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Impressionists Pre 1940

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At the turn of the century in Northern California, Tonalism dominated Impressionism, and plein-air painters could easily be discouraged by cool, damp, ever-changing weather.  Only a few artists were openly advocating Impressionism, and one of them was San-Francisco-born Jules Eugene Pages (1867-1946). He had adopted a pure form of French Impressionism when studying in Paris. Although he spent most of his career in Europe, he made frequent and extended trips back to the Bay Area, where he was a continuing influence.  Joseph Raphael (1869-1950) was a prominent-Impressionist Bay-Area artist who brought the style directly from France where he lived primarily until World War II.

Interestingly, the only California artist to have studied directly with a French Impressionist was San Francisco painter Lucy Bacon (1857-1932), who is relatively unknown today because she quit painting in her mid 40s to devote herself to being a Christian Science practitioner. Born in Pitcairn, New York, she showed such promise as a young woman Impressionist painter in France that Mary Cassatt used her influence for Bacon to have lessons with Camille Pissarro at his studio in Eragny near Paris.  It is likely that both as a teacher and an exhibiting painter, she exerted Impressionist influences on other California artists. Unmarried, she returned from France to teach at Washburn School and paint from her home studio. By 1898, she was exhibiting Impressionist style paintings such as A San Jose Garden at the San Francisco Art Association. (Her niece married Robert K Vickery the son of William Kingston Vickery, who in 1891 and 1893 organized the first exhibitions of Impressionism in San Francisco.)

It was the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco that secured the place of Impressionism in California culture. The showing of hundreds of Impressionist paintings from Europe and the United States startled many Californians, but made it obvious that Impressionism was the artistic wave of the ‘here and now’.  For many artists, the multitude of Impressionist paintings at the Exposition inclined them to use Impressionist techniques. One of the converts was Armin Hansen (1886-1957) who had been a Tonalist painter of marine scenes, based on his first-hand experiences as a sailor.  In Europe, he had learned about Impressionism, but in 1915, having attended the Exposition, he produced several paintings that California art historian Nancy Moure described as “the most outstanding Impressionist paintings created in the state.” (170) 

So far, in this discussion of the arrival of Impressionism from France and its subsequent spread across America in the early 20th Century, the geographical line has been drawn East to West. However, other parts of the continent were affected including Canada and the Southern United States, although the style did not impact those areas as strongly in the early 20th century. 

The career trail of William Henry Clapp (1879-1954) illustrates an interconnection between Impressionism in Canada and California, this time flowing from North to West. Clapp was an early and influential early Canadian Impressionist painter who later moved to California and was part of an Impressionist movement there. He was born in Montreal, and studied at the Montreal Art Association School with William Brymner (1855-1925), the foremost teacher of the city, who, in turn, encouraged his students to study in Paris. Clapps's good friend was Clarence Gagnon (1881-1942), and they took numerous plein-air painting trips together. These excursions introduced Clapp to regionalist subjects of humble peasants and rural scenes and steered him away from his early pursuits of grandiose academic subjects.  In 1904, Clapp went to Paris with Gagnon and several other Montreal artists and fell so much under the influence of Claude Monet that some artists accused him of copying the Impressionists too closely.  Clapp became a member of the Canadian Art Club, and in 1912 was one of the organizers of the Thirtieth Spring Exhibition of the Art Association of Montreal. This event, like the 1913 Armory Show in New York, introduced Impressionism and other modernist styles for the first time to many Canadians.

In 1915, Clapp moved to Piedmont, California where, at age 38, he became Director of the Oakland Art Gallery, a position he held until 1949. He became a member of the California Art Club, and was one of the plein-air Impressionist painters who, although loosely organized, carved themselves a place in American art history as the Society of Six. Nancy Boas, biographer of that group, described them as “hearty, frank individuals whose rough-hewn quality also characterized their work, both in their choice of earthy, unpretentious subject matter and in their spontaneous, vigorous application of paint.” (The Society of Six, 9)  Other members of the Society of Six were Selden Gile (1877-1947). Louis Siegriest (1899-1989, Bernard von Eichman (1899-1970), August Gay (1890-1948) and Maurice Logan (1886-1977). 

