Coming of Age: American Art, 1850’s to 1950’s

Part I - The dawn of American Impressionism

F, E, Chruch 300.jpg
Photo: MNBAQ

Frederic Edwin Chruch - Mont Katahdin, c 1856

It is interesting to follow the century long path that led the United States of America to the point where its major cities have become international art capitals.  The exhibition presently at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Quebec, starts us off with a series of landscape paintings, a subject that people of Quebec can well relate to.  These paintings are done in a tradition which began in the country during the 1800’s as an expression of noble sentiments and ideal of beauty.  Although identified as the Hudson River School, their creators were not organised as a group but their works show common traits that allow historian to consider them as representatives of the American romantic experience.  The development of landscapes at the time can be attributed to the interest in original works, of course, but mainly to reproductions in color lithography and illustrations in periodicals.    

Asher Brown Durand, an engraver who later became involved in the short lived 1830 project of the magazine American Landscape was a leading figure of this movement.  A deeply religious man, he sought to allow nature to represent itself as a visible manifestation of the work of God.   John Francis Cropsey was one of his disciples.

Martin Johnson Heade was one of those who brought a change to the genre by introducing something new:  a light that seems particularly North American.  The individuality of Heade lies in the dramatic aspect that light brings to his rendering of elements of nature like flowers and birds set in the foreground of the picture.  Very popular as well were the images of Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church (see illustration) where light seems more descriptive than emotive.  These artists expressed in what can be considered an indigenous American art, the idea of a nation expanding its borders to the west.What can be seen as the development of this indigenous art did not rule out however the influence of European masters, which remains strong in the work of artists like Georges Inness.  It is interesting to note that he preferred the tradition established by Dutch masters and the more recent School of Barbizon to the new style created by the Impressionists.  Much like him, and, in spite of the fact that he worked with Monet, Theodore Robinson did not fully go for the dissolution of forms in the light, characteristic of the Impressionists. 

Of that same generation, John Henry Twachtman is the one who came closest to the Impressionists with his narrow range of colour and his subjective interpretation of atmospheric conditions in and around the farm he purchased and settled in until his death.  However, his compositions, where rhythmic forms bring an abstract feeling, set him apart from the late 19th century European movement.

Frederick Childe Hassam was younger than all those considered above.   Of all the artists he became in contact with while in France, he was the most attracted to the Impressionists.  He thus adopted their broken brushstroke and their use of colors.  Yet along with the subjects he painted, the solidity of forms and his taste for descriptive details made his work very American.   Along with members of the influential group The Ten, he made Impressionism acceptable to the American public.