Ohio Impressionists and Post-Impressionists

by James M. Keny






Cincinnati was the earliest and most enduring art colony in Ohio. In 1812, only twenty-four years arter its founding, the city became the first in the state where novice artists could receive instruction. By virtue of such leadership, which continued into the 1920s, Cincinnati became known as the "Art Capital of the West."


JOHN JOSEPH ENNEKING (1841-1916) was born near Cincinnati, in Minster, Ohio. He received his initial training in Cincinnati before completing his studies in Boston, Munich, and Paris. Enneking became an active member of the Boston art community and a highly successful and revered artist in his native city. His funeral in 1916 and subsequent memorial exhibitions at Vose Galleries, the Boston Club, and the Guild of Boston Artists were attended by many notable members of Boston's thriving art community. His New England Coastal Scene (1879) is an example of "Proto-Impressionism": that is, it displays an Impressionist's sensitivity to light and color without sacrificing more traditional brushwork, perspective, and drawing. Enneking was exposed very early to Impressionism in France during the 1870s. His broad gestural paint application and conservative delineation of space reflect his training at Munich's Royal Academy. Unquestionably, it was his essentially conservative approach to art that endeared him to his relatively conservative Boston constituency.


ELIZABETH NOURSE (1859-1938), another Cincinnati native, was born into a wealthy family. She received extensive training in the Queen City before traveling to New York and Paris for further study. After more than thirteen years of school, Nourse distinguished herself as one of America's finest women painters and leading expatriates in fin-de-siécle Paris. With the exception of a few short trips to the United States, Nourse spent the remainder of her life in France. She earned numerous prizes and supported herself and her sister through the sale of her work. She was the first American woman painter to be admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and the first whose work was purchased by the French government for the Luxembourg Galleries. Her depictions of peasants, often mothers and children out of doors or within rustic interiors, earned her great respect at the Paris Salon and at London's Royal Academy.

Les Heures d'Ete (1895) is a fine example of Nourse's monumental work. Although the relatively tight drawing, sculptural forms, subdued tonalities, and heroic interpretation of her humble agrarian subjects tie her work to the Barbizon School and reveal her extensive academic training, Nourse's detached sensibility and crisp modern sense of reductive design distinguish her work from less effective and more sentimental Salon painters. In addition, the broad, painterly brushstrokes, particularly evident in the costumes and foliage; the central role of light as it blazes in the distant meadow and plays through the trees in the foreground; the cropped forms, especially apparent in the trees at the left; and the flattened, slightly upturned picture plane with its high horizon line are shared qualities that align her work with early Impressionism.

In La Petite Souer (1902), a prize-winning picture, Nourse further reveals her extraordinary command of the human figure. The postures of the older sister comforting her younger sibling are carefully observed, striking an emotional chord without descending into saccharine sentiment. In this later work from the artist's mid-period, Nourse limited her palette to a few repeated colors to strengthen the design. The composition is more formally reductive here, repeating strong rectilinear forms throughout to give it a more modern thrust. By this time in the artist's career the color has become richer and more emphatic .

La Reverie (ca.1910) represents a further step toward Impressionism with its rich, broken color and the beginning dissolution of the figure within a pool of light. The genteel subject matter, an elegantly dressed middle-class woman dreamily contemplating her goldfish, further distances this work from the artist's earlier Barbizon-inspired works such as Les Heures d'Ete. Once again, however, Nourse has revealed her overriding preoccupation with design through a daring grid of repeated horizontal and vertical bars juxtaposed against the curvilinear form of the woman and goldfish bowl and the round table top.


CAROLINE LORD (1860-1927), another well-to-do painter from Cincinnati, was also a specialist in the human figure. Like her friend, Nourse, she trained extensively in Cincinnati, New York, and Paris, and mastered a quasi-academic form of painting that served her well in the Paris Salon, where she exhibited with Nourse. Unlike Nourse, however, Lord returned to her native city to become a cornerstone of the Cincinnati Art Academy, teaching there for about forty years, until 1926.

