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American Impressionism in Context


American Impressionism in Context, drawn from the Greenville Museum's respected Southern Collection, demonstrates the evolution of Impressionism from the Hudson River School onward, with an emphasis on southern-related examples. American Impressionism is on view through September 1, 2002.

Excerpts from the label text on the walls of the exhibition are reprinted below:


Landscape: A National Treasure

In a world that was becoming increasingly industrialized, landscape painters sought to capture unspoiled views of nature.  Their canvases brought attention to the natural beauty of America and encouraged both tourism and environmental preservation.

Painter Martin Johnson Heade, an avid sportsman, was attracted to St. Augustine, Florida, by the area's renowned fishing.  By the 1880s, the railroad was bringing thousands of winter visitors to Florida, and developers were rapidly building hotels to accommodate them.  Heade's patron, Henry Flagler, was instrumental in the state's transformation.  In this scene, Heade painted the distant towers of Flagler's Ponce de Leon Hotel, a sign of the development encroaching on the artist's beloved marshland.

John Moran's Natural Bridge depicts a noted Eastern landmark that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson.  At the time of the painting the federal government was setting aside vast tracts of land for national parks-a concept inspired by the dramatic Yellowstone Valley paintings by Thomas Moran, John's younger brother.

Making a Point

Pointillism was a variant of Impressionism in which artists applied paint in dots of color.  The French painters Georges Seurat and Paul Signac were at the forefront of this movement.

In War, John Alberts employed a similar method.  He juxtaposed individual dots of paint to create a dense web of color. The result is a vibrant surface that connects with his explosive-and adamantly unImpressionist-subject.  Painting at the time of World War I, Alberts was clearly commenting upon the compelling horror of war.

Coastal Carolina and Impressionism

Painters working in Charleston in the 1920s believed that Impressionism was the style best suited to portrayals of the low country landscape. Alfred Hutty and William Silva did not view the countryside in terms of its historic agricultural past or its decrepit present.  Instead, their paintings are romantic visions of cypress trees, Spanish moss, and radiant floral gardens.

Hutty, a Northerner who discovered the charms of Charleston in 1920, became one of the prime movers behind the city's revival.  Through paintings and numerous prints of downtown streets, Hutty disseminated images that led to the area's emergence as a tourist destination.  In White Azaleas Hutty celebrated the floral splendor of Magnolia, a former plantation acclaimed for its resplendent gardens.

Silva's canvas depicts a vista at Runnymede, a nearby plantation along the Ashley River.  With its glimmering reflection, dissolved horizon, and muted details, the painting resembles Claude Monet's paintings of Giverny.

An American in Paris

At the end of the nineteenth century, Paris was the center of the art world, and American students traveled there to study at prestigious French academies.  Separate classes were established for women, who were usually charged higher tuition than their male colleagues.  In addition, women were not allowed to draw nude models.  

Mattie Dubé was one such student.  Born in Florence, Alabama, she pursued her art career in Paris.  Pumpkins and Onions exemplifies the conservative taste of the Salon, where the painting was exhibited in 1891.  Its large scale and bold forms accentuate the painting's impact.  Critics commented favorably on the pungent combination of onions, fish, and pumpkins.

Two years later the painting was shown at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Here American audiences had the opportunity to view art of the establishment including Mary Cassatt's murals in the Woman's Building, but few examples of French Impressionism were displayed.

A Taste for Naturalism

An emphasis on nature pure and simple is an important aspect of nineteenth-century painting.  This naturalist tendency was something of a response to the artificial and composed art espoused by the academic establishment.

Early in his career Edward Gay followed in the footsteps of the Hudson River School artists, sketching in upstate New York and creating paintings in his studio.  In the 1880s, he encountered John Constable's naturalistic landscapes in London.  Their broad skies, low horizons, and textured surfaces affirmed Gay's artistic inclinations.

After the marriage of his daughter into the Coker family of Hartsville, Gay frequently visited South Carolina.  Accustomed to the rolling terrain of New York, Gay found the area around Hartsville to be "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable," and even labeled one sketch of Black Creek, The River Styx, S.C.  However, the Isle of Palms, with its unspoiled gentle dunes and tropical vegetation, provided subject matter more suited to Gay's taste.

