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





Although American land was becoming increasingly urbanized and industrialized, especially in the Northeast where the art market was centered, Impressionist landscapes featured natural places of solitude. Rather than embrace the changes occurring around them, the Impressionists preferred scenes that offered an alternative to the clamor of urban life. The places they painted were typically rural and often conveyed a feeling of silence. When the city crept into their paintings, it was often treated as a context for spaces that were set aside for contemplation or leisure.

The American Impressionists lived and worked primarily in two of the nation's busiest cities, Boston and New York. But like many other middle- and upper-class Americans, they made rural retreats during the summer months. Childe Hassam spent many summers from the mid-1880s to 1916 on Appledore Island, one of the Isles of Shoals.[15] On another Maine island, North Haven, Frank Benson and his family purchased Wooster Farm, where they vacationed and Benson painted starting in 1901.[16] His friend Edmund Tarbell bought a home in New Castle, New Hampshire, which offered such comforts as a "wide lawn," "flower beds," a "riverside studio," "a stable of five valuable horses," tennis courts, and a golf course.[17] Among the New Yorkcrs, William Merritt Chase found quiet in the hills of Shinnecock on Long Island, and John Twachtman removed from the city to a farm in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Typical of the images Childe Hassam created during his summer working vacations, Sylph's Rock, Appledore (Plate 22) was painted near a popular resort, yet it depicts an uninhabitable site. Rugged granite boulders catch the light from subtly graded angles, reflecting light back in different colors laid down with horizontal strokes of broken color: white, red, blue, and brown. Bright sunlight and a clear sky help activate the surface of the rocks, an effect that is complemented by the movement of the water below. While this image relies on specific light and atmospheric conditions to imply transience, the rock formation itself is immovable. Its immensity and irregular surface render Sylph's Rock invulnerable to the taming forces of American industry. Nearby, however, urban dwellers such as Hassam clustered together in fashionable company at Appledore House, where they enjoyed bathing, sailing, tennis, and each other's society (Figure 6). They were attracted to the island in part by advertisements that promised a respite from the stress of modern middle-class life: "Pre-eminently the place for the tired worker," one broadside claimed. "No noise, no dust, no trolleys. A rest cure in these isles is a thing of joy."[18] If a stay on Appledore was a welcome withdrawal from the city, Hassam's painting of Sylph's Rock offered a further retreat into solitude.

Hassam's example was not the only possible response to urban life, of course. William Merritt Chase and Maurice Prendcrgast (1859-1924) found vibrant and pleasing scenes of middle-class leisure in the parks around New York and Boston, just as the French Impressionists were attracted to lively subjects in the public gardens of Paris. A group of park scenes painted by Chase primarily in the late 1880s captures plush spaces that are structured to convey quiet and beauty. His Early Morning Stroll (Plate 14), for instance, features a broad area enclosed by winding walls and punctuated by stately piers. The stepped walls and benches invite visitors to sit, while the open space provides a playing field for the well-dressed kneeling child in the foreground. Trees of a variety of shapes, heights, and types shelter the park from its urban environment. Bright sunlight enlivens the peaceful image and activates the whites that connect the figures at left, right, and center. Prendcrgast also gravitated toward these refreshing preserves from city life. In images such as Gloucester Park (Plate 30), Prendergast dotted the scene with figures from one end of the long horizontal composition to the other. Thus his landscape is also a genre scene, populated with groups of women on park benches looking out onto the calm water, a gathering of four men and women conversing on the grass, and a trio of women strolling across the park. A sailboat on the horizon near the center of the image moves gently across the water. The whole scene is painted in simple blocks of mostly unmixed color -- green, yellow, blue, orange, and red -- set down in mosaiclike patches characteristic of his style. Prendergast's watercolor embraces a basic tenet of mid- and late-nineteenth-century urban planning: As American cities became more densely populated and covered with buildings, parks would have to be established to maintain the presence of nature. This effort was not undertaken to protect nature for environmental reasons but rather to provide city dwellers easy access to the calming and rejuvenating powers of trees, flowers, and bodies of water.

Picturesque blankets of snow offered another antidote to the cares of the era and the intensity of urban activity. In one such image, Ernest Lawson's Washington Bridge (Plate 27), a large stone span anchors the composition. Lawson (1873-1939) employs thick dashes of paint, applied with a palette knife, to render natural and built features alike. He interprets the evenness of white snow with his typical rainbow of hues: greens, yellows, blues, and reds. The snow has temporarily restored quiet and natural beauty to the middle of the city. At first glance the scene appears to be completely unpopulated, but on closer inspection two tiny figures may be discerned on the right. The snow envelops the people along with the hill, river, and bridge -- all blending into a merry whole.