It is interesting to compare the two vastly different works by Lord in this exhibition. First Communion (1901) reflects Lord's interest in depicting the picturesque aspects of traditional French life and reveals her early kinship with Nourse. The Blacksmith (1921), however, reveals a different focus and technique. The relatively restrained brushwork and traditional handling of the carefully observed figure in First Communion have given way to the much more emphatic and spontaneous form of gestural paint handling associated with the Munich school. And here the genteel subject has been replaced with a common laborer, in this case a blacksmith sweating over his work. Subjects such as this are associated with Robert Henri and the Ashcan school of urban realism, which raises conjecture about the influence of Frank Duveneck and his disciples upon Lord. Duveneck, a champion of everyday subject matter executed in an extraordinary, gestural and spontaneous manner, influenced many of his peers and later a whole generation of art students to paint in a Munich style.


FRANK DUVENECK (1848-1919), eleven years older than Nourse and twelve years older than Lord, was also from the Cincinnati area. Born across the Ohio River from Cincinnati in Covington, Kentucky, his initial circumstances and subsequent history were dramatically different from that of Nourse and Lord. Duveneck was raised by a relatively poor German-Catholic immigrant family. His stepfather operated a beer garden in the German working-class section of Cincinnati. There Duveneck worked his way to an understanding of art, serving as an apprentice during his late teens and early twenties with two other German-Americans, John Schmidt and William Lamprecht, who decorated Catholic churches throughout the Midwest. Fluent in German and comfortable with that couontry's customs in predominantly German Cincinnati, Duveneck was encouraged by his mentors to study, not in Paris or New York, but in Munich. From 1869 to 1873 he distinguished himself at the Royal Academy, winning prizes and gaining a thorough command of the bravura technique associated with the Munich school. Under the tutelage of Wilhelm Diez and Wilhel Leibl, he perfected his style.

By about 1872, when Portrait of a Boy was executed, he had mastered the psychological portrait. Such works are characterized by expressive brushwork in which the artist delights in the act of painting. But the palette is dark and brooding, dominated by browns and blacks, unlike the high-key hues of contemporary French Impressionists. The figures are not dissolved in a pool of light but rather flicker to life with an inner light that contrasts sharply with the dark background threatening to engulf them. Duveneck understood the human figure so well that even though he painted in an apparently effortless, spontaneous style, his figures have a sculptural density, a pulsing bulk and mass.

Although his early work was very well respected by his Munich teachers and peers, when he returned to Cincinnati in 1873 the public response was less uplifting. No doubt influenced by this, Duveneck crafted a form of Munich-informed painting that celebrates technique without compromising the academic integrity of the figure. The Cobbler's Apprentice (1877) is one of his most famous paintings and a classic example of this hybrid approach. The features of the boy are very carefully delineated in a relatively tight, academic style, while the handling of the clothing, background, and foliage is much more expansive, imparting a freshness and vitality to the scene. Duveneck's desire to succeed in the relatively conservative Paris Salon and thereby gain a professional foothold may also have influenced this move toward a more conservative form of expression. By 1885 his works, such as Canal Scene with Washerwomen, Venice (Canton Art Institute), are even less gestural and more academic in technique. They have sentimentality far removed from his earlier work and distanced from his more evocative later paintings from 1890 onward.

By 1877, when Duveneck returned to Munich's Royal Academy to teach, he was a celebrated figure there. He had also earned the respect of Boston's sophisticated art community through an exhibit of his compelling portraits there in 1875. At this juncture Duveneck attracted a group of highly talented German-American students from Cincinnati to follow their mentor to Munich. Thus Duveneck influenced the course of American painting by directly exposing such Ohio artists as Otto Bacher, Joseph DeCamp, Louis Ritter, John Twachtman, and Theodore Wendel to the Munich school, to the art treasures of Venice and Florence, and to the Whistlerian aesthetic. Through his schools and acquaintances there in the late 1870s and early 1880s he provided sophisticated and enthusiastic guidance to his students, who became known as the Duveneck Boys. In turn, his influence was spread to future generations of artists. Through his example, his later teaching in Cincinnati, and his Boys-Twachtman teaching in New York and Gloucester; DeCamp teaching in Cleveland, Boston, and New York; Wendel and Ritter teaching in Boston; Bacher teaching in Cleveland and New York-his influence extended to younger Ohio artists such as George Bellows, Robert Henri, James R. Hopkins, Charles Kaelin, L. H. Meakin, Edward Potthast, Dixie Selden, Edward Volkert, Herman Wessel, and William Wiessler.

