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Impressionists Pre 1940

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The first exhibition of Impressionism in America was in Boston in 1883 at the International Exhibition of Art and Industry in the Mechanic's Building. By the late 1880s, the Impressionist aesthetic was adopted by numerous American artists including expatriate Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), J. Alden Weir (1852-1919) and John Twachtman (1853-1902).  Unlike most of the early Impressionist painters, Mary Cassatt, a student of Edgar Degas, deviated from landscape subjects and painted figures and portraits, especially mothers and children. She was born and raised in Pennsylvania, but spent most of her adult life in France.

The 1886 Durand-Ruel exhibition, hosted by the Art Association of New York, was a watershed event for the acceptance of Impressionism in America because it informed viewers about the nature of the movement. Composed of about 300 works, this exhibition had paintings by Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley and Seurat.  The enthusiastic reception to the exhibit led organizers to move it to the Academy of Design and to expand it by adding paintings from prominent American collectors including Alexander Cassatt, father of Mary Cassatt, and H.O. Havemeyer of Baltimore. Although the general public and critics were accepting of the work, many New York dealers were angered because the exhibited work from Europe had come in duty free under a special arrangement that sidestepped import taxes normally paid by dealers.

In 1891 two New York exhibitions at the American Art Galleries brought much attention to Impressionism.  One exhibit had paintings of Claude Monet, and the other featured work by J. Alden Weir and John Henry Twachtman.  Although separate events, they were reviewed together by most critics such as the writer for the New York Times who found the paintings “a treat for the apostles of light and air and the hot vibrations of sunlight in painting.” (Peters 9).  This critic described Twachtman and Weir as “advanced followers” in the footsteps of Monet.  Weir, a recent convert to Impressionism, had changed his attitude considerably from 1877 when he had first encountered the style.  In a letter to his parents from Paris where he was a student, he wrote: “I never in my life saw more horrible things. . . .It was worse than the Chamber of Horrors.” (Peters 9)

During the 1890s when Impressionism was moving into American art circles, it was obvious that Monet was the best known and most popular of any of the Impressionists. In addition to the 1891 American Art Galleries exhibit of his work, there were other one-man Monet exhibitions including ones held in 1892 in Boston at the St. Botolph's Club, an 1895 New York and Chicago show organized by French dealer Durant-Ruel, and an 1896 exhibition in New York by the American Art Association of Monet's paintings of Rouen Cathedral. Monet's name first appeared in American periodicals beginning in 1892 with an article by artist Theodore Robinson in Century magazine.

Several events were major players in the spread of Impressionism from the East Coast into other parts of the United States: The 1893 Chicago World's Fair Exposition, the Hoosier School exhibition in Chicago and the 1904 Saint Louis Exposition.

Called “The White City” because of its Beaux-Arts design buildings with their all-white plaster exteriors, the Chicago Fair was the major cultural event in America during the time that Impressionism was beginning to take hold in this country. With nearly 28 million attendees, the Fair provided a venue of wide exposure for American Impressionism, whose banner was carried by Bertha Potter, a leading Chicago social and cultural figure married to hotelier Potter Palmer.

Among the most popular Impressionist paintings at the Fair were Grand Prix Day by Childe Hassam (1835-1935), In the Orchard by Edmund Tarbell (1862-1938), Girl in a Red Shawl by Frank Benson (1862-1951) and November by Robert Vonnoh.  Impressionist paintings were, however, in the minority of exhibited works.  Most of the art entries by Americans, even if they were painting in the Impressionist style, were more traditional in order to cater to public expectations.  Nonetheless Impressionism made a strong entry. One of the most affected viewers was novelist and critic Hamlin Garland. A Bostonian, Garland had been exposed to Impressionist painting in that city, having seen paintings by his many artist friends including Dennis Bunker, Lilla Cabot Perry, and John J. Enneking (1841-1916). But Garland became so taken with what he saw at the Chicago Exposition that from that time, he dedicated himself to public exposure and acceptance of Impressionism. His assertion was: “the old is slain.” (Gerdts American Impressionism, 144)

In 1894, Garland moved to Chicago to help organize the Central Art Association, which he served as President.  Publications of the Association became his pulpit. Because of his prominence, his writing had widespread effect and was one of the primary reasons that references to Impressionism were frequent in the American press by the mid 1890s. 

