Impressionism is one of the most loved art movements of all time. When people hear the word Impressionism, they usually think of Claude Monet’s grainstacks or Edgar Degas’s dancers. Yet the general public isn’t as familiar with the American artists who were inspired by the movement and adapted it to typically American landscapes and subjects. Monet and American Impressionism addresses the responses of twenty-five American artists to the innovations of Claude Monet and French Impressionism. The exhibition was organized by and is on display at the Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida through May 24.
The idea for the exhibition grew out of two important works in the Harn’s collection, Champ d’avoine (Oat Field) by Monet, and Afternoon Shadows by Theodore Robinson. Both acquisitions were made possible by longtime supporter Michael A. Singer. “The juxtaposition of these paintings on view in our Modern gallery prompted our curiosity about the development of Impressionism in America,” says Harn Museum of Art Director Rebecca Nagy.
Champ d’avoine (Oat Field) was painted in 1890 and depicts a field of oats and poppies in the vicinity of Monet’s home in the village of Giverny, just outside Paris. This luminous painting is a superb example of Monet’s exploration of momentary effects of light on one’s perception of color and form. It also reveals Monet’s taste for asymmetrically balanced compositions and his use of space created through carefully measured intervals—techniques that are present in Robinson’s Afternoon Shadows, painted in Giverny in 1891.
Also on view in the Monet and American Impressionism exhibition are three additional paintings by Monet, and nearly fifty paintings and thirty prints dated between 1882 and 1920 by many of the leading figures in American Impressionism, such as Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, Theodore Robinson and John Henry Twachtman. The American artists surveyed in this exhibition rejected the prevailing academic tradition of depicting idealized subjects through carefully blended brushstrokes and restrained color. Inspired by Monet’s example, they emphasized brilliant reflected light by means of tactile, visible brushstrokes and a brighter palette.
In the late nineteenth century, American artists adapted the innovations of French Impressionism and ultimately paved the way to its establishment as one of the most enduring styles in American painting. Some of these artists had direct knowledge of Monet’s techniques through extended stays in Giverny where Monet had settled in 1883. Others were exposed to his style through exhibitions of his art in New York, Boston and abroad, or through the filter of important teachers such as Metcalf and Robinson. Monet and American Impressionism is organized along five thematic groupings:
The Allure of Giverny explores the relationships between the United States and France during the period and the American fascination with French art and culture. In the 1880s, American artists studying in Paris began spending their summer breaks in Giverny. Attracted by Monet’s presence, as well as the picturesque rural village, they painted outdoors while enjoying the camaraderie of other artists.
A Country Retreat examines how American artists, following their return to the United States, adapted Impressionist approaches to their paintings of distinctly American landscapes. During the summer months, American artists often escaped the city for rural retreats where they concentrated on painting outdoors. Artists gathered at colonies such as Cos Cob in Connecticut and Shinnecock on Long Island to paint en plein air in the company of other artists.
The Vibrance of Urbanism features works that demonstrate the Impressionists’ interest in depicting scenes of modern life in the city. Claude Monet painted urban subjects that captured transitory effects of light and weather on iconic landmarks like Rouen Cathedral and London’s Waterloo Bridge. American artists were similarly captivated by dynamic urban themes. Common subjects in their paintings included city streets lit by the glow of gas lamps, skyscrapers and bridges that celebrated feats of modern engineering, and city parks populated with figures enjoying leisure activities.
The Comfort of Home presents domestic interiors and gardens—spaces in which women play a central role. Women were portrayed in tranquil settings exploring the themes of femininity and motherhood. Inspired by Monet’s paintings of his adored first wife, Camille, in exuberant interiors or in tranquil sun-lit gardens, American artists painted portraits and scenes of women drinking tea, visiting acquaintances or caring for their children. Whether focused on women in comfortable interiors or outdoors in sheltered gardens, these images largely ignored the social changes taking place at this time.
A Graphic Legacy addresses how American artists translated Impressionist color and light into etchings, drypoints, lithographs and monotypes. The French Impressionists are known today primarily as painters. Yet they also worked experimentally in printmaking, translating the painterly into an unpainterly medium. In addition to offering an outlet for fresh, creative expression, prints expanded an artist’s audience to the middle class who could more readily afford to purchase an etching or a lithograph than a painting.
As evident in the works on display in the exhibition, American artists responded to Monet in different ways and to varying degrees. Yet these artists shared a taste for new approaches to painting—loose brushstrokes, bold cropping and modern subjects—that emphasized the transience of everyday reality.
In addition to featuring works from the Harn’s collection, important loans traveled to the museum from more than twenty-five institutions, including the National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Terra Foundation for American Art, and the Brooklyn Museum.
Monet and American Impressionism is organized by the Harn Museum of Art in partnership with the Telfair Museums and the Hunter Museum of American Art. It will be on display at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, TN., from June 25 through Sept. 20, 2015; and the Telfair Museums in Savannah from Oct. 16 through Jan. 24, 2016.
Admission to the Harn Museum of Art is free. A symposium titled “America and France: New Perspectives on Transatlantic Visual Culture” will be held at the Harn Museum on March 19 and 20. For more information visit www.harn.ufl.edu.
Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida, 3259 Hull Rd, Gainesville, (352) 392-9826.
Article written by Dulce M. Román, Harn Museum of Art, Curator of Modern Art
Dulce M. Román is Curator of Modern Art and Curatorial Chair at the Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida. She is responsible for the development and management of the Harn’s collection of modern art from the United States, Latin America, and Europe. Since joining the Harn staff she has curated more than twenty exhibitions, including the current exhibition, Monet and AmericanImpressionism. Before coming to the Harn, she served as a researcher of Spanish art at the Frick Collection and in the department of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She holds a B.A. in psychology from Harvard University and M.A. and Master of Philosophy degrees in art history from Columbia University.