Today, we’ll have a look at the artworks in the American Impressionism Gallery situated on the first floor of the New Britian Museum of American Art.
Beginning with Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), American artists responded with enthusiasm to the paintings of the French Impressionists Claude Monet (1840-1926), Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), and Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Their loose brushwork and informal subjects, coupled with bright primary colors, appealed to Theodore Robinson (1852-1896), Childe Hassam (1859-1935), John Twatchman (1853–1902), Willard Metcalf (1858-1925), and others, whose canvases capture the impression of light and atmosphere. The more sophisticated among them were aware of optical effects and the relationships between complementary colors. While some Americans chose to remain in France, others, like Hassam, returned to New York, and soon, by their example and through their teaching, inspired generations to come. Many chose to work en plein air once paint became available in tubes. While New York remained the art center of the country, the Impressionists fled the city and congregated at art colonies along the East Coast, particularly on the Connecticut shore.
The Bird Cage is by Frederick Carl Frieseke (1874–1939), who was born in Michigan to a family of newly arrived German immigrants. Frieseke studied in Chicago and New York before embarking for Paris, where he studied with Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902) and James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). He decided to make France his home and soon explored landscape painting with the circle of Americans around Claude Monet at Giverny. By 1905, Frieseke had fallen under the influence of the Nabis and had turned to depictions of women in brilliant sunlight.
In nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art and literature, analogies between women and caged birds occur frequently. Like these birds, women were beautiful creatures to be admired, yet were confined by social customs to restricted roles. The woman in The Bird Cage is probably a professional model named Jeanne, who went from Paris to Giverny to work for Frieseke and others in the summer. The locals would not have allowed a woman from the village to model nude—and the exposed shoulder would have been a sufficient hint at nudity. The painting is a symphony of blue and yellow, with minor notes of lavender and green. The brushwork is richly varied, from long thick strokes in the silk gown to shorter, more vigorous ones covering the background. The woman’s neck, her sensuously bare shoulder touched by sunlight, and her raised arm are painted in a more polished fashion.
Another example of Frieseke’s work is Girl on Couch, which represents a continuation of Frieseke’s interest in images of women in quiet interiors. His style by this point, however, had moved away from a decorative Impressionism to a more monumental, somber realism.
Head of an Algerian (Moorish Prince) is by Elizabeth Nourse (1849–1938), who studied at the Cincinnati School of Design and in 1887 traveled with her sister Louise to Paris, where she enrolled at the Académie Julian. She was accepted at the Salon as a painter of peasant women and children. Norse settled in France, returning to the States only once – to see the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. She also visited Russia, Italy, Austria, The Netherlands, North Africa, and Spain.
Head of an Algerian is one of Nourse’s most powerful North African subjects. She probably painted the work during a three-month sojourn in Tunis in Tunisia while on a side trip to the Algerian city of Biskra. The sitter is traditionally dressed, a white turban around his head and several layers of loose clothing wrapped around his body. North African subjects were popular in France during the second half of the nineteenth century, and Nourse’s canvases were well received and shown at the Salon and the Société des Orientalists.
At the Festa del Redentore (At the Festival of the Redeemer) by Ivan G. Olinsky (1878-1962) is the final work we’ll be examining today. Olinsky was born on a farm in Ukraine and took up drawing as a young boy, attending art classes at the university in Elizabethgrad, near Odessa. His family immigrated to New York City around1890. In 1900, he became a studio assistant to John LaFarge (1835-1910), the famous muralist and stained glass artist. Eight years later, wanting to establish himself as an easel painter, he quit his job with LaFarge and went to Europe, dividing his time between Italy and France. Two of his summers were spent in Venice, where he painted lyrical views of the city and its canals in a bright, Impressionist style.
The painting celebrates the Feast of the Redemption which marks the end of The Black Death (the medieval plague of 1348). The high city and church officials process across the pontoon bridge made of gondolas to the Church of the Redemption in the distance. Two lovely young ladies sit in a boat and enjoy the pageant from afar. The painting demonstrates Olinsky’s deft Impressionistic handling of light as it dances across the watery expanse. The July sun that basks the scene in warmth is almost palpable and the intense blues and greens mixed with flecks of other colors is arresting. To this day, the festival draws thousands of tourists to the enchanted city of Venice.
Do you have a favorite American Impressionist painter? Why or why not? Do you prefer European Impressionism? How is it similar to American Impressionism? How is it different?