American Impressionists Abroad and at Home Paintings From the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Through Nov. 18 at Cheekwood Museum of Art
1200 Forrest Park Dr.
For information, call 356-8000 or go to www.cheekwood.org
I never in my life saw more horrible things. They do not observe drawing nor form but give you an impression of what they call nature. It was worse than the Chamber of Horrors.
American artist J. Alden Weir, on visiting the third group exhibition of French Impressionist paintings in Paris, 1877
It’s easy to forget that Impressionism was once considered radical by many and even revolting by some. Today, the lovely, light-filled oil paintings of Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and others seem pretty tame, but 130 years ago they rocked an art world entrenched in the formal training, techniques, and subjects dictated by academic art institutions. As with most revolutions, though, the new order was quickly and quietly embraced once the fighting was over. Even Weir, who expressed his disgust for Impressionism in the quote above, went on to adopt the style. Two of Weir’s works, in fact, are in an exhibition that is drawn from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collections and currently on display in Cheekwood’s Museum of Art.
Like most American artists, Weir took his time warming up to the cutting-edge ideas of the French painters and didn’t begin producing Impressionistic works until more than a decade after he’d first been exposed to the style. “The movement originated in France in the late 1860s and the French Impressionists showed together eight times between 1874 and 1886,” says H. Barbara Weinberg, guest curator for the Cheekwood show and curator for American paintings and sculpture at the Metropolitan. “With the exception of Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent, who experimented with the style in the late 1870s, the American Impressionists really didn’t become involved with Impressionism until the mid-1880s, by which time it was pretty ‘safe’ and established with critics and collectors.”
Weinberg and co-curator Susan G. Larkin, a Metropolitan research assistant, have arranged the 39 paintings in the touring show by subject matter. There are works like Childe Hassam’s “July Fourteenth, Rue Daunou” (1910) that capture the vibrant bustle and color of the city in the exhibition’s first section, and paintings like Sargent’s “Reapers Resting in a Wheatfield” (1885) that depict the quieter pace and softer hues of the countryside, in the next. A third section examines how American Impressionists looked at their own professional life and depicted views of each other and their studio environments, while works like Cassatt’s “Spring: Margot Standing in a Garden” extol the harmony and beauty of the domestic scene in the exhibition’s final section.
“The most interesting of the American Impressionists understood the French Impressionists’ emphasis on the expression of place,” Weinberg says. “The emphasis on the local and the familiar was what distinguished the Impressionists from the academics, and the Americans who ‘got it’ produced the most appealing works.” As the show’s title reflects, the local and familiar in American Impressionists’ paintings were not limited to scenes of this side of the Atlantic. Painters like Sargent, Willard Metcalf, and Theodore Robinson traveled abroad to Giverny, where Monet had settled in 1883, to draw inspiration from the French countryside. Most, like Weir, studied in France for a time, and some, like Cassatt, moved there, working withand in Cassatt’s case, exhibiting withthe French Impressionists.
While European vistas intrigued the American Impressionistsas demonstrated in a view of a dusty French lane and a red-roofed mill in Robinson’s “The Old Mill” (ca. 1892), or in Walter Schofield’s “Sand Dunes Near Lelant, Cornwall, England” (1905)others found their inspiration closer to home. Both Hassam and Peter Campbell Cooper depicted the energy of New York City in the early 1900s, and Philip Hale’s “Niagara Falls” (1902) and Gifford Beal’s “The Albany Boat” (1915) also offer impressionistic views of scenic American locales.
Even closer to home are the domestic views of the American Impressionists. “William Merritt Chase’s ‘For the Little One’ [ca. 1896] condenses the sense of place that is integral to the Impressionist movement,” says Weinberg. “It is a fine demonstration of his style, his use of familiar models, and his involvement with a beautiful and artistically nourishing locale.” The painting depicts a young woman in white bent over the child’s garment she is intently sewing. Light pours in on her labor from an open, white-curtained window in a picture of domestic contentment and productivity.
As to why an art style well over a century old still holds such popular appeal, Weinberg for one thinks the answer goes beyond mere beauty. “The style tells us about actualities of the not-too-distant pastthe beginnings of our own modern eraand does so in a fresh, brilliant, lively style that projects the personality of the individual artist,” she says. “Impressionism is about the artist’s personal perception and experience, and we relate to that better than to depictions of lessons from history books.”
A number of special events are scheduled in conjunction with the exhibit at Cheekwood. A tour in French will offer art lovers a chance to see the show and brush up on another language, 2 p.m. Oct. 13. Brown-bag lunch talks with Cheekwood curators, French wine-tastings, and lectures on Impressionism in music and Gilded Age architecture are also planned. Call 353-9827 for more details.
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