A River Runs Between: “American Impressionism: The Lure of the Artists’ Colony” at the Dayton Art Institute, March 7, 2015-May 31, 2015

May 19th, 2015  |  Published in May 2015

Frank Benson, an artist probably best known today for an oeuvre of duck hunting etchings that are, oddly, both academic and commercial, self-identified enthusiastically as an Impressionist: “I follow the light, where it comes from and where it goes.” The Dayton Art Institute is hosting an exhibit of more than a hundred paintings from the Reading Public Museum that gives you the chance to think about what American Impressionism is and what it adds up to. A few of the artists are familiar names—Sargent, Chase, Hassam, Twachtman—and quite a few are wholly obscure: Leonard Ochtman, Ben Foster, Frederic John Mulhaupt, John Sharman. Some of the better-known American Impressionists are well-represented, such as Ernest Lawson, Robert Reid, and Daniel Garber, and there are more than a half dozen women artists, all new to me (Mary Cable Butler, Paulette van Roekens, Mary Hiester Reid). The subject matter is mostly familiar. There are rolling hills but no mountains, bodies of water of every size imaginable, woods and scrub brush, a fair amount of snow (some of which needs to be shoveled). There are a staggering number of muddy and rutted main streets. This is a show of American art between the generation shaped by the Hudson River School and the generation shaped by The Eight. There are very few working farms and very few cityscapes. There are no Indians, almost no animals (wild or tame), no dramas about the settlement of the land or the settlement of family disputes. In fact, there is not much drama at all.

The exhibition gives you the chance to think about what American art and artists were doing in the first two decades of the 20th century. Chronologically, it is odd to think of them as Impressionists. Impressionism first comes before the Parisian public with the Salon des Refusés in 1863 and gathers enough momentum to hold eight exhibitions between 1874 and 1886. Most of the works in the show fall well after the timeline of Post-Impressionism. This doesn’t make the paintings any less good, but it does raise questions about the sorts of contexts in which they should be seen. It is odd, frankly, to be unclear about the context of an exhibition at the Dayton Art Institute, because that is normally one of the things at which that museum is especially good. The show suggests that the roots of American Impressionism can be traced to Sargent and William Merritt Chase, though the latter is represented by a fine but not particularly Impressionist painting of his palette, tubes of paint, and a brush still coated in the same green as the Chinese bowl he has just painted.

William Merritt Chase, (American, 1849 – 1916), My Palette, c. 1870 – 1880,
oil on canvas, 28-1/2 x 32-5/8 inches, Reading Public Museum

But so many pieces of the puzzle are missing. How did Impressionism migrate to America? (There is nothing in the show by Theodore Robinson, a young American painter who moved to Giverny and lived close to Monet in the 1880s.) How are the colors of Impressionism related to American Luminism? Where do figures like Homer or Inness or Whistler fit in? How did the characteristic loose brushwork of the Impressionists mesh with the loose brushwork of Duveneck? What enabled American painters to turn away from the symbolic qualities traditionally attached to landscape painting, or its rootedness in history? What happened to American art’s narrative commitment, whether in the grand manner, or in “genre” paintings, or in the illustrative traditions?

I found myself especially interested in the most immediate context for the show, the Reading Public Museum from which the entire show came, an interesting institution in an interesting rustbelt city, a once thriving center of the steel industry and railroad wealth. The Museum, which includes extensive collections of anthropological and natural history specimens as well as its fine arts, was attached from inception in the 1920s to the Reading School District. The institution and its patrons were committed to what would have been contemporary art, of a sort: the paintings in the show were generally bought within a decade or two of their having been finished, sometimes within a year or two, and occasionally while the paint was still wet.

