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Light Motifs: American Impressionist Paintings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

July 1 - September 5, 2005


(above: Mary Cassatt, 1844-1926, Portrait of A Young Girl, 1899, oil on canvas)


A remarkable exhibition of American Impressionist paintings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is on display this Summer at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. (right: William Merritt Chase, 1849-1916, For the Little One, c. 1896, oil on canvas) 

A selection of 27 paintings showcases the works of a group of American artists who studied in Paris and elsewhere in Europe in the years following the Civil War. They include Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam and William Merritt Chase.

These painters and others initially traveled to Europe for academic training, but eventually adopted many of the philosophies and techniques espoused by the Impressionists there. Monet, Degas and Renoir drew from personal experiences for their subject matter, rendering their paintings with rapid brushwork and a high-keyed palette. The Americans adopted and adapted that style in their own work.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is sharing a portion of its holdings of American Impressionist paintings with Alaskans and their visitors because the pieces are so rarely seen here. The majority of those painters were active in the northeast portion of the United States, so few of their works exist in Alaskan collections.

Following its visit at the Anchorage Museum, the exhibition travels to the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks, AK from September 17 to November 13, 2005. This exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This project is funded through the Institute of Museum and Library Services, by an Act of Congress, in accordance with the FY2004 Consolidated Appropriations bill.

Text from the exhibition brochure

The American Impressionists believed that modern life should be recorded in a vibrant modern style. Like the French artists who inspired them, they preferred to work out of doors, observing nature directly and transcribing fleeting atmospheric effects. While they infused their paintings with light and color, they also responded to a challenging era during which the agrarian tradition gave way to an industrialized, urban society. They were excited by change and, at the same time, nostalgic for the familiar past. American Impressionists' portrayals of city, country, and home, including those in this exhibition, thus reflect their engagement with sunlight and shadow, with the new and the old.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, the United States gained unprecedented political and economic status in the world. American art patrons-notably Northerners who had made fortunes from the war-traveled abroad and imbibed European culture. To announce their wealth and sophistication, they built grand houses and filled them with imported decorative arts and paintings by old masters and contemporary academics. To appeal to prospective patrons, aspiring American artists went to Europe-especially to Paris-to study.

Soon after Americans began earnestly collecting and emulating European art, the French Impressionists made their debut in a private exhibition in Paris in 1874; they would show together eight times, until 1886. These painters maintained that personal experience was the only appropriate source for subject matter, and that familiar scenes and natural light should be rendered with rapid brushwork and a high-keyed palette. Thus they rejected the academics' devotion to historical and imaginary subjects and meticulous technique.

Nearly all young Americans in Paris in the 1870s, studying with academic teachers, ignored Impressionism. The few who took note of the radical style were repelled. After visiting the third group exhibition in the spring of 1877, J. Alden Weir wrote to his parents: "I never in my life saw more horrible things. . . . They do not observe drawing nor form but give you an impression of what they call nature. It was worse than the Chamber of Horrors."

There were exceptions to the American disdain for Impressionism during its early years. Pennsylvania-born Mary Cassatt, who moved to Paris in 1874, was sympathetic. Her work attracted the attention of Edgar Degas, who, in 1877, invited her to exhibit with the group. John Singer Sargent, born in Florence to expatriate American parents and studying in Paris by 1874, met Claude Monet two years later and was inspired by him and his colleagues.

During the mid-1880s, as French Impressionism lost its radical edge, American collectors began to value the style, and more American artists began to experiment with it after they learned academic fundamentals. Exhibitions of Impressionist works were held in American cities, and sales were strong. Beginning in 1886 with a series of brilliant images of New York's new public parks, William Merritt Chase became the first major American artist to create Impressionist canvases in the United States. About the same time, Americans began to visit art colonies that centered on outdoor painting, most notably Giverny, where Monet settled in 1883. Those who sought inspiration there included Sargent and Willard Metcalf. Childe Hassam, during his student years in Paris, between 1886 and 1889, also caught the spirit of Impressionism.

