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American Impressionism Collage

American Impressionism

Started: 1880

Ended: 1920

American Impressionism Timeline

Quotes

"Art, to me, is the interpretation of the impression which nature makes upon the eye and brain."
Childe Hassam
"I do not judge, I only chronicle."
John Singer Sargent
"A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth."
John Singer Sargent
"A person with normal eyesight would have nothing to know in the way of 'Impressionism' unless he were in a blinding light or in the dusk or dark."
John Singer Sargent
"Life is very short... but I would like to live four times and if I could, I would set out to do no other things than I am seeking now to do."
William Merritt Chase

KEY ARTISTS

Mary CassattMary Cassatt
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John Singer SargentJohn Singer Sargent
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Childe HassamChilde Hassam
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William Merritt ChaseWilliam Merritt Chase
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"I think that if you shake the tree, you ought to be around when the fruit falls to pick it up."

Mary Cassett

Synopsis

Like much of the art world, American painters of the late 19th-century were stunned and startled by the dazzling colors and vibrant brushwork of French Impressionism, yet by the century's end, Americans would be among the most passionate devotees of the Impressionist style. Inspired by the novel approaches to painting modern life embodied in French Impressionism, American Impressionism adopted bright palettes and loose brushstrokes to capture the intimate beauty of everyday American life. Whether capturing the natural world or urban energy, the American Impressionists broke with the traditional expectations of academic art to usher in the first popular, modern art movement in America.

Key Ideas

Although initially many American artists rejected the loose sketchiness of French Impressionism, their eventual adoption of the style ultimately facilitated a revolutionary break from the linear style and classical narratives that defined academic painting. In both style and subject matter, Impressionism inspired American painters to document their rapidly modernizing world with a mixture of curiosity and nostalgia.
Combining European sophistication with identifiably American subject matter, American Impressionism quickly became popular among the increasing numbers upper-class patrons. As American industrialists built private collections of art, they had previously purchased Old Master works to demonstrate their good taste; American Impressionists were the first contemporary artists to be widely collected by Americans.
American Impressionism built upon the examples of landscape painting practiced by the Hudson River School and the Tonalists, particularly in the emphasis on immersion in the natural world and an attention to light and color. The Impressionist interest in everyday life and commonplace scenes, however, marked a difference from the transcendentalist visions of earlier 19th-century American landscape painting.
The American Impressionists fostered new organizations for the creation and exhibition of their work; these innovations would last beyond the popularity of the style. Many of the artist colonies and exhibition societies that supported Impressionism were critical in broadening American art beyond academic painting.

Most Important Art

American Impressionism Famous Art

Mrs. Chase in Prospect Park (1886)

Artist: William Merritt Chase
William Merritt Chase was one of the earliest American artists to incorporate Impressionism into his work. His series on the Prospect Park in Brooklyn, which he painted and exhibited in 1886, exemplifies his Impressionist style. Here, Chase depicts his future wife sitting in a row boat in a small lake. There is a sense of ease as she strikes a contemplative pose. The park offered a convenient spot to paint en plein air, following the example of the French. Furthermore, as a natural space engineered by people in the midst of an urban environment, the park provided the perfect backdrop for Chase's vision of upper class leisure and genteel interaction with light and nature. Prospect Park was also an answer to the sophisticated spaces of European capitals, arguing that American cities had evolved to include such cultural considerations.

The painting demonstrates the broad brushstrokes and interest in the play of light that are characteristic of Impressionist art, however, Chase's palette is notably more muted than most of French Impressionist painting. This might reflect his training in Munich (which he chose over studying in Paris). When he returned to America from Germany, he established an elaborately decorated studio in the Tenth Street Studio, the first building in New York designed as an artist space. He also began teaching at the newly formed Art Students League, making him a highly visible and influential central figure in American artistic circles. In the 1880s, he turned towards Impressionism, inspired by Whistler and Manet's loose brushwork along with a deep admiration for the work of John Singer Sargent, a lifelong friend after they met in 1881. His popularity among the social elite of Long Island, where he directed the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art helped to establish Impressionism as a collectable new school.
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American Impressionism Artworks in Focus:

