The understanding of sensation, perception, and what it meant to portray reality changed dramatically throughout the late 19th century, beginning with the Impressionist movement in France. Impressionism prioritized the individual eye over the disembodied subject of the anonymous viewing body. The theory behind the movement was all about offering a unique experience, a temporary moment, and an individual artist’s perspective. Canvases were meant to be direct translations of perceptions experienced in nature. Despite heavy initial resistance from the art establishment, Impressionist art has come to be praised for removing the burdening, dry weight of bourgeois politics in order to experience nature more directly and immediately. One was not to play into hierarchy, but rather to experience unaltered, reaction between artist and environment. Through the direct representation of the artist’s reaction, the Impressionists captured one moment of temporal, specific perception including those of the middle and lower classes of modern France.
What is often forgotten is the fact that French Impressionism, often mistaken for Impressionism at large, incorporated the beliefs, theories, and politics of one group of mostly Parisian men. Impressionism as theory and practice traveled across the Atlantic quite successfully. In the United States, it flourished among budding art colonies including Provincetown, Massachusetts, Old Lyme, Connecticut, and Shinnecock, Long Island. These art-driven townships were popular destinations and subject-settings for American Impressionists, as they boasted brilliant sunshine, luscious landscape, and sea-soaked shores.
This revolutionary, impressionistic way of seeing and capturing the natural world quickly caught fire as American art colonies were eager to follow European suit. Artists such as William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) and his student Charles W. Hawthorne (1872-1930) pioneered Impressionism’s steady beginnings in the United States. Yet what differentiated Chase from Monet, and Hawthorne from Renoir was not simply their nationality. Not only was the subject matter and scenery from the United States and France vastly different, but the social and political sensibilities of the two nations were entirely dissimilar, thus fostering independently unique versions of Impressionist work. Another American artist, Childe Frederick Hassam (1859-1935), proved to be a spark-plug for new developments within and around Impressionism in the United States, pressing further in experimentation and leaping further into sensory divulgences.
William Merritt Chase became one of the leading proponents of Impressionism in America through his schools of art. In 1891, he opened the Shinnecock Hills Summer School in Long Island, New York. There, he would influence the lives and careers of developing leaders of American art such as Charles W. Hawthorne, father of the Provincetown art colony. Chase also remained an integral part of the academic art scene through his involvement in the Art Students League of New York (1878–1896), the Brooklyn Art Association (1887, and 1891–96), and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. (1896–1909).
Beyond his career as a teacher, Chase typifies American Impressionism at its best. Drawing from the technique of the French, Chase began painting plein-air landscapes marked with swift and quick brushstrokes of exuberant color. Though many famed American Impressionists including Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) and John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) spent most of their artistic careers abroad, Chase moved permanently to New York City and remained a leading teacher and practitioner of Impressionism on American soil. As such, Chase’s canvases can be seen as poignantly different from those of his French contemporaries simply due to the nature of his subject. Depicted were American men, women, and children in and around their native environment. As seen in Chase’s Portrait of a Child, the French salons and fêtes that oozed with charm and delicacy are nowhere to be found. Depicted in these scenes are fragments of the American reality, thousands of miles from the nursery rhymes of au pairs.
Chase’s influence on his students propelled American art into a new epoch of creation and exploration. Charles W. Hawthorne, though not solely an Impressionist painter, would teach his students valuable lessons of the quality of light, color, and brushstroke at the Cape Cod School of Art. “He has a very distinctive style of painting, in which the chief aim is to get out-of-door quality of light and color—even in portraits. In his work is combined both impressionism and realism—the impressionism of pure color juxtaposition, always softened and blended in the mystery of light effects and the realism which does not offend by too close attention to detail.”
-A. J. Philpott, “Biggest Art Colony in World at Provincetown,” Boston Globe, August 27, 1916.
Seen in October Landscape, Hawthorne seems to recall the master Impressionist Claude Monet’s (1840-1926) Poppies from 1873. Using patches of brilliant color and imprecise forms, Hawthorne rendered a scene of leisure and peaceful contemplation as the rays of sun seem to warm the skin of the figure and viewer alike. One can almost taste the salty Provincetown air and feel the beaming sun on an afternoon stroll on the Cape. This piece departs from the more somber tones of Chase’s Portrait of a Child, as the stoic palette and subject matter are discarded in favor of a more spontaneous scene. Yet what remains shared among both is a distinct sensibility to the American subject matter. In both Chase and Hawthorne’s paintings we can trust that the eye of the artist was looking upon a subject who knew not of the Champs–Élysées but of the beautiful eastern seaside.
Childe Hassam’s influence on American Impressionism, in some ways, outweighs the contributions of Chase and Hawthorne. Influenced by the salons of Paris, Hassam merged the French technique with the American subject matter and awareness of contemporaneous artistic tendencies. After settling in New York in 1899, Hassam expanded his oeuvre into one of the most notable and captivating of his time. In his 1918 work Boat Landing, Hassam’s unique sensibility to light, movement, and reflection seem to echo color and tone throughout the piece. His ability to break boundaries far exceeded the somewhat dainty, regulated brushstrokes of Chase and Hawthorne as both men drew from stricter academic backgrounds and a deep knowledge of Dutch realism and portraiture. Hassam’s move beyond the simplicities of boats and parasols into the investigation of form and feeling pressed American Impressionism to climb to distinction.
Throughout history, Impressionism is often seen as the defining art moment of Modernity, the beginning of the avant-garde, or to some, the destruction of realism. However, Impressionism is neither restricted to le premier arrondissement (the center of Paris) nor to the art colonies of Provincetown or Shinnecock. Rather, Impressionism marks the beginning of a distinctly international style that transcended borders and transformed vision. Beyond the subject of boats and parasols, Impressionism taught the world how to see in a new light.
Do you feel more connected to the works of French or American Impressionists? What differences or similarities do you see? What political and social circumstances might have influenced the differences emerging between French and American artists of the time?
Paintings by Hawthorne, Hassam, and Chase are featured in the “Tides of Provincetown” exhibition, which opens today! Be sure to see them before it closes on October 16, 2011.