After the Civil War, artists from the United States flocked to Europe. They enrolled in art classes, studied the old masters, and showed their works at prestigious exhibitions.

Many became accomplished in traditional styles, learning to paint carefully drawn scenes of events from history or the Bible. But increasingly American painters were drawn to Impressionism, which rejected high-minded subjects and finely finished surfaces in favor of scenes drawn from modern life, painted with loose and very visible brushwork.

Some—like Mary Cassatt—remained in France. Cassatt was an innovator in the Impressionist movement and the only American invited to exhibit her work with the French group. But most of her compatriots came home, setting out to reconcile their European training with the idea that the United States should have a distinct national style. In 1887, a writer for The Art Amateur reported that several young Boston painters, including John Leslie Breck, Louis Ritter, Willard Metcalf, Theodore Wendel, and Theodore Robinson, had gathered in Giverny, home to Claude Monet: “They have got the blue-green color of Monet’s Impressionism and ‘got it bad.’” [1] Upon their return, these American artists applied the new French vocabulary to distinctly national subjects—New England landscapes, Niagara Falls, the American West—painting sketchy, light-filled, atmospheric landscapes and casual images of the contemporary world.

By the end of the century, they had created an identifiably American Impressionism, combining the style’s informality with the solidity of traditional figure drawing. Impressionism had initially been controversial in France, but in America its practitioners played prominent roles within the artistic establishment. Several of them became influential teachers, guaranteeing Impressionism a long afterlife. Edmund Charles Tarbell and Frank Weston Benson both taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where they reconciled the loose, “painterly” effects of Impressionist landscapes with more conservative approaches to figure painting. As painter William Merritt Chase explained: “A new type has appeared, the offspring, as we know, of European stock, but which no longer resembles it.” [2]

After the turn of the twentieth century, Tarbell and Benson brought impressionism indoors, studying the effects of light in carefully controlled interiors. Their influential work, characterized as “the Boston School,” was much admired for its dedication to beauty and craftsmanship, aesthetic qualities that many observers felt were under threat by the new approaches to painting that were being explored by modernist artists of the next generation.

 

Erica E. Hirshler, Croll Senior Curator of Paintings

 

Notes

1. Greta, “Boston Art and Artists,” Art Amateur, October 1887, 93.

2. William M. Chase, “The Import of Art: An Interview with Walter Pach,” The Outlook95 (June 25, 1910): 442.

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