By the early 1890s, Impressionism was firmly established as a valid style for American artists. Even Weir was a convert. Most of the repatriated American Impressionists lived in the northeast, tapping into the cultural energy that was increasingly concentrated in New York. Some of them taught in the new art schools that were a consequence of growing artistic professionalism; others conducted summer classes dedicated to Impressionism, as Chase did on the east end of Long Island from 1891 until 1902 and as John H. Twachtman did in Cos Cob, Connecticut, during the 1890s. The American Impressionists were much more cosmopolitan than their French counterparts. Several were expatriates or had spent long periods in Europe; those who moved back to the United States often returned to Europe to attend exhibitions, visit museums, and work in art colonies.

Some American Impressionists in Europe and the United States were captivated by the energy of urban life. Satisfied with the rapidly rendered vignette, they could respond nimbly to the fragmented experience that marked the age. Hassam, who settled in New York in 1889, became the leading chronicler of the city that most fully embodied modern American vitality. Ernest Lawson depicted vestiges of rural calm in New York's outer reaches.

Most American Impressionists, however, preferred to portray the countryside to which urbanites like themselves and their patrons retreated. Many favored art colonies, especially those in which old buildings and time-honored activities evoked a more tranquil era. In England, Sargent found respite from the portrait studio by painting pastoral scenes in Broadway, a charming village in the Cotswolds, and Walter Elmer Schofield worked in a fishing port in remote Cornwall. In the United States, American Impressionists founded and frequented similarly picturesque colonies: Cos Cob, Connecticut, where Twachtman and Hassam taught and worked and Lawson and Allen Tucker were among the students; Old Lyme, about seventy-five miles up the Connecticut coast, where Hassam and Metcalf painted; New Hope, Pennsylvania, where Edward Willis Redfield and Schofield were key figures; and East Hampton, New York, where Ruger Donoho and Hassam settled. Some worked alone in other distinctive rural locales. Twachtman found inspiration on his farm in Greenwich, Connecticut, and Metcalf in Chester, Vermont. Gifford Beal was stimulated by the surroundings of his family's estate on the Hudson River at Newburgh, New York, and Tucker by the area near his home in rural New Jersey.

While the American Impressionists were devoted to the candor of outdoor painting, they sometimes contrived images in the studio. Chase, Maurice Prendergast, and others made portraits of students, teachers, and friends. Vignettes of domestic life also engaged them. Cassatt, Chase, Edmund C. Tarbell, Frank W. Benson, Frederick C. Frieseke, Luis C. Mora, and others depicted women and children in quiet interiors and gardens that ignored or denied the epochal changes taking place beyond their walls.

Many American artists worked in the Impressionist style into the 1920s, but innovation had long since waned. By 1910, the less genteel approach of the urban Realists known as the Ashcan School had emerged. In 1913, the immense display of avant-garde European art at the Armory Show in New York made even the Ashcan School seem old-fashioned. But the American Impressionists' focus on rapid technique and familiar subjects had left an indelible mark on American painting. Their works offer enchanting records of color and light as well as tantalizing reflections of a dynamic period.

H. Barbara Weinberg
Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture

(above: John Singer Sargent, 1856-1925, Two Girls with Parasols at Fladbury, c. 1889, oil on canvas )


Lectures accompanying the exhibition

In conjunction with the Light Motifs exhibition, the Museum is presenting a series of free lectures on Impressionism by local artists, art historians and art educators.

Thursday, July 7 at 6 p.m.
Monet: Quintessential Impressionist by artist Graham Dane
Thursday, July 14 at 6 p.m.
Impressionism and the Birth of Modern Art by curator Julie Decker, Ph.D.
Thursday, July 21 at 6 p.m.
French Impressionists in America and American Collectors by Graham Dane
Thursday, July 28 at 6 p.m.
James McNeil Whistler: The Artist as a Work of Art by art historian Sloan Seiden
Thursday, Aug. 4 at 6 p.m.
California Impressionism: East-West Coast Mythology and Cultur e by art educator Sean Licka, Ph.D


(above: Maurice Prendergast, 1858-1924, Portrait of a Girl with Flowers, c. 1910-13, oil on canvas)


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