Moving into the Midwest, Impressionism was promoted by The Hoosier School, based in Indianapolis and exhibiting regularly at Marshall Fields department store in Chicago. The Hoosier banner years were between 1890 and 1907, and according to art historian William Gerdts, the Hoosiers were Impressionism's “most significant reservoir in the Midwest for some time.”  (American Impressionism 149)  Hamlin Garland named these loosely associated painters The Hoosier School and promoted its members because they shared his dual commitments to Impressionism and Regionalism.  Plein-air painters, they focused on local scenery, especially nearby Brown County.

The leader of The Hoosier School was Theodore Steele (1847-1926). He and his wife built a Brown-County home known as the “House of the Singing Winds”, and this place became the gathering spot for many Hoosier School painters. In 1907, Steele founded The Brown County School on his property, and this School became one of “the most notable regional art centers in America in the early twentieth century.” (Gerdts, American Impressionism 149). Others associated with that locale and movement were Otto Stark (1859-1926), William Forsyth (1854-1935), John Ottis Adams (1851-1927) and Richard Buckner Gruelle (1851-1914).

In 1904, the Saint Louis Exposition, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Louis and Clark exploration of the western United States, had representation of both French and American Impressionists including John Ottis Adams and Theodore Steele.  This Exposition also helped to soften the American public towards Impressionism, especially in the Midwestern and Southern states.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, the founding in 1897 by Impressionists from Boston and New York of The Ten American Painters was a rebellion by established artists against conservatism. Led by J. Alden Weir and John Twachtman, they declared no commonality of aesthetics, but at that time, they were all painting in an Impressionist style. Later described by one historian as “an academy of Impressionism in America.” (Peters 12), they held their first exhibition at Durand-Ruel Galleries in New York in March 1898. The group continued exhibiting together until 1919, when their final exhibition was at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. By then, Impressionism was an established part of American culture. 

The shared commitment of all members of The Ten to Impressionism was not of long duration, Some members such as J. Alden Weir and Robert Reid (1862-1929) remained in the fold while others such as Edward Simmons (1852-1931), primarily a muralist, merely utilized elements of Impressionism as part of their experimentation with a variety of styles, methods, and subjects.  Thomas Dewing (1851-1938) had a style more aligned with Tonalism than Impressionism. Abbott Thayer (1849-1921) left the group because he could not commit to their exhibition schedule. He also was much better known for his idealized paintings of beautiful women in flowing gowns than for the landscape paintings he did with Impressionist style. Childe Hassam remained an Impressionist, although he distanced himself from French Impressionism because he was more interested in emotional expression than in the techniques of color application. Although John Twachtman remained an Impressionist because of his vigorous application of unmixed paint and disregard of perspective, he often omitted sunlight in order to depict grey-day subjects. Willard Metcalf ultimately combined Impressionist and Hudson River School styles. Edmund Tarbell and Joseph DeCamp (1858-1923) experimented with Impressionism but later turned away from it completely, and Frank Benson continued throughout his career to incorporate the style into his paintings but also did interiors that were dark and quiet in tone. William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), who became a member of The Ten when Twachtman died in 1902, maintained a commitment to open-air painting as a method but not to strict Impressionism as a style. Although sympathetic with their political goals and aesthetically aligned with the Impressionists' concern about light as visual sensation, Winslow Homer (1836-1910) declined affiliation with The Ten because he lacked interest in formal associations. One obvious omission amongst this group of leading early American Impressionists was Theodore Robinson who, according to historian William Gerdts, “almost certainly would have been among them had he lived.” (Gerdts,  American Impressionism, 77)

Several members of The Ten were Boston painters and also part of a group known as The Boston School, active from the 1890s into the early 20th Century.  Never officially organized, they were, however, easily recognized as a circle of painters who were either teachers or students at the Museum School. They had quarters in the Fenway Studio Building on Ipswich Street or in their homes and generally were close personal friends who exhibited together and critiqued each other's work. They had a mutual style of solid structure and excellent craftsmanship that combined Impressionism with Realism, and they focused on subjects that conveyed beauty, elegance and refinement.  Upper-class women in sunlit interiors or sun-filled landscapes were a popular depiction as were impeccably arranged still lifes. Narrative genre scenes and laboring people were deliberately avoided because they were unpleasant to gentile eyes. Leaders were Edmund Tarbell, Frank Benson, Joseph DeCamp and William M. Paxton (1869-1941), and other associated painters included Lillian Hale (1881-1963), Philip Hale, Aldro Hibbard (1886-1972), William Lester Stevens (1888-1969), Charles Woodbury (1864-1940) Lila Cabot Perry, Herman Murphy (1867-1945) and Abbott Graves (1859-1936).

