Transatlantic Synergy

French and American Impressionists

by Stephen May

The central role that French art and artists played in shaping American painting in the latter half of the nineteenth century is nowhere more evident than in the field of Impressionism. The up-and-coming U.S. artists who flocked to Paris to study during this period were exposed to developing French styles, and fanned out into the countryside to practice their craft. Many returned as converts to the Impressionist aesthetic. From the flowering of naturalistic landscapes in the 1840s, to the onset of the Barbizon School, through Impressionism’s golden age later in the century, and beyond Post-Impressionism into the 1920s, Americans followed the French lead in transforming landscape painting with innovative techniques and unconventional styles. 
Impressionism came late to America, but once here, it became enormously popular with painters and collectors. Our Impressionists were neither a unified group nor slavish followers of their French counterparts. To a greater degree than French artists, American Impressionists were a diverse lot, with different artists practicing the style in different ways. Some artists worked in the Impressionist mode briefly or sporadically; others merely adopted certain aspects of it. The work of major American Impressionist practitioners reflected influences of both French and American origins. They adapted from the French, in varying degrees and in different combinations, high-keyed colors, plein-air painting techniques, cheerful subject matter and seemingly casual compositions.
“Landscapes from the Age of Impressionism,” a superb exhibition organized by the Brooklyn Museum and drawn from its collection, explores landscape painting as practiced by French artists and their American counterparts during this time. Already seen at the Ringling Museum of Art and North Carolina Museum of Art, it will be on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (through May 11), Denver Art Museum (June 13–September 7) and Portland Art Museum in Maine (October 19, 2008–January 4, 2009). The forty paintings in the show serve as reminders of the unusually rich holdings of the Brooklyn Museum. There is no catalogue.
The transformation of French landscape painting can be traced to 1822, when Camille Corot discovered the Forest of Fontainebleau and began to create softly veiled, tranquil countryside scenes painted en plein air. By the 1830s, he had been joined by a group of French artists who abandoned their studios for the open air of the countryside around Barbizon, thirty-five miles southeast of Paris. Old ways of life prevailed around the village itself, with fields that had been plowed and planted for centuries, meadows that had nourished cattle and sheep, and a population of humble, hardworking peasants. The silvery, evocative landscapes of Corot, Charles-François Daubigny (who sought to transcribe the transitory effects of sunlight and atmosphere on outdoor scenes, especially along rivers), Jean-François Millet (whose heroicized the labor and piety of peasants at work in fields) and Theodore Rousseau (who sought to convey the forest’s many moods) were usually begun outdoors but often finished in studios. Their desire to capture the ephemeral effects of nature became a hallmark of the movement that became known as the Barbizon School. Their work influenced Realist painters such as Gustave Courbet and caught the imagination of those soon-to-be dubbed Impressionists. When Frederic Bazille, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley traveled together to Fontainbleau in the 1860s, they depicted areas made famous by Barbizon School artists, focusing on the play of light, shadow and reflections in the forest. In developing the basic vocabulary of Impressionism, these artists not only worked en plein air, but carried their approach a step further by completing many of their paintings outdoors. 
The poetic representations of nature by the Barbizon School were enthusiastically received in the United States, particularly in New England, where Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau had long extolled nature as a critical source of emotional and spiritual balance. By the early 1850s, Boston dealers such as Seth M. Vose were stocking Barbizon pictures, especially Corot. “[V]iewing, collecting, and talking about the French landscapists became not only fashionable but an indication of cultural expertise” among New Englanders, according to art historian Elizabeth Johns.1 Later, for similar reasons and because so many painters found compatible subjects there, the region became the hub of American Impressionist painting.
Courbet (1819–77), the supreme Realist, influenced many contemporaries with his vivid, naturalistic landscapes. He began painting his famous Wave paintings, capturing a single surge of water at the point of breaking, in the late 1860s. While impressed by the Japanese master Hokusai’s depictions of waves, Courbet used heavy impasto and a palette of deep blues, greens and grays that give his canvases a depth and texture quite different from the linearity and decorative flatness of Japanese prints. 
