Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on April 8, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of the author and the Columbus Museum of Art The essay was excerpted from the illustrated catalogue for the exhibition Triumph of Color and Light: Ohio Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, held in 1994 at the Columbus Museum of Art. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting.
Ohio Impressionists and Post-Impressionists
by James M. Keny
Usually the state of Ohio does not come to mind as a primary nurturing ground for some of America's best known artists, but perhaps it should. In fact, the state provided the country with some of its earliest practitioners of Impressionism and some of the most influential figures in the development of early twentieth-century American art. Ohio was also home to a remarkably large number of lesser-known but highly skilled Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters, many of whom are still unsung despite their demonstrated abilities. William H. Gerdts, a noted authority on American Impressionism and regional American art, has written: "Of all the states between the east and west coasts, it was Ohio that developed the greatest and most continuous artistic tradition before 1920." Who then are these artists and what was Ohio's role in the development of American art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? To answer these questions we must look to earlier years to discover the foundations of Ohio's artistic milieu.
During the period after the Civil War until the Great Depression, Ohio experienced a phenomenal boom in economic activity and a related surge in population. By 1930, this former frontier state was the third most populous in the country and one of the most powerful and diverse economic centers in the Union. With two key northern ports, Toledo and Cleveland, at the center of the Great Lakes waterway and a long Ohio River border, the state was well positioned to become a national transportation center. Before the turn of the century, when the National Road crossed the state from Zanesville to Columbus to Springfield to Dayton, and the railroads followed that course, Ohio had already become an important component of America's tremendous Western expansion.
In addition to its solid transportation network and central location, Ohio was rich in natural resources such as fertile farmlands, abundant water, and large reserves of coal, oil, timber, clay, and limestone. The state was also home to -- or had ready access to -- seemingly inexhaustible sources of labor due to its relative proximity to large pools of immigrant workers pouring into eastern ports, and, further, the vast reserves of disenfranchised African American laborers from the South who were making or had made their way up the Mississippi system from New Orleans and beyond.
Given its stability and accessibility, Ohio easily attracted investments and capital from wealthy European and established East Coast families. All of these assets combined inevitably to produce a financial boom of unimagined proportions. Cities such as Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton, Lima, Mansfield, and Toledo became virtually synonymous with the production of tires, steel, oil, vacuum cleaners, pottery, brass, household products, cash registers, and glass. As another measure of the state's diversity, its fertile farmlands supported major agrarian enterprises in grain, livestock, and distilled beverages. Philanthropic leaders in these booming industries soon became motivated to establish what has become one of the most fully developed infrastructures for art between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Thus did the culturally diverse inhabitants of the state find nurture for their artistic yearnings.
By 1940, Ohio could boast over a dozen fine art museums, with nationally recognized institutions in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Youngstown. The Cincinnati Art Museum, founded in 1882, completed the state's first major facility for the arts in 1886. Called the "Art Palace of the West," the museum would not have been possible without the substantial support of such prominent businessmen as the Longworths. Subsequent additions to the building were supported by other wealthy families, including the Schmidlapps, the Ropes, and the Emerys.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, one of the finest museums in the country, was built in 1916. The museum building and its extraordinary collections were established with the financial support of the city's wealthy industrialist families, most prominently the Allens, the Hannas, the Harknesses, the Huntingtons, the Kelleys, the Marlotts, the Prentisses, the the Severances, the Wades, and the Whittemores.
In central Ohio, in October 1878, the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts (now the Columbus Museum of Art) registered its charter with the State of Ohio. Under the auspices of the Columbus Art Association, supported by the Deshler, Huntington, Kelley, Miller, Sessions, Schumacher, and Wilcox families, the museum exhibited in various facilities until Ferdinand Howald, a savvy collector and an investor in coal and railroads, sparked the creation of a fine new beaux arts building that opened in 1931.
