Just a few days ago, the NBMAA purcahsed a full-scale, life-sized portrait of Emeline Arnold Souther (Mrs. Edmund Charles Tarbell.) Edmund Charles Tarbell painted this masterpiece early on in their relationship, in fact it was painted in the year they were married (1888) right before he became a teacher for several decades at the Boston Museum School. Mrs. T’s elegance and poise are a pristine example of Tarbell’s early career, transitioning from magazine illustrations to portraits. This painting was featured in the notable Exposition Universelle “World’s Fair” of 1889 in Paris.
Edmund Charles Tarbell (1862-1938) was a prominent American Impressionist born in West Groton, Massachusetts in 1862. Soon after birth he was sent to be raised in Boston with his grandparents. His professional career began early as an apprentice for a lithograph company, and after three years he enrolled in the Boston Museum School.
Frank Benson (1862-1951) was a student there as well, and they would become friends and eventually share a retrospective (which Tarbell unfortunately did not live to see) in 1938. Tarbell’s academics took him to France in 1884, sparking his interest in learning from the Old Masters. His appreciation for them is apparent in many of his works over his career. In the years to follow he returned to Boston and then moved to New York to become a member of the Society of American Artists. This group would define his career, as Tarbell became part of “The Ten” who separated from the society. They cited the conservative nature and large exhibitions which were limiting them, and went on to exhibit with each other from 1898-1919.
Tarbell’s transition from magazine illustrations to portraiture in the mid 1880s was aided by his marriage. This portrait was originally on display as part of a 6 month Worlds Fair exhibition in Paris in 1889 which featured artwork from all over the world, including 336 artworks from America. This year was a major milestone in French society because it marked the 100th anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille which has come to be known as the start of the French Revolution. The exhibition was grand in every sense of the word; for example, the world’s largest diamond (at the time) was on display. The artwork ranged from history paintings, to intimate portraits, naturalistic landscapes, and much more, and included the Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891), Jules Breton (1827-1906), Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889), and John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).
The Eiffel Tower was almost complete upon the Exposition’s opening and was one of the main focal points of the exposition which was seen by over 6 million visitors. Other important focal points that drew attention to the venue were “Machinery Hall” (later demolished,) and “Negro Village” of over 400 indigenous people in a spectacle show. These were coupled with entertainment by Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, among others.
Tarbell was honored to be featured in this “who’s-who” of the world’s art market in 1889, while still early in his career. An exhibition like this was popular every year, but this particular one was one of the grandest in history. Impressionism was popular at this time, and Tarbell’s style hereafter would be greatly influenced by this movement. Later paintings of his wife, demonstrate her age with dignity and realism, yet stay true to the elegance and poise of this early portrait from 1888. Madame T’s dress is a deep red, set against a dark background, adorned with copper highlights. She stands at attention with her young white skin wrinkle-free. Their devotion to each other is clearly present in this painting, and can be understood as an early testiment to their love, young and pure.
Tarbell became known as one of the best American Impressionist painters of the 19th and 20th centuries. His respect for the Old Masters is obvious in his work, and he has become known for shifting focus onto American artists from their “superior” European contemporaries. Tarbell’s paintings are in collections worldwide, including the Smithsonian, Pierce Gallery, The Metropolitan Museum, and others.
Come take a look at Portrait of Madam T, a life-sized testament to love, in the Impressionist Gallery and let us know what you think! Who would YOU buy art from if you could buy anything? Do you like Tarbell’s work? What other NBMAA highlights represent a “testament to love”?