What is American Impressionism?

June 7, 2016

After the end of the Civil War in 1865, many American art patrons traveled to Europe to infuse themselves with European culture. Showcasing their wealth, upon their return, the newly built houses were filled with imported decorative arts and paintings by old masters and contemporary artists. The American Impressionism became a valuable style, long after the French Impressionism lost its rage. The heritage of this movement, carried on in America as numerous artists traveled to Europe to learn, but more importantly, to fulfill the desires of the new wealthy members of the society and the new potential patrons. What was the appeal of the French Impressionism and does the American Impressionism offer new stylistic developments and themes? Let us take a look into the brief history of American Impressionism, concentrating not only on the similarities with its European predecessor but also exploring the heritage left on the American soil.

american impressionism museum exhibition impressionist french monet hassam william childe john theodore museum  impressionist
Edward Henry Potthast - Summer day, Brighton Beach. Image via wikipedia.org

The Beginning of American Impressionism

The experimental spirit of the leading European authors that gathered around the Impressionism movement explored light and the loose application of color, which was not mixed but applied in such a way so that the eye would be tested. Their paintings and their radical thinking, alongside with their bohemian living, shocked and repelled many, but also helped these European painters  to gain invaluable importance as some of the major art figures in art history. The conceptual nature of the Impressionism movement and how it passed on to influence the Post-Impressionism artists is seen as one of the major shifts in regard to the understanding of the painting, its compositional rules and how one should break them, and it offered a new understanding towards the subject matter and what is considered important enough to be painted. The Impressionists broke almost all of the traditional and classical rules, and this left many divided. In one of his letter home, one of the many young Americans that traveled to Paris wrote the following regarding the third Impressionist group exhibition in the spring of 1877

" I never in my life saw more horrible things…. They do not observe drawing nor form but give you an impression of what they call nature. It was worse than the Chamber of Horrors.”

In an attempt to compete with European masters whose art wealthy American art patrons so desired, many Americans traveled to Paris and enrolled to study painting and sculpture at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts or to study with some of the most influential artists of the Impressionism movement in their studios or privately run academies. One of the earliest American authors that fell under the spell of Impressionism, presenting the other side of lovers of this movements, was the female painter Mary Cassatt.

american impressionism museum exhibition impressionist french monet hassam william childe john theodore museum  impressionist
Mary Cassatt - The Tea. Image via wikipedia.org

The New Woman

Earning recognition by contemporaries like Edgar Degas, Cassatt became the only American artist to exhibit with Impressionists in Paris. Her new way of representing the everyday women and children earned her international recognition. Cassatt's work combined the light color palette and loose brushstroke of Impressionism with compositions influenced by Japanese art as well as by European Old Masters. Working in a variety of media throughout her career this versatility helped to establish Cassatt as an influential personality in a time when very few women were regarded as serious artists. Her depiction of women and children were constructions as the artists often employed models and friends to sit for her. Looked at as construction, her paintings convey messages about the social reality of the women in the 19th century, about a modern woman and about the material bond as a form of emotional nurturing.

american impressionism museum exhibition impressionist french monet hassam william childe john theodore
Left: William Merritt Chase - An Afternoon Stroll / Right: William Merritt Chase - The Chase Homestaead Shinnecock. Images via wikipedia.org

The Need to Keep the Academic Background Alive

As its European father, the American Impressionism saw different artists gathering and following in its footsteps regarding the depiction of the everyday modern life and the tradition of the en plain air, started with Monet’s landscape paintings. This approach to landscape painting, the American artists were made aware of while the dominant style of landscape painting in the USA was the Barbizon School. The remarkable naturalism and minutely observation of nature never deserted the American landscape artist and just a few of them surrendered to the spontaneity of European movement’s idiom, while the rest continued producing realistic style portrait art and Barbizon School landscape paintings. The traditional academic style of painting was important and difficult to give up, which resulted in a production that seemed to exist in an in-between state, of spontaneity and traditional teaching. Around the mid-1800’s, the time that the French Impressionism lost its edge and became a valuable style, with various exhibitions happening in America presenting the European painters, the American painters began to gather in artistic colonies that centered on outdoor paintings, which later influenced a movement of garden art in America.

american impressionism museum exhibition impressionist french monet hassam william childe john theodore
Left: John Singer Sargent - Arsene Vigeant. Image via wikipedia.org / Right: Childe Hassam - Fifth Avenue. Image via wikimedia.org

The Importance of the Modern Life

What seems to be one major difference between the two mentioned periods lies in the fact that the American artists were much more cosmopolitan than their French counterparts and often traveled and crossed the Atlantic to visit the museums, attend exhibition openings and artist’s colonies. Both admired and witnessed the urban changes and modernization of their cities and many shared the view that the industrialized urban societies should be depicted in a vibrant and modern style. Together entranced by change and yet to an extent still nostalgic towards the past, the paintings produced during the period of American Impressionism were vibrant, fusing light and color, keeping the meaning of the subject matter while depicting the energy of the urban life on one side, but also focused on the quiet side resulting in a number of vignettes of domestic life.

The Impressionism, as we saw it develop in Europe, influenced the art in America as a need to fulfill the demands of the market and the desire of the patrons, and a number of artists never truly surrendered to its spontaneity and experimental spirit. On the other hand, we witness amazing examples of major American artists that adopted the style and to whom we owe much for the creation of works that celebrate different life experiences abroad and at home, and who have also left for us, mesmerizing records of color and light.

Editors’ Tip: The Golden Age of American Impressionism

This book offers some of the most famous works of the American Impressionism movement. Covering both the movement and the artists at their peak, it gives us a glimpse into the production of some of the greatest painters such as Childe Hassam, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, Julian Alden Weir, John Twachtman, and many others. Beautifully illustrated, The Golden Age of American Impressionism provides its reader with in-depth examinations of the artists themselves and discusses various regional movements within American Impressionism.

All images used for illustrative purpose only. Featured image: Mary Cassatt – The Boating Party, detail. Image via Wikipedia.org

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