Joseph G. Butler, Jr., one of the founders of Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, in 1919 established the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown and that same year built an elegant McKim, Mead, and White structure to house it. He and his heirs graced the collection over the next several decades with outstanding examples of American art, including such major works as Winslow Homer's Snap the Whip, acquired in 1919.
Edward Drummond Libbey of Libbey Owens Ford Glass enabled the Toledo Museum of Art, founded in 1901, to construct a classic building in 1912. Through his support, the museum's collection of European and American art became one of the finest in the world.
In 1922, ten years after the Montgomery Art Association met to promote the building of a museum in Dayton, Mrs. Harrie G. Carnell, wife of one of the founders of National Cash Register, provided the means to build a neoclassical structure for the Dayton Art Institute, founded in 1919.
These institutions were important not only for their collections but for the educational opportunities they provided to generations of future artists and supporters of the arts. They also organized exhibitions, awarded prizes, and orchestrated the purchase of art by regional artists. Some established or sustained art schools for the training of future artists.
In 1932 the state was home to over thirty college art schools, including such nationally respected institutions as the Cincinnati Fine Arts Academy, the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art), the Columbus Art School (now the Columbus College of Art and Design), and the Ohio State University College of Fine Arts. These served as magnets for art students throughout the Midwest and a source of inspiration to many potential artists.
Many opportunities to exhibit and sell artists' work arose during the late nineteenth century throughout Ohio. The annual exhibitions of the Cincinnati Art Museum, for example, commencing in 1894, along with those of the Cincinnati-based Society of Western Artists, which exhibited from 1896 to 1914 at a consortium of midwestern museums, also helped stimulate interest in nationally known as well as regional artists.
In the early twentieth century, beginning in 1910, annual exhibitions organized by the Columbus Art League and held by the Columbus Art Association and the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts supported artists in central Ohio. In Cleveland, the annual May Show, held at the Cleveland Museum of Art since 1919, built support for that area's artists, and regular exhibitions at the Toledo Museum of Art helped spark interest in northwestern Ohio's artists.
At the same time, an equally important network of grassroots arts organizations evolved thoughout the state, providing valuable emotional support, exhibition opportunities, and forums for productive aesthetic discussions among artists. Some of the most notable and influential groups included the following: in Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Art Club, Society of Western Artists, Duveneck Society of Painters and Sculptors, Women's Art Club, and Brush and Palette Club; in Cleveland, the Cleveland Art Club (also known as the Old Bohemians), Cleveland Society of Artists, Kakoon Arts Club, Women's Art Club, and Brush and Palette Club; in Columbus, the Columbus Art League, Pen and Pencil Club, Half Souls, and the locally founded Ohio Water Color Society; and in Toledo, the Tile Club. In a number of instances these organizations preceded the establishment of art museums and art schools and were instrumental in their creation.
Added to this artistic milieu were several strong commercial art galleries that provided opportunities for regional artists to promote and sell their works. Most notable among these were A. B. Closson, Jr. Gallery and Traxel Gallery in Cincinnati, and Vixseboxse Art Galleries and Gage Gallery in Cleveland.
In examining the role of Ohio's pioneer artists in American and international art, we shall ask what the state of Ohio may have added to their nurture. Was it initial training, familial support, aesthetic inspiration drawn from the landscape, employment as an artist or teacher, a source of patronage through sales and commissions? Did the artist remain in the state or seek training and inspiration elsewhere as well? Was Ohio a forum for critical enthusiasm and support or a source of rejection?