The context to which the show is committed is the idea—the exhibition’s subtitle calls it “the lure”—of the artists’ colony.  Some of these colonies are clearly defined (Cos Cob, Old Lyme, Ogunquit, New Hope), while others are so loosely construed that one is hard put to accept them as “colonies” at all (Philadelphia, New York City). The show argues that Impressionism matured and spread, in part, due to “the communal experience” offered by the rural retreats, sometimes centering around a single boarding house that made itself hospitable to the bohemian sensibilities and finances of visiting painters. I would not say that the show makes a persuasive case for the influence of group experiences at these different locales. If there is a distinctive Cos Cob style or subject matter, for example, it was not immediately self-evident to me. And while it interesting to think of the possibility that artists working together help shape each other’s skills and sensibilities, the exhibit seemed at least equally drawn to noting the more conventional relationships between artists and their master teachers. In a more extreme case, Charles Hawthorne’s “A Study in White” (c.1900) is signed with a dedication “To My Master Wm. M. Chase.”

Charles Webster Hawthorne, (American, 1872-1930), A Study in White,
n.d., oil on canvas, 36 x 22 inches, Reading Public Museum

It is possible that the growth and spread of artists’ colonies suggest something about the changing situation and status of the fine arts in turn of the century America. These artists are not living hard-scrabble lives. They can travel, and can presumably survive without bringing in money for periods of time. Even accounting for the very different costs of living a century or so ago, it is significant that these painters can rent, however cheaply, rooms in which they do not live full-time; several, we are told, bought their own country places. There are suggestions of leisure in their lives, and suggestions of a landscape itself more tilted towards leisure than subsistence. The city feels like an absent presence in many of these paintings. It is not being painted but it is not being forgotten: access to the city is essential for provisions, pleasures, and markets. (It would have been interesting to see the artist’s colonies mapped over what we know of the main transportation corridors around 1900.) The nature of the American Impressionists is not unlike the nature most Americans enjoy to this day. It is something to be enjoyed as a spectator or even as a tourist.

The American Impressionists did not seek out the wilderness—if, indeed, there is still wilderness to be found in the United States around World War I. By Armistice Day in 1918, all 48 contiguous states had been accepted into the union and the AAA, designed to help Americans make their own ways amongst them, was almost two decades old. The painters in this show were generally setting up their easels at vantage points where others had been before. The nature that these painters sought out was not currently subject to labor. Aside from George Fuller’s “Harvest Time” (c. 1880), there are very few depictions of working farms or farm life. Charles Paul Gruppe’s painting of a boy herding sheep back to the barn (c. 1900) might as well be Dutch as American, down to the wooden shoes he is wearing. When did American artists stop painting sheep and cows? The Impressionists’ relationship to nature is quiet and intimate, almost surreptitious. Things are depicted at a comfortable human scale.

There are very few sublime vistas. Henry Ward Ranger’s “Marine—Green and Gold” (1900-1910) is the exception that proves the rule. It depicts a spectacular sunset over the ocean that looks like a cross between the perceptions and brushwork of Whistler (as the title suggests) and Frederick Church. With the sacrifice of the wild and the sublime, the visualization of spirituality was changing as well. Ben Foster’s wonderful “Church at Dedham, Massachusetts” (c. 1926) shows a small, whitewashed wooden church nestled among some trees in a well-tended field with some gravestones sketched in the background. The church seems a well-tended relic, chosen by the artist not because it is the center of Dedham’s spiritual life, but because of how its blazingly white walls catch the setting sun. Walter Emerson Baum’s “Bucks County Landscape” shows a snow-covered main street in a small town whose skyline is dominated by a red sandstone gothic church. But the picture’s date (perhaps as late as 1946) suggests an almost defensive religious presence, asking us to pay heed to traditional values rather than celebrating their vitality.

