Americans were Impressionists, too

An exhibition of American Impressionist paintings is at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., until Sept. 16.

The word "Impressionism" normally conjures up images of Renoir's boating party, Monet's haystacks at sunrise, and other light-dappled scenes of France. But this style of painting, while being originally and quintessentially French, was adapted and developed by American artists in the late 19th century, who made it their own and then some.

American Impressionism – as embodied in the work of such artists as Childe Hassam (1859-1935), J. Alden Weir (1852-1919), and John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902) – became a school of painting that rivaled the beauty of the French school while maintaining its uniquely American quality.

Rooted in New England, American Impressionist canvases show forth the nuances of the wilder, less cultivated American landscape, in contrast to the more manicured environment of the French Impressionists' countryside. American Impressionist canvases also reflect the distinct atmospheric effects of New England, giving many American Impressionist pictures a more silvery tone than their French counterparts.

Although American Impressionism rivals the quality of the French, many Americans cannot name a single American Impressionist painter, while the names of several French Impressionist artists may come to mind. A new exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., aims to try to change that. "American Impressionism: Paintings From the Phillips Collection" features 72 American Impressionist works by 27 artists, including pictures by Hassam, Weir, and Twachtman, and Theodore Robinson, Maurice Prendergast, and Gifford Beal. It is the first collected public exhibition of these works in a quarter century.

Perhaps the first maxim of Impressionism that was embodied in the work of American Impressionists can be summed up in the phrase: Let there be light. The dark colors of the highly contrived landscape paintings of the Hudson River School gave way to a lighter palette and more relaxed brush strokes as American artists absorbed the new Impressionist techniques.

The innovative French Impressionist practice of "plein-air painting" – painting outdoors in front of the subject – brought more sun and spontaneity into pictures by American Impressionists, who grappled with new techniques of rendering the flickering quality – or impression – of light in landscape.

The most important development for American Impressionism was the sojourns by American painters, including Theodore Robinson and Willard Metcalf, in the French Impressionist colony founded by Claude Monet in 1883 at the town of Giverny near Paris.

Also crucial was the show at the American Academy of Art in New York City in 1889, which was composed of Impressionist canvases, many from Giverny. It was at this exhibit that many American artists first saw French Impressionist landscapes full of "heavenly calm," as described by an American critic at the time.

By the late 1890s, Impressionism had taken root in the US in a distinctly American form. "It must not be assumed that American Impressionism and French Impressionism are identical," said the art critic Christian Brinton in 1915. "The American painter accepted the spirit, not the letter of the new doctrine. He adapted the [approach] to local taste and conditions and ultimately evolved a species of compromise technique."

The Eastern seaboard, particularly New England, was the home of American Impressionism to such a degree that the school could almost be renamed New England Impressionism. Colonies were established in Connecticut and Massachusetts and were particularly active in the summer months.

Twachtman was an important member of the Connecticut group. A New York Times critic of the period thought Twachtman "caught the spirit of American landscape more successfully than any other artist of his time."

Twachtman was born in Cincinnati, the child of German immigrants. In 1883, he visited France. And in 1889, he bought a farm in a rural part of Greenwich, Conn., which became his home, subject, and inspiration for the next decade and a half.

Like Monet, Twachtman often painted the same scene several times in different weather and at various times of day, striving to discover its essence through art. "A landscape hardly exists at all as a landscape because its appearance is constantly changing," he observed.

"Twachtman used Impressionism to get closer to the essence of reality," wrote Lisa Peters in her book, "John Henry Twachtman: An American Impressionist."

Certainly in the painting "Summer," pictured here, Twachtman endeavors to get closer to the essence of that season. The subject is the countryside surrounding the back of his Greenwich house. In a palette composed mostly of yellows and greens, he renders an image of summer that makes palpable the warmth and light of the summer air.

Duncan Phillips, the collector who bought the picture, thought it represented "Impressionism carried to the height of spiritual expression ... the subtle perception of the modern realist pervaded by an idealism which apprehends the universal in the local, the eternal in the temporal.... even in the very likeness of the artist's little place in Connecticut."

To see "Summer" by Twachtman is almost to experience the season.

After all, American Impressionism, while formally defined as an artistic approach or technique, really amounts to a way of beholding and transcribing the beautiful.

"American Impressionism" will be on display at the Phillips Collection in Washington until Sept. 16.

The exhibit is scheduled to travel to six other cities in 2008 and 2009. For more details, visit www.phillipscollection.org/html/exhibits.html.

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