Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on July 25, 2008 with permission of the Montclair Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalog from which it is excerpted, please contact the Montclair Art Museum, directly through either this phone number or web address:


The American Painting Collection of the Montclair Art Museum

Introduction by William H. Gerdts


The Montclair Art Museum collection covers the range of American painting from the early years of the 18th century to the present; some aspects of our artistic development are particularly well represented, and the collection is studded with individual masterworks of both great beauty and great significance. The publication of such a volume as the present summary catalogue will surely make the museum's fine collection better known and will certainly entice a larger public to visit and see the paintings "first hand;" it will also naturally provide an important research tool for use by the swelling ranks of American art historians.

The earliest painting in the collection is also one of the most controversial, the so-called Self Portrait of John Smibert. Smibert was the first portraitist of real distinction to come to the American shores, introducing a powerful tradition of late Baroque portraiture here, after having visited Italy to study the work of the Old Masters, and achieving a prominent position back in the art world of London. The matter of the authenticity of this picture has not been fully resolved and space does not permit even a summary of the conflicting viewpoints. Yet, one still may begin a discussion of the collection with this painting for it is a work fully in the manner of Smibert's time and represents well the aspects of both style and quality that Smibert brought to these shores when he left London, reaching Newport, Rhode Island, and ultimately settling in Boston, where he inaugurated a tradition of professional portraiture unsurpassed in any other community or region in America in the 18th century.

With Smibert's failing eyesight and general health during the 1740's, and his death in 1751, Boston was left for a few years without a major portraitist of distinction, though local patrons could enjoy the services of such an artist as Joseph Badger, whose somewhat primitive likenesses are not without charm. But the New England portrait tradition was tremendously enriched by the appearance in 1754 of the Englishman, Joseph Blackburn, who worked in the Colonies for about ten years. Blackburn introduced a new, much appreciated modishness in his interpretation of the latest rococo style-elegant figure painting, stylish silks, satins, laces with appropriate jewelry, lively, dynamic compositions, all of which are superbly represented in the 1756 portraits of Benjamin and Margaret Green. If Blackburn covered New England, John Wollaston, who had arrived five years before Blackburn, in New York, travelled through the rest of the Colonies and was probably the most prolific of all our Colonial artists. Wollaston's Mother and Two Daughters may well be his loveliest painting, free from many of the artist's disconcerting mannerisms and sometimes hot coloration, and emphasizing the joys of childhood and happy familial relationships.

Smibert and Blackburn both had their influence upon John Singleton Copley, who was to emerge as America's greatest painter of the 18th century, as fine a portraitist as we have ever produced. Copley's Portrait of Elizabeth Stevens is of exceptional significance, for it is among the first major works wherein the great painter has thrown off those European influences and has emerged into his maturity. Although Blackburn's ability at textural manipulation remains with Copley, he allied and subordinated this formally to the creation of amazing three-dimensionality through his dramatic manipulation of light and dark, and psychologically to the realization of tremendous individual presence and character. There is an almost harrowing reality to Mrs. Stevens, far removed from the formulistic likenesses of Blackburn, pleasing and decorative though these latter are. Whether "Realism" is a special American artistic tradition is a much debated, and debatable point, but if such a tradition exists, Copley's art, and this portrait, represent an apogee of sorts.

When Copley left at the beginning of the Revolution to spend a year in Italy and to settle permanently in Rome, he was not the first Colonial artist to do so. Benjamin West had preceded him by three years, after a short but promising career as a portraitist in Philadelphia and New York. West also settled permanently in London, in 1763, continuing to paint such portraits as that of the wife of Thomas Wyld, which bespeaks his exposure to, and study of, the work of Pompeo Batoni in Rome, so very popular with travelling British aristocrats. But West's ambitions were more highly directed; he aimed at becoming a painter of history, deemed the most challenging of artistic themes, and the most meaningful for viewers of his neoclassic world, who sought uplift and inspiration in historical, biblical, and allegorical pictures. West succeeded, too, becoming historical painter to George III, and producing such major efforts as Cromwell Dissolving the Long Parliament in 1782. It could be argued that such paintings represent British rather than American art, and so they do; but West's representation is fully justified not only by his American background but by his continual association with younger American artists. Not only was he the teacher of scores of aspiring Americans over two or three generations, but his espousal of history painting provided a goal for many of these artists, however much they found little receptivity back home.

