Published: July 10, 2012
The annals of American art history are filled with the names of illustrious families whose artists contributed to the evolution of the nation’s painting. Frequently mentioned families are the Peales and Wyeths, but rarely the distinguished and influential Weirs.
That is shortsighted, because the Weir family created important art and used their transatlantic experiences to help shape the course of American art. Patriarch Robert Walter Weir (1803‱889), a longtime art instructor at West Point, is represented in the US Capitol Rotunda. His son John Ferguson Weir (1841‱926) founded the first American college art academic program and painted two of the most stirring industrial scenes in American art history. Another son, Julian Alden Weir (1852‱919), became a leader of American artists and a major Impressionist. Growing out of their separate European sojourns, their influence, as teachers and practitioners, was significant.
A splendid exhibition, “The Weir Family, 1820‱920: Expanding the Traditions of American Art,” organized and first seen at Brigham Young University Museum of Art (BYUMA) and on view at New Britain Museum of American Art through September 30, underscores the significance of this talented family. Curated by Marian Wardle, curator of American art at BYUMA, the exhibition displays 74 paintings by the Weirs that suggest how they employed knowledge of European artistic traditions to influence American art for nearly a century.
Robert Weir, son of a Scottish immigrant tradesman, was born in New York City and trained briefly at the National Academy of Design. One of the first Americans to study art in Italy, 1824‱827, he shared rooms in Rome with sculptor Horatio Greenough, took courses at academies and sketched works of Michelangelo and Raphael at the Vatican.
Returning to New York, Robert created genre, historical, portrait and landscape paintings, and, for the rest of his career, produced canvases based on Italian sketches, such as “Portico of the Palace of Octavia,” 1874. Active in Knickerbocker art and literary circles, he associated with the likes of Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Henry Inman and Samuel F.B. Morse, as well as William Cullen Bryant and Washington Irving. According to art professor Leo G. Mazow, “Throughout his life, Weir displayed a talent for using his art to honor these and other friends, their literary and artistic contributions, as well as the ‘cultural aristocracy’ that they formed.”
Robert became an academician of the National Academy of Design, where he was professor of perspective. He married twice and fathered 16 children.
As instructor in drawing at West Point, 1833‱876, Robert included in his classes fine arts study, along with practical drawing of bridges, field plans and maps. Among his students were Ulysses S. Grant (a standout artist), Stonewall Jackson, artist Seth Eastman and James McNeill Whistler (an art star who was expelled for too many demerits and poor grades).
A large cabinet, suit of armor from Italy, Greek and Roman sculpture and stacked canvases marked Robert’s studio, where both John and Julian studied. “The odd mix of European objects and influences in an artist’s space at the US Military Academy embodied the cross-cultural impulses at work in Robert Weir and his art,” observes curator Wardle.
In addition to teaching, Robert painted romanticized vistas of the Hudson River from West Point, views of Henry Hudson’s landing on the river and military portraits. To his contemporaries, he was most closely associated with precise and charming views of the Hudson, pictures of peace and plenty †utopian bounty †that embellished the region’s mythologized reputation. Robert’s stiffly posed, commanding likenesses of longtime West Point Superintendent Sylvanus Thayer and military academy graduate and hero General Winfield Scott express what Mazow terms the “sense of West Point as extended family.”
Robert saw himself primarily as a history painter. Indeed, his best-known work is the huge “Embarkation of the Pilgrims,” 1843, in the US Capitol Rotunda. Mazow notes that it takes “stylistic cues from Rembrandt’s etchings and &†especially English history and landscape painting &†[resembling] other contemporary exploration, landing and discovery scenes, especially in heavenward gazes, outreached hands and stage-like space.” Although the product of much research to ensure historical accuracy, “Embarkation,” not considered a great success nowadays, was listed among the Rotunda’s “sprawling failures” by art historian Oliver W. Larkin.
After retiring from the military academy, Robert moved to Hoboken, N.J., and then Manhattan, continuing to paint until his death. Although representative of midcentury American artists because of his connections with literary figures and broad range of subjects, he “seldom achieved true success as an artist; his work is eclectic and he never seems to have settled on a style or a type of subject that he could develop fully,” according to art historian Theodore E. Stebbins.
Nonetheless, the Weir family patriarch had a positive influence on the work of many artists, notably his sons, and in encouraging “contemporary Americans to look to Europe for their artistic moorings,” says Wardle. “The incorporation of European art conventions,” she continues, “were particularly pronounced in Robert, John and Julian Weir.”
John Ferguson Weir, a figure and landscape painter, trained under his father and in 1861 moved to New York’s famed Tenth Street Studio building, where he met leading American painters. He did his best work during this decade, when he was elected to the National Academy of Design on the basis of a compelling industrial picture, “The Gun Foundry.” Depicting the manufacture of a Parrott Gun for the Union Army at the West Point Foundry in Cold Spring, N.Y., it was followed by a similar scene, “Forging the Shaft,” showing men toiling in the hot, glowing interior of a factory as a cannon barrel emerges white hot from the furnace. These unforgettable images of the heroism of industrial labor gained him an international reputation that he was unable to maintain in subsequent work.
