Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on March 8, 2009 with permission of the author and the Boca Raton Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at Boca Raton Museum of Art through either this phone number or web address:


American Impressionism: Works from the Bank of America Collection

by Wendy M. Blazier


The American artists who embraced Impressionism from the 1880s to the first decades of the twentieth century were a diverse group of painters, whose styles were as varied as the subjects and locales they chose to paint. Yet, despite their different approaches, they shared a common aesthetic and history, which united them as American artists with a wholly American response. Influenced by the new French painting, each artist was affected differently and each embraced the new aesthetic in his or her own way, ultimately producing a unique manifestation of the American spirit and American subject matter.

The contributions of many nineteenth-century American landscape painters served as catalysts for the development of American Impressionism. As early as the 1830s, American Realist painters saw the beauty of nature as a reflection of divine revelation. As precursors to American Impressionism, the paintings of Samuel Colman, Sanford Gifford, George Inness and Thomas Moran serve as an introduction to the exhibition. The style in which these nineteenth-century masters painted was integral to the transition of American landscape painting from vistas of scenic grandeur in the first half of the nineteenth century to shimmering Impressionist views of rural and urban America at the turn of the twentieth century.

Thomas Moran's early work, View of Fairmont Waterworks, Philadelphia, circa 1860, is intricate, precise and almost documentary in its detail, in contrast to the intimacy and less formal immediacy of Impressionism's approach to landscape. Sanford Gifford's luminous landscapes anticipate the American Impressionists' interest in light and atmosphere. And in George Inness' late works, inspired by the French Barbizon painters, his serene panoramic vistas become more naturalistic and subjective, as we see in Meadowland in June from 1880.

Although light, color, atmosphere, and transience had informed the Hudson River School artists, the Luminists, the Barbizon-inspired landscapists and Tonalists, American Impressionism employed these formal elements in a new way. The landscapes painted by the American Impressionists differed from those of their predecessors. Instead of focusing on scenic transcendentalism, the American Impressionists depicted America's landscapes and cityscapes with an immediacy, close up, and on a human scale.

The new style of Impressionism represented a modern aesthetic for American artists. Impressionism, which began in France in the 1860s, was a reaction to the conservative realism and restrictive rules of the French Academy. When American artists took up this new style in the 1870s and 80s, they applied French Impressionism's practice of recording everyday life, experiments with atmospheric effects, optical relationships between light and color, and a vibrantly bright palette to an already established landscape tradition of decidedly American subjects.

American Impressionist landscape images also provided respite from the realities of city life with its crowded neighborhoods, congested streets and burgeoning industry. Images of genteel suburban life, pastoral retreats, peaceful gardens and beautiful homes were perfectly suited to the new gestural freedom of Impressionism. Ironically, the same techniques of staccato brushwork and scintillating light were applied by many Impressionists to city subjects, to capture the energy of a "modern" industrializing America. Whether painting tranquil landscapes or busy city streets, their aim was to fulfill the widely held belief that art should delight the senses and elevate the spirit.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Impressionism spread throughout North America. Just as the French gathered in certain locales like Pont-Aven, Giverny and Argenteuil, painters in America were inspired by specific rural and coastal regions. Art colonies and schools were established that focused on plein-air painting, challenging artists to finish their work rapidly, in the "open air," to capture the moment. In Massachusetts, art colonies formed along the rugged North Shore including at the harbor at Gloucester, Rockport and Cape Ann; in Connecticut at Cos Cob, Old Lyme and Mystic; and in Pennsylvania at New Hope.

Between 1890 and 1920, Cos Cob, a section of Greenwich, Connecticut, was a gathering place for Impressionists who helped shape an art inspired by French Impressionism that was deeply rooted in American landscape traditions and in the national reverence for nature. Among the painters at Cos Cob were J. Alden Weir who had arrived in the early 1880s, Ernest Lawson, Leonard Ochtman and Childe Hassam who first painted in Cos Cob in 1896.

The art colony at Old Lyme, Connecticut began in 1900. With the arrival in 1903 of Childe Hassam, co-founding member of the American Impressionist group the Ten with J. Alden Weir, American Impressionism became the focus. By the 1910s, Old Lyme was the most famous of the Impressionist colonies in America, where artists George Bruestle, Bruce Crane, Arthur Wesley Dow, Wilson Irvine, Ernest Lawson, Dwight W. Tryon, Carleton Wiggins and his son, Guy C. Wiggins painted.