Describing the evening when this group of painters decided to call themselves the Society of Six, Louis Siegriest said they were about to eat one of the hearty dinners prepared by Selden Gile when William Clapp entered the room and started “talking about this bunch of painters up in Canada he used to know who were now calling themselves the Group of Seven and were starting to show together.  . . .Gile said why don’t we have a group; why don’t the six of us have a group and show together?” (Boas  9).

The founder of the Group of Seven in Canada was pioneering and crusading Impressionist, Lawren Harris (1885-1970).  In 1913 in Toronto, he put up most of the money to build a Studio Building of Canadian Art to serve as the meeting and exhibition place for the Group of Seven, regionalist painters who banded together to promote through Impressionism Canadian subjects of their geographical area. Closely associated with Harris in the Group of Seven were James MacDonald (1873-1932) and Alexander Jackson (1882-1974). Although, their dedication to painting was disrupted by World War I, some of the stylistic influence of the Group of Seven traveled far beyond their own province through William Clapp, transplanted from Canada to California.

Southern states had considerably less early Impressionist activity than the East and the West, and a major factor was geographical isolation from that first wave of American artists who reflected direct exposure to European influences.  However, Impressionists were at work in the South including in Texas and South Carolina.

In Texas, Impressionism made its big entry between 1927 and 1929 through the The Texas Wildflower Competitive Exhibitions.  This three-time annual event was the brainchild of wildcatter Edgar B Davis, a well-educated, well-traveled oilman, who at that time was one of the wealthiest and most influential Texans. His goal was to use his money to stimulate an art environment in his home state by bringing in well-known painters from many parts of the country to create paintings with the theme of his beloved bluebonnets, the state flower, as well as other wildflowers. Thanks to Davis, nearly one-hundred painters, many of them non-residents, had exposure to the natural beauty of Texas and vice versa, Texas had a cultural infusion of new blood.

One of the most skilled Impressionists brought to Texas in major part by the Davis wildflower exhibitions was Dawson Dawson-Watson (1864-1939). He was born in England, lived from 1884 to 1890 at Giverny, France near the home of Claude Monet, and then moved to the United States where his first job was Director of the Hartford, Connecticut Art Society. He also taught in Woodstock, New York at the Byrdcliffe Colony, and was instructor for eleven years at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts. From Saint Louis, he traveled to Texas where he participated in the Wildflower Competitions and in art organizations in San Antonio, and was so taken with the state and its appreciation of him that he settled there permanently in 1926. 

Native Texas Impressionist Julian Onderdonk (1882-1922), called the "Bluebonnet Painter", remains one of the biggest names in Texas art because of his plein-air floral landscapes painted near his hometown of San Antonio.  From age 19, Onderdonk spent most summers in the East where he had studied in New York City at the Art Students League with Frank DuMond and with William Merritt Chase at his New York School of Art and his  Summer School at Shinnecock, Long Island. Onderdonk credited Chase as the greatest influence on his life, which ended at the young age of 40. Chase was also a teacher of Houston’s Emma Richardson Cherry, who, as mentioned earlier, was one of the first American artists to visit Giverny.

South Carolina’s Impressionist activity developed in Charleston through a period called the Charleston Renaissance, 1915 to 1940. Local artists who wanted to “commemorate their past and chart their future” (Severens 3) spearheaded the movement whose influence spread throughout the state. One of their methods of increasing arts awareness was encouraging non-resident artists to visit.  Among the leading Impressionist visitors were Alson Skinner Clark (1876-1949), Childe Hassam, Ellen Day Hale and Lila Cabot Perry. Clark painted atmospheric scenes of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Charleston; Hassam, age 66, was there during March and April of 1925 looking for warmer climes than Massachusetts and Connecticut. He sketched St. Michael’s as well as other churches and later made Impressionist etchings from his sketches. Hale visited in 1918, 1919 and 1923 and was a founder of The Charleston Etching Club.  In future years, she was an active participant in exhibitions with her Impressionist, soft-ground color etchings such as the hazy, luminous street scene she titled The Vegetable Cart, Charleston. Perry, who had been a part of the American colony at Giverny, “found that her Impressionist palette and paint handling were sympathetic to the low country landscape” of the Charleston area. (Severins  144). 

