Portland Museum of Art

Portland, Maine

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American Impressionism: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

 

"American Impressionism: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" features 52 luminous works by artists including Mary Cassatt, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Childe Hassam, Abbott Thayer, John Twachtman, and James McNeill Whistler. On view at the Portland Museum of Art from June 21 through October 21, 200l, these late 19th- and early 20th-century painters rendered dreamy landscapes and garden scenes as well as portraits of women as objects of beauty, symbols of ideals, and subjects of changing societal and cultural roles.

"Impressionism is loved everywhere for its beautiful light and color, and for its modern view of life," said Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "Generous collectors have contributed wonderful impressionist works over several decades, making it the strength of our museum. We are delighted to share this unparalleled collection more broadly."

Impressionism was a revolutionary style that began in France in the 1860s, embraced by young artists tired of a conservative realism based on academic rules. By the time Americans discovered these new approaches to light and color in the 1870s and '80s, Impressionism was more widely accepted. The style was never strictly defined. As critic Robert Hughes has said, "Impressionism, as understood in America by the century's end, could mean almost anything." A light and colorful palette was usually enough to label a painting as impressionist.

The exhibition opens with James McNeill Whistler's Valparaiso Harbor (1866), a startlingly abstract seascape. Whistler, an expatriate and bohemian, moved in a circle of advanced artists in France. Quixotic and mysterious, in 1866 he abruptly decided to travel to Chile to observe a rebellion there. His veiled, indistinct views of the harbor at dawn and dusk announced a new kind of landscape, which he later named "nocturnes." John Twachtman developed Whistler's idea of an undefined landscape. Of his five paintings in the show, three present nature's various seasons and moods.

Mary Cassatt was another pioneer who left the United States to make a career abroad. Spanish Dancer Wearing a Lace Mantilla (1873) shows Cassatt's interest in the exotic people of Seville. Four years later in France she met Edgar Degas, who introduced her to the circle of French Impressionists. The Caress (1902) combines Impressionism's palette with the mother-and-child subject that became her hallmark.

The exhibition includes six major canvases by Childe Hassam, who is considered America's foremost Impressionist. Celia Thaxter in Her Garden (1892) portrays his friend standing amid a tumult of blossoms near her home on the Isles of Shoals, where Hassam often vacationed. The South Ledges, Appledore (1913) shows the same place two decades later, long after Thaxter had died. Despite the brilliant sunstruck color, there is an air of nostalgia and longing in the way the seated woman turns away from the viewer to gaze out to sea. Tanagra (The Builders, New York) of 1918, and Marechal Niel Roses (1919) show elegant women in interiors, each an emblem of both tradition and modern life. Pomona (1900) is a goddess of fertility in nature, inspired by ancient mythology. (left: Childe Hassam, In the Garden ( Celia Thaxter in Her Garden ), 1892, oil on canvas, 22 1/4 x 18 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of John Gellatly, 1929.6.52)

Four paintings each by Abbott Thayer and Thomas Dewing introduce other impressionist styles. Thayer's A Bride (circa 1895) and Girl Arranging Her Hair (1918-19) are sensual and romantic, and his two landscapes display luminous, opalescent color. Dewing preferred to portray his idea of modern woman as unsentimental and intellectual, slightly aloof, in dreamy landscapes or pale interiors. His wife, Maria Oakey Dewing, however, created the down-to-each Garden in May (1895), which is filled to the top with flowers. It is no studio still life, but a close-up garden view familiar to anyone experienced in pulling weeds. (left: Thomas Dewing, Lady in White (No. 1), c. 1910, oil on canvas, 26 1/4 x 20 1/4 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of John Gellatly, 1929.6.29)

In 1877, Theodore Robinson and Willard Metcalf helped establish an artists' colony at Giverny, in France, which was Claude Monet's home. Three Robinson works and two Metcalf landscapes reflect their interest in the French master, whose name was synonymous with Impressionism. Henry Ossawa Tanner borrows Monet's signature subject for his Haystacks (circa 1930), a late tribute to Monet by this African American artist, who lived in France for almost three decades.

The exhibition also includes key example by John White Alexander, Frank Benson, Robert Blum, William Merritt Chase, Daniel Garber, Birge Harrison, George Hitchcock, Richard Miller, Maurice Prendergast and Dwight Tryon, among others. Each invented a style that captured the freshness of the impressionist movement.

More than half the artworks in the exhibition come from two large gifts made to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Seventeen paintings were among a 1909-11 gift from William T. Evans of New York, who was a friend of many of the artists. In 1929, John Gellatly, another New York collector, donated his collection, including 18 of the paintings on view. Five others came through the Henry Ward Ranger Bequest.

In preparation for the tour, the Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired fine period frames for several artworks that were previously in modern reproduction frames. Frederick Carl Frieseke's Nude Seated at Her Dressing Table (1909), a homage to Renoir; and Childe Hassam's Ponte Santa Trinitá (1897), showing the famous bridge in Florence designed by Michelangelo, are now in gilded period frames. Canvases by Arthur Wesley Dow, Robert Reid, Henry Ossawa Tanner and John Twachtman also were reframed in period surrounds by the New York firm of Eli Wilner & Co.

Read our prior articles on this touring exhibition at Guild Hall Museum and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. More information, full itineraries and images of all 52 artworks in the exhibition for Treasures to Go can be found on the Smithsonian American Art Museum's web site. Please see our related article: Over 500 NMAA "Treasures to Go" to 70 Museums Nationwide (8/6/99). Also of interest to readers, AskArt.com has a wealth of facts and pictures on over 100 American painters active in Paris before 1900, 100 top American Impressionists active before 1940,

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/23/11

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