Impressionists Pre 1940    

American Impressionism Definition:
A style that evolved from French Impressionism but placed more emphasis on form or recognizable subjects. Chief exponents were William Merritt Chase, who founded one of the first outdoor painting schools in 1878 in New York, and his student, Charles Hawthorne, who founded the Cape Cod School of Art in 1899. They espoused painting 'en plein air' (finishing the work on location) and depicting the changing effects of light with masses of color while modeling and defining the forms with distinct color variations. Source: Cynthia McBride, McBride Gallery in Annapolis, MD

Introduction to Impressionism

Impressionism, imported from France in the late 19th-century, was the first injection of abstraction into mainstream American art. It came ashore with artists who had been exposed to this revolutionary style while training in Paris and painting in the countryside.  The eastern United States fortified this first wave of Impressionism, which then traveled successfully across the continent.  Following its path is a trip with some very unique and talented individuals who stepped out of their studios into the open air to capture on canvas what they saw at that moment at that particular place.  Reflecting a new interest in optical effects, a free spiritedness and lack of academic constraints, these images spoke of a new time in western art history.

Although he had predecessors who did plein-air atmospheric painting and debatably Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) is likely more deserving of the recognition, Frenchman Claude Monet (1840-1926) is the artist most associated with the founding of Impressionism. The term is linked to a 1874 Paris exhibition of the Societe Anonyme composed of work by Monet and other artists rebelling against the strictures of the government-sponsored Salon exhibitions. Other Impressionist participants in this 1874 exhibition were Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), Pierre Renoir (1841-1919), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), PissarroArmand Guillaumin (1841-1927) and Alfred Sisley (1839-1899). Although there was not a style, their goal was to present paintings that focused on the immediate surroundings and the transitory aspects of those surroundings. It was a conscious reaction against Classical Realist studio oil paintings with their predictable themes of allegory, post-medieval religion, and mythology. 

Monet inadvertently provided the name for the new movement with his 1982 painting, Impression, Sunrise. A derisive critic, Louis Leroy, termed the group 'Impressionists' for the careless-appearing execution of their paintings. The exhibiting artists rejected the description, but the term stuck, and Monet, because of the critic’s attention as well as his hard work on behalf of the artists, was perceived as the leader. Between 1876 and 1886, seven more exhibitions were held in Paris with varying participants but with a steady offering of Impressionists including other core exponents of the new style, Edouard Manet (1832-1883) and Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894).

Characteristic of Impressionist paintings by Monet and his disciples is their ability to anchor the viewer to a particular place and to a fleeting moment in time. In other words, the artists were painting what they saw and not what they were supposed to see as dictated by tradition. Usually the subject is landscape, but it can include figures in landscapes or interiors. Simulated sunlight conveys a sparkling atmosphere that suggests everything is on the verge of rearrangement. A responsive viewer has a sense that quick change is in the air and that one is being swept along both by urgency and spontaneity. For these Impressionist artists, the motivating message was ‘paint fast and grab the impression before it disappears.’

Because of special methods employed by Monet and other French Impressionists, the human eye can sort through this montage of color, atmospherics, and motion and perceive a cohesive image. Involved is broken color, achieved with rapidly applied unmixed paint and even-sized, short brush strokes. On first glance, the canvas appears slapdash but in fact is the result of formulaic applications linked to the discovery of a wide-range of new color dyes for oil paint and to new theories about optical combinations derived from chemical research. Also, the development of sophisticated photography reinforced “magical instantaneity,” a term coined by Degas. (Denvir 13)

Impressionist paintings were shocking when first introduced because of their violation of the way paint was supposed to be handled and the focus on nature as subject matter. Another defiance of traditionalists was the casting aside of concerns about realistic perspective or diminishing space and throwing everything up front, “in-your-face.”

Road to Impressionism - Barbizon and Tonalism | Return to Top

The bridge to French Impressionism from Academism was at the village of Barbizon, near the forest of Fontainebleu, with painters who were active between 1830 and 1880. Leaders were Thomas Couture (1815-1879), Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867), Charles Francois Daubigny (1817-1878), Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), Henri-Joseph Harpignies (1819-1916), Narcisse-Virgil Diaz de la Pena (1807-1876), Constant Troyon (1810-1865) and Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875).  For several reasons, their approach was revolutionary, which initially made their work unacceptable to judges of the state-run Paris Salon and to a public used to formal paintings created with prescribed methods and lofty subjects.