After the early death in 1888 of his devoted student and wife, Lizzie Booth, Duveneck's life changed dramatically. Profoundly saddened by the loss, he left the Continent in 1890, returning at length only for a trip to Venice in 1892-1894. Thereafter he devoted his life to teaching at various institutions in Cincinnati, most notably the Cincinnati Fine Arts Academy.

What is not well known is that after his wife's death Duveneck produced some stunning Impressionist paintings. Little Girl in Red Dress (ca.1890) is an interesting transitional work and an example of the quality and diversity of work Duveneck could produce during a three-decade period. In this work he has almost miraculously modeled the little girl, making her project from the canvas. At the same time, he has imparted high-key color to his normally exuberant brushstroke to produce a dazzling Impressionist work-alive with light and energy, yet with compelling intimacy and psychological insight.

That Sumer Afternoon in My Garden (ca.1900, Pfeil Collection) is also an exceptional example of American Impressionism. The elegant sitter on the garden bench engages the viewer's attention, yet at the same time she dissolves in reflected, colored light, lost as it were in reverie. This work is an exemplary melding of French Impressionist color and light with Munich's buttery brushstrokes and sculpted figures.

Often during the summers from 1890 to 1919 Duveneck journeyed to Cape Ann, Massachusetts, to paint and enjoy the company of fellow artists and former students, most notably Charles Kaelin, John Twachtman, and Theodore Wendel. Gloucester Docks (ca.1913) is a more fully resolved work of this period. The blond light, free and spontaneous handling of wet pigment, and informality characterize the works of this period, anticipating the warm, languid ease of John Sloan's Gloucester paintings.


JOHN HENRY TWACHTMAN (1853-1902) was one of the best known of the Duveneck Boys. Born in the German section of Cincinnati, he studied in the city during the late 1860s and early 1870s, working privately with Duveneck in 1874. Between 1875 and 1877 Twachtman journeyed to the Royal Academy in Munich while Duveneck remained in the United States. Twachtman then joined Duveneck for one trip to Venice from 1877 to 1878 and another in 1880. It was the second trip to Venice that had the most profound effect on Twachtman. There he met James A. M. Whistler and was exposed to his reductive, quiet, Oriental aesthetic in general and specifically to his elegant, exquisitely balanced, asymetrical pastels and etchings. When Twachtman went to study in Paris between 1883 and 1885, he had largely renounced the dark palette and broad, heavy brushstrokes associated with the Munich style and had embraced the cool, tonal palette and restrained, elegant composition associated with Whistler. Two of his most famous paintings -- Arque la Bataille (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Springtime (Cincinnati Art Museum) -- are from this period.

It was not until the late 1890s when Twachtman settled in Greenwich, Connecticut, that he developed his mature style, which would distinguish him as one of America's finest and most original Impressionists. Last Touch of Sun (ca.1893) is a superb example of that style. While its expressive paint application and distinctive scumbling of the surface are derived somewhat from the artist's Munich experience and his later exposure to the broken brushwork of French Impressionism, the unique melding of these with an elegant, asymetrical, Whistlerian design is entirely Twachtman's own. The quiet, contemplative power of this work derives from its spare, yet bold design, elegant tracery of line, and nuances of color playing across crisply lit winter snow. This and related works are some of the most memorable images in American art. Such scenes earned Twachtman the great respect of his artist friends and the Temple Medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1894. Unfortunately, however, his work did not bring the financial success he richly deserved. November Haze (ca.1897-1898), another painting executed during the Greenwich period, also has that chaste reserve and reductive power of Last Touch of Sun. Though it is even more understated and abstract in design, November Haze effectively captures the poetry of nature through its beautiful and subtly orchestrated colors and texture.

