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




The Impressionists are identified with significant innovations in working method; they cast aside many time-honored painting and drawing traditions. The academic method of preparing careful studies of individual elements and overall compositions gave way to a single direct application of paint, called the alla prima method. What was lost in the meticulous rendering of detail was gained in vitality. Rather than using the studio as the locus of creativity, artists now painted landscapes on-site, a practice known as plein air painting, which helped them capture a more realistic impression of the effects of light and atmosphere on their subjects' form and color. In other words, certain light conditions might make a shadow cast on the grass appear blue rather than dark green. The academic painter would color the shadow dark green, whereas the Impressionist would opt for blue as the truer record. An academic painter might make a careful study of a distinctive tree bark, but the Impressionist would omit that detail if it were not visible from the distance at which the painter happened to be working, This aspect of Impressionist method only partially accounts for the paintings' appearance. Despite their experiments with alla prima painting, the artists continued to make graphite, pastel, and oil sketches, and they sometimes made preliminary photographs of their subjects.

American Impressionists also painted in their studios, including outdoor subjects, even after gaining confidence working à plein air, Still, Impressionist paintings conveyed the sense of momentary effects, whether those effects were contrived in the studio or captured on-site.

The work of Frank Benson demonstrates this duality. Benson was trained in the academic method at the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston and at the Académie Julian in Paris, an education parallel to that of his peers. Proud of his work outdoors, he had photographs taken of himself on several occasions while working with oil paint and watercolor in natural light, Critics praised him and his fellow artists in this regard, claiming that

the feature that will stand out with strongest
emphasis is the artist's new behavior toward
nature: his own going out to study it in all its
own natural environment of light and his
rendering his impressions of it actually in its
presence. This, as contrasted with the old idea
of making piecemeal notes of nature and then
withdrawing with them into the seclusion of the
studio to make a more or less arbitrary use of
them, will stand out as the essential characteris-
tic of present-day painting. [14]

Photographs document the outdoor sittings for Natalie (Plate 8), showing the artist seated in a folding chair and the sitter perched on a fence rail (Figure 3). However, Benson also painted outdoor subjects in his studio, such as a canvas of geese in flight (Figure 4). While the image of Benson painting Natalie gives direct evidence that he worked from life, a photograph of his daughter Eleanor posing for The Reader (Figure 5, Plate 5) suggests that he used such images as studies. The latter photograph also implies that this exquisite rendering of outdoor light was painted, at least in part, indoors.

American Impressionists also sometimes created oil sketches to develop preliminary ideas into complete compositions. Edmund Tarbell's The Venetian Blind was first conceived in a very loosely drawn oil study (Plate 40) that captured a partially draped female figure stretched out on a sofa. The finished oil painting (Plate 41) more
fully elaborates the environment, especially the richly colored and textured light that flows through the Venetian blinds. A vase of flowers to the left, printed drapery, and furniture are all more fully realized in the larger canvas. Tarbell also made compositional changes in the figure, bending the woman's left arm to bring it closer to her body and making the line along the left side of her neck more fluid. Last, Tarbell tucked the woman's right elbow under her head rather than truncating it just below the joint, as it appears in the study. The finished work features broken color and imparts the feeling of momentary effects of light upon animate and inanimate objects, but the study demonstrates the careful planning that preceded this impression.

Childe Hassam's paintings of Boston's Columbus Avenue in the rain demonstrate that an artist's earlier representation of a subject could appear more concrete than a subsequent one. In two such paintings, one made in 1885 (Plate 17) and the other in 1886 (Plate 18), Hassam includes many of the same elements. Two streets intersect, with the main avenue receding along a diagonal from bottom left to center right. Cabs and an omnibus convey passengers through the setting, and pedestrians protect themselves with black umbrellas. Buildings line the far side of the avenue, and a clock tower rises distinctively over the scene on the right. Significantly, the later painting has a more atmospheric quality. The dim evening light and the rain dissolve the forms in the 1886 work, which might be mistaken for a sketch, demonstrating that Hassam was more fully absorbing the Impressionist aesthetic. Both paintings are signed and dated, suggesting that he considered them works in their own right rather than a study and a finished painting.


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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.


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