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




The art and culture of Japan came to fascinate the West after that land opened to Western trade in 1854. International exhibitions in Europe and America -- London (1862), Paris (1867), Vienna (1873), and Philadelphia (1876) -- included substantial representations of Japanese culture.[32] In the ensuing decades Japanese imports entered Western markets, and Eastern motifs and compositional devices were added to the general design vocabulary. Scholarly and popular writing fueled interest in what seemed to be an exotic and mysterious culture.[33] More significantly, according to one major thrust of interpretation, Japan represented a decidedly premodern society.[34] In an age when production was becoming increasingly mechanized, the West perceived Japan as a stronghold of hand craftsmanship. When contrasted with industrialists' ostentatious displays and middle-class domestic clutter, Japanese decoration was seen as a model of restraint.[35]

The turn of the century was a time of longing for stability and order, and for many Japan embodied cultural values that were felt to be sorely lacking in America. Japan's hierarchical social systems stood for productive resignation to one's station in life, as opposed to the kind of social turmoil signaled by growing labor unrest in America.[36] The Haymarket riots in 1886 and the Pullman strike in 1894, both of which unfolded in Chicago, were the most visible demonstrations of growing class tensions. Frustration with American labor was even felt in the furniture industry, and promoters of craft revival held up the example of Japan as "that land of . . . divine obedience to authority."[37]

Japanese culture also was held up as an antidote to American materialism. Beginning in about the 1880s, a burgeoning commercial culture made its first: concerted efforts to promote new desires that could be satisfied through material consumption. In contrast to the measurement of success through possessions, Buddhist teachings promoted "ascetic practices and meditative exercises."[38] Such impressions were shared by Europeans. Art historian Stephen Eisenman has observed, for instance, that for Vincent van Gogh, "Japan was not simply a sign of chicness and exoticism: it was also a dream-image of utopia."[39] Of course, such perceptions had more to do with Western needs than with the real state of Japanese culture.

A deep admiration for Japan was shared by a number of important collectors, whose donations to newly founded American museums created permanent public repositories or displays. Vast collections of Japanese ceramics and prints were amassed by John Chandler Bancroft, William Sturgis Bigelow, Charles Lang Freer, and Denman Ross. Through a deed written in 1906, Freer's collections established the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Bigelow and Ross donated their holdings to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and Bancroft bequeathed more than three thousand woodcuts to the Worcester Art Museum in 1901.[40] Although Japanese culture was used to critique rampant American acquisitiveness and industrialization -- in which these men actively participated -- an appreciation for the subtleties of Japanese aesthetics was at the same time seen as a sign of refinement.[41] The benefactions of men such as Bancroft and Sturgis constituted important public statements of connoisseurship. Commenting on the significance of these large-scale donations, cultural historian T. J. Jackson Lears wrote, "In their impressive new institutional homes, collections of premodern artifacts became new and striking emblems of upper-class cultural authority."[42]

American Impressionists, like their French counterparts, responded to this trend, adopting both the accoutrements and the design principles of Japanese aesthetics. James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), who spent much of his career in London, was among the first American painters to incorporate the lessons of Japanese art into a pre-Impressionist work, His oil sketch for Rose and Silver: La Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine (Plate 47) sets a female figure, holding a fan and clad in a kimono and robe, against a multipaneled screen. Dashes of pink to the woman's left and orange to her right suggest asymmetrical arrangements of flowers, and these colors hint at the Chinese palette of enamelware en famille rose.[43] The composition also demonstrates the influence of Japanese prints. One scholar has even suggested that the pose is a direct quotation of the great painter and printmaker Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806).[44] Significantly, Whistler painted this image shortly after the International Exhibition of 1862 had introduced an important array of Japanese artifacts to a London audience. The sketch served as a study far a portrait that later formed a key element in Whistler's grandest statement in Japonisme, a fully thought-out and integrated space he called Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876-77). This room was purchased by Charles Lang Freer in 1904 and is now housed at the Freer Gallery (Figure 8). There, Whistler's finished canvas is part of a larger composition that interweaves porcelain, gilt wall paintings, and elaborate woodwork into an aesthetic whole. Whistler himself was an avid collector of Japanese and Chinese porcelain, and he purchased Japanese costumes in Paris.[45] He regarded porcelain as the highest form of aesthetic achievement and aspired to create paintings of parallel beauty.[46] Thus it is not surprising that he should name the subject of his painting the Princess from the Land of Porcelain.

A number of American Impressionists, including Benson, Chase, Hassam, and Tarbell, painted female figures in interiors adorned with Japanese effects. Kimonos, screens, fans, and porcelain added richness of texture and meaning to their subjects. As emblems of premodern life, the kimonos worn by the women in Hassam's The Table Garden and The Breakfast Room, Winter Morning set the figures apart from their urban surroundings. Chase's Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler (Plate 13) and Tarbell's Arrangement in Pink and Gray (Afternoon Tea) (Plate 39) also include Japanese references. Both artists place a principal female figure, with one hand extended to the left and the other raised to her face, near the center of their compositions. Each woman's gaze is directed into the viewer's space, though not necessarily at the viewer, conveying a feeling of confidence and self-possession. The Japanese-inspired textile behind Chase's figure is echoed by the Japanese screen in back of Tarbell's. A rounded ceramic vase to the left of Chase's figure holds flowers, whereas porcelain cups rest on the table in front of Tarbell's subject. This latter detail suggests that the figure in shadow on the left side of Tarbell's painting is there to share tea with the protagonist. For all these similarities, the impact of the two paintings is quite different. Chase's subject appears to be in the midst of thought, conveying an intelligence to match her physical presence. Tarbell's figure has an aristocratic bearing, with a waiflike body and delicate fingers, She is the sort of woman who might have won praise in the Boston press at a Copley Society tea as one of the season's "noted beauties and great favorites."[47] Both women have a commanding air, which is complemented by their taste in Japanese effects.

By making an afternoon tea the impetus for his painting, Tarbell invoked an important social ritual, imported from the Far East, that helped mark a woman's place in polite society.[48] Tea was sufficiently noteworthy that when the Copley Society mounted its Fair Women exhibition of 1902, which included Tarbell's The Venetian Blind (Plate 41), the Boston newspapers devoted as much attention to the accompanying society teas as they did to the paintings.[49] Such teas were also commonly noted components of exhibitions held by The Ten in New York City. Similarly, the art colony at Cos Cob, Connecticut, hosted a Japanese visitor named Genjiro Yeto one summer.[50] He is shown in the photograph presiding over a tea ceremony performed by five young American women who demonstrate their authentic knowledge of Japanese culture (Figure 9).

Formally similar to the two Chase and Tarbell paintings, Benson's Girl Playing Solitaire (Plate 3) features a beautiful young woman in an interior, with a Japanese screen behind her and a porcelain bowl near at hand. Fashionably dressed, her skirt billowing in forms that echo the clouds on the screen, she passes a quiet moment at cards. Just as prominent as the Japanese features are the pair of silver candlesticks, the early American or colonial revival table, and the Windsor chair, suggestive of the woman's Anglo-Saxon forebears. Significantly, Tarbell's Arrangement in Pink and Gray also features a colonial American gateleg table.[51] Both the Japanese and early American elements in Benson's painting harken to a time or place evocative of the implied simplicity and purity of the sitter. The picture's finishing element is its Arts and Crafts-style frame, carved by the noted Boston firm Foster Brothers, which features clusters of fruit -- perhaps a reference to the fecundity of the female subject (Figure 10). The overall effect earned Benson the Norman Wait Harris Silver Medal when the canvas was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1909. A Chicago Tribune critic praised the painting for its attention to every "last touch of delicacy [and] refinement."[52] In short. American women, colonial craftsmanship, and Japanese aesthetics were all seen as signs of cultural distinction.

Still-life paintings also afforded the opportunity to evoke Asian cultures and the values associated with them. Both J. Alden Weir and Frank Benson painted Impressionist images of table settings that mingled Japanese, Chinese, and American objects. In his Still Life (Plate 45), for instance, Weir included what appear to be a Chinese-export covered dish and a blue-and-white Japanese Arita plate. These round forms are echoed by the produce arranged on the table. Weir's asymmetrical composition and bright color accents may also have been employed to suggest a Japanese aesthetic, choices he also made in his landscape paintings in response to his collection of Japanese prints.[53] Benson's The Silver Screen (Plate 9) similarly combines objects of diverse origins to create a richly textured middle-class interior. Chinese textiles are draped to reveal an American gateleg table underneath, As Weir did in Still Life, Benson includes in this painting a covered jar from China and a multipaneled Japanese screen, along with pieces of fruit chosen for their range of colors and shapes.[54]

Benson also applied Japanese technical considerations to his paintings. This interest is especially evident in a group of black-watercolor washes, exemplified here by Eider Ducks Flying (Plate 6) and Eider Ducks in Winter (Plate 7), that suggest the swiftness and economy of Japanese ink painting. One critic, responding to an exhibition of such paintings in 1913, noted:

The simplicity and directness of rendering of
these shelldrakes, coots and terns in the simplest
of black and white washes with only the slight-
est indication of the landscape background have
scarcely any parallel outside of Japanese art. The
medium, indeed, is handled much as one of the
great Ukiyo-ye masters might have used it and
the recording of stored observations is not
dissimilar in effect. That which one has seen and
observed a thousand times one ought to be able
to draw.[55]

Benson surely had many opportunities to learn about Japanese culture in the galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts and at such high-style Boston shops as Yamanaka & Co., on Boylston Street. He also surely knew fellow Salem, Massachusetts, native Edward S. Morse, author of the influential book Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings and collector of more than five thousand examples of Japanese pottery.[56] In such works as Eider Ducks Flying, Benson can be seen blending his interest in Japanese painting with an Impressionist-oriented handling of light and atmosphere -- for example, where the wing of the lead bird dissolves in the mist of the wave. His wash paintings of ducks also evoke the masculine realm of hunting, of which he was a lifelong devotee.

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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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