Eventually, in the 1870s, a group of Parisian artists, led by Monet, coalesced around a more colorful and daring style of painting in depictions of nature and everyday modern life. Banding together for an 1874 exhibition that included paintings by Monet, Eugène Boudin, Gustave Caillebotte, Camille Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley, they caught the public’s attention with canvases that rendered not so much a landscape per se as the impression produced by a landscape. The supreme artistry and independent standing of Édouard Manet helped inspire the movement, but he never exhibited with the group. For a dozen years after 1874, the core group of artists organized seven more exhibitions; by the third, in 1877, they were being referred to as Impressionists. These painters of modern life depicted the totality of the visible world, not only fields, rivers and roads, but such signs of technological progress as bridges, factories and trains. Preferring to work in natural rather than studio light, the Impressionists introduced a palette of bright colors applied with energetic brushstrokes. In their quest to document immediate impressions of scenes, they stressed relationships between color and light, and they changed the way we interpret the world around us.
For all their affinities, the Impressionists were never a homogeneous school with a unified program and clearly defined principles, but a loose association of gifted artists linked by some common ideas and banded together for purposes of exhibiting. Yet the movement had sufficient coherence to influence the course of French—and American—art. The French Impressionists worked largely in the same country and within the span of a single lifetime. In reinventing painting, they generated original pictorial idioms that ushered in the progressive art of the twentieth century.
An early standout was Boudin (1824–98), who employed soft, loose brushwork and a high-keyed palette in plein-air seascapes and views of families at leisure on beaches such as Trouville. By contrast, Jules Breton (1827–1906) expressed his empathy for peasants, emphasizing the austere dignity of farm workers by posing them against a low evening sun that cast introspective shadows on their faces. Sisley (1839–99), born in Paris of British parents, sought to convey the mood of atmosphere and weather in his canvases. The freshness, lightness and sense of diffused luminosity that characterized his riverside views and village scenes were much admired. Whereas Sisley painted only landscapes, Edgar Degas (1834–1917) went in another direction, concentrating on views of contemporary life, such as horse races, dancers and laundresses. His strong, carefully thought out, studio-painted works set him apart from others in the movement. Two of the principal organizers of the Impressionist shows, Pissarro (1830–1903) and Caillebotte (1848–94), are increasingly recognized as stars among the group. Pissarro, influenced by Corot and Monet, utilized short, broken brushstrokes to create fields of shimmering color in an appealing body of work. Caillebotte, for years best remembered for his financial support of fellow artists and for bequeathing to France his collection of their work, painted emphatic, evocative town and country views, still lifes and boating scenes. The solidity, vital brushwork and colorful hues of his pictures, such as Apple Tree in Bloom (c. 1885), impressed a number of American followers.
The most influential of the Impressionists, Monet (1840–1926) and Renoir (1841–1919), painted together and attracted many admirers on both sides of the Atlantic. Monet’s predilection for systematic renderings of the same subject at different times of day and in different seasons, most famously haystacks, found little resonance among American painters. But his flickering brushwork, affinity for sunlight and shadow, and bright palette inspired numerous American artists. A number sojourned in Giverny, hoping to advance their careers through advice from, or at least by proximity to, the French master.2 In works such as The Islets at Port-Villez (1897) and The Doge’s Palace at Venice (1908), Monet’s daubs of green, indigo and violet recreate the impression of rippling waves in memorable fashion, influencing Childe Hassam and others. Renoir was known for his daring tonal arrangements, “rainbow palette” of luxurious colors, manipulation of light and rapid brushwork, as reflected in Les Vignes à Cagnes (The Vineyards at Cagnes), 1906. He made a big impression on counterparts across the Atlantic, notably William Glackens. The human figure, especially nude female bathers, played a larger part in Renoir’s work than in that of his colleagues. Two women exhibited regularly with the Impressionists, Berthe Morisot (1841–95), who favored landscapes and women with children, and the only American, Degas’s friend Mary Cassatt (1845–1926), who specialized in mothers and children. Robert Hughes calls Cassatt “not only the best of the American Impressionists but the outstanding woman painter of the nineteenth century.”3 Cassatt’s position in Paris enabled her to promote the work of the Impressionsts with American collectors, notably the Havemeyers. 
