Winter's White-on-White

Small show by American Impressionist Twachtman makes a visitor want more. ART: REVIEW

`SILENT snow, secret snow'' is what writer Conrad Aiken called the wintry blanket that transforms a landscape. Shakespeare called it ``strange snow.'' American Impressionist John Twachtman (1853-1902) painted it - perhaps more than any other American artist up until then. In his words, here's why: ``Yesterday I painted all day looking from a window at the blizzard. ... But it was beautiful, and I could not stop painting and painted until it was too dark to see and I was tired out. It seemed to be a 50-round go, and I got knocked out at about the 11th round.''

Twachtman may have been K.O.-ed by snow that day, but he went on to win some other rounds. In ``John Twachtman: Connecticut Landscapes,'' at the National Gallery of Art (through Jan. 28, 1990), some of the most calmly beautiful paintings are his snowscapes.

In ``Winter Silence'' there seems to be a muffling veil of white over the scene, with an abstract jade-blue pendant of water in the middle of snow-laden trees and ice. In ``Icebound,'' a brook echoes the blueness of background trees in the winter light (other trees have frozen gold leaves), and the whole composition seems sunk in blue-white snow.

In his serene ``Winter Harmony,'' the trees and water blur with snow-melt from blue into lavender. His ``Snow,'' ``Winter,'' and ``Round Hill Road'' are also blizzard art. ``Round Hill Road'' is so thickly white-on-white that the curve of the hill and the poplars can barely be seen. ``Winter'' is so muted with thick white flakes that the outlines of the building and trees are just vaguely there. ``Snow'' with its mounds and drifts of bluish snow against a gray-blue sky is like a page from Edith Wharton's novel ``Ethan Frome'': It suggests frozen feelings, frozen moments, a lack of human warmth. ``Falls in January'' is a chilly spill of blue water over ice and snow, almost abstract from close up.

This is a small show, which includes other seasons among the 25 paintings done by Twachtman between 1889 and 1901 on his Greenwich, Conn., farm. They are ranked among the finest works of this American Impressionist. His 17 acres on Round Hill Road and sites in nearby Cos Cob, where he taught painting, inspired these works. The white bridge that Twachtman had built over the brook on his property is the subject of several dappled green landscapes.

When staying at the Old Holley House inn at Cos Cob, Twachtman painted the soft landscapes ``Bridge in Winter,'' ``From the Holley House,'' and ``View from the Holley House.''

His farm home (later remodeled by his friend, architect Stanford White) is the subject of ``From the Upper Terrace.'' This tender blue, green, and yellow landscape could have been done by a French Impressionist, perhaps Pissarro. In fact, Twachtman studied in Paris at the Academie Julian, starting in 1883. He painted in Normandy and Holland. Prior to that, he had studied at the Royal Academy in Munich. While he didn't mingle with the French Impressionists in Paris, he numbered among his best friends the American Impressionists Childe Hassam, Theodore Robinson, and J. Alden Weir.

After 1893, when Twachtman's and Weir's paintings were exhibited with paintings by Claude Monet and Paul Albert Besnard, the contrast between American and French Impressionism became the focus of critics' comments. The catalog for this show quotes critic Alfred Trumble: ``When you turn around among the Weir and Twachtman pictures, you seem to be looking at Monet, at Sisley, at Bastien Lepage through a fog, which washes out the force and substance and leaves the shadow. The mannerisms are all here. But the virile power is not.''

IN the same catalog, Lisa Peters, the National Gallery's assistant curator of American Art, describes Twachtman's ``adoption of Impressionism'' as unique. ``He incorporated broken brushwork and a brilliantly colored palette only when these were required for expressive purposes. ... His method consisted of applying paints with a loaded brush and mixing them on the canvas. He also employed unusual procedures, such as exposing his paintings to sun and rain to relieve them of excess oil and to achieve the dry surfaces he preferred.''

Twachtman's parents were German immigrants; he was born in Cincinnati. He studied art at a school of design which later became the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Frank Duveneck, a painter trained in Europe, became his teacher; he traveled to Munich with Duveneck, where he became one of the foremost American converts to the bold realism of the Munich style. It was a forceful contrast to the Impressionist style he later embraced and to the silvery influence of artist James McNeil Whistler.

THE sale of some of his paintings and a teaching job at the Art Students League in New York City finally allowed him to buy the Greenwich property, then known as Hangroot. He and his wife, the amateur painter Martha Scudder, had seven children, five of whom survived and were raised at Round Hill. Frequent separations from his family, ill health, and heavy drinking undermined him, however. The irony of his fame today is that he died in 1902, apparently considering himself a failure because that year the National Academy rejected his entries, and he hadn't sold a single painting.

The Twachtman show, small and choice as it is, has the effect of an hors d'oeuvre. The tantalizing books about Twachtman also on display here - ``In the Sunlight: Floral and Figurative Art of J.H. Twachtman,'' and ``Twachtman in Gloucester: 1900-1902,'' both from the Ira Spanielman Gallery, as well as Richard J. Boyle's study ``John Twachtman'' - make the viewer yearn for a larger exhibition devoted to Twachtman's whole career.

After closing here, the show will be on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., from March 18 to May 20, 1990.

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