American Impressionism: A Brief Introduction
American impressionism heralded a new era of unparalleled beauty and creativity in American Art. This art movement prevailed from the 1880s to the early twentieth century, providing a unique artistic style and fascinating insights into American and European society.
This brief introduction explores the movement’s defining characteristics, leading artists, and their most famous impressionist paintings.
How did American Impressionism start?
While trying to understand the rise of American Impressionism, it is essential to situate the movement within the rising global wealth and significance of the USA. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, the American economy rapidly expanded, resulting in affluent art patrons (often from the victorious Northern states).
They often traveled to Europe, purchasing old master paintings and modern artists emulating their work in the classical style. Consequently, many American artists started traveling to develop their artistic training in Europe. Paris was a particular epicenter of artistic creativity, and it is here that American Impressionist artists found inspiration.
Soon after American interest in European art took off, the French Impressionists launched their opening exhibition in Paris. The first occurred in 1874; they exhibited eight times in total (ending in 1886).
The Impressionists rejected the classical approaches favored by many European academies and American collectors. Instead of meticulous detail depicting classic Greek myths and legends, Impressionist exhibitions featured scenes of everyday life. Using dappled, light brushwork and vibrant coloring, they painted the new “modernity.”
Overall, Americans studying in Paris during the 1870s ignored the new Impressionist movement. Instead, many studied at the prestigious Académie Julien under teachers such as Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Indeed, the few American artists who noticed famous impressionist paintings were horrified. One artist (J. Alden Weir) described he’d never seen “more horrible things.”
Who started American Impressionism?
In terms of the initial pioneers of American Impressionism, Mary Cassatt was an early leading figure of the movement. Having moved to Paris in 1874 (from her native Pennsylvania), she quickly adopted the new French Impressionist style.
Cassatt became close friends with Edgar Degas, who invited her to show alongside the group. The pair had such a close working relationship that he advised Cassatt on her artwork and sometimes even painted on her canvases.
For instance, speaking of her famous Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878), Cassatt wrote that Degas “found it good.” He “advised her on the background” and worked on the composition. Art Historians believe Degas painted the floor between Cassatt’s armchairs. He also possibly painted the light streaming through the windows.
John Singer Sargent (born to expatriate American parents) also studied in Paris around the same time. He met Claude Monet (the father of Impressionism) in the mid-1870s and deeply admired his work. Indeed, Monet inspired Singer Sargent to paint some of his liveliest works, full of color and movement. Singer Sargent paintings include Claude Monet Painting by The Edge of The Woods and Carnation Lily, Lily Rose (both painted in 1885).
What are the five characteristics of Impressionism?
The American Impressionists and their European counterparts shared incredibly close links. With this in mind, it’s worthwhile exploring the key characteristics of French Impressionism in more detail.
While this covers a massive array of painters and styles, five characteristics include:
- Quick, loose, and visible brushwork
- Bright, vivid, unblended coloring
- Painting “en plein air” (outside) or “in situ” (in homes, bars, or restaurants)
- Emphasizing exact depictions of natural light
- Reflecting on fleeting moments and everyday life
Unlike classical approaches, Impressionist artists favored cropped compositions, playful perspectives, and off-center compositions. In addition, they painted modern life rather than classical myths and religious subjects, using paints straight from the tubes. The result is a technique that creates a thick, impasto painting style with rapid, energetic strokes.
Just like French Impressionism, American Impressionist paintings often featured landscapes and seascapes. Nonetheless, they also focused heavily on domestic and urban scenes.
What is American Impressionism?
American Impressionist artists emulated the style and technique of the French Impressionist movement. They depict modern life with intense light, color, and energy. They ignored classical and academic approaches. Instead, they presented their own “impressions” of contemporary life and the ever-changing effects of light.
While French artists often focused on more traditional landscapes, American Impressionists frequently depicted urban and domestic scenes (as well as their countryside). Mary Cassatt and Frank Weston Benson particularly focused on homely scenes with women and children.
For instance, Benson’s famous Eleanor painting (1907) depicts his daughter. Similarly, Cassatt often provided intimate glimpses of domestic scenes with works such as Woman Bathing (1891).
Conversely, Childe Hassam’s images of Paris and New York streets depict urban modernity in all its glory. Painted in 1917, Hassam’s Avenue in the Rain is an American Impressionist masterpiece. It’s also a moving tribute to American sacrifices in the First World War.
Painted just after America entered the conflict, it uses fleeting dappled brushstrokes to show the unbridled optimism of contemporary American society. Notwithstanding this fame, Hassam’s beautiful seascapes (such as Duck Island from Appledore) also earned him the “American Monet” title.
In addition, the American Impressionists’ deep interest in France appears in artworks by the likes of William Glackens. With paintings such as Chez Mouquin (1905), he gives fascinating glimpses into twentieth-century French fashion and its growing impact on American culture.
Which artist is considered an American impressionist?
Leading American Impressionists included Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, William Glackens, and Frank Weston Benson.
In addition, William Merritt Chase was the first American painter to produce Impressionist works in the United States. In 1886, he created a beautiful series depicting New York’s public parks. This series of landscape paintings launched Merritt Chase’s name in the American art world.
His success also inspired other artists to visit European artists’ colonies. Again, Giverny was especially popular, with artists bringing Monet’s revolutionary ideas back to the United States. Chief amongst these ideas was a focus on painting “en plein air” to capture the fleeting beauty of the natural world. With sun-soaked works such as The Seaside (1892), Chase particularly exemplified this light, airy feeling.
From the 1890s onwards, Impressionism was no longer a “foreign” import but a respected genre of American art. As a result, many painters (such as William Merritt Chase and Henry Twachtman) launched summer schools teaching this exciting style.
Indeed, Chase taught each summer on the east end of Long Island (until 1902). Twachtman shared his artistic knowledge from a base at Cos Cob, Connecticut. The French painterly connections are immediately apparent with works such as Twachtman’s White Bridge (1890), inspired by Monet’s Japanese Bridge series of paintings.
Why is American Impressionism important?
American Impressionism was important for bringing avant-garde artistic ideas to American shores. These trailblazing artists established art colonies and groups throughout the United States, forming the foundation for later American creativity. As a result, new art movements such as Abstract Expressionism, Action Painting, and the Color Field Painters were allowed to emerge.
As well as their dazzlingly beautiful and dynamic creations, they supplied a new sense of national pride in American arts and culture. Furthermore, American Impressionist art displays cross-cultural communication's positive and imaginative potential.
American Impressionism faded in the 1910s and 1920s. Replaced by the overt realism of artists from the Ashcan School, the Impressionists’ bright colors and pretty scenes seemed increasingly out of touch.
Further adding to this stylistic shift, a massive exhibition in New York City (titled the “Armory Show”) launched in 1913. Displaying the latest European trends (for instance, Fauvism and Cubism) made the American Impressionists’ everyday subjects and painterly techniques appear even more out of touch.
American Impressionism: Fine Art Oil Paintings
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