Beginnings

A New Era for American Art

With the end of the Civil War and a new era of American prosperity, the wealthy built large houses to showcase their success. In order to demonstrate their cosmopolitan taste, they furnished these mansions with furniture and art imported from Europe. Although American artists such as the Hudson River School and the Tonalists had developed distinctively national styles, their paintings did not command the prices of European art; American art was not considered fashionable nor sophisticated. To become a respected artist, it was necessary for Americans to train in the famous art schools of London and Paris and adopted the academic styles taught there.

The French Impressionists

<i>Haystacks - Snow Effect</i> (1891) was one of Claude Monet's signatures paintings where he worked in series to capture the atmospheric effects of light.
Haystacks - Snow Effect (1891) was one of Claude Monet's signatures paintings where he worked in series to capture the atmospheric effects of light.

By the 1870s, however, academicism was being threatened by the emerging avant-garde, particularly in France. The Impressionist group first showed together in 1874. Although their styles and intentions were diverse, the Impressionists were united in rejecting the traditional Parisian Salon and its stale academic tradition. In general, an Impressionists' aesthetic emerged that was notable for the use of loose brushwork and experimental color composition, with a new focus on the effects of light. Furthermore, the Impressionists were interested in these optical effects rather than narratives; they privileged scenes of everyday life and natural beauty over the highbrow subjects of traditional painting.

American Impressionists Emerge

Interestingly, both visiting American artists and the buying public in the US rejected Impressionism, even as the style gained critical attention from French critics. The Americans, who had been indoctrinated in the tenets of academic art found Impressionism too radical in its rejection of fine art. For much of the 1870s and 1880s, American artists in Europe followed more traditional styles of painting, which remained popular (and salable) at home. These decades saw the beginnings of an active art market in the U.S., where an increased number of art dealers began showing works by American artists and established names from Europe. The market favored artists who offered an American version of European painting trends, blending a certain nationalism and cosmopolitanism. During these years, a number of art magazines and periodicals were established, allowing both connoisseurs and amateurs to follow artist developments at home and abroad.

John Twatchman's <i>Winter Harmony</i> (c. 1890/1900) was one of multiple depictions his farm near Greenwich, Connecticut. Like Monet, Twatchman painted scenes from his surroundings in various seasons and weather, paying attention to the effects of light and color.
John Twatchman's Winter Harmony (c. 1890/1900) was one of multiple depictions his farm near Greenwich, Connecticut. Like Monet, Twatchman painted scenes from his surroundings in various seasons and weather, paying attention to the effects of light and color.

In time, the American hesitancy about Impressionism began to soften, particularly as viewers became more accustomed to the abstractions of the style. A few intrepid American artists were among the first foreigners to embrace the innovations of French Impressionism (notably Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler) and their works became popular back home. Then, as works by the French Impressionists arrived in the U.S., they found support within a small group of Americans who became the first major purchasers of the style.

American Artists in Europe

While most American artists initially rejected the Impressionist style, there were a few key exceptions. Whistler and Sargent found in Impressionism an approach similar to their own explorations of color and everyday subject matter. American born, Whistler spent most of his career in London, but he maintained strong connections with Paris, where he had trained. He was even invited by Edgar Degas to exhibit his work with the first French Impressionist exhibition of 1874, (an offer Whistler refused). Whistler had several important patrons and influential acquaintances in the United States, including the painter William Merritt Chase. Sargent, another American who trained in Paris and lived in London, was also a conduit for Impressionism to reach American audiences. Sargent made several professional trips to the US, where he painted a number of well-received portraits and works in the Impressionist style.