Colored Light

Impressionist painters experimented with the optical effects of light and color.  Claude Monet repeatedly painted the same scenes-Rouen Cathedral and haystacks-to demonstrate how light and color change during different seasons and times of day. G. Ruger Donoho also painted landscapes that reflect these interests.  

Sheep, Late Afternoon is contemporary with Monet's studies of the early 1890s.  A setting sun casts dark shadows in the foreground, which is broken by touches of orange.  In addition to the intense color and warmth of the light, Donoho was also sensitive to the sun's angle as it sets behind the viewer.

The Salon

"The Salon," an annual juried exhibition in Paris, determined stylistic standards for 200 years.  Salon jurors preferred conventional subject matter derived from history or myth and highly finished paintings done in the studio.  They saw Impressionism as the antithesis of professionalism.  Consequently, Impressionist painters rarely had work accepted for Salon exhibitions.

Like their European counterparts, American painters were eager to be included in the highly competitive Salon exhibitions.  Painters frequently worked on oversized canvases with imposing frames in hopes of making their works more memorable to the judges.  

G. Ruger Donoho's storm painting is not only large; it is also energetic and dramatic.  However, more than pure landscape, it has an allegorical quality that appealed to Salon jurors.  The steadfast shepherd protecting his flock from the forces of nature is an obvious allusion to the traditional imagery of Christ as the good shepherd.

An American at Giverny

The small village of Giverny, France, where Claude Monet retired in the 1880s, soon developed into an active art colony.  Monet, however, refused to teach any of the American painters who gathered there, preferring instead to paint alone in the gardens he had cultivated.

William deLeftwich Dodge spent several summers at Giverny.  Although more concrete than Monet's vaporous visions of water lilies, Summer Day reveals Dodge's interest in dappled sunlight and verdant gardens.  Painted near Savannah, the painting is an evocative Southern counterpart to Monet's beloved Giverny.

The Victorian Pursuit of Tranquillity

At the end of the nineteenth century, artists and patrons alike possessed a fondness for peaceful, untroubled images.  In France, painters frequently featured the lives of peasants, often rendering them with religious undertones.  These artists escaped Paris with its hectic pace and social demands and moved to small towns.  Barbizon, near the forest of Fountainbleau, became a favorite destination, popular for its unspoiled nature, simple lifestyle, and inexpensive lodgings.

In the spirit of the Barbizon painters, Elliott Daingerfield sought subjects distant from urban development. Western North Carolina, where he was born, provided his inspiration. Carolina Twilight is a nostalgic celebration of agrarian values.


Impressionists typically favored landscapes, but interior scenes of women reading, sewing, or simply reflecting were also popular. Arranged for beauty and harmony, the women seldom were mentioned by name.  Although Charles Curran's Lavender and Old Lace does not exemplify Impressionist technique, it does relate in subject matter.

The woman daintily handles old, but still beautiful, lace.  She may be contemplating the brevity of youth and beauty. The lavender in the title refers not only to the dominant color of the canvas, but may also suggest the use of the herb lavender as a means to preserve delicate fabrics.

With its aristocratic interior, crisp lighting, and pensive mood, the painting is reminiscent of the work of the Dutch master Jan Vermeer, whose paintings were rediscovered in the late nineteenth century.

Color and Movement

Although Impressionist painters captured the tranquil aspects of Mother Nature, other artists were more interested in her moods. Vincent van Gogh, for example, used both brilliant color and agitated brushwork in his landscapes.

Similarly, Hugh Breckenridge stressed the elemental power and vibrancy of nature.  The colors are intense and distinct from both the earth tones of the Hudson River School and the light palette of the Impressionists.  Trees and clouds swirl with a vortex-like movement that pulls the viewer into the center of the composition.  His expressive landscape is a forceful antidote to those of the idyllic Impressionists.

