Collecting guide: American Impressionism
An expert introduction to the movement and the contributions of its leading lights, from Cassatt to Hassam, Breck to Benson — featuring works offered at Christie’s
American Impressionism — at home and abroad
In the late 19th century, a period that 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, Theodore Robinson and Lila Cabot Perry — travelled to France. Many studied at the prestigious Académie Julian art school in Paris, 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. This technique was also favoured by William Merritt Chase, the artist and teacher, who founded what became the Parsons School of 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.
Hassam’s New York City imagery reflects his fascination with his urban surroundings and the people he encountered – demonstrating his growing ingenuity with Impressionist technique. Likewise, his paintings from France depicting the Blumenthal garden at Villiers-Le-Bel as well as Parisian rooftops and city-life are among the most important works from his output.
Hassam’s paintings from the summers he spent on the New England coast are renowned for their vivacious depictions of quaint resort communities, their visitors, the sea and the flora. These paintings capture some of the most inspiring views of the region in the effervescent Impressionist style that earned Hassam the nickname of the ‘American Monet’.
His works depicting flags in New York during the First World War are among the most poignant and celebrated paintings of American Impressionism. His interest in flags dates back to the time he 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.
Perhaps the strongest impetus behind such pictures, both in style and content, was the artist’s exposure to the works of the French Impressionists Claude Monet and Camille Pissarro. The lingering influence of the French Impressionist style is evident in the broken brushwork and vivid hues of the iconic flag series that Hassam painted during the war.
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, but home was Philadelphia, where she moved with her family at the age of five. For most of the 1850s, however, 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 soon gained acceptance in 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.
Cassatt’s 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 lively depictions of women and children, showing the former indulging in leisure activities, such as shopping and the theatre,
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.
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.
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.
In November 2021, the Denver Art Museum mounted the exhibition, Whistler to Cassatt: American Painters in France that has since travelled to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. This thematically organized exhibition showcases many great American Impressionists and highlights the French styles that American painters adopted and championed.