Collecting guide: American Impressionism
Specialist Elizabeth Beaman offers an introduction to the movement and assesses the contributions of its leading lights, from Cassatt to Hassam, Breck to Benson — featuring works offered in our American Art sale on 23 May in New York
Among the highlights of Christie’s upcoming American Art sale on 23 May in New York are pioneering examples of American Impressionism — a movement specialist Elizabeth Beaman believes is set to attract ‘growing international interest’.
American Impressionism — at home and abroad
In the late 19th century, a period which witnessed the full flowering of the Impressionist movement, a handful of American artists — including Guy Rose, Frederick Frieseke, Theodore Earl Butler, Willard Metcalf, Jane Peterson and Lila Cabot Perry — travelled to France. 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 Monet.
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, most of the American artists at Giverny returned home. 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’.
Considered to have been the leader of the Boston School, Frank Weston 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.
Perhaps the most famous American Impressionist, however, is Childe Hassam. Although he studied at the Académie Julian, he found it to be ‘the personification of routine’, seeking inspiration, instead, in the city’s bustling streets.
Childe Hassam’s series of work depicting flags in New York during the First World War are among the most poignant and celebrated works of American Impressionism. His interest in flag subjects dates back to his time spent in Paris from 1886 to 1889, and was inspired by the flags and banners displayed on Bastille Day in the area where he lived.
Just Off the Avenue, Fifty-third Street, May 1916 (above) is the first work in the flag series that Hassam painted during the War. He explored this theme in both watercolour and oil, and perhaps the strongest impetus behind such pictures, both in style and content, was his exposure to the works of the French Impressionists Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. The lingering influence of the French Impressionist style can be seen throughout Hassam’s flag series and is evident in the broken brushwork and vivid hues of Just Off the Avenue, Fifty-third Street, May 1916.
Born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) moved with her family at the age of five to Philadelphia, the city she would consider her American home. For most of the 1850s, the family lived abroad, chiefly in France and Germany, exposing the young Cassatt to her first taste of European art and culture.
In 1861 she enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and quickly proved to be a promising student. Eager to return to Europe, she set sail for France in 1866 at the age of 22 and was granted quick acceptance into Parisian art circles. Bolstered by her first public success at the Salon of 1868, she decided to remain and pursue her career abroad, settling in Paris in 1875. As she developed a more progressive, painterly technique, her work captured the eye of Edgar Degas, who invited her to exhibit with the Impressionists.
The American Art sale on 23 May features her painting Girl in a Bonnet Tied with a Large Pink Bow (above), painted in 1909, which demonstrates Cassatt’s position as one of the most famous female Impressionists. Her compositions increasingly reflected the tenets of Impressionism as she emphasised the effects of light and atmosphere, spontaneous and broken brushstrokes, a brighter palette and a focus on contemporary everyday life in her art. In particular, she focused on painting women indulging in leisure activities, such as shopping and the theatre, or interacting with their children.
John Singer Sargent
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.
James McNeill Whistler
Whistler had moved to Paris to study in 1855, and hit upon a style that sought to move beyond the work of the Impressionists in his circle, including Monet, Manet and Degas. Although not primarily concerned with exploring the effects of light, or capturing the fleeting moment, he shared the Impressionist interest in painting from life; atmosphere over detail; and the effects of colour — although his palette was more muted than that of his French contemporaries.
According to Tate, which staged Turner Whistler Monet in 2005, ‘Whistler and Monet were friends and collaborators who shared a deep admiration for the work of Turner. Their work and aims made a vital contribution both to the development of Impressionism... and the evolution of a symbolist landscape.’
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. Hassam, Breck and Sargent, for example, all painted on Ironbound Island, in 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.
A school of Pennsylvania Impressionism also emerged around the town of New Hope. Its luminaries included Daniel Garber, Robert Spencer and Edward Willis Redfield, who became especially celebrated for his winter scenes — often blanketed with snow — such as The Road to the Mill, below.
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 — such as Childe Hassam’s California, below — were distinctly New World.
Is interest growing in American Impressionism?
In 2016, William Merritt Chase was celebrated with a retrospective at the Phillips Collection in Boston, while London’s National Portrait Gallery hosted a much-acclaimed retrospective of Sargent’s portraits. Childe Hassam was the subject of an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachussetts, entitled the Isles of Shoals, which took its name from the group of small, rocky islands off the Gulf of Maine, which the artist painted en plein air.