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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Wilson Irvine

A Homestead Apart, Wilson Irvine
Gloucester Harbor, Wilson Irvine
When I used to teach adult painting classes, and in helping students choose content for the beginning artists, I usually encouraged them to start with either a still-life or a landscape. If the student was good at drawing (quickly, easily, and accurately) I moved them in the direction of still-lifes or a fairly complex landscape scene much like the image at left. If not, we chose a landscape photo (often from old calendar) perhaps something like the image above, a simple composition, with an easily-rendered single focal point and lots of "camouflage" visual texture to play with. It wasn't the most creative approach to painting, but for the beginner, building confidence and learning technique trumps creativity any day of the week. I've always felt that creativity was highly overrated in that there's very little very new in art, especially for the beginning artist. This procedure also familiarized students with the many technical benefits and pitfalls inherent in the most convenient method of painting--from photos.

Wilson Irvine, American Impressionist ca. 1920
Indian Summer Days, Wilson Irvine.
Sometimes Impressionism veers off to
flirt with Abstract Expressionism.
Usually, my painting students moved on to animals, buildings, even portraits--whatever was "important" to them. However, many artists who paint landscapes have never "moved up." There are those, of course, who would resent my implying a hierarchy as to painting content, but the fact is, such thinking has long been a part the art world, dating back at least to the 17th-century when such specialization first developed during the Dutch "Golden Age." One such artist who did not see any point in moving beyond landscapes was the American Impressionist, Wilson Irvine.  Of course, Impressionism was first and foremost about landscapes and when you seldom paint anything else, you tend to get pretty good at what you do. Moreover, Irvine's landscapes (top) seem to have a distinctive "look" unlike that of any impressionist I've ever seen (above, left).  I love his work.
Stone Bridge in Old Lyme, Wilson Irvine
Tea Party with the Artist's Daughter, Lois,
Wilson Irvine 
Wilson Henry Irvine was born near Byron, Illinois, in 1869. He was a product of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Portrait Company, which, ironically, might account for the fact there can be found few portraits in his oeuvre. (He is purported to have once painted a self-portrait, but I could find no evidence of it.) That's not to say he could paint nothing except landscapes. There are a few very acceptable figural works (usually reclining female figures) even a nude or two among his landscapes. I was especially captivated by his Tea Party with the Artist's Daughter, Lois (right). The title might suggest a cute little girl in a frilly white dress serving pretend tea to her friends. "Lois" turns out to be a very attractive young woman and any frilly white dress has long since given way to a plenitude of brilliant color that so dominates virtually all of Irvine's work, giving it a distinctively American look (an Impressionist trait American seem to adore).

Snowy Banks, 1908, Wilson Irvine
Sun-dappled stream in winter, Wilson Irvine 
Although Irvine's French counterparts dabbled in what they termed "effet de neige" (effect of snow), Irvine seems to have been hardly less than infatuated with it (and this from a man who habitually painted outdoors). Like Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro, close observation told him that Impressionist snow was seldom white (except in the most brilliant light) but instead, often came in shades of pale yellows and gentle blue-grays contrasting with warm browns in trees or visible undergrowth, and greenish blues in its liquid state. Irvine's Snowy Banks (above) from 1908. demonstrates this phenomena perfectly. I don't know whether that painting or his Sun-dappled stream in winter (right, sometimes called Winter Brook) tends to be my favorite. Both capture a natural beauty which equals or surpasses that of any other season of the year.

French Quarter Courtyard with Woman Sweeping and Children, 1927-28, Wilson Irvine.
Though having spent most of his adult life in the Chicago area, Irvine is most closely associated with the artist colony of Old Lyme, Connecticut. He moved there permanently in 1914, though he'd often vacationed in that area and other scenic spots in the East. Irvine was also fond of Europe which he first visited in 1908 (England and France), then England alone again in 1923. Finally, in 1928-29, at the age of sixty, he painted in the Martiniques (southern France) and Ronda in southern Spain, adding an international quality to his work. Irvine's sojourns into the heart of Impressionist country, though some forty to fifty years after the fact, are indicative of a life-long dedication, not just to a style of painting, but a devotion to landscape painting matched by few other American artists. Wilson  Henry Irvine died of a stroke in 1936.

Brittany Coast, (probably from the 1908 trip to Europe), Wilson Irvine


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