In the early 20th century, Impressionism spread throughout North America. Key to that growth were art schools that focused on plein-air landscape painting, a method that hearkened back to the Barbizon painters and challenged the artist to finish the work quickly, in the ‘open air', to capture the moment. Art historian William Gerdts states that John Twachtman's Newport, Rhode Island summer class in 1889 “sparked the outdoor teaching movement.” (American  Impressionism, 130).

Among distinguished Impressionist-style painters who were also noted teachers of plein-air painting were Charles Hawthorne (1872-1930) at his Cape Cod Art School in Provincetown, Massachusetts; Joseph DeCamp at Annisquam, New York; Charles Woodbury at East Gloucester, Massachusetts; and William Merritt Chase who in 1891 founded a school at Shinnecock on Long Island.  Shinnecock with its excellent organization and longevity became the best known of the summer art schools.

In addition to the summer art schools, a major contributor to the firming of Impressionism as an accepted American style was the establishment of art colonies including of course, the above-mentioned, Hoosier School.  Of special note in the East was Impressionist activity in Massachusetts along the North Shore including Gloucester, Rockport and Cape Ann; in Connecticut at Cos Cob, Old Lyme, and Mystic; and in Pennsylvania at New Hope. Moving far to the West, Southern California, especially Laguna Beach, had strong activity that fostered Impressionism. The movement also made its way to the American South, especially in Texas and South Carolina, and to Canada with the Group of Seven.

Leading Massachusetts North Shore painters were Hassam, Twachtman, De Camp and Cincinnati's Frank Duveneck (1848-1919), who had also been Twachtman's teacher. Another North Shore painter from Cincinnati was Lewis Meakin (1850-1917), whose painting style moved from Tonalism to Impressionism. Women Impressionist painters in this location included Harriet Randall Lumis (1870-1953) and Julie Morrow De Forest (1881-1979). 

Between 1890 and 1920, Cos Cob, a section of Greenwich, Connecticut, was a gathering place of a lively group of Impressionists who, as an artist colony, are credited for securing public perception that indeed, Impressionism did have a legitimate, reputable place in American art.  John Twachtman was the magnate, and he attracted both his peers and students from his classes at the Art Students League in New York City.  At Cos Cob, he taught Impressionism in regularly scheduled outdoor-painting classes.  Shortly after, in 1892, J Alden Weir joined him as a teacher. Ernest Lawson (1873-1939) became one of the regular and more prominent students, and younger artists including Charles Ebert (1873-1959) adopted the techniques and style of Twachtman and Weir.

In 1910, Ebert moved to Old Lyme, Connecticut, which became the most famous of the Impressionist colonies in the United States. A local woman, Florence Griswold, in her spacious home (now the Florence Griswold Museum) provided the gathering place for members of the colony.  She was from a prominent family whose fortune had dwindled, so she took in boarders.  Clark Voorhees (1871-1933, arriving in 1896, was the first artist to take advantage of living in her stately mansion. He spent his days painting the countryside, especially noted for its flowering laurel, the state flower of Connecticut. 

Three years later, in 1899, Henry Ward Ranger (1858-1916), a Tonalist-landscape painter, found Old Lyme to be the perfect spot for his long-held idea of establishing a Barbizon Colony in America.  He worked hard to achieve this goal, but Impressionism took over led by Childe Hassam.

According to historian William Gerdts, Hassam “was the catalyst that changed the Old Lyme aesthetic from Tonalist to Impressionist, beginning with his brilliantly colored representations of the Old Congregational Church.” (American Impressionism, 233) 

Others who joined Hassam at Old Lyme were Walter Griffin (1861-1935), Willard Metcalf, Will Howe Foote (1874-1965), William Chadwick (1879-1962), Edward Rook (1870-1960) and Guy Carleton Wiggins (1883-1962), who remains one of the best-known of the Old Lyme artists. In 1902, Frank DuMond (1865-1951) first arrived in Old Lyme, and with Will Howe Foote as his assistant, established the Lyme Summer School of Art. Two years later, nearly 50 students were enrolled, and by 1906, local pressure for a quiet community caused him to move the school to Woodstock, New York. DuMond and his wife owned property in Old Lyme, so he continued to give private lessons there.  For part of his 50-year teaching career at the Art Students League in New York City, he commuted back and forth, and it was not unusual for him to take the night ferry from New London so he could meet a morning class.

