says art historian Elizabeth Johns.
Glackens (1870‱938) started out as a Realist, but later embraced the plein air aesthetic of the Impressionists. His penchant for high-keyed color and flickering brushwork, as exemplified by “Bathing at Bellport, Long Island,” 1911, earned him the nickname “the American Renoir.”
The rugged, virile art of the Pennsylvania Impressionists who came to the fore around World War I owed less to the French than did the more delicate work of their New England colleagues. The oeuvre of the New Hope painters ranged from vigorously brushed views of Delaware Valley landscapes, the Delaware River and picturesque villages, by the likes of Edward W. Redfield, Fern Coppedge, John F. Folinsbee and Daniel Garber, to more gritty depictions of working-class people, tenement houses, mills and factories by Robert Henri’s pupil, Robert Spencer. These gifted painters, whose achievements are only now receiving full recognition, extended the life of the flagging Impressionist movement in America and continue to contribute to the style’s popularity in the country.
Offering a broad overview of the movement in America, “Landscapes from the Age of Impressionism” suggests America’s deep debt to French painters for advancing new ways of painting in the nation. In adapting the Impressionist manner to US soil and people, American artists, however, never lost sight of the reality of their subject matter. They never dissolved forms so completely as did Monet and his associates. The American tradition of Realism, a common thread throughout its art history, continues to this day.
After closing in Denver, the exhibition will be at the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art (October 10⁊anuary 4) and the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla. (February 7⁍ay 10).
The Denver Art Museum is at 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway. For information, 720-865-5000 or www.denverartmuseum.org .
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