Commitment to innovative painting styles, especially Impressionism, and a desire for better-organized, more liberal-entry exhibitions led a group of late 19th-century Boston and New York artists to band together. Named “The Ten”, they exhibited together from 1898 to 1919. Their efforts led to public acceptance of Impressionism, revamping of exhibition designs and lessening of certain institutional controls.
Organization began with shared opposition to two established entities, the Society of American Artists and the National Academy of Design. In 1877, members of The Ten had been enthusiastic joiners of the Society of American Artists, whose purpose was opposing the conservatism of the Academy. However, in the eyes of the defectors, the Society proved increasingly frustrating with no continuity in exhibition quality, mediocre artists in leadership positions, crowded and unimaginative hanging of paintings and seemingly little support of Impressionism, then a leading-edge style in America. Reflecting the tensions caused by the bringing of Impressionism to America and the diminished support of its harbingers at SAA exhibitions, reviewer Archibald Gordon wrote in 1897: “As a whole the display is more rational, more serious than usual; rabid impressionism and clownish tricks of the palette are noticeably absent from the galleries. (Gerdts 189) The next year when members of The Ten were gone completely from the SAA exhibition, a critic wrote: “The withdrawal of the wing of extremists seems to have had the effect of rendering the ensemble more sane and inspiring, more restful and homogeneous.” (Gerdts 189)
[Members of The Ten were not surprised in 1906 when the Society, having also lost its Barbizon and Tonalist landscape painters to the newly formed Society of Landscape Painters, merged with the National Academy of Design in 1906.]
Organizational leaders of The Ten were Childe Hassam (1859-1935), John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902) and Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919). Other members were Frank Benson (1862-1951), Joseph De Camp (1858-1923), Thomas Dewing (1851-1938), Willard Metcalf (1858-1925), Robert Reid (1862-1929), Edward Simmons (1852-1931) and Edmund Tarbell (1862-1938). The group tried to persuade Abbott Thayer (1849-1921) and Winslow Homer (1836-1910) to join, but both declined with Homer wanting nothing to do with official organizations and Thayer accepting and then changing his mind. Childe Hassam later wrote he had the idea for The Ten one winter evening when he was on his way from his Fifty-Seventh Street studio in New York to Weir’s house on Twelfth Street. Weir was enthusiastic, as was Twachtman, whom they immediately contacted.
None of the organizers expressed interested in by-laws, officers, paper work and rigid rules of commitment. However, on December 17, 1897, participants signed an agreement to exhibit at every annual show and to admit new members only if the invitation had unanimous support. Although most of their joint exhibitions were lacking at least one member’s work, the group did hold to their understanding of having no fewer than ten members. When John Twachtman died in 1902, William Merritt Chase was voted to membership.
The day after the first meeting of “The Ten” on January 8, 1898 when the group publicly announced members’ withdrawals from exhibitions of the Society of American Artists, The New York Times carried an article with the headline “Eleven Painters Secede.” The article appeared before Thayer had withdrawn his name, but when the group numbered ten, some persons accused them of being snobbish by asserting that only ten artists were qualified. In his autobiography, Edward Simmons refuted these accusations. He wrote that limiting participants had not been their intention made obvious by the fact they had originally invited more people including Homer and Thayer. Furthermore reviewers and not members assigned the name to the group, taking it from the printed program of their first exhibition. Held at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in New York, the show had only ten participants, was titled “Ten American Painters” and had the Roman Numeral X as a decoration at the top of the program.
Many of those reviewers as well as the general public praised that first exhibition as being strong because of the individuality expressed by the artists, the quality of the paintings and the easy-on-the-eye, un-crowded hanging of the work. And many of the same approaches were used in future exhibitions. Each artist, limited to eight in number, chose their own entries, and coordinated with other entrants to avoid clashes of color. The main gallery at Durand-Ruel at that first exhibition was divided into ten spaces to showcase the uniqueness of each artist. Installation designs reflected the new theory of allowing plenty of space between the artworks, a hanging method counter to the Academy and French Salon approach of stacking paintings. This “de-cluttering” was espoused by James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), whose exhibition theories were influenced by the orderliness and calm mood achieved by Oriental curators. In the second exhibition of The Ten, also at Durand-Ruel, participants went even further to create a serene setting by placing cocoa matting on the floor and hanging white cheesecloth over gilt moldings.
From the inception of The Ten, members preferred small exhibitions and declared those shows their main reason for staying together. For their twenty-year group existence, they exhibited annually in New York City, usually at Durand-Ruel Gallery or Montross Gallery, followed by a traveling show to the St. Botolph Club in Boston.
At the time the group was formed in 1897, each participant was a recognized, successful, exhibiting artist, and it was understood but not a condition of membership that each member would participate in each exhibition. Although all of them kept their commitment to enter paintings in the early annual exhibitions some contributed more heavily than others. J. Alden Weir, who sometimes contributed the most paintings, and Frank Benson were credited as doing work that was more significant and original, and Simmons apparently contributed the fewest paintings in totality. In his autobiography, he wrote of friction caused by the large size of his murals and of his decision to remove himself from controversy with his peers by letting his dealer hang the murals.
By the 1905 exhibition, neither William Merritt Chase, the newest member, nor Edward Simmons entered paintings. However, in 1908, everybody participated, and that year, their tenth anniversary, The Ten had their biggest exhibition. Held at the Pennsylvania Academy instead of New York City, nearly 100 works were entered. But shortly after that, a decline in synergy and in leading-edge painting by members of The Ten was reflected by viewer responses. A reviewer wrote in International Studio that “. . . scant change has marked their production from season to season. . . .Quite frankly, these men move within too restricted a circle. They are not responsive enough to external influences. In certain instances they are positively unsympathetic, not to say hostile to the more recent manifestations of contemporary endeavor . . . (Gerdts 193)
1917 was the twentieth anniversary year of the group, which held their exhibition at the Montross Gallery. A fish still life by William Merritt Chase was judged the finest painting, but he had died the year before. The final exhibition was held in Washington DC the winter of 1917-1918 at the Corcoran Gallery and was arranged by Edmund Tarbell, Director of the Corcoran School. Although the exhibition was well presented, it was reviewed as a retrospective of artists whose days together had served a purpose that was now a part of the past.
Throughout the years together as The Ten, critics had often remarked on the similarity in styles of Benson and Tarbell and of Weir and Twachtman. These four and Childe Hassam were judged the most established Impressionists, and De Camp and Metcalf became much better known for their Impressionism after the dissolution of The Ten than before. Thomas Dewing’s name remains associated with Tonalism and figure painting, and he later said he was much more enamored with the camaraderie among The Ten than with any mutual devotion to Impressionism. Edward Simmons, a marine and figure painter, emerged much more devoted to mural painting than Impressionism and earned his ongoing distinction for his mural work at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Robert Reid stayed with the style of Impressionism, but his paintings tended to be much more colorful than those his colleagues.
Childe Hassam remained the primary leader of "The Ten” during its existence, and posthumously retains that position both in terms of relative high-dollar value of work in the auction market and numbers of referencing books. Using the auction criteria, the progression from strongest to weakest after Hassam are Frank Benson, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Dewing, Willard Metcalf, Edmund Tarbell, Joseph De Camp, John Twachtman, J. Alden Weir, Edward Simmons and Robert Reid.
Written and compiled by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, April 2005. Updated 2012.
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
William Gerdts, American Impressionism
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