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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

American Impressionism

Ivy League Rowing Regatta, Poughkeepsie, 1914, Reynolds Beal
Ivy League Rowing Regatta, Poughkeepsie (detail), 1914, Reynolds Beal. Note the brushwork. Only the title and the date distinguish it from the French brand of Impressionism.
Today, well over one-hundred years after the style peaked in popularity in Europe, art collectors the world over are still "in love" with Impressionism. Impressionism was not, as many tend to think, limited to just the French and its "founding fathers," Monet, Renoir, Degas, et cetera, et cetera. The English artist, J.M.W. Turner, painted impressionistically a full generation before the French progenitors picked up the style. Of course, Turner was not, technically, an impressionist, but the Franco Prussian War and the French art refugees who landed in England to escape the conflict, planted the seeds of a vibrant Anglo Impressionism there, while the Prussians, in returning to Germany after the war, likewise spawned a Teutonic version of the style. What's missing here? Why, American Impressionism, of course.
In the Orchard, 1891, Edmund Charles Tarbell
Impressionism did not come naturally to Americans. There was no winds of war to bring it to this continent (as happened with Abstract Expressionism in the 1930s and 40s). American artists wishing to be impressionist had to go to Europe (Paris, mostly) where they studied with second-rate, second-generation laggards too lazy to move on to anything new. Likewise this troop of Americans found the avant-garde too radical for their tastes, or that of those waiting back home to buy their work. Thus American impressionism came second some cases even third hand. And, like American ice cream as compared to European gelato, Americanized Impressionism lost much of its flavor during the course of its immigration.
The White Bridge, ca. 1895, John Henry Twachtman
This migration westward took hold of no insignificant number of American artists. However, most of them were quite insignificant. Think, can you name a single American Impressionist off the top of your head? If you think real hard, you might come up with the names Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, and perhaps Mary Cassatt (sort of...sometimes). Anything more than those, and you really have to stretch the definition of Impressionism. American collectors, like those in the rest of the world, fell in love with Impressionism during the early years of the 20th century, just not with American Impressionism. Why buy American imitations when crate after crate of the real thing arrived at trendy New York art galleries almost daily by transatlantic steamer?
Ravine Near Branchville, ca. 1910, J. Alden Weir
That's not to say that all American impressionism was inferior to the imports.  The New York artist, Reynolds Beal (top), is a fine example of one of the best. Edmond C. Tarbell, John Henry Twachtman, and J. Alden Weir (above) are three more like him. We might add to that list Theodore Robinson (bottom) and Frank W. Benson too. However, the one thing all these impressionist artists have in common is that they are not just relatively unknown (as with Child Hassam and William Merritt Chase) but that they are quite unknown, in some cases, not far short of anonymous. Yet their works are outstanding, on a par with those of Monet, Renoir, and the other beneficiaries of the Francophilia we've all come to know and love. Their only shortcomings as impressionists seem to involve their being born too late, and/or on the wrong side of the Atlantic.

By the River, 1887, Theodore Robinson, one of the first American Impressionists.

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