A significant group of artists, including such well-known figures as Otto Bacher, George Bellows, Theodore Earl Butler, Charles Courtney Curran, Elizabeth Nourse, Edward Potthast, and Abel Warshawsky, not only received training in Ohio but substantial financial support and exhibition opportunities within the state. Others, such as Karl Anderson, Robert Blum, Frank Boggs, Joseph DeCamp, John Enneking, Louis Ritter, Theodore Wendel, and William Zorach, while benefiting from their training and association with other Ohio artists were discouraged by the reaction to their work and left the state without maintaining substantial ties to the region. For others -- Charles Burchfield, Frank Duveneck, William Edmondson, Albert Fauley, Frederick Gottwald, James Hopkins, Henry Keller, Ray Kinsman-Waters, Caroline Lord, Alice Schille, Dixie Selden, A. James Weber, Mary Wetmore, and William Wiessler -- Ohio remained a vital source of critical support and financial sustenance, where they could continue to work successfully, providing training and insight for another generation of students and patrons thoughout the Midwest.
Sadly, a few artists -- especially those who remained in Ohio to teach -- did not receive widespread attention. Even in recent years they have been omitted from important survey exhibitions and publications on American art, not for lack of prominent works but in part because of the predominant East or West Coast orientation of various authors and publishers. It is a goal of this exhibition and this book to shed some understanding of a region's impact on the world of art and to redress some of the longstanding neglect of its lesser-known talents.
MOVEMENTS IN ART, 1870-1940
As prelude to an examination of Ohio artists, it is important to distinguish the various modes of expression that gave rise to their art. Though the roots of modernism are complex, this brief overview takes as a starting point the Barbizon school of painting in nineteenth-century France.
Led by such painters as Jean Francois Millet and Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, the Barbizon artists celebrated the French peasantry and its rural traditions. Whereas nineteenth-century Salon painters tended to paint works that demonstrated their command of tight academic technique and endoresed the lifestyle of the upper-middle class, the Barbizon painters felt that the life of the common laborer was heroic and therefore more wore worthy of exploration. In his rebellion against the academy, Gustave Courbet stressed the importance of painting everyday subject matter in a realistic, raw and vigorous manner. His democratic viewpoint greatly influenced the Barbizon painters. Ohio artists Elizabeth Nourse, Albert Fauley, and Georgia Timken Fry were particularly drawn to this agrarian subject matter and to the freer, broader technique of the Barbizon painters.
During the late nineteenth century, plein-air painting became popular. Instead of making drawings in the field preparatory to painting in the studio, many artists completed their paintings on site. Frequently, such works were less meticulous in their finish but more truthful in their observation of nature. Proto-Impressionist artists such as Johann Jongkind and Eugene Boudin took newfound delight in capturing the ever-changing weather conditions of the northern coast of Europe in their plein-air paintings.
This sensitivity to the changing conditions of nature -- light, wind, atmosphere, and motion -- would become a basis for Impressionist painting along with the loose brushwork necessary to capture such transitory elements. The art of painting is not disguised in such works but is very much an element to be perceived and enjoyed. As a young artist, Claude Monet learned from Jongkind and Boudin and was fascinated by plein-air painting, an interest that is central to his later Impressionist work.
Ohioans such as Frank Boggs, John Joseph Enneking, Maurice Hague, and Luther Emerson Van Gorder emgraced similar concerns . However, like their Proto-Impressionist counterparts, they employed relatively low-key, earthy colors to describe their atmospheric landscapes. The Impressionists would later introduce higher-key, vibrant color, and more actively daubed and broken brushwork to capture related sensations.
Impressionism is of course best represented by artists such as Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Alfred Sisley. These artists developed revolutionary techniques that enabled them to capture images of blazing sunshine, the wind rustling through poplars, or the early morning mist enshrouding the Seine. In their now much beloved compositions they allowed the figures to dissolve into the environment and become just another element of the landscape. Central to their modernist approach was an unbiased interest in a truthfully observed scene, whether grand or humble, with figures or without, with bourgeois or working class themes. Clearly these painters delighted in the active surface of their colorful canvases and in the creation of an illusory envelope of space.
