Published: December 9, 2003
The enduring appeal of American Impressionism is documented – and justified – by “The Golden Age of American Impressionism,” on view at the Heckscher Museum of Art through February 1. Comprising 56 works by 29 US artists, the exhibition has been expertly organized by esteemed art historian William H. Gerdts, and it showcases quality works by a who’s who of the movement. This exhibition stylishly reflects the skills and visual beauty created by our nation’s leading practitioners of Impressionism.
Gerdts, professor emeritus of art history at the graduate school of the City University of New York and author of the best book on American Impressionism, says this will be his final guest-curated exhibition. He is also the principal author of the accompanying book.
In selecting works for the show, Gerdts says he sought art by painters he considered “the preeminent and most original of the American Impressionists, and to tell the story of the movement through those examples.” Focusing on the period of Impressionism’s ascendancy in the United States – 1885 to 1920 – he drew from artists affiliated with European and East Coast art colonies and regional painters working in the South, Midwest and West Coast.
There are the expected big names, such as William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam and John H. Twachtman, and two expatriate superstars not always lumped with American Impressionism, Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent. There are also works by lesser known artists who deserve greater recognition, such as Daniel Garber, Joseph Raphael, Theodore Robinson, Guy Rose and Theodore Steele. There are enough masterpieces from major museums, as well as rarely seen treasures from private collections, to satisfy the most ardent aficionados of American Impressionism.
While initial American reaction to French Impressionism was negative, the sheer beauty, joyfulness and sunny tenor of the art soon generated a following in this country. Monet, whose work was particularly popular with American collectors, inspired the work of many of the early Impressionists.
Young Americans who studied in Paris and took up Impressionism roamed the countryside in the summer and often joined art colonies. The most important Impressionist art community, keyed to the presence of Monet, was in Giverny, France. Few outsider artists got close to the French master, but the lure of his residency and the beauty of the area sustained the Giverny art colony for decades.
The outstanding Americans who spent time there early on and returned to the United States were Robinson and Willard Metcalf.
Robinson (1852-1896), one of the few Americans befriended by Monet, concentrated much of his work between 1887 and 1892 on the village and its people. On view are examples of his confidently brushed, atmospheric landscaped created in Giverny and back in the United States during his sadly truncated career.
A standout in the exhibition is Robinson’s clearly delineated, brilliantly hued, sun-filled “World’s Columbian Exposition,” 1894, that captures the beauty and grandeur of that celebrated international exposition in Chicago. All this whets one’s appetite for the long-awaited Robinson retrospective, curated by Sonia Johnston, that opens at the Baltimore Museum of Art next October.
A native of Lowell, Mass., like James McNeill Whistler, Metcalf (1858-1925) studied at the Académie Julian and sojourned in Grez during five years in France, 1883-1888. He applied the brilliant colorism and flickering brushstrokes of Impressionism during extensive tours around New England, where he recorded the sun-splashed beauty of Gloucester harbor and effulgent poppies gracing the banks of the Lieutenant River near Miss Florence Griswold’s house in Old Lyme, Conn.
Metcalf is best remembered for a series of evocative snowscapes, such as “Thawing Brook (Winter Shadows)” 1911, recently acquired by the Florence Griswold Museum in the Hartford Steam Boiler Company trove. It captures the stillness and frigid beauty of the countryside in the grip of winter in a manner reminiscent of the master of such scenes, Twachtman.
A second generation of aspiring Americans settled in Giverny after the turn-of-the-century. Dubbed the “Giverny Group” or the “Giverny Luminists,” it included such talents as Frederick Frieseke, Richard E. Miller and Guy Rose. They used a high-keyed palette in decorative canvases with lively patterning that set them apart from others in the movement, as exemplified by Frieseke’s undated “Hollyhocks,” set in the artist’s garden. That tranquil garden was likely the setting for a quintessential Miller picture of a comely woman having tea, “A Gray Day,” 1910-11.
Hartford-born Robert Vonnhoh (1858-1933) spent time in a smaller colony of American and British artists working in Grez, on the edge of the Fontainebleau Forest. His bright, sunny and shimmering view of the village, “Beside the River (Grez),” 1890, suggest the joy and talent of the 22-year-old artist. He later taught for years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and eventually settled in Old Lyme.
The earliest American associated with the Impressionist movement was Cassatt (1844-1926), who spent most of her career in France. Befriended by Edgar Degas, she adopted the Impressionist style and exhibited several times with French pioneers in the movement. Typical female adult and child canvases, including “In the Park,” circa 1893-94, and an elegant young woman in “Lady with a Fan (Anne Charlotte Gaillard),” circa 1880-81, grace the exhibition.