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American Impressionism Overview Continues
Mary Cassatt's <i>Summertime</i> (1884)
Mary Cassatt's Summertime (1884)

Since neither Whistler nor Sargent fully embraced the Impressionist movement, preferring to maintain their independence, Mary Cassatt became the first and most notable American Impressionist, helping to popularize the style. Born in Pennsylvania, she moved to Paris in 1866 where she became firmly embedded in the Impressionist movement in Europe and was most closely associated with Degas. She exhibited her work with the Impressionist group several times and remained in France until her death in 1926. The sale of her paintings to American clients did much to create the demand for Impressionist works in the U.S.

Impressionism Accepted

Impressionism became more fashionable in America during the 1880s, as many artists adopted its aesthetic and subject matter. Many American artists lived cosmopolitan lives, traveling to Europe frequently to see exhibitions and discover new techniques and trends. Also important was the influential art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel who befriended Claude Monet and had championed the Impressionists for many years. Having previously exported Impressionism to London, where his gallery expanded in 1870, he organized the first exhibition of Impressionist art in the U.S. in 1883, sending works by Manet, Monet, Renoir and Pissarro to Boston. Seeing the growing American market of art collectors, in 1886, Durand-Ruel organized a similar but larger show in New York City. That show caused a sensation, prompting artists, collectors and critic to reconsider their initial opposition to the style.

Childe Hassam's <i>Just Off the Avenue, Fifty-third Street</i> (1916) shows an American setting, in the Impressionist Style
Childe Hassam's Just Off the Avenue, Fifty-third Street (1916) shows an American setting, in the Impressionist Style

Impressionism quickly became a popular style, its varied aesthetic allowing American artists to experiment with the principles of the movement and adapt it for American subjects and audiences. Artists such as William Merritt Chase, Edmund C Tarbell and Childe Hassam painted parks, gardens and the countryside around New York and Boston, adding a recognizably American sensibility to the European style.

Artists' Colonies in the Northeast

During the 1890s, a number of artists' colonies were established; American Impressionism flourished in these bohemian enclaves. Working in these collaborative villages, artists learned from each other and shared ideas and resources. They were often established in areas of great natural beauty, but within an easy journey of a large city where work could be exhibited and sold.

Claude Monet's Water Lily Pond at his house in Giverny. Photo by Ariane Cauderlier
Claude Monet's Water Lily Pond at his house in Giverny. Photo by Ariane Cauderlier

Notable groups of artists gathered at New Hope, Pennsylvania, and at Cos Cob and Old Lyme in Connecticut, as well as on New York's Long Island. On the other site of the United States, American Impressionist artists also worked at Carmel and Laguna Beach in California. Many of these colonies were inspired by Monet's famous garden and studio at Giverny in France, which had become a pilgrimage site for many American artists. Sometimes, wealthy patrons and collectors invited artists to their country homes, resulting in smaller-scale groups, such as the Blaney family who played host to Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent, and John Leslie Breck at Ironbound Island in Maine.

The Ten American Painters

Back Row, Left to Right: Chase, Benson, Tarbell, Dewing, DeCamp Front Row: Simmons, Metcalf, Hassam, Weir, Reid (1908)
Back Row, Left to Right: Chase, Benson, Tarbell, Dewing, DeCamp Front Row: Simmons, Metcalf, Hassam, Weir, Reid (1908)

American Impressionism was first organized into a movement with the formation of "The Ten," a group of painters who opposed the more traditional Society of American Artists. In January 1898, they announced their resignations from the society, following the French Impressionists rejection of the official Salon. The group consisted of Childe Hassam, J. Alden Weir, John Twatchman, Robert Reid, Willard Metcalf, Frank W. Benson, Edmund C. Tarbell, Thomas W. Dewing, Joseph R. De Camp, and Edward Simmons. William Merritt Chase also joined the group some years later. Although some of these artists were less notable, and some key American Impressionist artists (such as those living in Europe) were excluded, the group provided a centralizing locus for American Impressionism as a movement.

Concepts and Styles

American Nature

The intention of French Impressionism was to capture a fleeting snapshot, or a representation of the artist's perception of a place rather than an accurate study. The Impressionists didn't choose overly romantic or fantastical locations for their paintings, but instead focused on everyday spaces, such as cities, gardens, and places of popular entertainment.