Meanwhile, Impressionism was being taken up by artists affiliated with the Pennsylvania Academy who had adopted the style while studying in France. In 1898, Edward Redfield was among the first artists to settle in the scenic Bucks County area, along the banks of the Delaware River north of Philadelphia, in the picturesque village of New Hope. Redfield is often identified as the leader of the New Hope group of landscape painters, which included Daniel Garber, Robert Spencer and Walter Schofield.

Although the New Hope School derived its inspiration from French Impressionism, employing plein-air painting, vigorous brush strokes, thick application of paint, and atmospheric tone, their works were celebrated for their indigenously American look. Pictorially, the dynamic canvases of both Garber and Redfield are wholly American in feel, recording their subjects with detail and accuracy. The verdant and sun drenched foliage along the Delaware River in Garber's Green Mansions is unmistakably American autumn. Redfield's Whistler-like nocturne of the Burning of Center Bridge records with pathos and authenticity the wood-covered, 112-year-old Center Bridge emblazoned by a lightning strike in 1923 near Redfield's home.

Impressionism spread nationwide long before World War I. By 1885, hundreds of American painters had gone to Paris to absorb lessons learned from the French Impressionists. Boston's most celebrated landscape painter, John J. Enneking, had studied in Paris with Pissarro and Monet by 1873, before returning to influence other Boston painters by the late 1870s. With the distinguished work of Enneking and others, Boston was an important center for Impressionist painting, inspiring a diversity of approaches ranging from the quintessential Boston street scenes of Arthur C. Goodwin to the figure studies and portraits of Lilla Cabot Perry. Goodwin became famous for his depictions of Boston's harbor, wharfs, streets and markets, capturing the transitional light of late afternoon and twilight's atmospheric haziness.

Lilla Cabot Perry, sister-in-law to the artist John La Farge, was one of the leading women artists working in Boston at the turn of the twentieth century. Like many of her American colleagues, she studied at the Academy Colarossi and Académie Julian in Paris. In 1889, Perry went to Giverny, where she worked with Monet, who became a friend and mentor.

Many East Coast artists sought their subjects on the West coast. Whereas J. Jeffrey Grant found Chicago's tall skyscrapers inspiring, Chicago Impressionist Alson Clark was drawn to the Southwest landscape. Clark made many painting trips to California before moving to Pasadena in 1920, as did Philadelphia-born Impressionist Colin Campbell Cooper who settled in Santa Barbara in 1921.

By the turn of the twentieth century, American Impressionism had become the dominant style in American art. The 1913 Armory Show in New York brought further exposure for French Impressionism and post-Impressionism to the American public, collectors and art critics. However, the Armory Show also introduced European modernist painters like Matisse, Picasso, Picabia and Marcel Duchamp, whose radically different styles were considered by some a threat to American values.

After the Armory Show, things began to change. Robert Henri, who had studied and painted alongside the American Impressionists, was advocating a more visceral interpretation of the American scene. Henri's realism recorded unromantic scenes of urban life considered unsuitable or unworthy of exhibition at the National Academy's juried salons. His broadening American influence was emerging in the socially conscious works of the Ashcan School artists such as John Sloan and the work of associates George Bellows and Gifford Beal.

These new independent artists were realists, interested in portraying colorful and intimate aspects of contemporary city life, the feelings of their subjects, and the poverty and congestion they saw around them. Although they may have espoused their rejection of Impressionism's gentility and prettiness, their commitment to unvarnished realism was indeed one of the first tenants of French impressionism of Degas and Manet.

Ironically, for all the vitality, angst and syncopation to be found in the city, America's early twentieth-century urban realists -- especially those of the later generation of American Impressionists referred to as the Ashcan School artists -- never abandoned an appreciation for America's pastoral landscape. This is especially true of George Bellows, best known for his gritty urban scenes and boxing pictures. Bellows' late work mellowed into dreamy nature paintings and nostalgic scenes such as The Old Farmyard, Toodleums, from 1922. However, Bellows' best works and the best of the American Impressionists had a way of breaking down the boundaries between art and reality, The Old Farmyard, Toodleums is Bellows' intense dreamlike vision of his American utopia. It is an art of reflection and memory, not the reality that the artist sees, but the reality that he remembers. Bellows painted at the artists' colony of Woodstock, New York between the years of 1920 and 1924, in a period of tremendous growth that changed his palette and style significantly. Surprisingly, Bellows' bold landscapes and farm scenes of his final years were inspired by the same mountains, lakes, and fields that had drawn earlier American landscape painters such as George Inness and Thomas Moran.

