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Monday, November 16, 2015

Edmund C. Tarbell

Mother and Child in a Boat  (Emeline with Josephine). 1892, Edmund C. Tarbell
One of the most dramatic and traumatic experiences artists have traditionally faced is having to come to grips with a changing art world. It's tough enough making a living as an artist when styles and tastes are relatively stable. But pity the poor artist who has come of age accepting and being trained in one style or manner of painting, only to find that which is new has gradually, or perhaps suddenly, caused his or her work to appear stilted and old-fashioned. To some extent, this tide of change has always been a constant factor. That's called evolution. But when evolution becomes revolution, the artist is forced to either ignore the changes, hoping they're mere fads, or adopting the new in order to remain fashionable (and salable). French artist in the latter part of the 19th-century and again in the early years of the 20th-century faced this quandary. Do you adhere to the tried and truisms of Academic Art or swing over to Impressionism? Later when Impressionism became the predominant style, changes came along in rapid succession--Expressionism, Cubism, Symbolism, Futurism, Surrealism, and by mid-century, Abstract Expressionism. Each "next big thing" had its day. The question was, would (or could) a given artist "go with the flow" or resist in favor of traditional styles, techniques, and ideals? For a foreign artist studying in Paris during one of these transitional periods, there was a certain advantage. Since they were still malleable students, they could embrace both, a firm academic foundation coupled with that which was up and coming. That's precisely the course chosen by New England portrait artist, Edmund C. Tarbell.

Flanked on the left by self-portraits, the couple with the dog are Tarbell's son
 (also named Edmund) and his wife, Mary. The painting dates from 1920.
Born in 1862, Tarbell arrived in Paris twenty-one years later to study at the Academie Julian. Paris exposed him to rigorous academic training, which invariably included copying Old Masters at the Louvre, but also to the Impressionist movement then sweeping the city. Though he studied in Paris for only about a year, while in Europe, he availed himself of a Grand Tour including Italy, Belgium, Germany and Brittany. In returning to Boston in 1884, Tarbell set up a studio, began teaching at the Boston Museum School, and two years later, married Emeline Souther, one of his students and the daughter of a prominent Dorchester family.

The artist at work and the work of the artist.
Besides painting portraits, Tarbell was an early avid proponent of the Colonial Revival movement. He began collecting American antiques (back when most were considered simply used furniture). He arranged them with Chinese ceramics, Japanese prints and other art objects as studio props. Even though his models (mostly family), their attire, the settings, and activities have a distinctly Victorian air of upper-class indolence, his Impressionist painting style appears surprisingly modern looking--very Frenchy--despite his relatively short period in Paris. His wife and daughter depicted in Mother and Child in a Boat (top), dating from 1892, is typical of his blending of Academicism and Impressionism, a knack the French seem to have lacked. Tarbell's Preparing for the Matinee (above), dating from 1907 offers an insight into the artist's manner of painting, though the easel seems to have been moved to behind his model to accommodate the photographer.

The Boston School: Seated (left to right): Edward Simmons, Willard L. Metcalf, Childe Hassam, J. Alden Weir, Robert Reid. Standing (left to right): William Merritt Chase, Frank W. Benson, Edmund C. Tarbell, Thomas Dewing, Joseph De Camp
The Bath ca. 1892-93,
Edmund Charles Tarbell
From 1889 to 1912 Tarbell taught at his alma mater, the Museum of Fine Arts School. His students were so devoted to the man and his teaching manner they came to be called "Tarbellites." Then the museum hired Huger Elliott from the Rhode Island School of Design as a supervisor charged with reorganizing the school. Tarbell and others resisted. Elliott began lecturing Tarbell as to how to teach, then how to paint. Tarbell was irate, making no secret of the fact he considered Elliott artistically inept. In December, 1912, Tarbell resigned along with Frank W. Benson, a friend and fellow instructor. The two discussed founding a society to encourage art and artists in the city. With financial backing from the painter and affluent Boston Brahmin, Lilla Cabot Perry, Tarbell and Benson started The Guild of Boston Artists in 1914. For the next ten years, Tarbell was its president. His The Bath (left) from around 1892-93 is yet another example of Tarbell's "academic Impressionism." During this same period, Tarbell was also a member of "The American Ten," (also called the Boston School), a loosely organized, but highly influential group of Boston and New York artists (above) who had embraced French Impressionism and given it a distinctly American look and feel.

Woodrow Wilson,
1921, Edmund C. Tarbell
Helen Frick and her father, Henry Clay
Frick, 1910, Edmund Charles Tarbell
As his reputation grew, Tarbell painted portraits of several notable individuals, including the industrialist Henry Clay Frick and his daughter (above, left), and U.S. presidents Woodrow Wilson (above, right), Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. And quite apart from painting notables with only two legs, Tarbell became popular for his four-legged equine portraits such as New Castle Poppy (below) from 1926. Likewise, Tarbell has long known for the number of family portraits he painted from the time he married in 1886 until his death in 1938. The Portrait of a Boy Reading (bottom, left), dating from 1913, is probably his son, while Edmund on His Pony, Peanut, (below, right) from 1930, is definitely his grandson.

New Castle Poppy, 1926, Edmund Charles Tarbell
Portrait of a Boy Reading,
1913, Edmund C. Tarbell
Edmund on His Pony, Peanut,
1930, Edmund C. Tarbell

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