In the period that followed the U.S. Civil War, American artists who wished to be considered seriously, had to study abroad. Some were encouraged by their teachers to refine their painting techniques and seek new sources of inspiration. As a result, many of the thirty-five artists represented in the Cummer Museum’s exhibition Mediterranea: American Art from the Graham D. Williford Collection attended the famous French Academy of Fine Arts in Paris. They were mentored by renowned painters like Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904), Léon Bonnat (1833 – 1922), and William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905). Other hopefuls were lured by the possibility of patronage from wealthy collectors or aristocrats who hired artists to record their favorite vacation spots through drawings and paintings.Regardless of their motivations, artists became increasingly interested in the rich cultural history and natural topography of a specific region: the Mediterranean. The area, which extends from Southern Europe to North Africa and the Middle East, offers disparate cultures, histories, and geographies. However, the continued contact between countries that make up the Mediterranean helped to create a discernible unity, with signs of interactions evident, for example, in the hybrid style of architecture seen in Venice, where Gothic and Byzantine influences came together. Mediterranea looks at how American artists understood and depicted this unity during a pivotal moment where they were drawing on European traditions while cultivating their own artistic styles.Capturing the Landscape
Artists were especially captivated by the distinctive Mediterranean flora: cypress, olive trees, umbrella pines, and palms frequently embellished their compositions. The warm light and the bright blue
sea, in itself or in concert with the far-flung ruins of the Greco-Roman past, inspired landscapes that celebrated the region’s natural beauty. The timeless quality of the town of Sorrento and island of Capri, located in the south of Italy, appealed to artists like Elihu Vedder (1836 – 1923) and Charles Caryl Coleman (1840 – 1928). Coleman actually purchased a villa on the island in 1880, where he remained for the rest of his career, welcoming numerous American artists throughout the years. He was taken by the classical feel of Capri, often using its villas as backdrops for Greco-Roman scenes, such as Vintage Time in a Capri Garden, or exploring “the mixture of ancient Roman and Moorish influences that created the architecture of the island,” as noted by Mark A. White, author of the exhibition catalogue. The whiteness of the villas’ stucco that so brightly reflected the natural light was of particular interest in a depiction of Capri by Francis David Millet (1846 – 1912), an artist whose life dramatically ended with the sinking of the RMS Titanic.
The luscious vegetation of Bordighera, a small town lodged in Northwest Italy, just across the border from France, attracted the attention of artists experimenting with color and light effects. Theodore Robinson (1852 – 1896) followed in the footsteps of his friend and mentor, Claude Monet (1840 – 1926), when, around 1890, he set his easel in the same spot where the French painter had stood a few years prior. Robinson’s View of Bordighera shares much of the vibrancy of Monet’s version of the same subject, with the texture of the local flora set against the intense blue water. It is important to note that despite being trained in the academic tradition (Robinson had studied with Jean-Léon Gérôme, the epitome of academic painting), many American artists embraced the loose and fresh brushwork typical of the emerging Impressionist movement. Depictions of Venice also lent themselves perfectly to this new way of capturing nature. Silhouetted churches, gondolas, and Venetian sailboats – all popular themes in the late 19th century – were rendered with bold colors and subtle atmospheric effects.
Duveneck and His Students
At a dinner in London in the 1890s, the great American artist John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925) is believed to have remarked, “After all’s said, Frank Duveneck is the greatest talent of the brush of this generation.” Duveneck (1848 – 1919), whose oil on canvas, Well and Water Tank, Italian Villa, is among the forty works included in the exhibition, is certainly one of the more influential painters. Like many artists of his generation, he perfected his training in Europe, choosing to attend the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich and later opening his own painting school in Germany. His studio, set up in the late 1870s, attracted numerous artists who came to be known as the “Duveneck Boys” and who would follow him on his travels to Italy, notably to Florence and Venice. Among them were Otto Henry Bacher (1856 –1909), Oliver Dennett Grover (1861 – 1927), and Julius Rolshoven (1858 – 1930), all represented in this exhibition.
Duveneck’s palette became more colorful, perhaps in response to the Mediterranean light, and his subject matter included more landscapes and genre scenes. Duveneck and his wife, Elizabeth Boott (1846 – 1888), a former pupil and artist, would travel to Italy regularly, often settling in the Tuscan countryside, where they sometimes painted similar scenes.
By Nelda Damiano