During Twachtman's Gloucester period, 1900­1902, he once again went through a transformation, albeit a relatively modest one. His Gloucester Harbor (ca. 1900) exemplifies the changes. While the scumbled paint and quiet lyricism associated with Twachtman's work is still very much present, in these glowing examples of American Impressionism the light is stronger, the color more vibrant, the contrasts more pronounced, and the brushwork more expressively calligraphic.


ROBERT FREDERICK BLUM (1857-1903), another of the Duveneck Boys, was, like Twachtman, profoundly influenced by his experience with Whistler in Venice. Unlike Twachtman, he traveled not to Munich but to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris for his subsequent training, choices that are evident in his work. Also evident in Blum's work was his experience as an illustrator and muralist. In addition, Blum and his close friend from Cincinnati, Kenyon Cox, also greatly admired the work of the Spanish painter Mario Fortuny, whose meticulously executed works they had seen at an exposition in Cincinnati in the mid-1870s.

Two Idlers (1888-1889), depicting Blum's friend William Baer and his wife enjoying a leisure moment, is one of the artist's most famous paintings. The play of light across the figures and through the trees, the rich color, the shimmering weave of the hammock, the glistening glasses and informal yet gentle subject are all suggestive of Impressionism, but the carefully drawn figures, well-defined features, and solid forms placed in a relatively deep space are much more associated with academicism. Blum was very successful exhibiting his conservative, well-executed genre works at the Salon and the National Academy in New York.

During the 1880s Blum executed a series of paintings and pastels of Venetian lace makers and bead stringers as had Duveneck and John Singer Sargent before him. His major oil, Venetian Lace Makers (1887, Cincinnati Art Museum), won a bronze medal in 1889 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Venetian Lace Makers (1885-1886), in this exhibition, is a fully resolved oil sketch relating to this series. In this smaller, less finished work Blum allowed himself the freedom to play with dashing daubs of color, imparting a vitality to this painting that is sometimes missing from his more hermetically finished academic works. The sweeping diagonal of the table, balanced by the controlled form of the woman in pink and the matrix of repeated rectilinear shapes, however, reveal Blum's continuing keen interest in design beneath apparent spontaneity. Blum, like Twachtman, enjoyed both etching and pastel. He was also a proficient watercolorist in the tradition of Whistler. Fluent in both watercolor and pastel, he founded the Society of Painters in Pastel in New York in 1884 and participated in exhibitions at the American Water Color Society and the New York Water Color Club. Whistler's series of Venetian pastels, and Winslow Homer's watercolors executed in the 1870s and 1880s were largely responsible for the enhanced stature of these media at this time.

A Scheme in Red and Gray (1884) exemplifies the duality present in much of Blum's work. The virtuoso manipulation of pigment, carefully edited color scheme, and reductive Japanese design suggest Impressionism on the one hand and Whistler on the other, while the flawless finish of the China-doll face recalls a Salon painting.

In his watercolors Blum allowed himself more freedom to explore the spontaneity of a fluid medium. A Bit of Canal (1881), for example, shows Blum fully exploiting this transitory medium to capture the effect of colored light dancing on water. This evocative, delicate vignette succeeds as an Impressionist vision of Venice.


THEODORE WENDEL (1859-1932), yet another of the Duveneck Boys, was also greatly influenced by his Venetian experience. In his early works, the diagonal line, cropped forms, dramatic use of empty space, and other aspects of Whistler's art are evident. However, after his exposure to Impressionism through the American art colony in Giverny during the 1880s, active brushwork, atmospheric concerns, and high-key color began to prevail. Turkeys on a Wall, Giverny (ca.1886, Terra Foundation of American Art) is an example of such work. Wendel's later paintings, such as Old Orchard (ca.1912), executed at Ipswich, Massachusetts, remain focused on the play of warm sunlight across the landscape, although his design becomes looser and less structured than in his more Japanese-informed earlier works.


LOUIS RITTER (1854-1892), a close friend of Wendel from Cincinnati and a Duveneck Boy, also traveled to Giverny in the early years of the American art colony established there in 1885­1886. Many of his works relate to Wendel's early works in their reductive design. Ritter's execution, however, is often tighter.

