A Noble Tradition: American Paintings from the National Arts Club

by Carol Lowrey



A Noble Tradition also includes work by Symbolist-inspired artists such as William Baxter Closson, who turned to painting in 1894 after a brief but influential career as a wood-engraver in Boston. Closson quickly established a reputation for his evocative depictions of young women and children, which he often portrayed as nymphs, water-babies and fairies. Presented to the club in 1917, Feeding the Peacocks is a striking example of Closson's aesthetic, characterized by the critic William Howe Downes as a skillful combination of "grace and buoyancy of action, pleasing play of line, and an agreeable palette, rich yet not deep." [14]

Symbolist inclinations are also evident in the work of Gerald Leake, a Londonborn painter and illustrator who settled in Manhattan in 1915. Many of the works Leake exhibited at the National Academy of Design, as well as at New York's Feragil Galleries, featured ethereal female figures in outdoor settings. In terms of its subject matter, as well as its refined draftsmanship and sumptuous colors, May Morning reveals the impact of Botticelli, as well as that of English Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Burne Jones, Watts and Rossetti.

Other artists treating the figure in a decorative manner include Harry Willson Watrous, a prominent member of New York art circles during the early twentieth century. While studying in Paris during the mid-1880s, Watrous was deeply influenced by the detailed genre paintings of the French salon painter, Jean-Louis Meissonier. His diploma presentation, Some Little Talk of Me and Thee There Was, is one of a number of images of idealized women in interiors Watrous painted from around 1905 until 1918. In the work, which graced the cover page of the 1 March 1911 issue of Ladies' Home Journal, Meissonier's influence is evident in the firm drawing, the highly finished surface and in the precise rendering of detail, while the title, a whimsical commentary on the foibles of upper-class women, is drawn from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

The strong tradition of Impressionist portraiture and figure painting that prevailed among artist members is reflected in works by several painters associated with New England. In Boston, where Impressionism was primarily associated with the depiction of the figure, several leading painters were elected to artist life membership. The predilection for images of fashionable young women is reflected in the work of William McGregor Paxton who, along with Philip Leslie Hale, became a life member in 1917. Like many of the painters associated with the club, Paxton was deeply opposed to modern art, feeling that it lacked beauty and craftsmanship.

The Shade Hat, from 1912, underscores Paxton's technical expertise as well as his continuing allegiance to detail, high finish and solid draftsmanship, the legacy of his earlier academic training under Jean-Léon Gérôme. Paxton's keen sense of design and his emphasis on structure was also inspired by the domestic images of the seventeenth-century Dutch painter, Jan Vermeer: as well as having studied Vermeer's work, Paxton helped Philip Hale edit his 1904 monograph on the Dutch master, a publication that contributed to the growing influence of Vermeerian aesthetics on the Boston School at the turn of the century.

The club's permanent collection includes many Impressionist landscapes by artist life members associated with the Lyme art colony such as Emil Carlsen, Frank Vincent DuMond and Edmund Greacen, and Frank Alfred Bicknell. A native of Augusta, Maine, Bicknell studied art with Albion H. Bicknell, probably a relative, in Malden, Massachusetts. By 1893, after a brief period of residence in New York City, he was living in Paris, continuing his training at the Académie Julian and familiarizing himself with contemporary French art. After settling in Lyme around 1902, Bicknell painted Impressionist-inspired landscapes, among them The Hill Road, a delightful rendition of the sunlit Connecticut countryside. A somewhat elusive figure in the history of early twentieth century American painting, Bicknell's career deserves further scholarly study. The fact that he was among the first group of artists elected to artist life membership in 1910 suggests that he was held in high esteem among collectors and fellow artists at the turn of the century.

In addition to artists such as Daniel Garber and John Folinsbee, Robert Spencer was among the numerous Pennsylvania landscapists elected to life membership during the 1910s. One of the few American Impressionists to explore the theme of working-class life, Spencer was renowned for his views of the backyards, mills and tenements in and around New Hope, Pennsylvania. Presented to the club in 1917, Spencer's Melting Snow demonstrates his thematic concerns as well his divisionist brushwork, his love of surface pattern and his preference for a cool palette, dominated by blues and greys.

Just as many American Impressionists sought to capture the spirit of place in their depictions of regional landscape, an equal number responded to Impressionism's call for the portrayal of modern urban life, focusing their creative energies on celebrating the "New New York." After settling in New York in 1902, Colin Campbell Cooper developed a notable reputation for his lively, Impressionist-influenced renderings of Manhattan. In South Ferry, New York, Cooper presents us with a sparkling rendition of the bustling South Ferry plaza, a major focal point for all forms of Manhattan transportation ranging from horse drawn carriages and buses to the old Third Avenue El (dismantled in 1955). In addition to providing us with a look at the various modes of travel available to New Yorkers during the 1910s, Cooper also pays homage to the vertical growth of the city by including the line of tall skyscrapers in the background, among them the massive, red brick United States Army Building at 39 Whitehall Street. [15]

Cityscapes and street scenes were also explored by Impressionists such as Harry L. Hoffman, a Lyme painter, and by Mary Nicholena MacCord, a painter of intimate landscapes and street scenes who divided her time between Manhattan and Bridgeport, Connecticut. MacCord's Portuguese Quarter, Gloucester, Massachusetts, painted around 1930 during one of her summer visits to Massachusetts's North Shore, reveals her characteristic pointillist technique not unlike that of the French Post-Impressionist, Henri Le Sidanier.

The paintings on view in A Noble Tradition provide a glimpse into the artistic make-up of The National Arts Club during its early history. Although the majority of artist members worked within the realms of Impressionism and Realism, they interpreted these aesthetics in a variety of ways and applied them to a diverse range of subjects.

In sharing its artistic legacy with a larger audience through this important collaboration with the Florence Griswold Museum, The National Arts Club continues to fulfill its role, outlined nearly a century ago by Charles de Kay, as an educational institution devoted to stimulating interest in American art.


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