The other prominent expatriate in the exhibition, John Singer Sargent, was born in Florence, began his career in Paris and ended up the toast of London. Best known for his bravura international society portraits, he also employed spontaneous brushwork and brilliant colors in highly decorative outdoor canvases. His “Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose,” 1885-86, helped sell Britons on Impressionism. An oil sketch in the show suggests the enormous appeal of the completed masterpiece.
Sargent had great influence on the work of his young friend Dennis Miller Bunker (1861-1890), who abandoned his Barbizon-inspired, tight tonal style for more Sargent-like, spontaneously brushed, colorful landscapes. “Meadow Lands,” 1890, a softly rendered symphony in greens, was painted in the last year of Bunker’s abbreviated career.
An important early convert to Impressionism was Munich-trained Chase (1849-1916), who abandoned the dark tones of the German school for bright colors and broken brushwork soon after seeing an exhibition of Impressionist paintings in New York in 1886. He started out painting New York park scenes, such as “Boat House, Prospect Park,” circa 1887. Master of a variety of subjects, Chase created some of his finest paintings of his family amidst the dunes, bayberry bushes and picturesque shoreline near his summer art school and house in Shinnecock, near Southampton, Long Island.
Hassam (1859-1935), America’s most famous Impressionist artist, is represented in the exhibition by nine works that reflect important aspects of his prolific output. A native of the Boston area, he fell under the sway of Impressionism in Europe, around 1887. Back in the United States, he settled in New York, where he created numerous vignettes of urban life. In warm weather he roamed the New England coast, depicting scenes of beauty, pleasure and tradition that had wide appeal to critics and the general public alike.
Perhaps Hassam’s finest Impressionist images are evocative and colorful depictions set on Appledore Island, off the Maine-New Hampshire coast, especially views of the glorious old-fashioned garden tended by salon hostess Celia Thaxter. “Poppies, Isles of Shoals,” 1891, juxtaposes the brilliant, sunlit blooms of Thaxter’s plot against the island’s rocky typography. “A Favorite Corner,” 1892, is one of a number of deft watercolors Hassam created to illustrate Thaxter’s classic book, An Island Garden, 1892.
In Gloucester, Hassam painted not only brilliant, sun-washed views of the picturesque harbor, but a canvas celebrating men at work in the shipbuilding industry. His residency at the Griswold mansion in Old Lyme attracted other Impressionists, leading to the venerable town being called the “American Giverny.” “Church at Old Lyme,” 1906, captures the majesty and solidity of the old Congregational Church, which ironically burned down a year after the artist painted it.
Two of Hassam’s celebrated flag paintings are among the highlights of the exhibition. Designed to support the Allied cause in World War I, the subject also offered an opportunity to capture the play of light, color, pattern and movement in Manhattan. “Flags on 57th Street, Winter 1918,” 1918, from the collection of the New-York Historical Society, is a particular beauty. Not far behind is “St Patrick’s Day,” 1919.
Among the artists who settled permanently in Old Lyme in Hassam’s day was New York-born, Paris-trained Edward Rook (1870-1960). His charming masterwork, “Laurel,” circa 1905-10, owned by the Florence Griswold Museum, immortalizes Connecticut’s state flower that grew in wild profusion along the Lieutenant River.
J. Alden Weir (1852-1919), studied in Paris and was initially critical of Impressionism, but by 1890 he had become an exponent of it. Particularly in his work at his two Connecticut homes, in Branchville and Windham, he employed Impressionist strategies to create such appealing works as “The Laundry, Branchville,” circa 1894. It is sited on his rural retreat, which is now open to the public as part of the National Park System.
In “The Red Bridge,” 1895, owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and considered his masterpiece, the colorful new bridge near Windham contrasts with the muted tones of the landscape. The high horizon line, flattened perspective and cropped composition of both Weir paintings reflect the influence of Japanese prints, which he, Robinson, Twachtman and other American Impressionists admired, collected and emulated.
Weir’s close friend Twachtman (1853-1902) studied in Munich and Paris, and put his own highly personal Impressionist style to especially good use around his farm in Greenwich. His total immersion in his environment and his intuitive response to nature’s moods is suggested by a characteristically evocative winter scene, “Snowbound,” circa 1895-1900, showing his house engulfed in snow.
Twachtman also spent time at nearby Holley House, sometimes staying there with other creative figures and teaching art courses, and painting views of the property in all seasons, as in the expressive “October,” circa 1901, and views from the front porch, like the Japanese-influenced “From the Holley House,” circa 1901.
A quite different brand of Impressionism was practiced by Thomas W. Dewing (1851-1938), who employed a minimalist, tonal style in portraying ethereal, enigmatic young women, either in interiors or in outdoor settings. Two pastels on view, “Lady in Blue, Portrait of Annie Lazarus,” circa 1890, and “Lady in Blue,” circa 1910, reflect the artist’s refined touch.
Three members of the so-called Boston School are included: Frank W. Benson, Joseph DeCamp and Edmund C. Tarbell. Associated with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, they utilized differing Impressionist styles.
