Editor's note: The following essay, with notes, was rekeyed and reprinted on May 16, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of the author and Worcester Art Museum. The essay was previously published in the 88-page illustrated 1997 exhibition catalogue titled American Impressionism: Paintings of Promise, ISBN 0-7649--0359-4. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the exhibition catalogue containing the essay, please contact the Worcester Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


American Impressionism: Paintings of Promise

by David R. Brigham




Impressionism was imported from France to the United States by artists and dealers. Paris had been a magnet for aspiring young painters since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Other European cities -- especially London, Düsseldorf, Munich, Venice, Rome, and Florence continued to attract American painters, but by mid-century Paris was among the most desirable places to cultivate artistic talent. American artists attended French academies and competed to exhibit their work in the Salons, with their participation peaking in the last two decades of the century[7]. Of the artists included in the present exhibition and catalogue, all but William Merritt Chase and Joseph De Camp studied in the French capital. and even these two eventually traveled there. In the late 1880s and 1890s, the dominant teaching mode in Paris was still the academic tradition, and a majority of the American Impressionists studied for a time at the Académie Julian under Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre. They practiced the discipline of drawing from the life model, and they were trained to develop paintings by producing series of preparatory studies. At the same time, they were exposed to the renegade French Impressionist painters, whose canvases of light and atmosphere seemed so fresh and new to some, and were so distasteful to others.

The other method by which Impressionism came to America was through exhibitions intended to capitalize on the nation's growing wealth. The second wave of the Industrial Revolution made the United States an economic power and a storehouse of unprecedented wealth, Important shows appeared in Boston, Chicago, and New York in the 1880s and 1890s and helped create a market and taste for French, and later American, Impressionism. In 1883, for instance, the "Foreign Exhibition" in Boston included French Impressionist paintings sent by the noted dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who also represented the American Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). In 1886 Durand-Ruel sent approximately three hundred French paintings, including Impressionist and academic pictures, to New York. In 1893 Chicago hosted the landmark World's Columbian Exposition, which included French paintings in the Loan Collection of Foreign Masters. Although these exhibitions often received mixed reviews, they brought major French Impressionist paintings to American soil, helping to cultivate a taste for the new style among collectors and artists.[8] However, artists who are now clearly central to the style did not find immediate institutional approval in the United States. For instance, when the Worcester Art Museum purchased Claude Monet's Water Lilies (1908) from Durand-Ruel in Paris in 1910, it was the first museum in the country to purchase a work by this painter.

The availability of art to the general public also increased after the Civil War with the establishment of museums in many American cities. Philanthropic contributions from industrialists, bankers, and other prominent citizens created the Corcoran Gallery of Art (1869), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1870), the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (1870), the Art Institute of Chicago (1879), the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh (1896), and the Worcester Art Museum (1896). A number of these institutions facilitated the promotion of contemporary trends in American art by mounting annual displays of the latest achievements. Starting with its opening in 1898, for instance, the Worcester Art Museum presented annual exhibitions. As the contemporary press stated it, "The severest weeding of New York, Boston and Philadelphia galleries has left Worcester nothing but the finest and most notable features of the bigger American galleries."[9] The best paintings were selected each year by a jury of prominent artists, and cash prizes were awarded to the winners. Later the Museum stopped giving prizes, investing the money instead in purchases that helped build collections of contemporary American art, including works by Impressionists. The installation photograph featured here (Figure 1) includes two paintings that were purchased from these early annuals for the permanent collection: John Twachtman's The Waterfall (Plate 43) and Frank Benson's Portrait of My Daughters (Plate I).

Artists also established loose associations that helped boost the success of American Impressionism. In 1897 a group of painters resigned from the Society of American Artists so they could mount more intimate annual exhibitions of a consistently high quality. The group, which included Frank Benson (1862-1951), Joseph DeCamp (1858-1923), Childe Hassam (1859-1935) Willard Metcalf (1858-1925), Edmund Tarbell (1862-1938), John Twachtman (1853-1902), J. Alden Wier (1852-1919), and. after Twachtman's death, William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), came to be known as The Ten American Painters -- or simply The Ten (Figure 2).. Their early shows in New York were held at Durand-Ruel Galleries, whose director in Paris sent paintings to the first major exhibition of French Impressionist works in the United States in 1883.[10] Several exhibitions of art by The Ten then traveled to the St. Botolph Club in Boston, a gathering place for artists and writers that was described in 1890 as "the home of the impressionists."[11] Numerous other commercial galleries and art societies lent space to The Ten, and in 1906 their paintings were displayed in Providence, New York, Boston, Detroit, and Chicago.

American Impressionists also participated in artists' colonies, the most famous of which were situated in Cos Cob and Old Lyme, Connecticut, Gloucester, Massachusetts, and on Appledore Island, Maine, Artists and writers gathered,
sometimes in the home of a key personality, to foster each other's talents. In Old Lyme, Florence Griswold, a descendant of a patrician Connecticut family, opened her Georgian mansion to the painters who flocked there each year after 1896.
[12] The poet Celia Thaxter, whose father owned Appledore and three other Isles of Shoals, was the galvanizing figure there."[13] Each of these picturesque places was near water, a factor that played an important part in the painters' choices of subject matter. These summer communities also helped to maintain friendships among the Impressionist painters, most of whom had known each other since their student days.


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About the author

Dr. David R. Brigham earned his Ph.D. in American civilization in 1992 from the University of Pennsylvania with the dissertation, "A World in Miniature: Charles Willson Peale's Philadelphia Museum and Its Audience, 1786-1827." He holds an M.A. in American civilization/museum studies, also from the University of Pennsylvania, and bachelor's degrees in English and accounting from the University of Connecticut. He has published several books and catalogues, including the CD-ROM, Early American Art: A Window on History and Culture, and numerous scholarly articles and essays.

Brigham has worked at the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, since 1996, currently serving as director of collections and exhibitions. He organized there exhibitions on Hudson River School landscapes, American Impressionism, Winslow Homer, and Paul Revere silver and prints.


Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Worcester Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine.

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