The Great Outdoors

The Impressionists were neither the first nor the only artists interested in outdoor subjects.  For decades, painters had celebrated the American landscape as a reflection of Manifest Destiny.  With the advent of industrialization and the growth of cities, people began to develop a deeper appreciation for the countryside and its simpler way of life. Some painters responded to the pressures of urban modern life by portraying rural scenes that allowed the viewer to escape.

Cows Watering by Louis Betts exemplifies the country's growing taste for pastoral scenery- an unassuming glimpse of farm life. A reflection enlivened by Impressionistic light and technique dominates the foreground.  Gilbert Gaul also handled the foliage freely in Waiting for Turkeys , giving the painting an openness and freshness.  Here, a grizzled hunter melds with the leafy forest in a scene that contrasts overtly with the domestic depictions of women that were popular among the Impressionists.

The Influence of Cézanne

French painter Paul Cézanne exhibited twice with the Impressionists, but soon moved away from the mainstream of the style's proponents, saying that he "wanted to make of Impressionism something solid and durable."  No longer interested in the transient effects of light, he broadened his brushstrokes and stabilized his compositions.

Like many other Americans, Hale Woodruff went to Paris to study, but finding the city expensive, he moved to the south of France.  There he painted expressionist landscapes under the potent influence of the artists who had preceded him.  Like Cézanne, Woodruff used blocky, textured brushstrokes that simultaneously define forms and create visual rhythm on the surface of the canvas.  This landscape appears to erupt with shrubs and buildings piled upon one another, constricting the illusion of depth and making the landscape more architectonic.


One response to the Impressionist tradition was to intensify the movement's colors.  A group of French painters led by Henri Matisse were labeled "Fauves" because of their "beastly" colors and savage application of paint.

Few Americans embraced Fauvism. E. Ambrose Webster, however, was one exception.  Although he made his home on picturesque Cape Cod, he frequently ventured to the tropics during the winter months.  He rendered the tropical vegetation in Jamaica with bright yellows and purples, complementary colors that create a dynamic contrast.  In Bermuda, he painted the rocky coastline with a fiery, unnatural palette.

In 1913, the exhibition known as the Armory Show introduced American audiences to such European movements as Fauvism and Cubism. Webster exhibited two of his Jamaica paintings in the exhibition, which today is viewed as a watershed event for modern art.

American Art Colonies

By the early twentiethh century, the influence of Impressionism in America had become pervasive.  The American version was as diversified and as individualistic as its French counterpart, and, just as the French gravitated toward certain locales like Argenteuil and Giverny, painters in this country found specific coastal and rural areas inspirational for their new aesthetic.

Helen Turner, along with Charles Curran, spent her summers at Cragsmoor, New York. Although Turner remained a realist, Girl with Lantern demonstrates her espousal of Impressionism.  Dappled with sunlight, the painting's subject delicately adjusts a Japanese lantern, an outdoor lamp commonly used at Cragsmoor.  Placed slightly to the right of center, the young woman is positioned against a background that completely dissolves into flecks of color.  The cropping of the figure and the diagonal placement of the white fence mimic the asymmetry of Japanese art.  

Floral Splendor

French Impressionist painters regularly went out from Paris on the train to render the seasonal changes in the countryside.  Flowering trees in the springtime were favored by such artists as Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir and, early in their careers, by Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh.

In the same vein, Will Henry Stevens depicted a small orchard, possibly in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where he first visited in 1916.  Throughout his career, Stevens worked in pastel as well as in oil.  In this painting, the bright pink blossoms resemble pastel not only in their color, but also in the way Stevens painted them with daubs of intense pigment.


Japanese art served as one of the most potent influences on the Impressionists.  In the late 1860s, Japan, long cloistered from the West, became accessible again, and Japanese objects flooded western markets.  Porcelain, prints, screens, calligraphy-all newly available -created a passion for things Japanese, known as Japonisme.  In particular, the color wood-block prints by masters of the Ukiyo-e School had special appeal.  Edouard Manet and the American expatriate James Abbott McNeill Whistler were among the artists in Europe who embraced Japonisme.

