Friday, March 27, 2009

Art review: Four Arts show a brilliant look at Impressionism, American-style

Washington Arch, Spring by Childe Hassam.

By Jenifer A. Vogt

PALM BEACH – A current exhibit of American paintings at the Society of the Four Arts gives pictorial evidence of the nation’s shift from the rigidity of the Gilded Age toward the transformative upheaval of the Progressive Era, and does so brilliantly.

American Impressionism: Paintings From the Phillips Collection, contains more than 65 works that span the years 1884 to 1931. Curated by Susan Behrends Franks, this excellent show at the Society’s O’Keefe Gallery highlights this period’s tidal shift in American painting. Franks masterfully places the paintings to create a visual guidebook. We see the landscapes shift from rural to urban, watch geometrical shapes gradually become more important, and feel the heightened emotions of expressionistic styles.

Duncan Phillips, whose collection is housed in Washington, D.C., was a critic and collector with a keen eye for talent. Though he acquired works by European masters, he refused to view American painters as inferior. Phillips knew these artists personally and his patronage led many of them to reach their creative pinnacles.

Among those artists were some who ultimately stood at the forefront of homegrown Impressionism: William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, Theodore Robinson, J. Alden Weir, and John H. Twachtman. Like the Hudson River School painters, the American Impressionists were interested in light and landscape. Yet unlike their counterparts in France, they were unwilling to sacrifice structure and solid form to the fragmenting effects of broken color.

The High Pasture, by J. Alden Weir.

In a painting such as Weir’s The High Pasture (1899-1902), there is no central, luminous light source — a feature that had defined the Hudson River School. Instead, the entire scene is lit from above and Weir has moved into the landscape, from under the trees, making shadow as integral as sunlight. This shift is seen again in Weir’s Woodland Rocks (1910-19).

The new perspective symbolizes a simultaneous shift in American culture. Strict societal boundaries loosened as a booming industrialized economy created new wealth. Fueled by industry, population growth and immigration, a middle class emerged, and with it, a new urban landscape.

Childe Hassam’s Washington Arch, Spring (ca. 1893) beautifully illustrates the change. A street cleaner is portrayed alongside a fashionably dressed lady. Each is given the same significance. Again, as with Weir, the artist paints from inside the scene. The undersides of the trees show. But Hassam focuses on the Arch – a symbolic shift from the bucolic to the urbane.

The emergence, as key subject matter, of cityscapes, buildings, and bridges is shown throughout the show in works by Augustus Vincent Tack, Robert Spencer, and Ernest Lawson. The country is changing, and the ideology driving artistic expression is changing with it.

Nothing symbolizes the change more than the emergence of a bold, expressionistic, painting style. An intriguing example is Twachtman’s Summer (late 1890s), at the show’s entrance, viewed in contrast to his My Summer Studio (ca. 1900), shown diagonally towards the left.

My Summer Studio, by John W. Twachtman.

In Summer the brushwork is supple. The colors are diffused, the light is silvery, all of it consistent with French Impressionism. My Summer Studio, though, is a radical departure. Brushstrokes are pronounced and dominant. Colors are bolder, darker. Twachtman is fully in the woods, and the extreme closeup makes the work as much about his emotionally charged brushwork as it is about the overall scene.

This shift in painterly style peaks in works by Maurice Prendergast — hailed by Phillips as “modern in mind.” In Landscape Near Nahant (ca. 1908-1912), the elemental changes seen in previous works merge into a new style that bears slight resemblance to Impressionism — a possible first cousin, hardly a sibling.

Landscape Near Nahant, by Maurice Prendergast.

Prendergast adopts the foreground perspective and focus on geometric shapes – stones, a fence, buildings and the sails of the boats floating in the background. But the people become a study of movement. The strong, circular brushwork is reminiscent of Van Gogh, and the fluidity and color of the whole composition subtly foreshadows the radical experimentation of Abstract Expressionism.

The Four Arts exhibit is enriched by Franks' excellence as a literal and visual storyteller. She thoughtfully intersperses photographs of the artists next to their work, and uses personal stories and images on the paintings’ labels – making each come to life. This is exemplified in Chase’s Florence (1907), and the charming story that accompanies it.

Duncan Phillips’ commitment to his countrymen’s art helped pave the way for the dominance of American painting that marked the mid-20th century. The French painters may have introduced Impressionism, but the Americans made it uniquely their own.

Jenifer A. Vogt is a public relations professional and resident of Boca Raton. She’s been enamored with American painting for the past 20 years.

American Impressionism: Paintings From the Phillips Collection runs through April 15 at the Society of the Four Arts. Tickets: $5, free for children 14 and under. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Call 655-7226 or visit www.fourarts.org.

Florence, by William Merritt Chase.

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