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Sunday, April 24, 2016

John Henry Twachtman

Yellowstone Park, 1895, John Henry Twachtman
Back during the years when I was
handing out free career advice.
During the years 1972 through 1998, when I taught in a public school environment, I en-countered at least two or three advanced students each year who were considering careers as artists. Sometimes I encouraged them, and some might be surprised to learn that just as often I didn't. By the time these young people reached the point of contemplating career decisions and pursuing the necessary training to accomplish their goals, I knew each one pretty well--their strengths, their weak-nesses, and perhaps most importantly, their dispositions. For example, exceptional creative endeavors are invariably a mark of high intelligence. However, a student with an exceptionally high an IQ might well be wasting it, ending up bored with simply painting pictures, inventing sculptures, or other such pursuits. I advised them to try something more demanding, perhaps in the science realm, and quite frankly, something more lucrative. By the same token, There were those with somewhat lesser degree of intelligence, quite talented technically, and creatively but without the drive and persistent work ethic that success as an artist demands. For such people (both types, in fact,) art can be a very rewarding avocation, but a vocation filled with frustration when financial rewards and stability are a driving factor. There have been some spectacular success stories involving such people (Claude Monet) for example, but they're rare. In general, any art student seeking little more than fame and fortune, has absolutely no place becoming an artist. Had I been the art advisor for a young Cincinnati artist named John Henry Twachtman around the early 1870s, that's precisely what I would have told him.

Dredging in the East River, 1880, John Henry Twachtman
John Henry Twachtman
Twachtman hungered for fame and fortune. He was embittered when he achieved neither, even in his hometown. In Cincinnati, he once complained, "A good many people, all of them supposed to be up in art matters, have seen my paintings, but I am convinced they care little for them. This is a very old foggied place and only one kind of art is considered good. The old Dusseldorf School comes in for its full share of honor." Like many good painters, Twachtman was never fully appreciated during his lifetime. His work went far beyond the representation of subject content. It had a searching, abstract quality that was poorly understood. Probably sometime during the 1880s, fellow painter, Edward Simmons, recalled walking up and down Fifth Avenue in New York with Twachtman, hoping to sell one of Twachtman's landscapes for $25. If it was anything like his Dredging in the East River (above), from1880, it's not hard to see why he sold little.

View of Venice, 1877, John Henry Twachtman
John Henry Twachtman was born in 1853 of German parentage. He first studied under the local German portrait artist, Frank Duveneck, though in doing so, he apparently never got around to painting a self-portrait. Starting in 1875, Twachtman spent two years studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. While in Europe, he visited Venice with Duveneck and William Merritt Chase. His landscapes from this time, as seen in his View of Venice (above) from 1877, exhibit the loosely brushed, shadowy technique taught at Munich. After refining his painting skills in Venice, Twachtman returned to the United States where he developed a forceful, realist manner, working to capturing the energy of city life in New York and Cincinnati. This is likely where his embittered comment regarding the old "foggies" of his hometown's art community erupted. Finding little success back home, Twachtman departed for Paris in 1883 with his wife and son to study with the popular teachers associated with the Academy Julian. There Twachtman continued to improve his drawing skills. The works from this period reflect an increasing interest in composition.

Twachtman's garden scene (above-left) suggests he may have communed
with Monet at Giverny during his time in Paris.
Twachtman moved back to the United States in 1885, living in various places, before finally moving his family to Greenwich, Connecticut around 1889. Family life at his 17-acre farm near Greenwich provided the all-important subject matter for his art during at least the next decade. He often returned to specific sites on his property, painting them repeatedly during different types of weather and the changing seasons, seeking to convey a personal response to the ever-changing aspects of nature. By the mid-1890s, Twachtman became fully identified with the New England Impressionist movement. American critics often compared him to Monet. However, his brush-work usually differed strongly from the broken strokes of other American Impressionists in that he varied his paint application from rich, tactile strokes to dry, chalky surfaces. His two views of The White Bridge (left) from 1895 (upper one) and 1900 (lower one), are typical of his renderings of the same locales at different times of the year.

As his palette brightened during the 1890s, Twachtman often depicted close-up views of flowers, and various favorite spots on his farm, as in The White Bridge paintings (above, left) and a whole series of waterfall paintings ranging from small brooks to Niagara Falls (above). If Twachtman seemed addicted to waterfalls, during the long winter months with their exceedingly short daylight hours, he displayed a similar affinity for snow...lots and lots of snow...the more snow the better. His winter scenes are sometimes so overwhelmed with such deep drifts it's difficult to discern the details.

Twachtman's Winter Harmony (lower-left) from the 1890s is one of
his best such works and undoubtedly my own favorite
Barnyard, 1890d. John Henry Twachtman
In 1897, John Henry Twachtman became a founding member of "The Ten American Painters" (sometimes referred to simply as "The Ten"). They were a group of artists who seceded from the Society of American Artists (what we might term the American Secession) to exhibit together for the next 20 years. Of "The Ten," J. Alden Weir, Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, and Twachtman united to reject des-criptive art in favor of more subjective, innovative interpretations of nature. Twachtman created some of his bold-est experimental works for inclusion in this group's landmark exhibitions. Beginning in 1900, Twacht-man spent his summers in the artist colony of Gloucester, Massachusetts. There he developed a bold spontaneity evident in his late Gloucester subjects, which are among the strongest and most aggressive works of his career.

Gloucester, Fishermen's Houses, 1901, John Henry Twachtman
During the summer of 1902, estranged from his family, Twachtman was living in Gloucester when he died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. He was forty-nine, a bitter and lonely man. After his death, his colleague, Thomas Dewing, commented on the artist's avant-garde spirit by describing him as the "...most modern spirit, too modern, probably, to be fully recognized or appreciated at present; but his place will be recognized in the future."

Woodland Stream, John Henry Twachtman

Enchanted Pool, Edward Henry Potthast. Apparently
this painting is often misattributed to John Henry
Twachtman, which I had also done until an alert
reader brought it to my attention (see comments, below).


  1. You have incorrectly attributed the painting "Enchanted Pool". It is actually the work of Edward Henry Potthast. See the artist's signature in the lower left corner. This is a common error all over the internet.

  2. I just spent the last hour or more chasing down the error you brought to my attention. I found that I had attributed the same painting to Edward Henry Potthast in an item I did on him. The cause seems to be that another Website featuring the complete works of both men had done likewise
    and However, as you pointed out, you can't argue with a signature at the bottom of the painting. I have made the correction on the Twachtman item. This only goes to prove how careful reference sites like those above and writers like myself must be in their attributions. I'm gratified, though, to know I'm not alone in making such a mistake. Thanks for reading and writing.