This post comes to us from Sara Cotter, Curatorial Intern.
The works included in the exhibition, The Weir Family, 1820-1920: Expanding the Traditions of American Art, which will be on view in the McKernan Gallery from June 30th until September 30th, illustrates the influence that travel and study in Europe had on the developing art of America in the 19th century. This phenomenon is exemplified by the work of the three Weirs represented: Robert Walter Weir and his sons, John Ferguson Weir and Julian Alden Weir. All three men studied in Europe as part of their artistic training and subsequently had long and successful careers back home in America, as artists and art instructors. The Weir dynasty represents almost a century of artistic production, during which major changes were occurring in the nature of American art and its relationship to the art centers of Europe – changes in which the Weirs figured prominently.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Americans desired to create art that truly captured the essence of their young country, in order to establish their place internationally and to justify their endeavor in the New World. However, there were still those who believed that American artists could not be successful without the training and influence of European masters, who benefited from centuries of art history and technical development. Robert Walter Weir believed this sincerely, and in 1824, at the age of 21, he set sail for Italy to study art. He landed first in Florence, where he studied with Pietro Benvenuti (1769-1844) at the Academy of Florence. Then, at the end of 1825, he continued on to Rome, where he lived with another American artist, Horatio Greenough (1805-1852), who would later become a successful sculptor. In Rome, Robert spent copious time sketching from the work of the Renaissance masters, such as Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520), and drawing from live models provided by the French Academy in the city. Taking the Veil, which depicts a novice nun being initiated into the Ursuline Sisterhood, was painted after events Robert witnessed while studying in Italy. This painting illustrates the strong attention to clarity and detail in his work, even long after returning to America, which is attributed to his time abroad and his study of the masterpieces of the past. Upon his return, Robert became the head Instructor of Drawing at West Point, a job he held for forty-two years.
Robert strongly encouraged his young artist sons to follow in his footsteps and travel to Europe to study. However, by the time Julian Alden Weir, his youngest son, was embarking on his sojourn across the Atlantic in 1873, Paris had displaced Italy as the premier destination for young American artists. This was where the major currents of art in the 1860’s and 1870’s were originating, specifically Realism and Impressionism, which would be incredibly influential on the generation to come. Of the three Weirs, Julian spent the longest time in Europe. He enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts and studied there for four years, mainly under the tutelage of Jean-León Gérôme (1824-1904). Despite the conservativeness of his academic training, Julian’s time in Paris is characterized by his exposure to the contemporary art scene of the city, which was decidedly more radical. While his father spent his time in Italy immersed in the art of the past, in Paris, Julian familiarized himself with the art of the present, befriending other active young artists, exhibiting in the annual Salons, and going to see the independent exhibitions of established artists, such as those put on by the Impressionists. Curiously, this exposure to Impressionist techniques did not manifest itself in Julian’s own artwork until the 1890’s, after he had returned to and established himself in America. In Sunlight, Connecticut, produced in 1894, he painted his farm in Branchville, Connecticut with the short, rapid brushstrokes and attention to light that characterized French Impressionism. Because of his adoption of this technique, which was based on first-hand observation while abroad, Julian is credited with establishing the influential school of American Impressionism.
John Ferguson Weir, like his father and younger brother, also spent time in Europe developing his painting. However, unlike Robert and Julian, John received no formal training while abroad. His trips, though numerous, were short, lasting only a few months at a time. Because he worked independently, he was able to study the works of the Old Masters in museums, but also paint en plein air in the countryside of Italy, France and even Holland, where he painted Popindrecht, Holland. John spent his most enjoyable time in Italy, while on honeymoon with his wife, Mary. He especially liked the landscape of Lake Como, in Northern Italy, and the sketches and finished works he produced there were created with the same evident affection with which he painted the Hudson River from his childhood home at West Point. Though John, like Julian, was exposed to contemporary currents in European art during his trips, he preferred the work of the past, earning him the affectionate nickname, “The Old Master.” When John returned to America after his first trip to Europe, he became the director of the newly-established School of the Fine Arts at Yale University, where he incorporated his own European experiences, along with those of his brother at the École, into both the foundation of the school and his own teaching.
Robert Weir was able to study art in Europe, through his own ambition and with the help of generous benefactors, when only a few young artists in America had such an opportunity. His valuable experiences abroad had an impact on his two artist sons, and they continued this practice in their own careers. Despite the strong ties these three men had to European art, both past and present, they remained fervently patriotic and considered themselves, above all, true American painters. When, in the second half of the 19th century, American artists were traveling more frequently to Europe, and staying for longer periods of time, questions arose about the authenticity of “American” art produced in Europe, under the influence of European instruction. This question becomes moot, however, in consideration of the Weirs, because of their demonstrated dedication to America, even while abroad. Patriotism was taught to all of the Weir children at a young age by Robert, stemming from his long career at West Point. All three Weirs showed affection for the landscape of the Hudson River, where Robert lived and his children grew up, through numerous depictions in paint. Many of Robert’s sons excelled in the military and many of his daughters married officers, further fostering a sense of national pride within the family. Even Julian, who is one of the most well-known American Impressionists, was initially ambivalent about this radical foreign style, and only adopted it years after first encountering it. The works on display in this exhibition successfully introduce the possibility that American artists influenced by European sources and trends can still produce art that truly captures the essence of America.
Do you think art produced in Europe by American artists can truly be classified as “American” art? How influential is an artist’s nationality on their work? What exactly makes a painting “American”?
 Marian Wardle, “Introduction: The Weir Family at Home and Abroad,” in The Weir Family, 1820-1920: Expanding the Traditions of American Art, ed. Marian Wardle (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2011), 17.