Several of the exhibit’s strongest paintings—Ernest Lawson’s “High Bridge—Winter,” Robert Spencer’s “The River—March,” Daniel Garber’s “Goat Hill”—place the viewer on one side of a river looking across at the other. One shore is generally more densely settled than the other. These views seem to suggest a separation between the two poles of American landscape: the settled and the wild. Few of them are like Lawson’s Harlem River scene which includes the bridge that can get you from one bank to the other. Mostly, we are in the position of yearning for the far side of the river from the safety and security of the near side. The best painting in the show for me was part of this sub-genre, John Fulton Folinsbee’s “Winter Nocturne” (1926). It seems to be have been painted from the porch of an apparently ramshackle house. We see a snow-covered front yard with various detritus from the house, and we look across the river. On the near side of the far shore, there are some lights showing where houses are; presumably, there are other houses we can’t see because their lights are out. People are sleeping; the artist is awake. In the distance further out is a city with smokestacks, more lights, and perhaps the lattice of a steel bridge. From behind the painter, light spills out onto the snow from inside the house. Judging by its brightness, I want to say that this is one of the few paintings in the show that celebrates the arrival of rural electrification. It is something of a perfect compromise. The artist’s world is a little rugged and a little bit cozy. Across the river that keeps him apart from it, there is more life, and possibly a whole city. But there is, for now, no need to cross.

The exhibit tells us that painter Guy Pene du Bois observed that Impressionism became naturalized as an American movement when it embraced “the gospel of the insignificant detail.” Is Folinsbee’s electric light such a detail? In Frederick John Mulhaupt’s “February’s Sun,” the insignificant details are the cattails and other weeds that poke up through the snow at the place where the icy stream the artist was depicting took a sharp turn or two. The banks of the stream are just rolling enough to highlight the spidery lines of the shadows of the thin trees between the viewer and the water. It feels like an agreeable vantage point to have strolled to. This landscape is quite lovely but also quite familiar. The exhibition can be seen to trace American Impressionism from its pioneering and rebellious roots to the decades around and especially after World War I where it became virtually the official view of America’s topography. The history of the Mulhaupt painting is a little like the fate of a favored work at some French Salon. Shown at an annual exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, it was bought off the wall and went directly to the Reading Museum.

For all the beauty of the paintings in the show—and there are a great many very lovely paintings on display—it is striking that they have been painted in a style that seems frozen in time. In Europe, Impressionism in short order begat Post-Impressionism and Fauvism which together begat the various movements that constitute Modernism. In America, it feels as if Impressionism had gone far enough, thank you. It is one thing to see some beautiful rolling fields as done in 1890 or 1900, but it feels like quite another thing to see them being done in the 1930s. It feels as if this show is partly documenting a decision not to re-engage with Europe as the 20th century continued, perhaps as a natural outcome of World War I. But what are the alternative native values left to reassert? This show envisions Impressionism as a non-urban movement on the one hand, but on the other, genuinely agrarian ideals no longer seem available. By and large, the Impressionists seem to have found themselves drawn to the positive attractions of the village and small town. We see this in the paintings of all the unpaved main streets that run vertically up the center of many of these canvases. They use a style borrowed from Europe to affirm the value of America’s attachment to the small community nestled into but not visually dependent upon nature. They are well painted but they seem to be celebrating their retreat from the business of the world, rather like the Chinese literati paintings of the 17th century.

One could certainly imagine a show with a different argument about Impressionism’s relationship to the urban world. It could start with Monet’s London and continuing through Hassam’s flag paintings and the great watercolors of Manhattan by Joseph Pennell and John Held. This show could have included Paulette Van Roekens’s “Towers in the Mist” (1925), which looks up a Philadelphia avenue as it is pounded by an astoundingly clean, almost Caribbean turquoise rain.  We see a city of varied zoning, with four story buildings, ten story buildings, and of course the towers in the background. It is a city that has been built at different times to support different uses, with people—some in cars and some hunched over against the blowing rain with umbrellas—not quite isolated from each other and not quite bound together. It was the best cityscape in the show, and also a fresh view of the main street painting.