Snow added quiet beauty to rural landscapes as well, a pictorial device that Willard Metcalf among others exploited. The White Mantle (Plate 28), one of a number of paintings he made of farms in winter, exudes peace through the cool unity of snow. In place of the starkness of an all-white composition, he softens the impression with lavender and green tones. Orderly barns and farmhouses offer comfort from the cold and imply an elevated vantage point from which to enjoy the purifying white expanse. For critic Catherine Beach Ely, a contemporary of Metcalf, his landscapes were images of longing, embodying a "mood of homesickness for the haunts we or our parents loved:"[19] For another writer of the period, Metcalf's winter landscapes were pleasant scenes full of delicacy and poetry."[20]

An additional means of presenting the land was to isolate a small segment, as if in a gesture of meditation. In both The Waterfall (Plate 43) and The Rapids, Yellowstone (Plate 44:, John Twachtman features a small section of rushing water in bold strokes of blue, green, and white. The Waterfall erases any sense of a particular place by its close cropping of the subject. While this and related Twachtman paintings represent a site on the artist's farm in Greenwich, Connecticut, the pictures themselves offer no hint of that fact.[21] His continuing interest in this fragment of nature adds to the sense of the meditative function it may have served for him.[22] The Rapids, Yellowstone offers a stronger identification of place by its inclusion of two peaks along the horizon. But rather than offering a panoramic, awe-inspiring view of Yellowstone, as Thomas Moran had done a generation earlier (Figure 7), Twachtman chose a viewpoint that mutes the power of the great peaks and directs our attention to the hypnotic swirls of water that were as easily found in his own backyard. Childe Hassam similarly decontextualized the Isles of Shoals setting for Looking into Beryl Pool (Plate 25), emphasizing the absorbing depths of the cobalt blue water instead of the surrounding rocky cliffs.

The exotic landscape exemplified by the oils and watercolors John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) made during his many travels offered escape from the ordinary. In Shady Paths, Vizcaya (Plate 37), for instance, he demonstrates his virtuoso skill as a watercolorist, capturing summer light glimmering on neoclassical Italian garden statuary. Trees are broken into a fluttering, transparent sheet of greens and browns supported by winding trunks made up of ochers and purples. Sargent's choice of subject matter is significant. The site is the Florida estate of the wealthy industrialists Charles and James Deering, whose mansion reminded the artist of a "grand Venetian villa,"[23] Similarly, Sargent's watercolor leaves the impression of an Italian garden, and Vizcaya, the Deerings' exotic name for their estate, adds a faraway sense to the title. Sargent's Oranges at Corfu (Plate 34) offers yet another Mediterranean fantasy. A balustrade punctuated with two grand vases places the viewer on a luxurious estate. Reinforcing the position of control, the painter establishes a high vantage point over an expanse that encompasses the grove of orange trees stretching to the sea below.

In contrast to the prevalent Impressionist depiction of rural landscapes and hushed urban settings, Childe Hassam also celebrated the thriving streets of Boston and New York. These glimpses of bustling city life are counterbalanced by his paintings of land untouched by human contact. Early in his career Hassam maintained a studio in Boston. As suggested earlier in the descriptions of two of his Columbus Avenue paintings, rainy days provided atmospheric conditions that subdued his palette, while softening the edges of the forms he observed. In an interview conducted several years after he completed Columbus Avenue, Rainy Day, Hassam explained his affection for such material. "The street was all paved in asphalt," he said, "and I used to think it very pretty when it was wet and shining, and caught the reflections of passing people and vehicles. I was always interested in the movements of humanity in the street, and I painted my first picture from my window."[24] In the same interview he explained his compositional choice in painting cab drivers from behind, noting: "Their backs are quite as expressive as their faces. They live so much in their clothes, that they get to be like thin shells, and take on every angle and curve of their tempers as well as their forms."[25] Hassam left Boston in 1886 to study in Paris, and, upon his return in 1889, established himself in New York City. There he continued to celebrate urban life, finding beauty in tree-lined avenues, snow-blanketed streets, and flag-draped buildings. Light, atmosphere, and color provided him with the tools to celebrate the vitality of Manhattan. Aestheticizing the city was a means of participating in modern life while at the same time transforming it into something that transcended the material level.


Go to next section


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.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.