At Barbizon, these French painters established the first art colony in western culture. Although their work varied in style and content, they shared innovative commitments that opened doors to Impressionism. The most revolutionary of their common pursuits was plein-air painting, facilitated by the invention in the 1840s of malleable-lead paint tubes. Looking back over a century and a half to this group in the context of an exhibition of their work at the New York State Museum in July 2004, reviewer Raymond J. Steiner wrote:  “They taught us to get our heads out of the studio. . . . They showed painters how to retrain their eyes to see nature as it was, rather than how it had been customarily painted by many of the earlier practitioners. They taught us to see trees, and water, and clouds, and windswept plains, and rocky outcrops, and farm animals, and peasants at work – but most of all they taught us to see light.” (Art Times, July 2004)

They diluted realism by experimenting with the effects of light and by conveyance of shapes through blocks of color arrangements. Tonalism, most associated with Corot, was the prevalent style that emerged and was achieved with somber colors and muted delineation, suggesting fading light, misty weather, and a time for quiet and meditation. Like successor Impressionists, these Barbizon painters depicted weather patterns, mood, and changing colors, but unlike Impressionists, they had little interest in sunlight.

Coming to America | Return to Top

During these changes in the French art world that increasingly challenged academism, numerous American painters were studying in French academies, private studios and painting in the countryside. Some of them, influenced by Barbizon School and French Impressionists as well as their country’s own landscape traditions including Luminism, paved the way for Impressionism in America. Leading names are William Morris Hunt (1824-1879), John La Farge (1835-1910), Joseph Foxcroft Cole (1837-1892), George Inness (1825-1894), Alexander Wyant (1836-1892)and Dennis Miller Bunker (1861-1890). However, with the exception of Bunker, they were not committed Impressionists, but were key players in its transition to America.

Bostonian painter, teacher, and lecturer William Morris Hunt studied in Paris from 1846 to 1852 with Couture and under his influence “developed a preference for making quick sketches in a flash of inspiration, rather than using intermediate studies” for the preliminary drawing. (Zellman 206). For several years, Hunt then lived at Barbizon, where he joined Couture and his good friend Millet and adopted their style of painting. When he returned to the United States in 1855, Hunt not only did Tonalist-style painting, but effectively used his strong connections with Boston collectors to bring much Tonalist painting of The Barbizon School to Boston.

Joseph Foxcroft Cole was encouraged by Hunt to go to France, where Cole then studied with Daubigny and Corot and emerged with a Tonalist style that in his later years became lighter in tone and more Impressionistic. Cole also played a critical role in Monet’s success in the American marketplace because he imported Monet’s paintings for American collectors.

Landscape painter George Inness did much to prepare “a climate of acceptance for American Impressionism.” (Spencer 41).  He began his painting career in the Hudson River Valley style of serene, panoramic landscapes with realistic color and shapes.  However, several trips to Europe exposed him to Barbizon painters, especially RousseauDaubigny, and Corot, artists whom he reportedly idolized. Because of their influence, he adopted looseness of brushwork, emphasis on mood or atmospherics, and depiction of activity in landscape. Returning to America, he became a firmly established painter in the Tonalist style, but he was not an enthusiast for Impressionism, which he referred to as a “new fad” and “evil extreme in art.” (Spencer 41). Since Inness returned to America in the mid 1850s about the same time as Hunt, “the beginnings of Barbizon influence on American tastes could be dated from that time. By the 1870s, it had become a fashionable style.” (Spencer 39)

Dennis Miller Bunker (1861-1890) is regarded as a major influence in bringing French Impressionism to America. In 1889, he returned to New York after several years in England and France. He was a close friend of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who had spent time at Giverny with Monet.  Sargent shared the influence of Monet's teachings with Bunker during a summer in 1888 when they painted together in rural England.

