At the Taft Museum

Another Impressionist show? Yawn. This might be the reaction of some who wander into the small gallery at the Taft Museum of Art featuring a new exhibition titled, American Impression from Cincinnati Collections. But after you get over first impressions, no pun intended, stop to consider the historical context of an exhibition like this one. It isn’t just any other Impressionist show—it features the work of American Impressionists, many of whom studied under Midwest natives Frank Duveneck (1848-1919) and William Merritt Chase (1849-1916).

Impressionism was born in France in the second half of the nineteenth century in response to the Industrial Revolution that created a new class of people—the leisure class. These people now had time to enjoy activities that brought them pleasure; whether it was picnicking in the parks, bathing at the beaches or strolling down the boulevards of Paris. At this time, artists such as Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Auguste Renoir had begun to advocate for painting en plein air, or out in the open air. This method was embraced by the painters of the Barbizon school, but was popularized by the Impressionists of France. Their subjects became the scenes and people that surrounded them—essentially modern life—and they tried to capture it in a modern way. They utilized loose brushstrokes, unblended colors and were enamored by the changing effects of light.

In America at this time (late 1870s), there was a strong desire to create a purely American style, and those at the Academy thought they were inching closer with the work coming out of the Hudson River School. But younger artists in the mid to late-1800s were hungry for something new, and many of them traveled abroad to study in Europe. Among them were Frank Duveneck, William Merritt Chase and John Twachtman. These three artists in particular studied in Munich at the Royal Academy. The Munich school was strongly influenced by the masters of the seventeenth century including the Dutch Frans Hals and the Spanish Diego Velazquez. Their work from this period has been described as “dark, painterly realism.”[1] A rival between Munich and Paris existed at this time, but the Munich school was very highly regarded. There was travel to Venice and Paris, and when these artists returned to the United States their work was considered crude and unfinished. Some found success, but they were largely rejected. Then something happened.

In 1886 a French Impressionist exhibition organized by Paul Durand-Ruel came to America, and within the next three years Impressionism exploded.[2] The American artists, up to this point, were not painting in the pure Impressionist style but began to adopt certain elements—brightening their palettes and playing with light. They had already been experimenting with the broken brushstrokes, but you see a noticeable style shift when comparing paintings like Chase’s The Tenth Street Studio, 1882 to his Boat House, Prospect Park, c. 1887. However, while you see elements of French Impressionism the Americans continued to preserve a focus on more carefully drawn human subjects. An example would be Duveneck’s Nude Standing, 1892; although Duveneck was never really considered an Impressionist. He was always more of a realist, but some of his later works certainly fall somewhere in between these two styles.

In the 17 years that Chase and Duveneck were evolving into important artists in their own right, they were both also teaching. They taught in Munich; Chase also taught in New York and Duveneck in Cincinnati. Duveneck spent time teaching at the McMicken School of Design, which later became the Art Academy of Cincinnati, where for a period of time he served as dean.

The artists in American Impressionism from Cincinnati Collections include: Ernest Lawson (1873-1939), Lewis Henry Meakin (1850-1917), Dixie Selden (1868-1935), Paul Ashbrook (1867-1949), Edward Potthast (1857-1927), Richard Miller (1875-1943), Henry Wessel (1878-1969) and Charles Kaelin (1858-1929). So where do these artists fit into the larger art historical picture? Ernest Lawson studied with John Twachtman who was part of the Munich school; Dixie Selden studied with both Duveneck at the Art Academy and with Chase in New York. Paul Ashbrook attended the Students Art League where he was Chase’s student. In the 1880s, Edward Potthast studied with T.S. Noble at the McMicken School of Design and later at the Royal Academy in Munich. Richard Miller received his instruction largely in Paris and spent time at an artist colony near Monet’s home. Henry Wessel also studied in France and lastly Charles Kaelin studied at the McMicken School of Design where he made lasting connections with both Duveneck and with John Twachtman.

Stylistically, all of the work in the Taft exhibition is nuanced according to the artist, each of whom brought their own personal experiences to the work. We see their painting influenced by Chase, Duveneck, the Munich school and French Impressionism. It is apparent in their palettes, their brushwork and their subjects. Edward Potthast was perhaps best known for his beach bather scenes—a popular Impressionist genre. His piece in the exhibition, Long Beach, 1922 is an excellent example of that. The brushwork in Charles Kaelin’s Snowy Day (n.d.) is strikingly similar to some of Duveneck’s paintings of the Black Forest in Germany. It’s interesting to draw these connections, because then we begin to understand how Impressionism grew from a French movement, into an international style. America’s expatriates were merging their techniques with those of the schools and artists in Europe and bringing them back, where they filtered down through their students and into exhibitions that were shown all over the country.

In just a few days, on February 19, the Taft opens a companion exhibition in the Fifth Third Gallery titled, The American Impressionists in the Garden. This exhibition includes works by many famous peers of Duveneck and Chase including: John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, Gari Melchers and Frederick Frieseke. Many of these painters turned their focus to the gardens in the early twentieth century. This trend coincided with the popularization of formal landscape and park design in the U.S. following The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

– Laura A. Partridge

American Impressionism from Cincinnati Collections at the Taft Museum of Art, 316 Pike Street Cincinnati, Ohio 45202, (513) 241-0343. January 28-April 25, 2011.

[1] Ulrich W. Hiesinger, Impressionism in America: The Ten American Painters (Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1991), 83.

[2] Ibid.


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