Copley left the Colonies in 1774, but his style of sharp, objective realism remained the standard for almost two more decades. The mantle of first portraitist of the new republic fell initially upon the Philadelphia artist, Charles Willson Peale, who had been one of the first Colonials to go to London and study with West. Peale's importance in American art cannot be overstressed; not only did he produce a superb group of paintings, but he was the first important figure in the development of museums and art academies in this country, and he was the progenitor of the most significant artistic family America has ever known. The Montclair Art Museum has a superb group of Peale portraits, formal and objective such as those of Generals Washington and Greene, tender and sympathetic as in the case of Mrs. Sarah Bordley.

Peale may have been first, but there were other able portraitists of the early federal period, notably Ralph Earl working in western Connecticut, a fine and typical example of whose slightly less sophisticated painting is his Portrait of the Reverend Truman Marsh. But Copleyesque realism gave way in 1792 to the more painterly, fluid, and colorful style of Gilbert Stuart, just returned from success and prominence in London and Dublin, whose elegant and aristocratic art immediately found favor among the wealthy merchants of, successively, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Boston. Stuart is superbly represented at Montclair, from the Portrait of Caleb Whitefoord, an outstanding patron of the arts in England, and one of Stuart's first mature works in the manner of Gainsborough and Reynolds, to the late American Portrait of Mrs. James Bard.

Almost every portrait specialist in America of the first forty years of the 19th century fell under the sway of Stuart's style and the romantic and aristocratic tradition he represented. Montclair is especially fortunate in this area. Romantic portraiture in Philadelphia, where Charles Willson Peale had almost given up painting after the appearance of Stuart, is represented by three fine, elegant portraits by Thomas Sully. Garnering equal fame in New York was Sully's contemporary, Henry Inman, and both were called "The American Lawrence" in reference to Sir Thomas Lawrence, the famous English romantic artist. In Boston there was Stuart himself, though after his death in 1828, the tradition of grace and loveliness in feminine portraiture was assumed by such an artist as Francis Alexander, whose Portrait of Mary Sigourney is a notable example of a work by a fine painter somewhat unknown today. By the early 19th century, of course, the new nation had become more wealthy and populated, and areas such as northern New Jersey had their own specialists, such as Oliver Tarbell Eddy, whose portraits are characterized by a wan seriousness and delicacy. It should be borne in mind that, within the Montclair collection, there is an effort to tell the story of New Jersey's art and that of its home community especially.

History and figure painting, as differentiated from portraiture, remained the goal particularly for those artists who were trained and influenced by West. The finest of our romantic artists of the early 19th century was Washington Allston of Boston. His early pictures tended toward great dramatic presence in either classical or biblical themes; after he returned for good from a successful career as an historical painter in London in 1818, he soon turned to more dreamy and romantic visions, particularly of single young women in landscape settings. Allston's Evening Hymn of 1835 is one of the finest of these images, one of the high points in Montclair's collection of 19th century American art.

Samuel F.B. Morse, a pupil of both West and Allston, also aspired to history, but he, like many, found that there was no encouragement for this form of art back home. He turned reluctantly to portraiture, and although he gained success with this theme, fully warranted as we see in Montclair's dashing and colorful Portrait of William Lawrence, Morse's lack of success in historical painting led him to abandon the arts and pursue a career in the sciences where he became famous for his work in telegraphy and photography.

The first theme to successfully challenge the dominance of portrait painting was that of landscape. As the American landscape began to be looked upon as a kind of natural paradise rather than inhospitable and even menacing, so patrons appeared wishing to further American cultural aspirations through the encouragement of art forms and themes that seemed particularly national. Alvan Fisher was probably our first native-born landscape specialist, and Montclair's Winter in Milton, Massachusetts is particularly significant, as representing his earlier, more dramatic approach to the landscape -- particularly the winter scene -- which was soon to change to a more delicate convention. But the first American master landscape painter was Thomas Cole. Contemporaries recognized him as a genius, though critics and patrons alike preferred his simpler, topographical pictures such as his View on the Hudson to his larger, moralistic landscapes which the artist himself saw as a "higher kind of art." They also cautioned him against the enticements of Europe and European subjects and traditions, William Cullen Bryant advising him to "keep that earlier vision bright," when he went to Europe; but in Europe, Italy particularly, he produced some of his loveliest views, charmed as he was by the golden light which bathes landscapes of greater tradition and history than could be found in the rugged newness of America.

Cole is often grouped with the artists of the Hudson River School, but the more factual and prosaic style of the landscape painters of the mid-century was quite different from Cole's more painterly and romantic scenes. Yet Cole was close to such an artist as Asher B. Durand, the "dean" of the Hudson River School, and certainly had influence upon him. One of the greatest of all paintings in the Montclair collection is Durand's Early Morning at Cold Spring, which may be Durand's finest work. Consistent with the Hudson River School aesthetic is the factual naturalism in the delineation of every leaf and every rock, and not for nothing was Durand noted for his rendering of tree bark. But there is almost a religious awe and stillness to the scene, as the single figure, surrogate for the viewer, stands at the edge of a natural enframement, to contemplate an idyllic scene of peace and harmony, illuminated by a heavenly light.

