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American Impressionism: The Beauty of Work
September 24, 2005 - January 8, 2006
The Bruce Museum of Arts and Science in Greenwich, Connecticut, presents an exhibition that explores an overlooked aspect of Impressionism, analyzing how a group of turn-of-the-twentieth-century artists treated the theme of work, in American Impressionism: The Beauty of Work, on view from September 24, 2005, through January 8, 2006. The exhibition is curated by Susan G. Larkin, scholar of American Impressionist painting. (right: Childe Hassam (1859-1935, The Mill Pond, Cos Cob, 1902, oil on canvas, 26 _ x 18 _ inches. Bruce Museum of Arts & Science. 94.25)
The exhibition of 46 paintings includes work by 20 artists, among them the best known American Impressionists of the time -- William Merritt Chase, Joseph DeCamp, Daniel Garber, Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, Theodore Robinson, John Singer Sargent, Robert Spencer, John H. Twachtman, and J. Alden Weir -- as well as some accomplished artists rarely seen. The works are on loan from private collections, galleries, and museums throughout the country, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Cincinnati Art Museum, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, and the Florence Griswold Museum.
Impressionism has long been twinned with leisure. American Impressionists, like their French predecessors, devoted themselves to celebrating the recreations of their contemporaries. Labor, by contrast, is associated with the genre painters who preceded the American Impressionists and the Realists and Regionalists who followed them. Surprisingly, however, many American Impressionists treated the theme of labor in both figurative paintings and landscapes. In both Europe and the United States, they depicted people at work and landscapes associated with work. In so doing, they avoided any suggestion of hardship, promoted shared ideals, and participated in shaping an American identity.
The exhibition is divided into five sections based on work sites. "The City" includes a surprisingly diverse group of images. Theodore Robinson contrasted the gentility of an elegant pedestrian with the rubble of construction work on Boston's Beacon Street. Childe Hassam captured the poignant isolation of cabbies and flower vendors in Paris, and recorded construction projects underway in New York and Gloucester. In its candid grittiness, Ernest Lawson's Excavation -Penn Station is a rare example of the painter's affinity for the themes of his contemporaries, the Urban Realists.
The images in "The Countryside" section go beyond the expected views of farmers planting, plowing, or harvesting to encompass a wide range of rural tasks. Willard Metcalf and J. Alden Weir humanized the winter landscape by including laborers hauling wood and cutting ice. Edward Potthast, who became known for views of holidaymakers at the beach, produced a quiet view of a Dutch youth sharpening his scythe. Theodore Robinson spent much of the summer of 1893 painting views of the Delaware & Hudson Canal, two of which are included in the exhibition.
The American Impressionists escaped their city studios to spend the summers painting along the New England coast, where they depicted the regattas and swimming parties of other middle-class refugees from urban heat. The exhibition's look at "The Waterfront" demonstrates that perhaps just as frequently they turned for inspiration to the deeply rooted commercial underpinnings of the New England coast: shipbuilding, freight-hauling, and fishing. The dynamism of work is sometimes expressed in compositions of striking boldness. Hassam's The Caulker, for example, reveals the influence of Japanese prints in the cropping of the subject, the vertical grid that screens the distant landscape, and the monochromatic pattern formed by the scattered lumber. By contrast, John Joseph Enneking portrays a solitary clam digger in a tidal marsh.