In the decades following the Civil War, record numbers of American art students flocked to France for training and to soak up inspiration. Starting in the 1850s, they were drawn to the Barbizon School. In the 1880s and 1890s, a new generation went to study Impressionism, in particular, the light tonality, pure colors, and informal subjects of Monet, Pissarro and Sisley. Many of these Americans returned home with fresh palettes, loosened brushwork, a commitment to plein-air painting and an interest in working in groups. Over time, art colonies led by Impressionist painters flourished in Cos Cob and Greenwich, Connecticut, Gloucester, Massachusetts, and on the Isles of Shoals, on the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border. When the venerable National Academy of Design and its alternative, the Society of American Artists, proved too stodgy, a group of leading Impressionists seceded and formed The Ten American Painters to showcase their work. Exhibiting together for twenty years, they drew attention to the achievements of American rather than French Impressionists.4
Some American painters working abroad, such as George Inness and J. Alden Weir, so firmly embraced their academic training that they were slow to experiment with Impressionism’s fluid brushwork and high-keyed palette. After his European sojourns, Inness (1825–94) shifted from a Hudson River School aesthetic to a more painterly approach, influenced by Corot and the Barbizon School. The soft brushwork and veils of color of his quiet, settled landscapes were greatly admired. Inness was too much of a Barbizon painter to be a full-fledged Impressionist; he objected when he was linked to them. Other painters who adhered to the Barbizon style included Emil Carlsen, Bruce Crane, John J. Enneking and Dwight Tryon. During his student days in Paris, 1873–77, Weir derided the avant-garde work of the Impressionists and dubbed their 1877 exhibition a “Chamber of Horrors.” It was not until a full-dress show of French Impressionists, organized by Paris dealer Paul Durand-Ruel in New York in 1886, that he and a number of his compatriots began to warm to the movement.5 Within a few years, Weir began painting decidedly Impressionist landscapes, including atmospheric views around his farm in Connecticut (now preserved as a National Historic Site) and sunlit, misleadingly benign views of bustling industrial sites, such as Willimantic Thread Factory (1893).
Like Weir, most of our Impressionists concentrated on local scenes, and followed the French lead in adopting high tones, bright colors, visible brushwork and everyday themes. Retaining aspects of the American tradition of realism, they did not carry the technique as far as did Monet and his colleagues. American Impressionists generally kept a firmer grasp on form and representational appearances.6 William Dean Howells’s comment about American novelists, that they favored “the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American,” applies to painters.7 Consistent with that advice, in picking their subjects, most of our Impressionists ignored the fact that urbanization, industrialization and immigration were changing the face and landscape of the United States. American Impressionists, well accepted by the 1890s, were impressively displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and especially at the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915.8 Impressionism, albeit challenged by the Ashcan School, remained the dominant aesthetic in America during this period.
In part because so many Americans had frequented Giverny, Monet’s influence was wide and deep with leading American artists. Theodore Robinson (1852–96), who spent considerable time with the French master, was the first American to introduce Impressionism in his native country. Robinson’s debt to Monet was demonstrated in paintings of loosely rendered figures in sunny settings and panoramic landscapes, but he did his best work around Giverny rather than back home. John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), an expatriate who also knew Monet, embraced Impressionism off and on. Best known for his bravura portraits of the Anglo-American leisure class, he did some of his best figure and subject pictures in the Impressionist idiom, such as Dolce Far Niente (c. 1907), a plein-air painting characterized by shimmering color and fluid brushwork, dating from a summer sojourn in the Italian Alps. Sargent’s popularity greatly influenced other Americans to take up Impressionism. Often considered Sargent’s equal by contemporaries, Cecilia Beaux (1855–1942) created insightful Grand Manner portraits in an Impressionist manner. While her work did not match Sargent’s exuberant virtuosity, Beaux’s scintillating brushwork, fluid paint application and deft use of light and color made her likenesses special.