Ritter painted his master work, Villa Castellani, Near Florence (1888) when he was in Italy in 1888. Villa Castellani was the home of Lizzie Booth, Frank Duveneck's wife, and the location of Duveneck's Florence art school. This superb canvas executed in the year of Lizzie Booth's death is a fitting memorial to her and to the Duveneck Boys. The jewel-like color, rich impasto, uplifted picture plane, and asymetrical balance recall the Impressionist work of William Merritt Chase, another Midwesterner trained in Munich but then influenced by Whistler and the French Impressionists.


JOSEPH DECAMP (1858-1923), a Cincinnati-born Duveneck Boy, like Ritter and Wendel spent much of his life teaching and painting in the Boston area. Unlike the other two, whose work was profoundly influenced by their years in Giverny, DeCamp responded to the Boston school of painting in his mature work.

The Seamstress (1916) and The Red Kimono (ca.1919) are examples of DeCamp's Boston painting. The relatively restrained palette, quiet light, academically rendered figures, genteel setting, and carefully balanced design are all central to this aesthetic. The mood of quiet aristocratic reverie is also associated with these works, as are the Oriental props carefully placed in this composition. Echoing through these beautifully executed works is the thorough understanding of the fuman figure DeCamp absorbed from his teacher, Duveneck.


LEWIS HENRY MEAKIN (1850-1917), a Cincinnati painter trained in Munich, unlike many of his associates, remained in Cincinnati. He became the city's foremost landscape painter, a founder of the Society of Western Artists, and a curator at the Cincinnati Art Museum. He was also an instructor at the Cincinnati Art Academy for thirty years. Salt Marsh, Cape Ann (1892) is one of Meakin's most successful works. It captures the crisp envelope of sparkling salt air that he enjoyed for many summers at Cape Ann along with other Cincinnatians such as Twachtman, Wendel, and Duveneck. Meakin's works, as here, are animated with broken brushwork and relatively high-key color, but Meakin, a conservative artist, was reluctant to embrace the highest register of color or to limit his painting's depth to achieve a stronger, decorative effect.


EDWARD HENRY POTTHAST (1857-1927) was a Cincinnati painter who became successful in New York, as had his friend Robert Blum a decade earlier. After extensive study in New York, Munich, and Paris, Potthast moved to Manhattan in 1896. There he became famous for his heavily impastoed figural compositions. Not afraid of color, he soon adopted the high-key palette of French Impressionism and became particularly adept at orchestrating it for vivid decorative effect. This is particularly true in the series of dazzling beach scenes that he executed between 1910 and 1920.

Artist at the Beach (ca.1915-1920) is an example of Potthast's ability to carefully observe and organize a complex matrix of moving figures while capturing the heat, color, and light of a specific moment at the beach. Afternoon Fun (ca.1915-1920) is strikingly effective in conveying a palpably hot, raking, afternoon light. It also conveys Potthast's admiration for another great painter of light, Joaquin Sorolla (Spanish, 1863-1923).

Potthast was adept in more than one medium. In addition to mastering oil, he contributed a series of surely drawn works in graphite, a body of spontaneous watercolors-including the remarkably successful Sunday at the Beach (ca.1915) and a group of actively scumbled works in crayon that shimmer with light.


EDWARD VOLKERT (1873-1935), a Duveneck-trained Cincinnatian, delighted in the rich application of vibrantly colored paint. Unlike Potthast, he shuttled back and forth between New York and Cincinnati to capture his favorite subject matter: cattle grazing in Ohio meadows. Volkert learned well from Duveneck to appreciate the beauty of ordinary subjects, carefully observed, and spontaneously rendered with generous amounts of paint. Misty Morning (ca.1920) is a lush example of his painterly work.


HERMAN H. WESSEL (1878-1969) and WILLIAM WIESSLER (1887-1975) are Cincinnati artists who shared a similar interest in active paint surface. Of the two, Wiessler demonstrated a more expressive application of paint , as manifested in the gestural calligraphy of his Forest Reflected (1920). Though Wessel was often less emphatic in his paint manipulation, he frequently employed more vibrant, higher key colors and a more regularly rhythmic brushstroke to animate his Impressionist scenes. Le Aux Moines, France, August 1914 (1914), with its shimmering afternoon light and radiantly harmonious color, is one of his finest works.


