With its brilliant sense of light and pure Impressionist palette of vigorous, broken brushwork, My Wife, Emeline, in a Garden exhibits Edmund Tarbell's preeminence in portraying women, particularly members of his family, at their ease. Recognized as a leader of the Boston School, Tarbell's early Impressionist figural compositions are among his greatest works.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Boston emerged after New York as the second major center for the early development of Impressionism in the United States. As a number of young artists such as John Leslie Breck and Theodore Wendel returned to Massachusetts after sojourns in Giverny, a new school of Impressionist landscape painters was spawned. Shortly after, a group of Boston figure painters including Frank Weston Benson and Tarbell adopted the Impressionist style, creating figural works that surpassed their landscape counterparts in influence and significance. William H. Gerdts notes, "The leader of the Boston figural Impressionists was Tarbell, and the group was referred to early on as 'The Tarbellites,' a term coined somewhat invidiously by the critic Sadakichi Hartmann in March 1897." (W.H. Gerdts, American Impressionsm, New York, 1984, p. 114)
Gerdts discusses the development of the artist's style: "Tarbell's acquaintance with French Impressionist work presumably would have been initiated at the Foreign Exhibition in Boston in 1883 even before he went abroad [in 1884], since he prepared catalogue illustrations based on several of the works in the show. His exposure to the movement in the French capital is unrecorded. He was investigating effects of light in both interiors and outdoors in the late 1880s, perhaps under the influence of the charismatic Bunker, but his first work to fully evoke the impact of Impressionsm is Three Sisters--A Study in June Sunlight, of 1890 [Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin] a picture that may well have been directly influenced by the appearance in Boston early that year of an Impressionist work by John Singer Sargent." (W.H. Gerdts, "American Art and the French Experience," in Lasting Impressions: American Painters in France, 1865-1915, Chicago, Illinois, 1992, p. 78)
Painted around 1890, My Wife, Emeline, in a Garden is one of Tarbell's earliest Impressionist works. His subject is the former Emeline Souther, whom he married in 1888, and the picture was most likely painted at New Castle, New Hampshire, where the Tarbell's summered and where he painted many of his outdoor pictures. The work demonstrates Tarbell's early mastery of Impressionist techniques, and is "the kind of picture that led to recognition of Tarbell's leadership of the school." (Lasting Impressions: American Painters in France, 1865-1915, p. 79)
Portraits of women were among Tarbell's most sought-after works. Trevor Fairbrother has written, "A mainstay of the Boston School was the female portrait, which typically presents the sitter against a quiet background while strongly suggesting that she is both stylish and intelligent, elegant and accomplished... It is consistent with the tradition of John Singleton Copley, whose eighteenth-century female sitters were dignified, thoughtful, and expensively dressed, but rarely ostentatious." (T. Fairbrother, The Bostonians: Painters of an Elegant Age, 1870-1930, Boston, Massachusetts, 1986, p. 66)
My Wife, Emeline, in a Garden reveals Tarbell's extraordinary facility at creating paintings of elegant women in lush, Impressionist garden settings. A wonderful summer light envelops the figure as she strolls along outdoors. With its intimate, quiet composition, My Wife, Emeline, in a Garden reveals Tarbell's poetic side, as his wife becomes an embodiment of refinement, beauty, and grace.