Published: June 12, 2001
PORTLAND, ME. – “American Impressionist: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum” features 52 luminous works by artists including Frank Benson, Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, Abbott Thayer, John Twachtman, James McNeill Whistler and Thomas Wilmer Dewing.
On view at the Portland Museum of Art from June 21 through October 21, these late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century painters rendered dreamy landscapes and garden scenes and lush portraits of women as objects of beauty, symbols of ideals and subjects of changing societal and cultural roles.
“Impressionism is loved everywhere for its beautiful light and color, and for its modern view of life,” said Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Generous collectors have contributed wonderful impressionist works over several decades, making it the strength of our museum. We are delighted to share this unparalleled collection more broadly.”
Impressionism was a revolutionary style that began in France in the 1860s, embraced by young artists tired of a conservative realism based on academic rules. In France, Impressionism was a distinct movement, with its own exhibitions, while in the US in the 1870s and 80s it was only a loose stylistic definition.
As critic Robert Hughes has said, “Impressionism, as understood in America by the century’s end, could mean almost anything.” A light and colorful palette was usually enough to label a painting as Impressionist.
The earliest work in the exhibition is James McNeill Whistler’s “Valparaiso Harbor” (1866), a startlingly abstract seascape. Whistler, an expatriate and bohemian, moved in a circle of advanced artists in France. Quixotic and mysterious, he abruptly decided in 1866 to travel to Chile to observe a rebellion there.
His veiled, indistinct views of the harbor at dawn and dusk announced a new kind of landscape, which he later named “nocturnes.” Twachtman further developed Whistler’s idea of an undefined landscape. Of Twachtman’s five paintings in the show, three present nature’s various seasons and moods.
Mary Cassatt was another pioneer who left the United States to make a career abroad. “Spanish Dancer Wearing a Lace Mantilla” (1873) shows Cassatt’s interest in the exotic people of Seville. Four years later in France she met Edgar Degas, who introduced her to the circle of French Impressionists. “The Caress” (1902) combines Impressionist’s palette with the mother-and-child subject that became her hallmark.
The exhibition includes six major canvases by Childe Hassam, who is considered America’s foremost impressionist. “Celia Thaxter in Her Garden” (1892) portrays his friend standing amid a tumult of blossoms near her home on the Isles of Shoals, where Hassam often vacationed. “The South Ledges, Appledore” (1913) shows the same place two decades later, long after Thaxter had died. Despite the brilliant, sunstruck color, there is an air of nostalgia and longing in the way the seated woman turns away from the viewer to gaze out to sea. “Tanagra (The Builders, New York)” of 1918 and “Marechal Niel Roses” (1919) show elegant women in interiors, each an emblem both of tradition and of modern life. “Pomona’ (1900) is a goddess of fertility in nature, inspired by ancient mythology.
Four paintings each by Abbott Thayer and Thomas Wilmer Dewing introduce other impressionist styles. Thayer’s “A Bride” (circa 1895) and “Girl Arranging Her Hair” (1918-19) are sensual and romantic, and his two landscapes display luminous, opalescent color. Dewing preferred to portray his idea of modern woman as unsentimental and intellectual, slightly aloof, in dreamy landscapes or pale interiors. His wife, Maria Oakey Dewing, however, created the down-to-earth “Garden in May” (1895), which is filled to the top with flowers. It is not a studio still life, but a close-up garden view familiar to anyone experienced in pulling weeds.
In 1887, Theodore Robinson and Willard Metcalf helped establish an artists’ colony at Giverny, in France, which was Claude Monet’s home. Three Robinson works and two Metcalf landscapes reflect their interest in the French master, whose name was synonymous with Impressionism. Henry Ossawa Tanner borrows Monet’s signature subject for his “Haystacks” (circa 1930), a late tribute to Monet by this African American artists, who lived in France for almost three decades.
The exhibition also includes key examples by John White Alexander, Frank Benson, Robert Blum, William Merritt Chase, Daniel Garber, Birge Harrison, George Hitchcock, Richard Miller, Maurice Prendergast and Dwight Tryon, among others.
More than half the exhibition artworks come from two large gifts made to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Seventeen paintings were among a 1909-11 gift from William T. Evans of New York, who was a friend of many of the artists. In 1929, John Gellatly, another New York collector, donated his collection, including 18 of the paintings on view. Five others came through the Henry Ward Ranger Bequest.
In preparation for the tour, the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired fine period frames for several artworks that were previously in modern reproduction frames. Frederick Carl Frieseke’s “Nude Seated at Her Dressing Table” (1909), a homage to Renoir, and Childe Hassam’s “Ponte Santa Trinita” (1897), showing the famous bridge in Florence designed by Michelangelo, are now in gilded period frames. Canvases by Arthur Wesley Dow, Robert Reid, Henry Ossawa Tanner and John Twachtman also were reframed in period surrounds by the New York firm of Eli Wilner & Co.
To accompany the exhibition, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has published a fully-illustrated catalogue American Impressionism: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, with Watson-Guptill Publications, a division of BPI Communications.
The Portland Museum of Art is at Seven Congress Square. The museum is open 10 am to 5 pm Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, and 10 am to 9 pm on Thursday and Friday. For information, 207-773-ARTS.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm