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
WOMEN: IMAGES OF IDEAL AMERICANS
Images of girls and women -- in portraits, genre scenes, and the occasional allegory -- comprise a major body of American Impressionist paintings. Female subjects carried traditional associations of beauty, but as the above quote suggests they also expressed a wider range of cultural values. The words were those of eminent critic Charles Caffin, writing in 1909 about Frank Benson's murals for the Library of Congress. But Caffin's comments may be more broadly applied to other young women painted by Benson and his peers. Evaluated together, Benson's figures have the appearance of a type partly because he often painted his own children; the familial connection might explain their resemblance. This explanation, however, does not fully account for the values they embodied. As Caffin suggested, they bore "unmistakable signs of pedigree," hinting at an elevated social class and racial purity at a time when a million immigrants from many lands poured into the United States each year. The young women in American Impressionist paintings also epitomized a pleasing mixture of restraint and freedom. They were eager to explore the possibilities awaiting them but sensible enough to avoid ending in ruin -- like characters in the popular melodramatic novels of the day.
The turn of the century was a time of increased promise for women. In 1870 just one in five students in institutions of higher education was female, By 1920 nearly half were women, and most of them were learning in coeducational environments. Women entered the work force in record numbers in this era and participated in the political process to a greater extent than ever before, Through most of the nineteenth century they were active in social-reform movements, most notably pushing for temperance and against slavery. Starting in 1848, under the leadership of suffragists such as Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, women directed their energy toward expanding their own rights. Participation in this movement culminated at the turn of the century and resulted, as earlier noted, in the adoption of the Constitutional amendment extending the vote to women in 1920 (Figure 11),
Images of girls and young women predominate in American Impressionist figure paintings. As cultural historian Martha Banta has argued in her study of popular representations of women, the American Girl was a national symbol of hopefulness. As idealized, she was beautiful, fit, and the perfect embodiment of a relatively new nation ready to burst onto the international stage. Joseph DeCamp's Sally (Plate 16) and Bcnson's Portrait of My Daughters (Plate I), Dorothy Lincoln (Plate 2), and The Reader (Plate 5) are excellent examples, DeCamp's portrait of his beloved daughter was painted with bravura strokes that energized the subject for contemporary viewers. In the eyes of one critic of the day, DeCamp "mixes vigour in his paint," while for another, Sally was "full of robust paint and character." DeCamp's technique expressed the human qualities he hoped to highlight in his portrait.
Similarly, Benson's compositional choices and style helped express the future prospects of youthful sitters, as in Dorothy Lincoln. According to family tradition, Benson was commissioned to paint Lincoln on the occasion of her "coming out" -- her formal social debut. She is elegantly attired in a multilayered white dress trimmed in blue ribbon, giving her a buoyant appearance that is tempered by her facial expression. Her crisp posture hints at the fine breeding that Charles Caffin admired in Benson's sitters. The richly verdant natural surroundings suggest that a fertile life lay ahead of her. Tragically, however, Dorothy Lincoln died while on a Grand Tour, not long after her portrait was completed.
Painted in 1917, a decade later, Benson's Natalie (Plate 8) conveys a young woman with a greater range of possibilities open to her. In contrast to the decorative gown worn by Dorothy Lincoln, Natalie Thayer wears a simple white shirt and skirt. Her hat is a practical shield from the sun, whose light just touches her nose, chin, and neck and floods her blouse. Her bearing implies a level of independence not evident in the Lincoln portrait. The difference between the two canvases stems in part from the changing roles that women were adopting at the beginning of the twentieth century and in part from the circumstances under which the images were created. Whereas Dorothy Lincoln makes a social statement about a newly marriageable woman, Natalie portrays a woman dressed to ride a horse. A final difference is that Dorothy sat for her portrait in Benson's Boston studio, while Natalie was painted outdoors during a vacation near the Grand Teton Mountains in Wyoming.
Benson's children were his favorite subjects, and he often painted them outdoors at their summer home in North Haven, Maine. The bright sunlight allowed him to make his subjects sparkle with light and color. He typically animated the girls' white dresses with long, curling strokes of peach, blue, lavender, and green, as in Portrait of My Daughters and The Reader. The former picture was among his most celebrated, earning the Temple Gold Medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1908. Critics lavished praise on the painting for emanating "such an impression of vibrating atmosphere, such a feeling of freedom, joy and wholesome stimulation of vitality." In short, the Impressionist's brushstroke and attention to light and atmosphere were well suited to communicating the desired energy of the American Girl. Eleanor Benson also posed for The Reader. Light floods the young woman's hair and falls more gently over her body, as it is filtered by the parasol. Her engagement with the book she is reading is undisturbed. In The Reader Eleanor is placed in a garden; perhaps this is a reference to the hortus conclusus theme of the solitary Virgin in the enclosed garden. In Christian iconography the enclosed garden signifies Mary's virginity and her invulnerability to Satan's temptations. Whether or not Benson intended so specific a reference in this painting, contemporary viewers perceived his female sitters in general as exemplars of innocence and reserve. One critic noted "the wholesomeness of his art" and applauded "the beauty of girlhood, its grace, its purity, its charm." Another contrasted the "choice reserve" of Benson's female subjects with the "extravagant and conscienceless living" rampant "in our big cities."
American Impressionists also represented women sensually, and nude subjects were not uncommon. Tarbell's The Venetian Blind (Plate 41) demonstrates that light and atmosphere could contribute to the tactile richness of a nude. The pose Tarbell selected is modest, and his preparatory oil sketch (Plate 40) demonstrates that he ultimately draped more of the figure than he had first intended. His choice of title asserted that the painting was a study in particular lighting conditions rather than all expression of female sexuality. Of course, these choices may have been made in deference to the prevailing conservatism of American audiences. Indeed, when the painting was first exhibited in Worcester in 1902, one reviewer noted that "Studies of the nude and semi-nude are in the minority and the lack was not lamented." Largely positive criticism of The Venetian Blind focused on the painting as a technical accomplishment. "Here is technical fluency," one critic declared. "Here is nervous force put at the service of a taking pictorial idea." The painter and critic Philip Hale went even further, proclaiming the canvas "the best picture that has been done in America." Less common, though at least as sensual, were American Impressionist images of male nudes. In The Bathers (Plate 36), John Singer Sargent uses water to make the flesh glisten and light to set the muscular bodies into beautiful relief. Sargent's poses and the outdoor setting also accord a greater degree of physical freedom to these male subjects than Tarbell allowed the woman in his oil painting.
Images of mother and child, the signature motif of Mary Cassatt's career, celebrated another stage in women's maturity. In Rene Lefebre Holding a Nude Baby (Plate 11), purchased by the Worcester Art Museum from its 1909 annual art exhibition, a young woman holds an infant against her body. Although the sitter was a model about seventeen years old, the closeness of the two figures implies a parent-child relationship. Cassatt was noted for avoiding the sentimentality that was an easy pitfall of this theme. By directing the gazes of the two figures apart, she creates a psychological distance between them, a quality that is in deliberate conflict with their physical unity. Indeed, some critics felt that Cassatt pushed too hard in this direction: "The exclusion of sentimentality in painting is undoubtedly a negative merit of considerable value," observed one, "but on the other hand one can hardly help feeling that Miss Cassatt is almost brutally indifferent to the 'human interest.'" Cassatt's position as a successful professional made her a model of success for other American women. Critics at the time differed over whether her gender had an impact on her work. While one reviewer suggested that if her paintings were not signed "the critic would probably attribute them to a man," another praised the "qualities of tenderness in her work which could have been put there, perhaps, only by a woman." Cassatt's role as a feminist was more clearly manifest in her submission in 1915 of Young Woman in Green, Outdoors in the Sun (Plate 12) and four other works to an exhibition in New York promoting woman suffrage.
Portraits of mature women, such as Benson's Portrait of a Lady (Edith Perley Kinnicutt) (Plate 4) and Sargent's Mrs. Gardiner Greene Hammond (Esther Fiske Hammond) (Plate 33), emphasized their stature and character. Both women are portrayed as physically attractive, though neither is presented as an ideal beauty. Their dresses, like those of most of the younger women painted by the American Impressionists, are ornamental. Mrs. Kinnicutt wears a lushly painted gauzy gown with beads suspended from a shawl. Mrs. Hammond's costume is accented by a transparent fichu, black ribbon, and a single strand of pearls. As in his portrait of Dorothy Lincoln, Benson sets Edith Kinnicutt outdoors. However, in place of the summer light and verdant setting he used for the younger woman, Benson here employs a golden, autumnal palette to correspond with Kinnicutt's more advanced age. Her upright posture conveys a moral strength that is reinforced by the seriousness of her partly shaded countenance. By contrast, Sargent's half-length portrayal of Esther Fiske Hammond brings her forward in the picture plane, making her more accessible to the viewer. She has a gentle expression and her head tips slightly toward us, lending her a relatively casual air. Mrs. Hammond plays the young wife and perhaps gracious hostess, while Mrs. Kinnicutt represents a more matronly social position.
The women painted by American Impressionists typically belonged to the upper social classes. Access to wealth clearly dictated who could afford to commission portraits, but genre scenes also usually featured women of the leisure class. They were often presented in interiors, engaged in such productive activities as reading and sewing. Edmund Tarbell also created paintings, such as Rehearsal in the Studio (Plate 42), that featured women in small groups performing music. Here a woman stands at left, about to sing from the sheet music in her hand, while a seated man across the room on the right holds a violin. A seated woman rests on the arm of a chair, music held in her relaxed right hand and her head turned toward the floor. Two other seated figures on a sofa in the middle of the composition, their heads in their hands, appear to be bored with the afternoon's cultivating activity. All three seated women allow their bodies to fall from the crisp postures they would be expected to model in public. Pictures seen within the painting, including a Rembrandtesque portrait at left and the Diego Velázquez portrait of Pope Innocent on the back wall, contribute cultural refinement to the environment. Tarbell cleverly reverses the figure in Velázquez's painting, so that the Pope accords the singer the attention that her friends do not. Tarbell's pleasing scene of women developing talents appropriate for young socialites would have been a familiar reflection of Boston life. Sargent's Venetian Water Carriers (Plate 31), showing women at physical labor, was a less common American Impressionist image of women and conveyed an undeniably picturesque foreignness.
Work and leisure, city and country, the familiar and the exotic, innovation and tradition -- these are some of the social and aesthetic dynamics that enriched American Impressionist paintings. The emergence of an industrial economy transformed the United States in ways that had profound impact on all aspects of life, including art. For the first time, large numbers of middle- and upper-class people lived in urban environments and had unprecedented amounts of leisure time. The significance of that newfound temporal freedom is particularly evident in the picturesque landscapes that the Impressionists chose -- the coastlines. woods, parks, and vacation spots; these were the landscapes of escape from the cities that were rapidly becoming the centers of modern life. Leisure is also a key element in the figure paintings of the period, whether the people depicted in them are picking flowers, reading, or taking a break from sipping tea or riding. The style and technique these artists developed in relation to French painting helped convey their message. The bright light and vibrant colors with which they crafted their impressions lend a halcyon quality to the scenes they painted. Even their more melancholic statements such as Benson's Girl Playing Solitaire and Hassam's The New York Window seem to hit at the restorative property of rest. Exhibitions of paintings by the American Impressionists were applauded for their ameliorative effects. Heralding a 1911 show of works by The Ten, one critic wrote that "The room in which the twenty-one canvases are hung is suffused by day with a mellow light and is made restful by the beauties of the art and subtle harmonies of the arrangement." American Impressionist paintings offered a poetic beauty and release from the everyday world, and emerging museums responded by collecting these works for the rejuvenation and enrichment of future generations.
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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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