This concern for vivid reality is in part a reflection of the popularity of the writing of the English aesthetician, John Ruskin, who so championed the Pre-Raphaelite painters during the 1850's. This country even gave birth to a group of "American Pre-Raphaelites" who did not adopt the religious and moral stance of their English peers but followed them, and Ruskin, in a concern for absolute fidelity and truth to nature. John William Hill was one of the leaders of this movement here, working primarily in watercolor. Another group of American painters of the 1850's and '60's are those who have been dubbed "Luminists," artists working within the Hudson River School tradition but emphasizing a clarity of light and atmosphere, usually related to long, horizontal, panoramic formats, often structured compositionally with a rapid movement in the middle distance of the scene, a composition unbroken by conventional repoussoir enframing elements in the corners. Even within Luminism, however, there was a great diversity of individual styles, as can be seen in the contrast between the typical salt marsh scene of Heade, heavy with wet atmosphere, and the clarity of the beautiful late works of John Frederick Kensett. Still another group of mid-century artists sought out hitherto unexplored territories of North and South America, as the Eastern part of the country became more and more settled and "Europeanized." Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt are among the artists best known in this context, but the finest example in the Montclair collection is a work by their somewhat younger colleague, Thomas Moran, a Scene on the Snake River.

One of the few serious weaknesses in the 19th century collection at Montclair, at the present, is the dearth of mid-century genre paintings, for these scenes of everyday life were extremely popular at the mid-century, seeming to exemplify distinctly American characteristics and characters, and promoted by the popular lottery organizations of the mid-century, the art-unions. Genre examples by the major painters of this theme, William Sidney Mount and George Caleb Bingham, rarely reach the art market today and are prohibitive in price, though the Montclair collection has superb examples of the portraiture of both these painters. Probably the most fascinating genre painting of the period in the collection is the Child with Toy by Lilly Martin Spencer. Mrs. Spencer was a "first" in many ways: she was the first woman genre and figure painter of significance in America; the first woman painter to achieve really national fame; and certainly New Jersey's outstanding genre artist. She was also the nation's specialist in a sub-theme natural to her but rare otherwise in the period, that of domestic, familial indoor, urban genre. Noteworthy examples of the work of slightly later genre specialists include the charming, rather conservative painting of Edward Lamson Henry, and the more dramatic and vital Children in the Hayloft Eastman Johnson.

The other area where the Montclair collection needs greater representation in 19th century art is that of still life. This theme, though often dismissed in the 18th and early 19th centuries as little more than a transcription of nature, nevertheless began in the early years of the century, especially in the hands of a number of the Peale clan, and proliferated particularly at mid-century. Though the major mid-century figures are not yet represented, it is noteworthy that one of the most recent acquisitions of the museum is a lush Fruit and White Rose of James Henry Wright, typical of the sense of bountifulness that pervades most of these colorful, optimistic still lifes of the period.

Post-Civil War still-life painting evinces very different qualities, particularly as represented in the best-known manifestation of the genre, the trompe-l'oeil, "fool the eye" painting of William Michael Harnett and his followers. Harnett is not yet in the collection, but a number of his finest followers are. These include Richard La Barre Goodwin, whose game birds on a door was that artist's favorite, oft-repeated subject, utilizing the vertical plane of the door as a background for the hanging birds who seem to be projected out into the spectator's space, and with added manifestations of illusionism in the real-seeming card stuck into the door, the projecting door handle with its shadow, and the ubiquitous floating feather. Today the most respected of all of Harnett's followers is John Frederick Peto, whose more simple compositions of very ordinary, "used up" objects suggest a melancholy rare in American still-life painting. And even locally, Harnett had his followers, as we see in the work of the rare Edward N. Griffith. Of course, not all late 19th century still life emphasizes extreme illusionism; a more elegant, decorative approach, reflecting the contemporaneous collecting of rare and valuable antiques and bric-a-brac, may be seen in the work of such a painter as Harry Watrous.