After sojourns in Europe painting charming, small landscapes, John became director of the Yale School of Fine Arts, 1869‱913. There he established the nation’s first collegiate art program, based on the French atelier system. It became a national model for art education. He encouraged students to study abroad as he and brother Julian had.
John’s academic responsibilities limited his opportunities to paint; his overall body of work is relatively small. During trips to Europe, he painted panoramic depictions of Lake Como, glowing views of Venice and vignettes of Dutch life. Back home he created academic portraits of Yale notables, tightly composed Hudson River School-style landscapes and eventually more atmospheric, Impressionist works. A standout is “East Rock, New Haven,” in which he applied Impressionistic brushstrokes and softening light effects learned in Europe to an appealing depiction of a historic Connecticut landmark.
John’s works were similar to but more tentative and less sensitive than those of brother Julian. As art professor Betsy Fahlman observed of John, “There is no glaring eccentricity either in the man or his work, to leave an unpleasant impression on the mind.”
Along the way, John championed efforts of young Americans returning to their country to apply their European training to US subjects. Thanks to artists he encouraged, American art surged to new heights of achievement.
One such artist was John’s more original half-brother, J. Alden Weir, his junior by 11 years, who surpassed all the Weirs in prominence, honors and achievements in the vanguard of American Impressionists. Building on training by his father, he achieved early success with lush, richly painted floral still lifes, rigorously composed figural works, portraits and landscapes featuring bold handling of pigment and dramatic use of light and dark.
Study at the National Academy of Design in New York and in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts under French academic painter Jean-Leon Gerome gave him a thorough grounding in traditional methods. He studied Old Master paintings during travels on the Continent and spent summers painting French peasant life in the countryside.
Although he admired the work of Edouard Manet and Whistler, Julian disliked the Impressionist works he first encountered in Paris in 1877. He particularly objected to the new art’s lack of detail and form and its rejection of drawing in favor of direct application of paint to canvas.
After three years abroad, Julian returned to New York, where he did his best work in still lifes, usually flower paintings featuring roses with natural objects often juxtaposed with elegant silver goblets and other bric-a-brac in exquisite contrasts of natural and manufactured objects.
Liking Impressionist paintings exhibited in New York in 1886 and influenced by the fresh aesthetic of Japanese prints, which he admired, and the encouragement of his friends and early Impressionist advocates Theodore Robinson and John H. Twachtman, Julian’s attitude changed. Seeking to develop a more personal style, he gradually adopted the feathery brushwork, light palette and outdoor subjects of the Impressionists.
He depicted notable Connecticut landscapes, including his farm in Branchville, now beautifully maintained and interpreted by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site; the rolling hills in the west; the environs of Cos Cob and Windham; and textile factories in Willimantic.
Julian may well be best known for his portraits of women, which remained darker and more conservative for much of his career, as in “Against the Window,” 1884, although he eventually utilized looser brushwork and a lighter palette to create poetic moods, like “In the Sun,” 1899. Favorite subjects included his first wife, Anna Baker, who died in childbirth, and his second wife, Anna’s older sister, Ella Baker, and his three daughters.
Weir farm in Branchville, with more than 150 acres, was acquired by Julian in 1882 in exchange for a painting. For a time it was a working farm, providing horses, oxen, donkeys, tenant farmers, rocky fields, orchards, a pond and other rustic subjects for his art. According to art historian Lois Marie Fink, Julian’s views of the farm “present&xperiences where the beauty of nature conveys no less a sense of delight for being ordinary.” Today, an illustrated brochure guides visitors to small markers designating sites where Weir and friends like Childe Hassam, Albert Pinkham Ryder and Twachtman painted.
Julian added a studio in 1885, and one for sculptor Mahonri Young, who married Julian’s daughter Dorothy, was built later. The only National Park System property in Connecticut and the only National Historic Site devoted to an artist, Weir Farm offers a window into the world of a premier American painter.
Popular with fellow artists and knowledgeable about art history, Julian was a founder of The Ten American Painters, president of the National Academy and a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While his art was mild and unassuming, he was a strong force for progressive American art, more as a personality than as a painter. “It was Scottish thoroughness rather than vitality of temperament that gave the Weir brothers a grip on palpable truth,” says Larkin.
After closing in New Britain, the exhibition travels to the Mint Museum Uptown in Charlotte, N.C., October 20⁊anuary 20.
The 195-page, fully illustrated catalog, edited by Wardle, contains perceptive essays by scholars about the Weir family and its influence on American art. Published by BYUMA in association with University Press of New England, it sells for $49.95, hardcover. Wardle recently received the W.E. Fischelis Award from the Victorian Society in America for the book.
The New Britain Museum is at 56 Lexington Street. For information, www.nbmaa.org or 860-229-0257.
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