American Impressionism: ‘What happiness looks like’ 

In the video above specialist Elizabeth Beaman describes how the leading American Impressionists found inspiration on a hideaway island in New England. Ahead of our 22 November sale, she also offers an introduction to the movement, below

‘To me this painting is an encapsulation of what happiness looks like,’ says specialist Elizabeth Beaman, introducing John Leslie Breck’s vibrant painting Garden, Ironbound Island, Maine, thought to have been painted in 1896. In the video above, Beaman takes a close look at this and two other exceptional examples of American Impressionism by the movement’s leading lights. 

Highlights of Christie’s upcoming American Art  sale, the works are pioneering examples of American Impressionism — a movement Beaman believes is set to attract ‘growing international interest’. 

John Leslie Breck (1860-1899), Garden, Ironbound Island, Maine, c. 1896. Oil on canvas, 28½ x 48½ in (72.4 x 123.2 cm). Estimate $700,000-1,000,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

John Leslie Breck (1860-1899), Garden, Ironbound Island, Maine, c. 1896. Oil on canvas, 28½ x 48½ in (72.4 x 123.2 cm). Estimate: $700,000-1,000,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

What is American Impressionism?

In the late 19th century a handful of American artists travelled to France, where the Impressionist movement was emerging. Many studied at the prestigious Paris art school the Académie Julian, and a number moved to Giverny to join the artist’s colony established by Claude Monet — a leading proponent of French Impressionism. 

Monet’s house at Giverny, France
Monet’s house at Giverny, France

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, most of the artists at Giverny returned to America. There, many continued to paint in the Impressionist style, translating techniques first explored in France to American scenes.

Who are the key artists to know?

John Leslie Breck is widely credited with introducing Impressionism to American audiences. After working in Giverny, where he was briefly engaged to Monet’s stepdaughter Blanche, he returned to his native Boston, holding a solo exhibition at the city’s St. Botolph Club in 1890. He exhibited again in 1893, prompting a local critic to dub Breck ‘the head of the American Impressionists’. 

John Leslie Breck (1860-1899), The River Epte, Giverny. Oil on canvas, 18 x 22 in (45.7 x 55.9 cm). Estimate $100,000-150,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

John Leslie Breck (1860-1899), The River Epte, Giverny. Oil on canvas, 18 x 22 in (45.7 x 55.9 cm). Estimate: $100,000-150,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

Perhaps the most famous American Impressionist, however, is Childe Hassam. Though he studied at Paris's Académie Julian, he found it to be 'the personification of routine', seeking inspiration, instead, in the city's bustling streets. Our sale features his painting Sunset: Ironbound, Mt. Desert, Maine, which shares stylistic similarities to Monet, but depicts a uniquely American view. 

Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Sunset Ironbound, Mt. Desert, Maine, circa 1896. Oil on canvas, 26 x 30 in (66 x 76.2 cm). Estimate $1,500,000-2,500,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Sunset: Ironbound, Mt. Desert, Maine, circa 1896. Oil on canvas, 26 x 30 in (66 x 76.2 cm). Estimate: $1,500,000-2,500,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

Another leading American artist to experiment with Impressionist techniques was John Singer Sargent — now a household name. Sargent, who had an excellent command of French, first met Monet in 1876. It was in 1885, while visiting Giverny, that he painted his great impressionist work, Claude Monet Painting by the Edge of the Wood.

Our sale also features an exceptional work by Frank Weston Benson, the 1909 painting The Reader. Considered to have been the leader of the Boston School, Benson is known for his pictures of New England, painted en plein air. The technique was one also favoured by William Merritt Chase, the artist and teacher, who founded what became Parsons The New School for Design.

Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951), The Reader, 1906. Oil on canvas, 25⅜ x 30¼ in (64.5 x 76.8 cm). Estimate $2,500,000-3,500,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951), The Reader, 1906. Oil on canvas, 25⅜ x 30¼ in (64.5 x 76.8 cm). Estimate: $2,500,000-3,500,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

Where did the American Impressionists paint?

The artists associated with American Impressionism worked across the US, but certain areas became particularly associated with the movement, as Giverny had been in France. The three works discussed in the video above, by Hassam, Breck and Sargent, were all painted on Ironbound Island, Maine, which was owned by the Blaney family.

The Blaneys mixed in prominent circles, and came into contact with a number of the American Impressionists, whom they invited to stay in their island home. Sargent’s painting The Piazza; On the Verandah depicts the Blaney family relaxing outside their house — the bright flowers that feature in Breck’s earlier composition Garden, Ironbound Island, Maine, just visible.

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), The Piazza; On The Verandah, circa 1921-22. Watercolor and charcoal on paper, 15½ x 21 in (39.4 x 53.3 cm). Estimate $700,000-1,000,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), The Piazza; On The Verandah, circa 1921-22. Watercolor and charcoal on paper, 15½ x 21 in (39.4 x 53.3 cm). Estimate: $700,000-1,000,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

How did American and French Impressionism differ?

Like their French counterparts, the American Impressionists each had their own distinct style, and depicted a range of subjects, from interior scenes to landscapes. In both France and America, classically Impressionist subjects emerged. Many American Impressionists painted the New England coastline, exploring the effect of light on water, as Monet had in France. The views they captured, however, were distinctly New World.

 

William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), A Memory In The Italian Villa, circa 1910. Oil on canvas, 29¼ x 36¼ in (74.3 x 92.1 cm). Estimate $700,000-1,000,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), A Memory: In The Italian Villa, circa 1910. Oil on canvas, 29¼ x 36¼ in (74.3 x 92.1 cm). Estimate: $700,000-1,000,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 22 November 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

Where can I go to see American Impressionism?


This year William Merritt Chase was celebrated with a retrospective at the Phillips Collection in Boston, while London’s National Portrait Gallery recently hosted a much-acclaimed retrospective of Sargent’s portraits. Childe Hassam has been the subject of an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachussetts, entitled the Isles of Shoals. Running until early November, it takes its name from the group of small, rocky islands off the Gulf of Maine, which the artist painted en plein air

For those visiting New York, all works featured in our upcoming American Art sale will be on display at Rockefeller Center from 18-21 November.