The core of the Montclair collection, quite appropriately enough, is the superb holdings of the works of George Inness. Inness was the greatest American landscape painter of the late 19th century -- some scholars believe the greatest that the nation has ever produced; he was also the most significant artist associated with Montclair, where he lived and painted from 1878 to his death in 1894. It was Inness, more than any other single figure, who changed the nature of American landscape painting from the particularization of the Hudson River School, to the more dramatic generalities of Nature, a concern with Nature's moods and poetry, and her changing aspects of weather, season, and time of day. Inness's training was meagre; there were a few lessons with a local drawing master named John Jesse Barker in Newark, and then a few months of more professional training in New York City under an expatriate French artist, Regis Gignoux, the latter appropriately represented in the Montclair collection with a fine and typical winter skating scene. The Inness collection at Montclair covers a range of his oils from 1859 to 1886, including not only Montclair views, but several of his Italian pictures and a record of his trip to Niagara Falls in the mid-1880's; there is also an important example of his rare excursions into figure painting, and several of his very beautiful and little known watercolors. Only lacking for the time being is an example of his early, Hudson River School phase of painting of the 1840's, and one of his late wooded interiors where forms dissolve in a colored, lyrical mist.

As it is, Montclair's Inness collection is one of the finest anywhere, well representing his role as the leading exemplar of French Barbizon landscape painting transmitted to America. Naturally, an artist of Inness's quality and stature -- and it was during his Montclair years that he achieved great national fame -- attracted many followers. Not the least of these was his son, George Inness, Jr., also of Montclair, whose abilities have been overshadowed by those of his father, but he was an able artist in his own right. Naturally, too, Inness's influence was particularly strong in Montclair itself where such a painter as Joseph Tubby turned from an earlier Hudson River School style to faithful adaptation of Inness's methods. But Inness's influences were as national as his fame, particularly in regard to his late period, as is witnessed by the work of such diverse painters as J. Francis Murphy and Bruce Crane. Works by both these artists entered the collection through the gift of William T. Evans, one of the outstanding patrons of American art of Inness's time, whose painting gifts led to the founding of the Montclair Art Museum. Inness's influence may even have affected the art of such an outstanding independent landscape painter as Worthington Whittredge who lived many years in nearby Summit. In the Montclair collection is one of his finest works, a lyrical wood interior with young men bathing informally.

French Barbizon influences also touched the art of Ralph Blakelock, who resided for a time in East Orange, but he transmuted that influence into a romantic vision, sometimes with references to his Western travels, but far removed from any concern with prosaic reality. The best known of all of our late 19th century visionaries, however, was Albert Pinkham Ryder, whose evocation of a timeless fantasy is beautifully seen in his small and intimate Travelers at Dusk.

Realism, however, was one of the alternate currents of late 19th century American art, recognized in the outstanding work of Winslow Homer. To date, Homer is represented at Montclair with a drawing of Fishermen on Shore, typical of the artist's concern with heroic fisherfolk pitted against the powerful sea, which he developed a few years earlier during his stay on the coast of England, and in the charcoal medium which the Realists of the period preferred in draftsmanship. One of Homer's great contributions to American art was the vitalization of the watercolor medium which gained new, dramatic strength in his hands, and an excellent example is in the Montclair collection. America's other greatest Realist of the period was the portrait and figure artist, Thomas Eakins, two of whose strong and sympathetic portraits are in the collection.

Although Homer and Eakins are generally regarded as very American, "homegrown" products, the impact upon their art of developments in France and England has only recently been recognized. Other American artists, after the Civil War, spent much time studying in those countries and several became expatriates and enjoyed their entire careers abroad. No artist of the figure and the portrait contrasts more effectively with Eakins than does John Singer Sargent, the great international portrait painter of his era. Happily, the example at Montclair, the Portrait of Ernest Ange Duez, shows Sargent more intimately, but still with a near-Impressionist sense of color and verve, in both brushwork and in expression, which are among his most remarkable artistic traits. James A. McNeill Whistler, also, approaches Impressionism in his simplification of form and his sense of the moment, though in his masterful nocturnes and his paintings of the sea, his concern with openness, emptiness, and asymmetrical design suggest his receptivity to the newly discovered art of the Orient.