With new cosmopolitanism injected into American culture after the Civil War, people in the United States were increasingly receptive to new ideas, including some that were avant-garde from Europe, such as Tonalism, followed by Impressionism. These styles were a marked departure from the realist genre paintings of the Civil War era, from the landscape scenes of the Hudson River School, and from the dark, moody painting techniques American artists learned from the Munich Academy in Germany. Some elements of Impressionism were not new to American art because of the experimentation with light and atmospherics by the first-generation Hudson School painters led by Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902).

Art dealers, particularly in New York City, began importing European art, and by the late 1800s numerous exhibitions were held that included work by leading-edge French painters. A Ballet by Edgar Degas, exhibited in New York in 1878, was the earliest French Impressionist painting publicly viewed in the United States.

Giverny Inspiration | Return to Top

While some of the American painters studying in France were attracted to Barbizon, others, beginning in the summer of 1887, painted at Giverny, a small village in Normandy where Monet had his home and studio. Although Giverny became an artist colony, Monet kept a private existence and was not eager to socialize with ‘disciples’ who were fascinated by his bright, sunlight-ridden canvases, his energetic palette and depictions of bucolic local scenes including his signature haystacks and lily ponds.

Some of the earliest American artist visitors to Giverny were Theodore Robinson (1852-1896) of New York, and Bostonians Willard Metcalf (1858-1925), Theodore Wendel (1859-1932), Lilla Cabot Perry (1848-1933) and John Leslie Breck (1860-1899). According to William Gerdts, whose source was Texas Impressionist Dawson Dawson-Watson (1864-1939), Emma Richardson Cherry (1859-1954), who later settled in Texas, was the first American woman artist at Giverny, arriving in 1888 and staying into 1889.  Shortly after that first wave, Bostonian Philip Leslie Hale (1865-1931) arrived, as did New Yorker Theodore Earl Butler (1861-1936), who married one of Monet's daughters, Suzanne. (After her death, he married her sister, Marthe.) The most famous American artist to visit Giverny was Sargent, who arrived in 1887 and became a close friend of Monet, even doing a painting of him outdoors at his easel. For a period after that visit, Sargent adopted the high-keyed palette and plein-air method of Impressionist painters. Overtime, some aspects of Impressionism were incorporated into his painting, but he never fully committed to that style.

Other American Impressionists in Giverny were Richard Miller (1875-1943), Frederick Frieseke (1874-1939), and Guy Rose (1867-1925), a native Californian who became that state’s most renowned Impressionist painter. From 1906 to 1908, John Frost (1890-1937) painted in Paris with Richard Miller and often visited him at Giverny. Robert Vonnoh (1858-1933) and his student Robert Henri (1865-1929) are other prominent American painters whose careers were influenced by visits to Giverny.

Exhibiting in the US | Return to Top

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 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 TwachtmanAlthough 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.

1893 Chicago World’s Fair
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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. 

The Hoosier School | Return to Top

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. As 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,” which 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).

1904 Saint Louis Exposition | Return to Top

In 1904, the Saint Louis Exposition, commemorating the 100thanniversary 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.

Ten American Painters -- "The Ten” | Return to Top

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, a group of established Impressionists from Boston and New York rebelled against the Society of American Artists and its conservative ways by breaking away from the group and forming The Ten American Painters in 1897. 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,” they held their first exhibition at Durand-Ruel Galleries in New York in March 1898. (Peters 12). 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 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 1902maintained 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)

Boston School | Return to Top

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 HaleAldro Hibbard (1886-1972), William Lester Stevens (1888-1969), Charles Woodbury (1864-1940), Lila Cabot Perry, Herman Murphy (1867-1945) and Abbott Graves (1859-1936).

Art Schools | Return to Top

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 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 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.

East Coast| Return to Top

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). 

Connecticut | Return to Top

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 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.

Pennsylvania | Return to Top

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, Breckenridgewho later moved away from Impressionism to Abstractionopened 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.

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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, including perhaps the most significant California Impressionist, Guy Rose (1867-1925). 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.

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.

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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).

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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.

Impressionism in the South
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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. (Severens 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.

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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 Comparable within the AskART database of 250,000 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. 

If you have information to contribute on this subject, contact us via email:

Written by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, July 2004. Revised 2012.


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