Leading resident Charleston Renaissance artists were Alice Ravenel Huger Smith (1876-1958), Elizabeth O’Neill Verner (1883-1979), Anna Heyward Taylor (1879-1956) and Alfred Hutty (1877-1954). Of these four influential persons, Smith, Verner and Hutty adopted Impressionism. However, as Impressionists they tended to stay closer to Realism than some of its more pure proponents because they were Regionalists who wanted to depict their surroundings in recognizable ways. Smith became an atmospheric Impressionist landscape painter much influenced by Tonalist Birge Harrison (1854-1929) who was another one of the many eastern visitors to Charleston. Elizabeth Verner was a landscape artist whose paintings such as Hoeing the Fields were Impressionism.  However, like Childe Hassam, she sketched numerous church views and converted them into etchings, and this work was quite realistic because she wanted to feature the actual architecture of the buildings. New Yorker Alfred Hutty, came to Charleston looking for a warm climate to spend the winter, and settled there from 1920 to 1924, directing the school of the Carolina Art Association at the Gibbes Art Gallery. After that, he was a regular summer resident until his death in 1956. One of the founding members of the Charleston Etchers' Club, he was an Impressionist painter and etcher whose subjects ranged from lush gardens and plantation scenes to lower-class street figures.

In conclusion of this essay highlighting the spread of Impressionism from France across North America, a logical question is: “how strong today are those early American Impressionists?” Answers can be found by searching Literature and Price Comparables within the AskART database of over 270,000 artists.

Of the AskART top 100 artists ranked by literature strength, twelve late-19th, early 20th Impressionist names appear with Winslow Homer holding first position. In third place is Childe Hassam and in fifth place is John Singer Sargent.  Close behind are James Whistler and Mary Cassatt.  However of the total 100, only 12 early Impressionist names appear, and they are interwoven with Social Realists, Hudson River School Painters, Abstract Expressionists, Pop Artists and others not to be described as Impressionists. 

Scanning the list of names on the AskART Top 100 Highest Auction Prices, based on results from 1987 to July 2004, anyone looking for early Impressionist representatives can find only four names: Childe Hassam, Frank Benson, Mary Cassatt and William Merritt Chase.  And they are not leading the pack.  Ahead of them in this high-price race are Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Mark Rothko.  Analysis with this criteria means that in today’s American art market, Impressionists get a bit of a “come-uppance” by those Abstract Expressionists and Pop Artists who moved in so aggressively in the 1950s and 1960s.  Ironically they were following patterns of those early Impressionists whose innovations replaced traditions and nudged aside many painters presumably well established.

Written by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, July 2004


Nancy Boas, Society of Six; Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Artists; David Burnett, Masterpieces of Canadian Art; Bernard Denvir, The Chronicle of Impressionism; William Gerdts, American Impressionism: The Henry Art Gallery; William Gerdts, American Impressionism; William Gerdts, Monet’s Giverny: An Impressionist Colony; William Gerdts and Will South, California Impressionism; Erica Hirshler, A Studio of Her Own ; Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1786 to 1940; Susan Larkin, 'The Cos Cob Art Colony', American Art Review, 2/2001; Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City; Ralph Mayer, A Dictionary of Art Terms and Techniques; Nancy Dustin Wall Moure, California Art: 450 Years of Paintings & Other Media; Lisa N. Peters, American Impressionists; John and Deborah Powers, Texas Painters, Sculptors, and Graphic Artists; William Reaves, Texas Art and a Wildcatter’s Dream; Kathryn Schadewald, Actively Working, Silently Waiting: The Paintings of Emma Richardson Cherry; Martha R. Severens, The Charleston Renaissance; Harold Spencer, (Intro), Connecticut and American Impressionism; Raymond J Steiner, Art Times, July 2004; Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art


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