When Impressionism came to America, artists were similarly interested in capturing fleeting impressions and in depicting scenes of everyday life. However, they were also interested in something beyond the aims of their French counterparts, which was capturing places that offered a sense of national identity. For many artists, such as Childe Hassam, painting scenes of American nature offered a chance to differentiate their work from European Impressionism. It also provided continuity from the Hudson River School, which had celebrated the American landscape as a point of national pride and glory. By depicting the natural wonders of the country, especially those found around some of the artist colonies established in the 1880s, American painters developed a patriotic Impressionism.

Returning Home

Interiors and domesticity were key themes for many American Impressionists, as they were for their French counterparts (notably Berthe Morisot and Edgar Degas). Patrons embraced the colorful and harmonious images of domestic tranquility, often as an antidote to the harsher realities of industrial and urban life. Mary Cassatt's paintings of intimate interiors and female companionship inspired American Impressionists of both genders. The paintings of Edmund Tarbell demonstrate the influence of these examples of quiet domesticity and the beautiful of simple scenes from everyday life.

Gardens and parks

Like their French predecessors, many American Impressionists painted scenes set in gardens and parks. However, whereas Monet's garden paintings were often based on the vibrant colors and unusual compositions they offered (privileging form and color over subject matter), many Americans were more deeply inspired by the example of Renoir, who focused on the changing social interactions that took place in these spaces. In the work of Edmund Tarbell or William Merritt Chase, for example, these spaces offered a backdrop for women at leisure, enjoying nature in a controlled and safe environment. An extension of the beautiful interiors and domestic representations of the home, gardens and parks were carefully curated to provide a setting of luxuriant calm and tranquility.

Later Developments

After a meteoric rise in popularity and prestige, American Impressionism quickly replaced academic art as a favorite of collectors. Its soaring prestige, however, was quickly halted by the 1913 Armory Show, which featured more experimental art from Europe (including the Fauves and Cubists) and America (including the abstractions of the Stieglitz circle of artists and the realism of the Ashcan School). For many collectors of modern and contemporary art, American Impressionism became outdated and conservative.

Yet, despite its fall from the avant-garde, many artist colonies where American Impressionism had flourished continued to be key centers into the 1920s. Many artists, such as Childe Hassam and William Merritt Chase continued to work in the style, patronized by an older market which demanded more visually pleasing works rather than the conceptual avant-garde styles.


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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Anna Souter

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Sarah Archino

" Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anna Souter
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Sarah Archino
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Useful Resources on American Impressionism

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

artworks

American Impressionism (2001) Recomended resource

Comprehensive picture-based compilation of works in this style

American Impressionist Masterpieces (1991) Recomended resource

Catalogue of famed American Impressionist works

Theory and Investigation American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915 (1994)

By Helene Barbara Weinberg, Doreen Bolger, David Park Curry

Impressionism in America: The Ten American Painters (1991)

By Ulrich W. Hiesinger

American Impressionism - Met Museum Movement Page Recomended resource

Museum page providing a detailed background on the movement

Collectors Guide: American Impressionism Recomended resource

A look into the collectors aspect of the art world, in relation to the movement

American Impressionism

In-depth image and theory based synopsis of the movement

American Impressionists of the Late 1800s and Early 1900s

National Gallery of Art page for the movement

Finding Beauty in Land Recomended resource

By Martha Schwendener
New York Times
January 6, 2012

American Impressionism: An exhibition shows how Monet and Degas influenced a generation of artists

By Adrian Hamilton
Independent
August 31, 2014

Flower Power: Women, Gardens, and the Dawn of American Impressionism

By Bob Duggan
BigThink

American Impressionism In-Gallery Video

Slideshowing of images narrated with information on the movement

Lecture by Anna Marley: The Artist's Garden - American Impressionism and the Garden Movement Recomended resource

Lengthy video by the Art Institute of Chicago about the art making and culture surrounding the movement

American Impressionism: 'What Happiness Looks Like' Recomended resource

Brief video on early beginnings of the movement

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