In the late 19th century, two European centers, Paris and Munich, stood out for the study of art, attracting many young American students. Americans studying in Munich learned vigorous and dramatic brushwork, applied to the rendering of the figure, which is brilliantly evident in Frank Duveneck's Portrait of Amy Folsom, and William Merritt Chase's Tambourine Player. Americans studying at the art schools of Paris were grounded in the study and knowledge of academically rendered figure painting, but many of them turned toward more progressive art then developing there, and particularly to the Impressionists. One of the earliest of these was Theodore Robinson, who moved to Giverny in 1887 where he developed a close friendship with Claude Monet, though his style, often incorporating the peasant figure and utilizing a limited color tonality, is more reminiscent of Camille Pissarro. The American painter whose work is most akin to the French Impressionists was Childe Hassam, examples of whose sparkling watercolors and delicate pastels both are found at Montclair; in America, the popularity of the colorful and evanescent pastel in the 1880's paved the way for acceptance of Impressionist oil painting in the following decade, when the "Ten American Painters," called an Academy of American Impressionism, was formed in 1898. Along with Hassam, J. Alden Weir, John Twachtman, and Edmund Tarbell were among "The Ten," and all are to be seen at Montclair with superb and typical examples of their art: Weir, with one of his gentle Tonalist landscapes; Twachtman, with one of his incredibly beautiful and delicate snow scenes; and Tarbell, one of the Boston Impressionists, with an elegant figure painting. Impressionism continued into the 20th century to be a strong force in American art. There were a number of Americans in the early years of the century living in France who developed a more decorative, design-conscious variant such as Frederick Frieseke. Even Maurice Prendergast was indebted to Impressionism for his broken colors and vibrant paint, though his rare still lifes, done probably about the time of the Armory Show of 1913, are among his most structural paintings and owe a debt to Cezanne.

Early 20th century painting in America was characterized primarily by two quite separate directions. There were the Urban Realists who emphasized the vitality of the urban centers, hitherto neglected by American artists, utilizing the vigorous brushwork of the Munich tradition. John Sloan, in his early years was one of these, though the last several decades of his life were spent primarily devoted to figure studies. William Glackens was another, though the influences upon his art came first from Edouard Manet, but later, more conclusively, from the Impressionist, Auguste Renoir. Among the finest of all such scenes of vivid city life, however, are the pastels of New York in winter by Everett Shinn; examples of all these are to be found at Montclair, as are a superb group of oils and watercolors by Reginald Marsh who continued the urban theme through the 1930's.

The other artistic direction in the first two decades of the century was an alliance with European modernism, American artists joining the Fauves, the Cubists, and the Orphists in France, and following the tenets of the Futurists in Italy. Max Weber, in fact, investigated the art of all these movements; by 1930 he moved on to develop a unique Expressionist style that still bore a relationship to his earlier studies. John Marin fragmented the geometric, structural foundation of Cubism in colorful, Expressionist watercolors, many of which owed pictorial inspiration to the scenery of the Maine coast, where Winslow Homer had found his ideal retreat many years earlier. And Arthur Dove produced a synthesis of Fauve color and the flat, geometric forms of Cubism, becoming one of this nation's first abstract artists, though his abstractions still contain visual and emotional references to humanistic vision and mood.

A reaction against European modernism set in during the 1920's and '30's, paralleling our political isolationism, and turning toward a reinforcement of visual realism. Precisionism is a name given to a style of sharp, clear rendering of form, often in relationship to Modernist structures and mechanized subjects, and Charles Sheeler is the artist best known in this context. But the most fascinating example in the Montclair collection is The Queensborough Bridge by Elsie Driggs, an extremely rare Precisionist example by this New Jersey artist, where the impact of Cubism upon the interpretation of the modern, industrial structure is clearly seen.

The 1940's and 1950's was primarily an era of abstraction; a link between this development and European modernism was most profoundly provided by the work of Arshile Gorky, two of whose abstractions of artist's materials, painted in the 1930's, are to be found in Montclair. The abstract movement itself is represented in the collection in a number of aspects, from the lyrical abstractions of Theodoros Stamos and William Baziotes to the more dynamic work of Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottlieb. And abstraction continues to be an important basis for pictorial interpretation by young artists today, such as the lyrical color painter, Walter Darby Bannard. Other 20th century painters, primarily associated with New Jersey, are Clarence Carter, Adolf Konrad, and Henry Gulick, to name, respectively, a surrealist, a realist, and a primitive. But contemporary art at this time in America runs the gamut from complete abstraction to intense realism, this last seen in the Goose River watercolor of our best-known Realist, Andrew Wyeth.

The Montclair Art Museum collection offers a superb overview of American artistic development, with areas of great strength and individual examples outstanding in this history of our art. Given the support of patronage and funds for purchase, the museum will surely continue its commitment to American art.


About the author

William H. Gerdts is Professor Emeritus of Art History at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Mr.Gerdts is the author of over twenty-five books on American art. An expert in American Impressionism, he is also well known for his work on nineteenth-century American still-life painting.


Resource Library editor's note

The above catalog text was reprinted in Resource Library on July 25, 2008, with permission of the Montclair Art Museum. The permission was granted to TFAO on July 11, 2008. Mr. Gerdts' essay pertains to The American Painting Collection of the Montclair Art Museum, a summary catalog of the museum's collection that was published in 1977.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Kara Passage of the Montclair Art Museum and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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