AUGUST JAMES WEBER (1888-1958) of Marietta was a remarkably adept Impressionist and, later, Post-Impressionist active in Cincinnati from 1907 to 1930. Unlike many of his peers who studied with Frank Duveneck, Weber fully incorporated the broken brushwork and jewel-like colors of French Impressionism in works such as A Summer Day (ca.1915). In this painting, the young girl beautifully melds with the landscape -- at one with her sunny environoment, like a figure in a painting by Monet or Vetheuil. By the late teens and early 1920s, Weber was exploring the Post-Impressionist technique of Pointillism and the Fauvist use of expressive dashes of color to create emotional landscapes. He was supported in his modernist study by his fellowship in the Valley of the Moon Society, an art club located outside of Cincinnati. Unfortunately, his work declined in quality during the Depression when lack of income and illness in the family forced his return to Marietta.


DIXIE SELDEN (1870-1935), a later Duveneck student from Cincinnati, chose to expand her aesthetic repertoire from Duveneck-influenced, solidly sculpted portraits of Cincinnati nobles to Post-Impressionist works such as Harbor Concarnea (ca.1920). In these Post-Impressionist paintings the artist retained her active brushstroke but employed it with arbitrary high-key hues for a more decorative expressionist effect.


CHARLES SALIS KAELIN (1858-1929) of Cincinnati embraced Post-Impressionism but in a more quiet manner, informed by the subdued lyricism of his teacher and mentor John Twachtman. The White Dories (ca.1920) is an example of one of the lyrically stitched quilts of color that Kaelin executed in Rockport and Gloucester during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Kaelin was particularly well-known for his harbor scenes. Cape Ann, Fall (ca.1925) reveals the expressive effect he could achieve through Pointillist interpretations of the Cape Ann woods. But it is in his subtle and sensitively conceived pastels of the period, such as Gloucester Pier (ca.1915), that one feels most the spirit of his teacher, Twachtman. This pastel is a particularly striking example of their parallel interests in asymetrical design and a quietly compelling palette.


ROBERT HENRI (1865-1929), though he was not a formal student of Duveneck, shared with the older artist an interest in portraits depicting common people executed with a liberal use of thickly applied paint. Relatively early in his career, Henri rejected Impressionism, finding it too genteel and perfumed for his taste and feeling that he might find more lasting interest in studying subjects in less contrived urban settings.

Picnic at Meshoppen, Pennsylvania, July 4, 1902 is a transitional work in which Henri depicted ordinary people enjoying an outing in the park. But this work is still closely linked to French Impressionism through its light-filled subject matter and Pointillistic technique.

In his later work Henri turned to the broadly brushed, strongly contrasting Proto-Impressionism of Edouard Manet and those who influenced him -- Hals and Velazquez -- artists who had also influenced the Munich school of painting. Dancer in a Yellow Shawl (ca.1908), with its emphatic brushstrokes, theatrical subject, and contrasting lights and darks is a fine example of Henri's early blend of genre painting and portraiture.

Mary Patton in Rose Smock (1926) is a particularly compelling example of the artist's favorite form of portraiture, that of children. Henri was fascinated by all types of children, from the urchins of New York's Lower East Side to Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and especially those he observed during his regular summer trips to Ireland in the 1920s. The painting of Mary Patton reveals the sure effortless execution, carefully and sensitively observed features, well-balanced color, and telling interpretation of character found in the artist's best portraits. More than just a skilled painter, Henri was a leading force in the movement to provide independent exhibition opportunities outside those controlled by the academies and other conservative societies. Henri was also a primary exponent of the Ashcan, or urban realist, school of painting, whose adherents felt all aspects of New York life should be painted-from East Side slums to Central Park picnics. Through his books, articles, and lectures to American art students, Henri instilled a respect for common people and an ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary through depth of perception and technique.


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