“Towers in the Mist” is also one of more than a half dozen works by women in the show. The paintings in the exhibition as a whole proposed some interesting things about the relationship between Impressionism and gender, especially in the range of ways they were portrayed by male painters. Robert Lewis Reid’s “Summer Breezes” (1910-20) superimposes a statuesque figure of a woman draped in white in front of a hilly landscape. It is not really clear who exactly she is or what exactly she is doing there. It does not feel like a portrait of a particular woman but does not seem like an allegorical female figure—some spirit of the winds–either. She has a physical presence without quite being sexual. She seems to be a decorative woman, a deconstruction of female fashions and bodies. A more modern woman is depicted in John Sharman’s “Interior” (1914) in which a very self-collected woman is seated in a chair by a window, reading a magazine—itself something of a nod to modernity. She is in a Spartan corner of a well-appointed room, dressed, I think, to go out, but not quite ready to leave. Perched on an upholstered rocking chair, she is upper middle-class comfort in repose.

Robert Lewis Reid, (American, 1862 – 1929), Summer Breezes, c. 1910 – 1920,
oil on canvas, 33-3/4 x 39 inches, Reading Public Museum

There are depictions of women who are powerfully psychologically present, such as Richard Blossom Farley’s “Blue and Gold” (1912), which depicts a woman who won’t quite look out at the audience and does not seem to have been caught in a carefree mood, or Charles Hawthorne’s powerful portrait of “Constance le Boiteaux” (1919), who stares out at us without apparently wishing us to know what’s on her mind. (It was interesting that the exhibition notes call her “Modernist,” presumably in distinction from Impressionist.) Surely the most striking and strange portrait of a woman in the show was George Agnew Reid’s “Portrait of Mrs. Reid” (1902). Mrs. Reid, herself a painter whose work appears in the show, is not shown with paintbrush or sketchpad, but with a fan and a book on her lap. The picture itself seems more closely connected to the style of the 18th century than to Impressionism. But Mrs. Reid has turned her head entirely away from us, showing us nothing at all of her face. Reid has painted her as modest or perhaps ashamed, but in any case absolutely successful in keeping her secrets. It represents a fabulous challenge to the core conventions of a portrait, in which the sitter may or may not meet the viewer’s gaze, but is certainly aware of its demands and intrusiveness.

There is an implicit maleness to many of the other paintings in the show, whether they are figurative or not. One can trace the outlines of their understanding of gender from a comment by New Hope artist Edward Redfield, who wrote appreciatively of the locale he painted: “Bucks County was a place where an independent, self-sufficient man could make a living from the land, bring up a family, and still have the freedom to paint as he saw fit.” He envisions the painter’s life as heroic, agrarian, domestic, and artistic—in that order. And, of course, it’s a manly activity. The exhibition’s strongest view of maleness is in Frank Benson’s “On Grand River” (1920), with a man standing precariously upright in a canoe, poling himself towards a ripple which he is examining intently. He is related to both Winslow Homer’s men in canoes and his rugged mountain men, but he has no hunting or fishing gear in hand. He seems willing to risk standing up in the boat to make sure there will be no errors when the water speeds up. He is traveling right down the center of the river, taking the perspective that so many of the other paintings in the show—including several of the very best—won’t do. He is not staring across the river, but has committed himself to it.

Frank Weston Benson, (American, 1862 – 1951), On Grand River, c. 1920,
oil on canvas, 42 x 50-1/2 inches, Reading Public Museum

This show sets out to tell a great story about one of the last explosions of American landscape painting before the advent of abstraction. I did not feel that the attention to artists’ colonies helped clarify or enrich the show’s capacity to raise questions about Impressionism’s response to different geographies, or organize the movement chronologically, or complicate our view of the value of having company in what is generally a solitary line of work. The paintings certainly speak to us. We can feel the modernity of the daring visibility of the brushstrokes, in the relationship between the painted surface and the bare canvas, and in the choice of subject matter that invites us in but also pushes us back. Dayton’s exhibit lets us see a generation of artists who found a style that matched up with the changes in our culture’s relationship to the land. But it also tells the story of a style whose sheer loveliness may have encouraged its practitioners to continue showing the same thing long after other artists at home and abroad had moved on.

–Jonathan Kamholtz

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