In America numerous artists studied and absorbed the aesthetics of the Japanese prints as well, including Mary Cassatt and Charleston native, Alice Smith. Smith not only used the same printmaking technique, but also adapted Japonisme to the landscape of coastal Carolina. With its serene mood, attenuated format, and muted colors Mossy Tree is a sublime example of Japonisme.

On Paper

When Impressionism emerged, watercolor began to gain respect as a painting medium in its own right.  The American artists John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer exhibited watercolors as fully developed works and not merely as preliminary sketches. The translucency of the medium and its emphasis on light and color was sympathetic to the Impressionist aesthetic.

In her treatment of Florida palm trees, Jane Peterson moved away from pure Impressionism.  She used a brown ground or painting surface, left dark graphite strokes visible, and contained her colors by drawing around them.  Her method has been compared to cloisonné enamel work in which areas of color are contained in cells bound together by metal.

An Impressionist's Garden

Gardens provided Impressionists with one of their favorite subjects.  Preferring to paint out-of-doors, or en plein air, many artists planted lush gardens for inspiration.  Claude Monet's water lily garden at Giverny, for example, was the focus of many of his paintings.

Garden Flowers presents an array of luxuriant flowers depicted in full sunlight.  William Partridge envelopes the viewer in his garden by bringing the flowers close to the foreground, a device that may reflect his experience as a photographer.  By using bright colors and thickly applied paint, he has created a vivid and textural canvas.

The Influence of Tiffany

Concurrent with Impressionism, Louis Comfort Tiffany developed his Art Nouveau designs for lighting fixtures and interior decor. Like the painters, Tiffany was interested in nature and in light.

The Tiffany studios employed Clara Weaver Parrish during the 1890s.  Her painting, The Red Lily, bears a striking resemblance to stained glass with its opalescent colors and luminous glow.

While the theme of a lone, contemplative woman appears frequently in Impressionist paintings, Parrish has personalized her image.  The lily is a symbol associated with various saints, including the artist's namesake, Saint Clare. Legend relates that the angel Gabriel also carried a lily when he visited the Virgin Mary.  Traditionally, however, artists paint lilies white; a red flower usually symbolizes passion or death.

Forerunner to Impressionism

In the early 1800s, landscape painting became a popular way to showcase the natural beauty of the Americas. Landscape soon replaced portraiture as the focus of American art, and painters sought to depict distant locales and exotic places.

In 1857, Louis Rémy Mignot, a Charleston native, went to Ecuador where he sketched the indigenous vegetation as well as volcanoes and mountain ranges.  He later converted these sketches into large oil paintings featuring tropical plants set among humid, hazy vistas, which reflect the public's fascination with images of paradise.   Mount Chimborazo probably was painted in England, where Mignot's contemporaries John Constable and Joseph W. M. Turner would have influenced the American. Like Turner, Mignot blurred details and emphasized atmosphere.  In this respect, Turner and Mignot are considered forerunners of Impressionism.

Accepting Impressionism

American painters and collectors gradually embraced Impressionism, and by 1900, it was widely accepted.

Although American painters adopted the basic style of French Impressionism, the American examples are not as loosely painted and are more firmly grounded in realism.

Gari Melchers went abroad to study in 1877, and by the 1890s, he began to practice Impressionism. This shift was accompanied by a looser painting technique marked by visible brushstrokes. Woman Reading by a Window, however, remains a structured painting and mirrors the reluctance of many American painters to dissolve their subjects into purely coloristic effects.  The geometry of both the door and the windowpanes prevents the total disintegration of the composition.

Playing with Space

In the decades following the heyday of Impressionism painters not only modified the movement's color and brushwork, but also its illusion of depth.  A painting became more than a mere window on the world for the viewer; the picture plane itself gained importance.  Bright colors and textured surfaces served to pull the painting toward the viewer, rather than away from him.

In Tryon Woods, Lawrence Mazzanovich experimented with traditional compositional elements, arranging the trees so that they form a screen across the landscape. This denial of a traditional sense of space is further reinforced by the almost-square format of the canvas. The compressed shallowness at the picture plane forces a greater spatial depth on the distant line of mountains.