The works in the section on "Factories, Mills, and Quarries" range in date from the 1890s to 1921. At the turn of the last century, J. Alden Weir depicted the textile factories near his country home in northeast Fairfield County, Connecticut. Four paintings from that series, exhibited together for the first time, allow visitors to trace his changing response to American industrial growth. Many of the finest works by Pennsylvania Impressionist Robert Spencer depict the silk mills on the banks of the Delaware River. In One O'clock Break, the factory workers' pastel clothing and enjoyment of a respite in the open air creates the sense of a pleasant work environment. After World War I, Old Lyme Impressionist Edward Rook betrayed his nostalgia by depicting not a thriving factory, but rather a pre-Revolutionary gristmill. The expatriate American artist John Singer Sargent depicted an ancient industry in the Italian countryside in his brilliant canvas Bringing Down Marble from the Quarries to Carrara. Daniel Garber repeatedly depicted the quarries along the Delaware River near his Pennsylvania home. (right: Ada Walter Shulz (1870-1928, Wash Day, 1912, oil on canvas, 24 x 27 inches. Collection of Robert L. and Ellen E. Haan)
Women are represented in another section of this exhibition as mill workers. "The Home," by contrast, acknowledges the work done by women of all classes within the domestic sphere. Paintings by William Merritt Chase, Joseph DeCamp, Ellen Day Hale, and Theodore Robinson depict women cooking, cleaning, and sewing. Richard Miller portrayed a milliner working within a comfortable home. New discoveries for most museum visitors will be California Impressionist Jean Mannheim and Indiana Impressionists Ada Walter Shulz and Theodore Steele, all of whom portrayed women doing laundry.
Accompanying American Impressionism: The Beauty of Work is a fully illustrated catalogue by guest curator Susan G. Larkin, who places the American Impressionists' treatment of labor within a broader art-historical context. The first chapter surveys the theme in earlier American paintings, including John Singleton Copley's portrait of Paul Revere as a silversmith, Frederic Edwin Church's Haying Near New Haven, Eastman Johnson's Cranberry Harvest, Island of Nantucket, John Ferguson Weir's Forging the Shaft, and Robert Koehler's The Strike. The second chapter explores cosmopolitan sources, exemplified by Jan Vermeer's Lacemaker, John Constable's paintings of workaday life near the River Stour, Jean François Millet's Gleaners, Camille Pissarro's Potato Diggers, and Edgar Degas's Women Ironing. A more exotic source of influence was the Japanese woodblock prints the American artists admired and collected.
Against this diverse historical background, the third chapter addresses the continuities and innovations in the American Impressionists' theme of work. The author relates the situations depicted in the paintings to the realities of life at the turn of the twentieth century. The catalogue entries will be grouped according to the work-site organization of the exhibition.
American Impressionism: The Beauty of Work is generously sponsored by Bank of America Private Bank, Altria Group, Harry Winston, The Charles M. and Deborah Royce Exhibition Fund, and a Committee of Honor under the leadership of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas P. Clephane and Mr. and Mrs. Carl S. Forsythe. The media sponsor is Moffly Publications.
Selected Artworks from the exhibition
Editor's note: RL readers may also find of interest these related articles and essays:
and these videotapes:
John Singer Sargent: Outside the Frame is a 57 minute 1999 Jackson Frost television documentary produced by WETA-TV, Washington, filmed in high-definition format, and narrated by Jacqueline Bisset. As the foremost portraitist of his time, Sargent exquisitely captured in oil and watercolor the spirit of the Gilded Age. This close look at his work reveals much more than the faces of the wealthy. Emmy winner, Jackson Frost, reexamines Sargent's creations including landscapes, figures, and murals and highlights the paintings El Jaleo, Madame X, Carnation, Lily and others. At the height of his career, Sargent was the most admired portraitist in England and America, but he was dismissed after his death as merely a commercial artist. Distributed by Home Vision . ASIN: 0780023064
William Merritt Chase at Shinnecock is a 26 minute 1987 video from the National Gallery of Art. A survey of the life and work of American painter William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) The narration is by Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., curator at the National Gallery of Art.
"The film highlights W. M. Chase's years at Shinnecock, on Long Island, NY, where in 1891 the artist established the first important outdoor summer school of art in America. Images of Chase's paintings and archival photographs--many of the artist's studios--are combined with footage of the hills and beaches at Shinnecock and of Chase's house and studio as they are today." (text courtesy Georgia Museum of Art)
"Surveys the life and work of American painter William Merritt Chase (1849--1916), beginning with his student days in Munich and early career in New York City. " Description source: Amon Carter Museum Teacher Resource Center
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