Another Connecticut center for Impressionism was Mystic, which was discovered by artists several years earlier than Old Lyme.  The founder and leading artist of Mystic was Charles Harold Davis (1856-1933), who had settled there in 1892.  Early in his career, having studied in Paris and spent time in Barbizon, he was a committed Tonalist. However, from 1894, he made a gradual transformation to Impressionism, which by 1900 was his signature style. Davis was especially noted for billowy cloudscapes, with brilliant blues and whites and a sense of quickly changing formations.

Meanwhile Impressionism was catching on in Pennsylvania where several artists affiliated with the Pennsylvania Academy had adopted the style while studying in France. But Impressionism did not have the same impact in Philadelphia as in New York and Boston, likely because of the strong influence of academic realism at the Pennsylvania Academy with teachers Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and Thomas Anshutz (1851-1912). 

Impressionist leaders in that state were Hugh Breckenridge (1870-1937) and Edward Willis Redfield (1869-1965), both whom had studied at the Academy and then in France. Returning to his home state, Breckenridge, who later moved away from Impressionism to Abstraction, opened a school in 1898 in Darby, Pennsylvania, and did landscape and garden scenes described as “among the strongest and best Impressionist works of the period in this country”. (Gerdts,  American  Impressionism, 233). In 1898, Redfield moved to Center Bridge in Bucks County on the Delaware River, and other artists joined him, most notably Daniel Garber (1880-1958), Robert Spencer (1879-1931), Walter Schofield (1867-1944) and George Gardner Symons (1861-1930).  These men became leaders of a colony of artists known as The Pennsylvania School or the New Hope Impressionists. Although they held to the Impressionist methods of plein-air painting, vigorous and quick brush strokes, thick application of paint, and often atmospheric tone, their depictions of local scenery had a lot of realism, which to some critics seems more related to the naturalism of Winslow Homer than to pure French Impressionism. A key person in keeping the market alive for these New Hope artists, especially during the Depression years, was Frederick Newlin Price, a member of a prominent New Hope family, who owned the prestigious Feragill Gallery on East 57th Street in New York.

Because of artists from the East and Midwest and well-traveled resident artists, Impressionism found a welcome home in Southern California before World War I.  There numerous painters adopted the style because it “was such a natural vehicle for transcribing the local landscape that it could not be suppressed.” (Moure  161). Dedicated plein-air painters founded The California Art Club in Los Angeles in 1909, and William Wendt (1865-1946) served as President for the first six years. Called the Dean of California painters, he had been exposed to Impressionism in Chicago where he had spent the early part of his career.  He painted with a bold style that art historian Michael Zellman described as ”masculine impressionism” (596) because of his robust, firm brushwork and bright colors. It was a much more aggressive approach to painting than the feathery-brushwork methods of adherents to pure French Impressionism.

Other well-known Southern California impressionists were George Gardner Symons (1861-1930), a painting companion of Wendt who had migrated from Pennsylvania, and Granville Redmond (1871-1935), who popularized paintings of landscapes with poppies, an emulation of Claude Monet's fields of wildflowers.  With the advent of World War I, many American artists who had been in Europe returned to America.  Guy Rose (1867-1925) came back to his native Southern California in 1914 and, with direct ties to Claude Monet and Giverny, became the most significant California Impressionist.  He had studied in Paris from 1888 to 1891, and spent the years 1912 to 1914 at Giverny with Monet.  In contrast to Wendt whose Impressionist style was dubbed “masculine”, Rose earned a reputation for “feminine” Impressionism because his soft tones and delicate brushwork aligned him with Monet.  Rose also imported Impressionism by hosting his Giverny friend Richard Miller as a teacher at the Stickley School in Pasadena. 

In San Diego, Maurice Braun (1877-1941) was the leading Impressionist, and he spread his influence through his San Diego Academy of Art, which he founded in 1910. A leading student of Braun's was Alfred Mitchell (1888-1972).  Colin Campbell Cooper (1856-1937) arrived in California from the East Coast when his work was included in the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco. He loved to paint garden scenes, and settling in Santa Barbara, he opened a prestigious school, and also traveled widely in search of subjects.

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