The genius of J. Alden Weir on View at the Met
New York — American Impressionism never really caught on in the United States, although it had several extremely talented advocates. Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, John Henry Twatchman, and several others adopted Impressionist theories and devices to produce a relatively small but interesting body of Impressionist works.
By and large, however, it didn't quite click - or at least not to the degree it did with such French Impressionists as Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro. But then, what was native and original to the French was learned and borrowed to the Americans.
Hassam and Twatchman produced some lovely Impressionist paintings, but they were too thin, and generally too pretty, to rate as major art. And Cassatt's superb oils were so clearly defined by her strong draftsmanship and flat patterning that they remain largely outside the Impressionist ideal.
One of the best of the American Impressionists was J. Alden Weir (1852-1919), whose career is currently being celebrated at the Metropolitan Museum here. The 30 works on paper and 70 paintings on view constitute the first major retrospective of his work in 60 years. They should do a great deal to place him a bit higher than before in America's pantheon of outstanding late-19th-century painters.
Two things stand out dramatically in this exhibition: Weir was a superb painter, a complete master of the art of transmuting raw paint and pure color into forms and images - and he depended a little too much on the art of others for his ideas and modes of expression.
Talent he had, probably as much as any painter could want. But he totally lacked genius and had to borrow little bits of it from others. One walks through this exhibition quite overwhelmed by his painterly facility, but also aware that the creative spirits of such masters as Gerome, Bastien-Lepage, Manet, and Degas are also present in a goodly number of his works. While this didn't really bother me - Weir was a master at assimilating influences - I couldn't, at the same time, get a clear picture of who Weir the artist really was.
He was brilliant with the brush. But as an artist - that is, someone with something to communicate through paint - he remained largely mute and tended to quote others.
As a result, some of his earliest works are among his best. They at least represent a young art student and a beginning painter concentrating almost exclusively on learning how to paint. An academic study of a male nude model, for instance, is exceptional, and an early, richly worked still life glows with his love of paint.
But as he came into increasing contact with international ideas and theories, and began to adapt his talent to accommodate what he saw around him, something went a tiny bit awry. He must have sensed he had gone a little over his head, for he began to ''dress up'' his art in order to hold his own. There's no question he did it brilliantly - and that he was one of the outstanding American painters of his time. But it is also true that next to contemporaries Eakins and Homer, he comes off second best.
After its closing at the Metropolitan on Jan. 8, this revealing and fascinating exhibition travels to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Feb. 9 -May 6) and to the Denver Art Museum (June 13-Aug. 19). Seymour Haden's etchings
I've never understood why etching hasn't regained the popularity it enjoyed during and slightly after the time of Whistler. It's a medium, after all, that engaged several of our very greatest artists, as well as dozens of lesser but still excellent ones.
Etchings are relatively inexpensive to own. One can get a fair, late impression of a Rembrandt etching for slightly over $1,000; excellent impressions by younger contemporary artists for slightly over $100. (One can, of course, also pay a six-figure sum for a superb Rembrandt or Picasso, and $20 for a print by an unknown.)
Not only have we lost interest in etchings, we've also lost interest in all but the greatest of those who produced them. It's common knowledge that Rembrandt and Goya were great etchers, that Whistler was famous during his lifetime for his prints, and that such moderns as Picasso, Matisse, Klee, and Miro have successfully used the etching medium.
But that's the extent of our interest - except, of course, for print professionals and collectors. Mention the name of Charles Meryon or Muirhead Bone to most art lovers, for instance, and there will almost certainly be no response. And use such terms as dry point or aquatint, and they only produce a blank stare.
Seymour Haden (1818-1910) is another unfamiliar name, even though he was the outstanding English etcher of his period. (Whistler, it must be remembered, was American.) Recent exhibitions of his prints have been rare, and the literature on him has been sparse.
Associated American Artists here has done its best to remedy this situation by assembling a major exhibition of 74 of his etchings, dry points, and mezzotints. These include his most famous subjects - ''Sunset in Ireland,'' ''Breaking Up Of the Agamemnon,'' and ''Mount's Bay'' - as well as some of his other prints.
Haden's specialty was the landscape, which he portrayed in a direct linear manner derived from Rembrandt's landscape etchings, but modified to accommodate his response to the English countryside. There is something almost primitive in this directness and in the starkness of some of his images. He could be subtle, but he was never delicate nor exquisite, qualities which almost define Whistler's later etchings and which most of his contemporaries perceived as intrinsic to the etching medium.
To my mind, ''Sunset in Ireland'' is one of the most beautiful of all etchings - with ''The Towing Path'' following along not very far behind. Both are represented in this exhibition by excellent impressions, as indeed are most of the other prints.
At Associated American Artists, 663 Fifth Avenue, where all 74 of Haden's prints will be available for viewing for an indefinite period.