American Impressionism in Art
American Impressionism in Art
An Artist’s Paradise. Europe beckoned to American artists of the late nineteenth century. The painter William Merritt Chase, originally from Indiana, proclaimed that he would “rather go to Europe than go to heaven”—a sentiment shared by many in his generation. The art studios of Munich, London, Antwerp, Rome, and above all Paris swarmed with young Americans during the latter decades of the century. Some Americans—the painters James McNeill Whistler in England, Mary Cassatt in France—settled overseas more or less permanently. Others studied abroad and then returned to the United States to teach, to paint, and to plant European ideas in American soil. Of all the artistic movements to bloom in Europe during the 1870s and 1880s, none proved more hardy—or more readily exportable—than Impressionism.
The Many Facets of Impressionism. The Impressionist movement transformed painting in the late nineteenth century. Whether applied to a set of artists or to a set of artistic conventions, the term impressionist suggests both the “impression” of emotions felt by artist and audience
and the “impression” of atmospheric effects (such as light, shade, and color). As a French critic explained in the 1870s, impressionists “render not a landscape but the sensation produced by the landscape.” The year 1874—when Claude Monet exhibited Impression: Sunrise, a painting of the French seaport of Le Havre—is often identified as the birth point of the movement. Over the following decade, French artists such as Monet (1840-1926), Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Edouard Manet (1832-1883), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) boldly explored the interplay of forni and light. Strokes of color lit up their canvases. Many early critics considered the Impressionists’ broad brush strokes a sign of laziness and technical incompetence (“the original pancake of visual imbecility,” complained one observer at an Impressionist show). Others, however, yielded to the spell of what Whistler called “the poetry of sight.”
American Interpretations. Prominent late-nineteenth-century American painters influenced, in varying degrees, by impressionistic technique include Chase (1849-1916), Whistler (1834-1903), Cassatt (1845-1926), Winslow Homer (1836-1910), Frank Duveneck (1848-1919), Theodore Robinson (1852-1896), John Twachtman (1853-1902), John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Irving Wiles (1861-1948), and Cecilia Beaux (1863-1942). Born into a wealthy family in Philadelphia, Cassatt traveled widely in her youth. She settled in Paris in 1868, modeled occasionally for her friend Degas, and produced affecting, unsentimental portraits of women and children at play and at work. A sampling of titles— The Nurse (1878), Susan Comforting the Baby (circa 1881), Sewing Woman (circa 1882), Mother and Children (1901)—suggests Cassatt’s respect for the daily routine of women’s lives. Sargent infused his portraits of the social elite — such as The Daughters of Edward D. Boit (1882), Madame X (1884), and Mrs. Joshua Montgomery Sears (1899)—with glamour, color, and a dash of what one critic called the “nervous tension of the age.” Although best known as a portraitist, Sargent also painted landscapes. Both Twachtman and Hassam are remembered for their impressionistic renderings of American scenes. Twachtman, inspired by Monet’s depictions of the French countryside around Giverny, purchased a country home in Greenwich, Connecticut, and painted the changing moods of New England. His Winter (circa 1898) shows a landscape blanketed in white, with just a hint of a red barn visible through the frost. “We must have snow and lots of it,” Twachtman observed. “Everything is so quiet and the whole earth seems wrapped in a mantle.” Hassam, a Boston native, resisted the term impressionism which he took to mean “going straight to nature for inspiration, and not allowing tradition to dictate your brush.” More than any other American artist, however, Hassam captured the essence of French Impressionism in his American themes. In paintings such as At Gloucester (1890), Evening in New York (circa 1890s), New England Headlands (1899), Dewey Arch (1900), and Hollyhocks, Isles of Shoals (1902), Hassam created visual effects that one critic compared to “taking off a pair of black spectacles that one has been compelled to wear out of doors, and letting the full glory of nature’s sunlight color pour in upon the retina.”
Richard McLanathan, The American Tradition in the Arts (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968);