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American Impressions: An Arcadian Vision, Paintings from the Akron Art Museum

April 7 through June 6, 2004

(above: William Merritt Chase (American 1849-1916), Girl in White, circa 1898-1901, oil on fabric, 84 3/8 by 40 inches) 


American Impressionism features 35 luminous works spanning the years 1860 to 1917 by turn-of-the century painters who often worked outdoors to capture brilliant effects of light and color. Impressionism began in France in the 1860s, embraced by young artists tired of a conservative realism based on academic rules. (right: Frederick C. Frieseke (American 1874-1939), On the Balcony, circa 1912 - 1915, oil on canvas, 36 1/8 by 35 inches, Bequest of Edwin C. Shaw, Collection of the Akron Art Museum)

The Impressionists' radical experiments with atmospheric effects, optical relationships between color and light, and brighter palettes greatly influenced a generation of American artists, who absorbed these new approaches to painting, and applied them successfully to American landscapes and portraiture.

This exhibition introduces stellar examples of the work of important American Impressionist painters, and encompasses a broad range of subject matter and technical developments which motivated these artists to depart from their studios and paint in plein air.  At the same time, studio portraits, elegant figure studies, and still life paintings reveal the virtuosity of American painters of the time, through widely divergent techniques.

Artists included are Ralph Albert Blakelock, Emil Carlsen, William Merritt Chase, Elliott Daingerfield, Charles Harold Davis, Charles Melville Dewey, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Paul Dougherty, Frank Duveneck, Charles Warren Eaton, Frederick C. Frieseke,  George Fuller,  Childe Hassam, Charles W. Hawthorne, William Morris Hunt, George Innes, John C. Johansen,  Willard L. Metcalf,  Richard E. Miller, Dwight W. Tryon, Helen M. Turner, John Twachtman, Elihu Vedder, Julian Alden Weir, Frederick Williams, and Alexander H. Wyant.  

American Impressionism s has been organized by the Akron Art Museum and is being circulated to only six museums in the United States by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions, Washington D.C.


Essay by Kathryn A. Wat, Curator of Exhibitions, Akron Art Museum

At the end of the nineteenth century, many American artists retreated from the realities of the early modern era-with its burgeoning industry and crowded cities-and envisioned instead an American Eden. They painted tranquil landscapes and dreamy portraits of women, aiming to fulfill the widely held belief that art should delight the senses and elevate the spirit. In 1922, when the Akron Art Institute (now the Akron Art Museum) was founded, these were the artistic subjects collected by the city's elite. Akron was the center of a booming U.S. rubber industry, and while rubber company executives embraced cutting-edge technology and urban living, they also sought to uphold America's cultural history. They collected and then donated to the museum the exquisite turn-of-the-century landscapes, figure studies and still lifes in this exhibition. These patrons understood that the paintings' lyrical expressions of beauty and refinement would provide pleasure to visitors through the industrial age and beyond.

Despite their nation's growing political and industrial power, American artists and collectors at the turn of the last century believed Europe to be the standard of cultural achievement. Nearly every artist featured in this exhibition traveled to Europe for instruction and inspiration, although they occasionally had difficulty finding the latter. In 1877, artist Julian Alden Weir described an exhibition of impressionist paintings he viewed in Paris as "worse than a Chamber of Horrors." French impressionists such as Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir often worked with high-keyed colors and forceful brushstrokes that drew their works toward abstraction, an effect that American painters studying in France found unsettling. The small brushstrokes, delicate colors and crisp forms in Weir's White Oaks reflect the tidier version of the impressionist technique that American painters developed and brought back home.

American artists most often used impressionism to convey the pastoral beauty of the rural landscape. In Bedford Hills, Childe Hassam used diagonal strokes of green, blue and yellow paint to capture the play of sun and wind over a lush field in upstate New York. Willard Metcalf combined cool colors with small, spiky brushstrokes to communicate the sensation of chilly spring air in Maytime, a view of Leete's Island, Connecticut. These two artists and many others formed vibrant summer art colonies throughout New England and exhibited their successful results in cities such as Boston and New York. Six artists represented in this exhibition-Weir, Hassam, Metcalf, John Twachtman, William Merritt Chase and Thomas Wilmer Dewing-also exhibited together as part of a group called the Ten American Painters, which was dedicated to promoting newer styles such as impressionism. American impressionist works appealed greatly to urban-based collectors who saw in them evidence of the restorative power of nature.

Other American landscapists sought instead to express mood and subjective feelings through their images. Drawing inspiration from the Barbizon painters, a group of French artists who lived and worked in a rural community outside of Paris, the Americans developed a "tonalist" technique. The method is characterized by simplified compositions, blurred forms and a limited range of colors. In The New Moon, Dwight W. Tryon combined a glowing twilight sky with an archway of lacy trees to evoke feelings of reverie. The woman and child standing in a forest clearing in George Inness' Late Afternoon, October are shrouded by the greenish haze that envelopes the scene. By merging figures with the landscape, tonalists expressed their belief in humankind's essential spiritual connection with nature, an idea introduced into American culture in the nineteenth century by authors/naturalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Tonalist artists were never organized as a formal group, but most who painted in the style knew one another and shared similar points of view.

Nature was not the only source of pleasure and inspiration for artists of this period. Many found in the female figure an ideal emblem of enlightenment and beauty. Impressionist painter Frederick Frieseke summered in Giverny, France, where Monet lived, and specialized in depicting figures bathed in sunlight. Frieseke's exquisite On the Balcony and many other works in this exhibition were donated to the museum by Edwin C. Shaw, an executive with the B.F. Goodrich Tire and Rubber Company and a founder of the Akron Art Institute.

William Merritt Chase is best known for his society portraits of women rendered with bravura brushwork and deep, rich colors. His courtly Girl in White, a portrait of Florence Irene Dimock (the daughter of a Connecticut-based silk merchant), is reminiscent of the baroque-era European paintings Chase saw while studying at the Royal Academy in Munich, Germany. Cincinnati native Frank Duveneck also studied in Munich. The meticulous brushstrokes and icy colors in his portrait of his sister, Molly, are representative of the classical style he developed later in his career. Paintings by Thomas Wilmer Dewing reveal his distinctive and sophisticated vision of women. Confined in spare interiors or moving through vaporous landscapes, Dewing's ethereal figures suggest feelings of loss and longing.

The melancholy mood of Dewing's paintings signals a vital change that took place in American culture in the decades following the Civil War (1861-1865). In this time of lost innocence, many artists did not feel compelled to create detailed landscapes celebrating the splendor of American scenery or narrative images centering on daily life. Instead, they adapted traditional symbols of transformation or death. Ralph Blakelock's moody nocturnes (compositions evoking the dreamlike qualities of night) and the wilting flowers in Emil Carlsen's spare Rhages Jar hint at the inevitable transition from this earthly realm to another. Elihu Vedder's enigmatic Sleeping Girl extends from the tradition within nineteenth-century romantic literature and painting that linked sleep with death.

Beginning in the 1910s, some American artists found their country's bustling cities and expanding industrial landscapes to be compelling subjects for art. Others embraced vigorous new European styles such as Dada, Cubism and Expressionism. The generation of artists represented in this exhibition felt anxious about these radical changes and resisted them. Their poetic works represent an idealized vision of the world; a locale as enchanting today as it was a century ago.

Kathryn A. Wat

Curator of Exhibitions

Akron Art Museum



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