Editor's note: The following essay, with notes, was rekeyed and reprinted on May 16, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of the author and Worcester Art Museum. The essay was previously published in the 88-page illustrated 1997 exhibition catalogue titled American Impressionism: Paintings of Promise, ISBN 0-7649--0359-4. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue containing the essay, please contact the Worcester Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

American Impressionism: Paintings of Promise

by David R. Brigham

 

 

Light, color, atmosphere, and open brushwork were the rhyme and meter of American Impressionist "poems in pigments,"[1] Like the French painters who invented Impressionism, American artists at the turn of the twentieth century created landscapes, figures, and genre paintings that emphasized beautiful glimpses of their subjects under momentary conditions of light and atmosphere, Their palettes ranged from delicate pastels to more vivid hues, which artists applied in thick passages with brushes and palette knives. Light was carefully observed to reflect the season and time of day in which the Impressionists painted, and it served to soften edges and eliminate superfluous details. Bright summer light, perhaps filtered through a tree canopy or an open window, energized their canvases, while gentle morning or winter light offered a more reflective mood. These painters' emphasis on the fleeting moment created images that were at once time-bound and timeless. In short, American Impressionism offered a richly aestheticized view of the world, reflecting what one critic aptly described as "a sense of beauty in the abstract."[2]

Between 1880 and 1920, a period during which the American art world was mainly dominated by Impressionism, the nation was transformed in profound ways. The industrial economy surged, changing everything from the ways most people earned a living to where and how they lived, At one end of the social spectrum, families such as the Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Vandcrbilts became famous for their success in harnessing new technologies and complex finances. With the fortunes they amassed, they built lavish homes furnished with artistic treasures and made grand philanthropic gestures by endowing libraries, museums, universities, and other cultural institutions. At the other end of the spectrum, poor workers crowded into badly built, largely unsanitary urban tenements. Cities grew rapidly and became, for the first time, more populated overall than the rural parts of the country. Immigrants flooded into the nation, seeking the promise of a better life. They broadened the range of ethnic, religious, and cultural traditions and formed the backbone of an industrial work force. War was waged in Cuba in 1898, in the Philippines from 1899 to 1902, and in Europe from 1914 to 1918. Labor unions organized, and volatile strikes erupted over unsafe working conditions, low wages, and long hours. Violence scarred the political scene, most notoriously with the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. Issues of gender, too, were at a point of transformation and contention at the turn of the century. Women vied for better educational, employment, and political opportunities, most visibly in the seven-decade-long drive to gain suffrage that culminated in 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

In contrast to the swiftly changing social and political landscape, American Impressionism presented images of stillness, solitude, and optimism. Responding to the 1908 show of works by The Ten, an exhibiting group of the most prominent American Impressionists, one critic beamed, "And thus 'The Ten' deliver their annual message of hope, of life, of promise. Visit the display and fill your soul with color, light and the breeze of promise."[3] In an age of uncertainty and threat, the American Impressionists could be counted on to distract viewers from their worries. In place of the flux of modern life, their canvases offered a "suggestion of the permanent and universal."[4]

Critics did not seek social commentary or outrage from the artistic community but instead craved and found "a choice aloofness from the petty disturbances of the world."[5] For another commentator, a vibrant Impressionist canvas shone "like a good deed in a naughty world."[6]

 

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About the author

Dr. David R. Brigham earned his Ph.D. in American civilization in 1992 from the University of Pennsylvania with the dissertation, "A World in Miniature: Charles Willson Peale's Philadelphia Museum and Its Audience, 1786-1827." He holds an M.A. in American civilization/museum studies, also from the University of Pennsylvania, and bachelor's degrees in English and accounting from the University of Connecticut. He has published several books and catalogues, including the CD-ROM, Early American Art: A Window on History and Culture, and numerous scholarly articles and essays.

Brigham has worked at the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, since 1996, currently serving as director of collections and exhibitions. He organized there exhibitions on Hudson River School landscapes, American Impressionism, Winslow Homer, and Paul Revere silver and prints.

 

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