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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Willard Metcalf

Old Mill, Pelago, Italy, 1913, Willard Metcalf
Summer at Hadlyme, Willard Metcalf
I've always been quite partial toward versatile artists. That is, any painter, sculptor, etc., who can render all content areas in his or her art equally well. Most people probably don't give this talent much thought, but If you are looking for good art by a good artist, first check if that artist is versatile. of course, in buying, or even admiring a piece of art, emotional appeal is important. And that's not to say one should slight an artist simply because he favors one area of content over another. Virtually all artist do. But it's rare to find a landscape artist who is equally adept at portraits, or one who paints urban landscapes (or architecture, as seen above) as easily and as satisfyingly as rural peace and quiet. Few landscape artist feel comfortable painting interiors (right), unless that artist is summarily versatile. One such artist was the New England painter, Willard Metcalf.
Mountain View From High Field, 1877, Willard Metcalf, painted when he was nineteen.
Willard Metcalf Self-portrait, 1890
Metcalf is one of those artist who is difficult to write about. He has a very large body of extremely beautiful and expressive work, so of course, choosing and eliminating what to include and exclude is an excruciating chore. Moreover with such a wide variety of content, just picking "one of each" quickly mounts toward a group greater than I can use here. What makes it all the more difficult to highlight such an artist is that, except for a mid-life drinking problem and two divorces, the man's career was little out of the ordinary for a working artist of his time. Alcohol has long been as much a constant companion for artists as turpentine, and highly successful artists frequently have difficult personal relationships. So in those regards, Metcalf seems despairingly normal.

On the Suffolk Coast, 1885, Willard Metcalf
Metcalf in his studio (date unknown).
Willard Metcalf was born in 1858 to a working class family. He grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, to study at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. From there, in 1888, following the normal course of the serious, would-be artist, Metcalf was off to Paris and the Academie Julian where he studied figural painting and illustration (which goes a long way in accounting for his versatility as an artist). Eventually, Metcalf decided he wanted to be a landscape painter, taking side trips to the Brittany coast and England (above). In the mid-80s, Metcalf became friends with Claude Monet and became the first American to paint extensively at Giverny. From there he moved on to North Africa followed by brief stops in Venice and elsewhere in Italy. This penchant for extensive, almost constant, travel in search of interesting landscape vistas became a hallmark of Metcalf's work. If Metcalf's Ten Cent Breakfast (below) from 1886, is to believe, it must have been a meager grand tour.

The Ten Cent Breakfast, 1886, Willard Metcalf

Gloucester Harbor Sun, 1895, Willard Metcalf
It was five years before Willard Metcalf returned home from his European studies and travels. He first tried Philadelphia before moving on to New York around 1890, working as an illustrator, portrait artist, and part-time instructor at the Cooper Union and the Art Students League. The money was good but the art seldom called for landscape painting. In 1895 he moved on to Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he became a member Society of American Artists, only to join what came to be called the "Ten American Painters" who, just two years later seceded from the group protesting the placement of mediocre artists in leadership positions, a devaluation of Impressionism in favor of Classicism and Romantic Realism, crowded displays at exhibitions, and the general lack exhibition quality, which they deemed too commercial in nature.
The Ten, 1908, (standing) L to R: William Merritt Chase, Frank Benson, Edmund C. Tarbell, T.W. Dewing, Joseph R. De Camp. (Seated): Edward Simmons, Willard Metcalf, Childe Hassam, J. Alden Weir, Robert Reid.
My Wife and Daughter, ca. 1917, Willard Metcalf
The 1890s appear to have been a difficult time for Metcalf. His wife ran off with one of his students. He, himself, took up with a young model twenty years his junior with whom he had two children and whom he eventually married (some ten years later). They separated in 1920. Metcalf's lifelong friend and fellow artist, Childe Hassam (above, front-row center), talked him into joining the burgeoning artist colony at Old Lyme on the Connecticut coast where his work began to sell, his palette lightened, and he began to receive commissions, the first of which came from a tobacco company for a mural requiring him to travel to Havana for preliminary sketches and watercolor studies. His watercolor Havana Harbor (below) demonstrates the new "look" Metcalf adopted after 1900.

Havana Harbor, 1902, Willard Metcalf.
May Night, 1906, Willard Metcalf
Metcalf's first great critical success was his painting of the Florence Griswold House in Old Lyme, where he boarded. Today it has become something of a mini-museum of Metcalf's work. The painting was titled May Night and dates from 1906. It won the Corcoran Gallery's $3,000 purchase prize in that year (a sizable sum in 1906). The house as seen today is pictured below. However, in 1923, shortly before Metcalf's death, his nocturnal painting Benediction (now lost), sold for $13,000, which was a record for an American living artist at the time. The Corcoran Gallery (Washington, D.C.) held a large-scale retrospective of Metcalf's work in 1925 shortly after the artists death of a heart attack. He was sixty-six.

The Florence Griswold House, Old Lyme, CT. The house that made Metcalf famous.
Winter Afternoon, 1917, Willard Metcalf--my favorite


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