William Merritt Chase (1849–1916) started out employing the dark palette, fluid brushstrokes and heavy impasto of his Munich training, but around mid-career began to apply Impressionist techniques in sparkling depictions of Central Park and Eastern Long Island. Chase’s canvases, bathed in fresh air and sunlight, with bright-blue skies, vibrant green grasses and spots of brilliant color, added luster to the American branch of Impressionism, and encouraged others to follow suit. 
Monet had a particularly profound impact on the work of Weir, Hassam and Metcalf, all members of The Ten. Hassam (1859–1935), who studied in Paris but claimed not to be influenced by Monet, showed the most pronounced affinities in the high-keyed, flickering light of sunny, picturesque depictions of New England. During stays on Appledore Island, among the Isles of Shoals off the Maine-New Hampshire coast, he utilized small touches of pure color to capture the riotous hues and evocative setting of Celia Thaxter’s famous old-fashioned, seaside garden in numerous oils and watercolors, including Poppies on the Isles of Shoals (1890). Hassam’s deft depictions of Manhattan streetscapes and buildings made him, in the words of art historian Oliver W. Larkin, “the Sisley of Madison Avenue.”9 The American’s celebrated flag series, immortalizing patriotic displays of Old Glory and emblems of other nations on Fifth Avenue during World War I, echoed paintings of years before by Monet and Pissarro of Parisian streets decked with banners.
Metcalf (1858–1925), who trained in Boston and sojourned in Giverny, made his reputation with sunny and/or wintry New England landscapes. His elevated view of New York City from his Central Park West apartment, Early Spring Afternoon—Central Park (1911), recalls Monet’s bird’s-eye views of Paris. John Henry Twachtman (1853–1902), a founder of The Ten, was the most original and imaginative of the group. Employing a muted palette in wintry landscapes and shimmering marines, such as Reflections (c. 1893–94), he emphasized nature’s changing moods and explored the effects of light on varied surfaces. His paintings of the brook, waterfall and pool on his small farm in Greenwich are memorable. Twachtman, who used Impressionist devices to achieve effects that were poetic rather than realistic, bordering on the abstract, “was perhaps the most modern of the American Impressionists,” says Johns.10
Robert Henri, the charismatic leader of the Ashcan School, experimented briefly and brilliantly with Impressionism early on, but soon returned to the dark tones of Frans Hals, the Munich School and Manet, which inspired The Eight and others early in the twentieth century. Several of his followers, particularly George Bellows, Glackens and John Sloan, adapted Impressionist touches—vibrant colors, painterly bravado and informal compositions—to their own purposes. In general, the Ashcan School rejected depictions of the “smiling aspects of life” in favor of realistic views of urban life. One of The Eight, Glackens (1870–1938) later embraced the plein-air aesthetic of the Impressionists. His penchant for high-keyed color and flickering brushwork, as exemplified by Bathing at Bellport, Long Island (1911), appropriately earned him the nickname “the American Renoir.” As an advisor to eccentric collector Dr. Albert C. Barnes, Glackens enthusiastically promoted the French painter’s work.
The rugged, virile art of the Pennsylvania Impressionists, who came to the fore around World War I, owed less to the French than did the more delicate work of their New England colleagues. Their leader, Edward W. Redfield, who was a student of Henri’s and admired Monet’s work while studying in Paris, brought both influences to bear in his broadly painted snowscapes and views of flowing streams. The oeuvre of the New Hope painters ranged from vigorously brushed views of the Delaware Valley and picturesque villages—by Redfield, Fern Coppedge, John F. Folinsbee and Daniel Garber—to more gritty depictions of working-class people, tenements, mills and factories by Henri’s pupil Robert Spencer. These gifted painters, whose achievements are only now receiving full recognition, extended the life of the flagging Impressionist movement in America.
Other branches of Impressionism followed different paths. In Boston, Frank W. Benson and Edmund Tarbell were standouts among a group of artists, dubbed the “Tarbellites,” who tended to depict figures rather than landscapes. Tarbell’s domestic interiors reflected the influence of Vermeer. Gari Melchers, who returned from Paris and Holland to paint brightly hued genre scenes and landscapes in Virginia, was the outstanding Impressionist in the South. Theodore C. Steele, the central figure in Indiana’s “Hoosier School,” abandoned his Munich realism for colorful Impressionist landscapes of his home state. Brilliant sunlight, picturesque scenery, and a progressive cultural atmosphere—along with the return of native son Guy Rose from Giverny in 1914—encouraged exuberant, accomplished, largely overlooked Impressionist artwork in Southern California. A second generation of Giverny painters, especially Frederick Frieseke and Richard Miller, adopted a more decorative, patterned Impressionist aesthetic in images of gardens, parasols and nudes.