A Visionary

Artists responded to Impressionism in various ways. Vincent van Gogh, for instance, reintroduced an emotional element, drawing more from imagination than from reality.  Others, especially those working around World War I, dared to explore their dreams.

Edward Middleton Manigault was a visionary who frequently painted mystical subjects.   Landscape with a Horse is simultaneously pastoral and fantastic. His canvases typically include skies with swirling clouds and dark, ominous colors-a stark contrast to the light palette of the Impressionists.

The Pastoral Ideal

At the end of the nineteenth century, rural themes gained popularity, perhaps because they were both a direct contrast to and a relief from city life.  William R. Leigh's sun-filled canvas portrays a youthful idyll.  However, the painting's title, Loitering, suggests that the children are playing when they should have been working.

For his setting, Leigh chose a spot near his birthplace in rural West Virginia. The painting also hints at his many years studying in Austria and hiking in Switzerland.  An advocate of American art, Leigh railed against this country's infatuation with French art. He spent the majority of his career painting Western scenes, which he considered to be a genuine expression of the American spirit.

The Family

Like many artists at the turn of the 20th century, Augustus Koopman found subject matter in his surroundings. Koopman, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, often painted members of his family, especially his wife and children. These intimate images were a decided break from the weighty and profound subjects preferred by academic traditionalists.

Koopman's The Opal is not merely a reflection of his happy domestic life, but also serves as a tribute to his wife. The painting's title refers to the jewel that was her birthstone. Mrs. Koopman is the auburn-haired woman at the left of the composition, holding her young daughter.

An Expressionist Landscape

Vincent van Gogh, one of the many painters who emerged from the Impressionist movement, set a standard for many artists of the twentieth century. Instead of depicting a world perceived in optical terms of color and light, van Gogh attempted to express emotions. He employed intense color, agitated brushwork, and dramatic perspectives to achieve his effects.

When William H. Johnson moved to southern France as a young student, he came directly under the spell of van Gogh. Like the great Dutch master, he not only painted a series of penetrating self-portraits, but he also eventually suffered from mental illness.

Port in Gray Weather, Kerteminde is enlivened by wavering linear slashes of paint. Much of the pigment, especially that denoting the masts and their reflections, was applied directly from the tube, while other areas were put on with a palette knife.

Art & History

From its inception, American art looked to Europe for inspiration.  In the colonial period, portraiture was the dominant art form, as it was abroad. Only gradually did a fondness for other subjects-history, genre, and landscape-emerge.  

Historical artworks depicting settlement, frontier life, and the Revolutionary and Civil wars are on view in the gallery to the far left. The evolution of American landscape painting is exemplified by Charles Frerichs' Mountain Falls, a southern example of the Hudson River School tradition. The large scale of this painting was intended to impress the viewer with the awesome glories of nature. Although the work is realistic, it is romanticized and carefully composed.

Both American and foreign scenery provided a foundation for the advent of Impressionism, a late nineteenth-century painting style imported from France. After the Civil War, many American artists studied abroad, and like their European colleagues, they often painted outdoors, seeking to capture the fleeting effects of light on the landscape.

Coastal Carolina and Impressionism

Painters working in Charleston in the 1920s believed that Impressionism was the style best suited to portrayals of the low country landscape. Alfred Hutty and William Silva did not view the countryside in terms of its historic agricultural past or its decrepit present. Instead, their paintings are romantic visions of cypress trees, Spanish moss, and radiant floral gardens.

Hutty, a Northerner who discovered the charms of Charleston in 1920, became one of the prime movers behind the city's revival. Through paintings and numerous prints of downtown streets, Hutty disseminated images that led to the area's emergence as a tourist destination. In White Azaleas Hutty celebrated the floral splendor of Magnolia, a former plantation acclaimed for its resplendent gardens.

Silva's canvas depicts a vista at Runnymede, a nearby plantation along the Ashley River. With its glimmering reflection, dissolved horizon, and muted details, the painting resembles Claude Monet's paintings of Giverny.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Greenville County Museum of Art 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.

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