Ohio artists Theodore Butler, Theodore Wendel, and Louis Ritter were among the first Americans who adopted these new techniques. Impressionism was severely criticized at the time for its garish color, sketchiness, loose delineation of the figure, lack of edifying theme, and unsuitably ordinary subject matter. Nevertheless, many found these "impressions" of nature too compelling to ignore. If the overall effect of a matrix of dancing daubs of complementary hues was more sensually convincing than a classically delineated yet sterile scene, perhaps the new methods were worthy of exploration. Butler, Ritter, and Wendel traveled to Monet's home in Giverny, France, to study at the master's side, and influenced a second generation of Ohio artists -- namely, Mary Wetmore, A. James Weber, Abel Warshawsky, May Ames, Ethel Cooke, and Karl Anderson -- to pursue similar goals.
For another group of Americans the jump to almost complete dissolution of the figure within a pool of light was not acceptable. These artists had mastered the tight delineation of the figure modeled to achieve virtually sculptured volume, and while they enjoyed the high-key color and animated brushwork of Impressionism for its decorative effect, they were unwilling to to forgo the primacy of the figure. Leading Impressionists before them -- Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, and Auguste Renoir -- were also loathe to abandon the linear delineation of the figure. Among Ohio artists who practiced this form of academic Impressionism were Otto Bacher, Charles Courtney Curran, James Hopkins, William Edmondson, and De Scott Evans.
Other painters as well held to the traditions of figural representation. In Boston during the early twentieth century, artists such as Edmund Tarbell, Frank Benson, and William Paxton practiced a form of painting that became known as the Boston school. These artists were participants in a revival of interest in the work of Dutch painter Jan Vermeer, thanks largely to the scholarship of Boston painter and instructor Philip Hale. Vermeer's preoccupation with the female figure in an attitude of reverie, with light filtering across her form became a central theme of the Boston school. When Ohioan Joseph DeCamp moved to Boston from Cleveland, he became one of the school's primary proponents.
The academic Impressionists were not the only significant group of American artists to diverge from French Impressionist technique. While the Impressionists were gaining a foothold in Paris, a group of painters centered at Munich's Royal Academy reinvestigated the work of Frans Hals, a seventeenth-century Flemish painter who imparted vitality to common subjects through the use of expressive brushstrokes and dramatic lighting. Wilhelm Leibl and Wilhelm Diez were the key German proponents of this approach. French painter Edouard Manet was also influenced by Hals's work.
Frank Duveneck, a German-American painter from Cincinnati, studied with Leibl and Diez and adopted their apparently effortless alla prima brushwork. Although he later abandoned the golden palette of the Munich School, he maintained his interest in the plastic paint handling associated with Munich. Duveneck inspired a talented group of students -- many of whom were from Ohio -- through schools he established in Munich and Polling in the late 1870s and in Florence and Venice between the late 1870s and early 1880s. Such leading Ohio artists as John Twachtman, Edward Potthast, Robert Henri, and George Bellows were deeply influenced by Duveneck's gestural paint application, as were a number of second generation students such as William Wiessler, Herman H. Wessel, and Karl Kappes.
Post-Impressionism evolved as an avant-garde form of Impressionism in the late 1880s in Paris. Such seminal modernists as Paul Cézanne, George Seurat, Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh wanted to go beyond the Impressionists' detached observation of nature. They felt that Monet was merely an eye, albeit a very observant one. These later artists yearned to capture not only what they saw on the sun-drenched surface but their own deeply felt responses to the visual images. They also wished to regain the density and timelessness of pre-Impressionist art. Through varied means -- the use of arbitrary, emotionally charged color, the delineation of simplified forms, the technique of patterned brushwork, and an emphasis on decorative two-dimensional surfaces -- they gave their paintings a timeless monumentality and charged emotionalism. Pointillism, Divisionism, Fauvism, Nabism, Intimism are some of the terms used to describe the various approaches of these artists, whose modernist vision especially intrigued Ohioans Frederick Gottwald, August Biehle, Alice Schille, Ralph Fanning, Charles Burchfield, Dixie Selden, Yeteve Smith, William Sommer, Henry Keller, William Zorach, and Howard Thomas.
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