American Impressionists

Childe Hassam, Broadway and 42nd Street [1902], oil, 26 x 22. painting, southwest art.
Childe Hassam, Broadway and 42nd Street [1902], oil, 26 x 22.

By H. Barbara Weinberg

Offering a rich overview of the development of American Impressionism from the late 1880s to the early 20th century, American Impressionists Abroad and at Home: Paintings from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is on exhibit through April 22 at the San Diego Museum of Art. Drawn from the Metropolitan’s distinguished collection, the exhibition highlights the vibrant interpretations of modern life in Europe and the United States created by American artists who embraced French Impressionism. The exhibition travels to four other American cities, beginning with the Delaware Art Museum; the San Diego Museum of Art is its sole western venue.  The exhibit is comprised of 39 canvases by 28 artists and is accompanied by a catalog written H. Barbara Weinberg and Susan G. Larkin. The following are excerpts from the catalog’s introduction.

In general, American painters’ adoption of Impressionism was delayed until the late 1880s, when the style had lost its radical edge in Europe and was validated by American collectors and critics. Yet that adoption was inevitable, given the pattern of American interest in French art and the material and cultural energy of the United States, which amplified the changes in modern life that had provoked and nurtured Impressionism in France. Those epochal changes included the shift from rural/agrarian to urban/industrial society; economic volatility, great disparities of wealth, and labor unrest; redefinition of the class structure and gender roles; growth and redistribution of population as a result of immigration and, in America, emancipation; and scientific challenges to religious beliefs.

Mary Cassatt, Spring: Margot Standing in a Garden [1900], oil, 26 3/4 x 22 3/4. painting, southwest art.
Mary Cassatt, Spring: Margot Standing in a Garden [1900], oil, 26 3/4 x 22 3/4.

It may at first appear that the American Impressionists, perhaps motivated by commercial concerns, merely imitated the surfaces of Impressionist paintings to compete with Monet and his colleagues for collectors’ attention. While some American painters responded to Impressionism only superficially, the most interesting of them grasped its essence, especially the conviction that their works should encode modern life in modern artistic terms.

The Impressionists’ insistence on familiar subjects provided a welcome antidote to the saturation of American painting that favored universal figural themes and poetic, placeless landscapes. By the end of the 1880s, artists, critics, patrons, and other observers who had advocated internationalism in art and had asserted that American life was unpaintable feared that “American” art had disappeared. Possibly in response to this anxiety, the repatriated American Impressionists [who had studied in France] sought genuine counterparts of French Impressionist subjects, sites that had local or national resonance or that announced American progress.

The American Impressionists abroad and at home witnessed the emergence from an agrarian tradition of an industrialized urban society. They were excited by the prospect of change and nostalgic for the rural past, enthusiastic about modern life and regretful that the reassuring and familiar were being swept away. Ignoring such problems as immigration and urban poverty, they shone a positive light on their era.

Although the American Impressionists preferred to escape vexatious urban pressures, some were captivated by busy city streets. Satisfied with the rapidly rendered vignette rather than the artfully staged panorama, they could respond nimbly to the bustling spirit and the fragmented experience that marked the age. Childe Hassam [1859-1935], who asserted that the artist who would claim lasting fame is he who paints his own time and the scene of everyday life around him, caught the flavor of characteristic neighborhoods in New York and Paris at engaging moments. In Broadway and 42nd Street, the area now known as Times Square comes alive on a winter evening with twinkling electric lights, bustling crowds, and cabs and trolleys.

Aspects of domestic life, usually featuring women at ease and charming children, were common subjects for the American Impressionists. Mary Cassatt [1844-1926] suggested youthful vulnerability in Spring: Margot Standing in a Garden, an image of a child who often modeled for her. The shapes of the costume are reiterated in the shrubbery and garden road, and the rounded forms of the child’s flesh and the unified palette amplify the connection between sitter and setting. The freshness of the setting and the bloom of the model’s youth are coequal.

These paintings are reflections of the American Impressionists’ experiences abroad and at home, as well as enchanting records of light and color.

Photos courtesy the American Federation of Arts.

Featured in March 2001