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American Impressionism: Paintings from The Phillips Collection

November 6, 2008 - January 18, 2009


The Oklahoma City Museum of Art is hosting fifty-four works from the golden age of American impressionism, November 6, 2008 through January 18, 2009. American Impressionism: Paintings from The Phillips Collection includes celebrated American artists Childe Hassam, Maurice Prendergast, John Henry Twatchman, and J. Alden Weir. During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, these artists transformed the heroic American landscape into a modern idiom with a style of impressionism that blended European approaches to painting with American sensibilities and preferences. Organized by The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., the exhibition presents some of the finest examples of American impressionism from one collection. (right: Reynolds Beal, Beach Ponies, 1918, Oil on canvas, 26 1/8 x 36 1/8 inchces. The Phillips Collection, acquired 1925)

"Etched in the memory of many in Oklahoma City is a wonderful exhibition of works from The Phillips Collection which came to the Museum many years ago," said Carolyn Hill, president & CEO. "We revere such an exceptional museum and collection, so to bring such beautiful key works to Oklahoma City from The Phillips Collection is an eagerly awaited encore."

Duncan Phillips, founder of The Phillips Collection, was among the early collectors of American impressionist paintings. From 1912 to 1922, he acquired an impressive collection of works by leading American painters working in an impressionistic style. When he opened his museum in the fall of 1921, the collection included 237 paintings, of which 87 works by 25 different artists were examples of American impressionism. A great number of these were by acknowledged "mature" masters of the style, such as Hassam, Theodore Robinson, Twatchman, Weir, and William Lathrop. The collection also included paintings by Ernest Lawson, Prendergast, Gifford Beal, and Helen Turner. These artists applied the brighter palette and broken brushwork of French impressionism to the American landscape. They focused on intimate and atmospheric views of parks and beaches as well as urban views and charming interiors. While impressionistic works emphasize the seasons, changing light, and optical effects, American impressionist painters differed from their French counterparts by continuing to imbue their work with larger ideas related to the emotional and spiritual character of the landscape. The result was a fresh interpretation of America's landscape and cities. (left: Williams Glackens, Bathers at Bellport, ca. 1912, Oil on canvas, 25 x 30 inches. The Phillips Collection, acquired 1929)

Highlights of the exhibition include a range of work by many of the key players of the movement. Focusing largely on landscape painting, American Impressionism features many of The Phillips Collection's most treasured paintings, which depict scenes from Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. These early works formed the cornerstone of the museum and continue to inform the development of its collection.

Duncan Phillips considered impressionism a question of personal temperament or subjectivity combined with natural phenomena. In the work of both Twatchman and Weir, for instance, Phillips found depictions of the intimate moods of the artists' Connecticut properties as celebrations of the American countryside and pastoral respite from the modern world. Both artists used the language of French impressionism to explore nature's emotional effects. Twatchman, whom Phillips considered one of America's greatest artists, is still thought of as the pre-eminent American impressionist landscape painter. His painting, Summer, is a classic example of his work, and Phillips regarded it as one of his best purchases for 1919, outranking all others, including those by Weir, Hassam, and Lawson. (right: Lilian Westcott Hale, Home Lessons, 1919, Oil on canvas, 46 x 40 inches. The Phillips Collection, acquired 1920)

The exhibition also showcases the work of a lesser known but equally extraordinary artist, Allen Tucker. Phillips acquired Tucker's paintings, Red Barns and The Rise, in 1926-1927. Considered by his contemporaries to be the "American van Gogh" because of his vigorous and animated brushwork, Tucker captured the attention of Phillips who sought to add an original van Gogh to his growing collection of modern art during this period.



Duncan Phillips was a man of his time in his enthusiasm for American impressionist painting. When he arrived in New York in 1910, with dreams of becoming an art critic, impressionism was America's popular mainstream aesthetic style. By the end of the decade, he could count himself as one of its first collectors. American impressionist works were the foundation of the museum and significantly shaped its development, playing a vital role in Phillips' maturing appreciation of abstraction.

In the early 1920s, the writings of contemporary critics, such as Roger Fry and Clive Bell, opened Phillips' eyes to the intent of abstract art, and his collecting in that decade reflected his new understanding. He added very few American impressionist paintings to his collection after 1923. As Phillips became more knowledgeable in his understanding of abstraction, he turned his attention towards other artists. He was drawn not only to the new American realism, but also to the American moderns around Alfred Steiglitz and the artists of the School of Paris, including Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque.

Phillips' collecting practices were ultimately driven by his desire to create a cohesive aesthetic collection independent of chronology or schools of painting. Only artists whom he saw as "modern in mind," or whose work could be seen as links between past and present, found a permanent place in the collection.


(above: Childe Hassam, Washington Arch, Spring, ca. 1893 (signed 1890), Oil on canvas, 26 1/8 x 21 5/8 inches. The Phillips Collection, acquired 1921)



A 192-page book with 120 color illustrations accompanies the exhibition. American Impressionists: Painters of Light and the Modern Landscape , co-published by The Phillips Collection and Rizzoli International Publications, features essays by William H. Gerdts, the leading authority on American impressionism, and Phillips exhibition curator Susan Behrends Frank. An audio tour, written and produced by the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, will also be available. Following its presentation in Oklahoma City, the exhibit will travel to the Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, Florida.


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