DeCamp (1858-1923), who specialized in portraits and figural studies, is seen at his Impressionist best in a sun-filled view of his wife and daughter with Gloucester harbor behind them. Tarbell (1862-1938) is best remembered for his “academic” Impressionist views of stylish women in dimly lit, Vermeer-like interiors, as in “Girls Reading,” 1907.
The standout is Benson (1862-1951), a native of Salem, Mass., who created his finest works during summers at the family place on North Haven Island, off midcoast Rockland, Maine. Year after year he applied a bright, luminous palette to sunny, happy depictions of his white-gowned wife and daughters reveling in the idyllic pleasures of their island retreat. “The Sisters,” 1899, and “Girls in the Garden,” circa 1906, are beautifully painted canvases with beautiful subjects.
Documenting his conviction that “some of the finest American Impressionist painting was executed by artists working outside the context of the New York and New England heritage,” Gerdts selected excellent paintings by painters from other regions.
With the exception of the hugely gifted Cecelia Beaux, Impressionism had little impact on Philadelphia artists, due to the overwhelming influence of academic realist Thomas Eakins and his followers at the Pennsylvania Academy. Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, in Bucks County and especially in New Hope, an important and increasingly appreciated group of talented painters applied a vigorous, even virile, form of the Impressionist aesthetic to the picturesque countryside. Works by two outstanding New Hope artists, Robert Spencer and Garber, are highlights.
Rather than painting the scenic Delaware River landscape, Spencer (1879-1931) focused on working-class themes: tenements and men and women going to and from work. “Five O’Clock, June,” 1913, shows working women emerging from a mill, with the industrial setting emphasized by the painter’s muted palette.
The most gifted of the Pennsylvania Impressionists, Garber (1880-1958), divided his time between Philadelphia, where he taught for years at the Pennsylvania Academy, and Lumberville in Bucks County, where he painted decorative, colorful pictures of the area’s quarries, towns and mills. Typical of his mastery of light and color and evocative composition is “Wilderness,” 1912, showing the New Jersey cliffs glimpsed through shaggy trees on the banks of the blue Delaware River.
About the only significant Impressionist painter in the south was Detroit-born Gari Melchers (1860-1932), who studied in Germany and France, and spent much of his career painting peasants and village life in The Netherlands. Settling in Fredericksburg, Va., in 1916, he employed broken brushwork, a high-keyed palette and a keen eye for local customs to depictions of life in the South. “St George’s Church,” circa 1920, features a venerable house of worship that is still active in downtown Fredericksburg.
Helen Turner (1858-1958) divided her career between New Orleans, New York City and the artists’ colony in Cragsmoor, N.Y., up the Hudson Valley. A lovely, charming oil in the exhibition, “Girl with Lantern,” 1904, demonstrates the luminous color and thick brushstrokes she employed in depicting elegant ladies.
Impressionism gained quite a foothold in California, especially in the sunny and scenic South, in places like Laguna Beach. The outstanding figure was Rose (1867-1925), whose achievements have gained a measure of national recognition. A California native, he studied in Paris and spent years in Giverny, where he took up Impressionism before returning to Pasadena. Rose popularized the style in the state as an influential teacher and through his brilliantly hued, confidently painted pictures of the region, like his atmospheric “Sunset Glow (Sunset in the High Sierras),” before 1921.
During summer excursions to the Monterey Peninsula in the north, he responded to the clear light and rugged coastline with intensely colored, memorable canvases, such as “Point Lobos,” circa 1918, a high point of the show.
Another overlooked California painter is Raphael (1869-1950), who studied in his native state and in Paris and spent many years in The Netherlands and Belgium painting tonalist figurative works. When he finally embraced Impressionism around World War I, he applied it with strong and glorious effect to brilliantly hued depictions of flowering fields, meadows and orchards. “The Garden,” 1913, shows him at the top of his game. Raphael exhibited frequently in his native San Francisco even before returning to live there permanently in 1939.
Soon after the onset of the Twentieth Century, Impressionism was replaced on the center stage of American art by the gritty realism of The Eight and the Ashcan School and, after the Armory Show of 1913, by European-influenced Modernism. Two members of The Eight – whose 1908 exhibition popularized depictions of contemporary life – Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924), in works like “Ladies with Parasols,” circa 1896-97, and Ernest Lawson (1873-1939) in “Harlem River,” circa 1911, created art that reflected Impressionist elements.
Illustrated with 56 color reproductions, the 128-page book accompanying the exhibition contains a survey of American Impressionism by Gerdts and essays by Lowery on the 29 artists represented in the show. Published by Watson-Guptill Publications, it sells for $35.
The Heckscher Art Museum is located in Heckscher Park, Main Street (Route 25A) and Prime Avenue in Huntington Village. For information, 631-351-3250, email at email@example.com, or online at www.heckscher.org.
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