American Impressionism advanced during its years of popularity with a range of subject matter and painting styles. Its freshness of vision, raw energy, vigorous brushwork, and immediacy of place contributed immeasurably to the new realist sensibility. Today, the work of the American Impressionists can be recognized as a bridge connecting the romantic landscapes of the mid-nineteenth century to the new realism and modernist trends of the twentieth century, thus placing American Impressionism within a broader art-historical context and revealing both its influences and innovations.


About the Bank of America Collection

The Bank of America Collection is one of the largest and most significant corporate art collections in the world, representing a breadth of diversity and developments in art. Bank of America is proud to share its collection with the communities it serves through a broad Arts and Culture Outreach Program. American Impressionism: Works from the Bank of America Collection has been organized by the Boca Raton Museum of Art from the Bank of America Collection. The exhibition is part of Bank of America's new traveling exhibition program, which enables museums to borrow complete exhibitions from the Bank of America Collection as part of its multi-tiered arts outreach. The result of Bank of America's many mergers and acquisitions, the collection is one of the largest and most significant corporate art collections in the world. Bank of America Charitable Foundation provides millions of dollars in philanthropic grants to museums and arts-related nonprofit organizations every year. Additionally, Bank of America underwrites national and local exhibitions at cultural institutions across the country.


About the author

Wendy M. Blazier is Senior Curator at the Boca Raton Museum of Art Ms. Blazier holds a Masters degree in the History and Criticism of Art from Florida State University, Tallahassee, with a concentration in medieval Islamic Art. She completed her graduate thesis research in Islamic glass at the Islamic Art Museum and American University in Cairo, and at Harvard University's Biblioteca Berenson, Villa I Tatti, Settignano, Italy. She was Executive Director/Curator of The Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, Florida (1984-95), and an Adjunct Instructor at Florida Atlantic University (2000-2001) originating the art history course Islamic Art and Architecture 650-1800.

Ms. Blazier has been on staff of the Boca Raton Museum of Art since 1997. As Senior Curator, Ms. Blazier is responsible for the research, installation, and presentation of the Museum's changing exhibitions and permanent collections management.

As Senior Curator, Ms. Blazier has originated exhibitions at the Museum, many with accompanying publications, which have brought regional and national visibility to the Museum including: Get Real: Duane Hanson Sculpture (2003); American Modernism: Paintings from the Dr. and Mrs. Mark S. Kauffman Collection (2004) which traveled to the Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida, and The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; Steve McCurry: Photographs of Asia (2004) which traveled to The Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego; Purvis Young: Paintings From The Street (2006); Graham Flint: Portrait of America - Images from The Gigapxl Project (2006); Conflicting Currents: Aspects of American Art 1920-1950 (2007); American Impressionism: Works from the Bank of America Collection (2008), and I Shot Warhol, Wesselmann, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, and Indiana: Photographs by Bob Adelman and William John Kennedy (2008).


About the exhibition

American Impressionism: Works from the Bank of America Collection was held May 9 - June 22, 2008 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

American Impressionism was a movement deeply rooted in the American landscape tradition. This beautiful exhibition of 60 paintings from the Bank of America Collection traces the stylistic evolution of landscape painting as well as the changing attitude toward nature in the nineteenth century through an examination of works by 30 prominent American artists.

Impressionism began in France in the 1860's as a reaction to the conservative realism and rules of the French Academy. The Impressionists' practice of recording everyday life and their experiments with atmospheric effects, the optical relationships between light and color, and their brighter palettes influenced a generation of American artists, who absorbed these new approaches to painting, and applied them successfully to American landscapes and portraiture.

Artists whose works are featured in American Impressionism include Gifford Beal, Alson Skinner Clark, Bruce Crane, Arthur Wesley Dow, John Joseph Enneking, Daniel Garber, Arthur Clifton Goodwin, James Jeffrey Grant, Frederick Childe Hassam, Wilson Henry Irvine, Ernest Lawson, Leonard Ochtman, Lilla Cabot Perry, Edward Willis Redfield, Louis Ritman, Walter Schofield, Dwight W. Tryon, Carleton Wiggins, Guy C. Wiggins, and Julian Alden Weir.


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on March 8, 2009, with permission of the author and the Boca Raton Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on March 6, 2009.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Kelli Bodle of the Boca Raton Museum of Art for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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