A broad overview of Impressionism in America suggests our deep debt to French painters for advancing the idea of outdoor painting, for showing the possibilities of flickering brushwork and a high-keyed palette, for exploring the effects of light and atmosphere on scenes and subjects and for capturing the fleeting effects of a moment in time. William H. Gerdts writes: “The vital potency of the Impressionist movement in American art is celebrated not only in its aesthetic legacy but in the richness, beauty, and diversity of its own pictorial achievements.”11 In adapting the Impressionist manner to American soil and people, our artists, however, never lost sight of the reality of their subject matter. The American tradition of realism, a common thread throughout our art history, continues to this day.

l. Elizabeth Johns, Paths to Impressionism: French and American Landscape Paintings from the Worcester Art Museum (Worcester, Massachusetts: Worcester Art Museum, 2003), p. 19.
2. Monet resented the intrusion of visiting artists, advising most simply to seek inspiration directly from nature. As William H. Gerdts observes in his invaluable American Impressionism
(New York: Abbeville Press, 1984), p. 57, “for all the magnetic force that Monet exerted, the interaction of these artists was probably as important as Monet’s own presence.” Among the few Americans befriended by Monet were Theodore Butler (who became his son-in-law), Lila Cabot Perry, Theodore Robinson and John Singer Sargent.
3. Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), p. 256.
4. The Ten, well-established Boston and New York artists, began exhibiting together in 1898. Members were Frank W. Benson, Joseph De Camp, Thomas W. Dewing, Edmund C. Tarbell, Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, Robert Reid, Edward E. Simmons, John H. Twachtman and J. Alden Weir. Following Twachtman’s death, William Merritt Chase took his place. “The Ten American Painters was considered by contemporary critics to be one of the most important art organizations of the day,” says art historian Richard J. Boyle, adding that they brought “into sharp focus the fact that American painters were capable of…producing not only good, but in many cases, inspired and inspiring work.” American Impressionism (Boston: New York Graphic Society/Little, Brown and Company, 1983), p. 182. See also Ulrich H. Hiesinger, Impressionism in America: The Ten Painters (Munich: Prestel/Jordan-Volpe Gallery, 1991).
5. Durand-Ruel’s New York exhibition, featuring twenty-three works by Degas, seventeen by Manet, forty-eight by Monet, seven by Morisot, forty-two by Pissarro, thirty-eight by Renoir and fifteen by Sisley, was generally well-received by the press, public, collectors and artists. For some time, however, American critics were divided about the merits of Impressionism; nevertheless, many of our best painters forged ahead, adapting the style to domestic subjects.
6. Art historian Matthew Baigell writes: “Unlike their European counterparts, the Americans usually did not dissolve forms in a maze of brushstrokes but allowed them to retain their solidity and object definition.” The Dictionary of American Art (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), p. 178. “While impressionism undoubtedly added another facet to American art, at no time did it ever threaten to eclipse the central motive force of American art, namely, realism,” wrote art historian Donelson F. Hoopes. “Indeed, American art has always been at its best when grappling with the problems of realism.” The American Impressionists (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1972), p. 8.
7. Quoted in Oliver W. Larkin, Art and Life in America (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960), p. 301.
8. Reflecting the triumph of American Impressionism, exhibited at the 1915 world’s fair in San Francisco were thirty-eight paintings by Hassam, thirty-two by Chase, twenty-six by Twachtman, twenty-one by Gari Melchers, twenty-one by Edward W. Redfield and twenty by Edmund Tarbell, plus work by numerous regional artists. 
9. Larkin, op. cit., p. 304.
10. Johns, op. cit., p. 77.
11. Gerdts, op. cit., p. 306.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2008, Volume 25, Number 2