American art in New Britain, Connecticut

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The old museum building is on the right, the new one on the left.

(April 11, 2009) Till a couple weeks ago, we hadn’t been back to the New Britain Museum of American Art (New Britain, Connecticut) since before its new building was built three years ago. We were a little nervous; part of the charm of visiting this museum had been muddling about in the old Victorian mansion (on a quiet city street) that housed its collection. The truth was, though, that the place was cramped and inadequate.

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The fine old houses on the other side of the street from the museum. We were able to park our car on the street right in front of the museum steps.

We now give our belated review of the new facility: it’s excellent. They’ve put up a 43,000 square-foot building with two floors of nicely designed exhibition space (including a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture hanging over the staircase). The pleasant neighborhood is the same. The old building, next door, is connected by a walkway; it’s just not used for exhibiting art anymore.

Of all the museums that exhibit only American art, the one in New Britain is still our favorite. Its collection certainly isn’t the largest or finest (that would be the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.), and much can be said for other museums of its ilk (the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in Philadelphia; the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York City; the Butler Institute of American Art, in Youngstown, Ohio; and the Terra Foundation for American Art (not currently located anywhere at all). Still, this collection, benton-boomtown-magespecially in its new digs, touches us at all the right points, and it includes a number of our very favorite American paintings.

For anyone who might go out of his way to see the works of Thomas Hart Benton, the New Britain Museum of American Art must be visited. Here in Rochester, the Memorial Art Gallery has one of Benton’s very best, Boom Town, from 1928 (above) — but if Boom Town is the only Benton painting you know, you absolutely must see the Bentons in New Britain, benton-arts-of-the-west-new-britainespecially Benton’s large, lively, mildly racy mural, The Arts of Life in America. The various parts of the mural occupy all four walls of a gallery on the museum’s second floor. (This is the ten-foot section of the mural entitled “Arts of the West.”)

100_7872-croppedAnother reason we’re high on the New Britain Museum of American Art is its superb gallery of American impressionists. There are first-rate pieces by Frederick Carl Frieseke, Childe Hassam, Richard E. Miller, J. Alden Weir, and Willard Metcalf, among others. (We put images of a couple of these in this earlier post.) We said earlier that Colin Campbell Cooper’s Main Street Bridge, Rochester (also at the Memorial Art Gallery) is the best Cooper we’d ever seen. But the New Britain museum also has a wonderful Cooper, entitled On the Rhine, which is also a painting of a bridge. We were fascinated to see how differently Cooper approached painting the European bridge in the New Britain painting.

koch-interlude-magOne of the most “hmm”-provoking paintings at the Memorial Art Gallery is John Koch’s 1963 painting Interlude. The painter (presumably Koch himself) takes a break and sits back to think about his canvas; an older woman in an orange morning robe (presumably the artist’s wife) placidly serves coffee to a nude model. In the New Britain museum, we were delighted to see a John Koch painting that depicts his wife in earlier years. From the museum’s exhibition label for Koch’s The Florist, we learned that in 1943 Koch was newly married and had just 100_7933been drafted into the armed forces when he painted this picture. “He thought he might never return to his bride and his career as a painter. Consequently, he worked feverishly to complete The Florist, which he hoped would establish his fame and also serve as a looming tribute to his wife, whom he portrayed surrounded by beautiful flowers.” Fortunately, The Florist was neither Koch’s last picture nor his last portrayal of his wife.

We devoted an entire post several months ago to George Grosz’s 1943 painting, The Wanderer, another of the Memorial Art Gallery’s prizes, which portrays a weary man 100_7913fleeing a burned-out city. So far as we know, the New Britain museum does not have any works by Grosz, but a 1946 painting by Carl Frederick Gaertner (a new artist for us) reminded us immediately of The Wanderer. The scene of devastation in Gaertner’s The Search Begins looks a lot like the product of aerial fire-bombing, and in this picture Gaertner used a palette similar to Grosz’s in The Wanderer. But The Search Begins is not a war scene at all, except possibly figuratively; it shows an area of northeastern Cleveland where in 1944 an explosion of gas tanks devastated a large neighborhood, with a large death toll.

This is the same tragedy described in a novel that we liked when we were young. Don Robertson’s The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread tells the story of a nine-year-old Cleveland boy who was caught up in the chaos of that very explosion and fire. We re-read the book (still in print) with great pleasure just a couple of years ago.

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The MAG's "Chinese Restaurant", by John Sloan

The Memorial Art Gallery’s pieces by the Ashcan painters and the later American impressionists, including Robert Henri, George Luks, William Glackens, Ernest Lawson, and especially John Sloan (the MAG’s two Sloan paintings are among his very best) are good, but so are the ones at the New Britain museum, which are all part of a very satisfying exhibition of “The Eight” at the New Britain museum for the next several weeks. The show includes works from the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Terra Foundation for American Art. We wish we had a chance to go back and spend more time with “The Eight.”

One thing we do think the New Britain museum could use is a better copy writer. Go back four paragraphs to the museum’s discussion of its John Koch painting; did you gulp at the phrase “a looming tribute”? In what way, exactly, might a tribute “loom”? Then consider this sentence from the gateway page of its website:

The NBMAA is thought to be one of the nation’s most dynamic art museums by exhibiting the permanent collection and special exhibitions on widely diverse subjects in ways that combine the highest aesthetic standards with engaging and intellectually accessible presentations.

What a dreadful, ungrammatical, jargon-full sentence! Ouch.

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The best American Impressionist painters

Everyone knows the French impressionists: Claude Monet, August Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley, and (even though she was born in Pittsburgh) Mary Cassatt.

They’re famous — but what about the Americans? This art museum junkie thought he’d make a modest list of the ten American impressionists whose paintings he has enjoyed the most.

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Hassam's "The Breakfast Room," at the Worcester Art Museum

1. Childe Hassam. We begin with the best-known American impressionist, Childe Hassam, who despite his exotic-sounding name was from an old Boston family. Hassam was a prolific worker, and Emsworth has seen more of his work than of any other American impressionist. Most American museums have at least one Hassam. In fact, he’s is the only American impressionist whose work we’ve ever seen in a major retrospective exhibition (it was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the summer of 2004).

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Hassam's "Rainy Day, Fifth Avenue," at the University of Princeton Art Museum

In our humble view, the quality of Hassam’s paintings is decidedly mixed. We Rochesterians have a piece by Hassam at the Memorial Art Gallery, but it’s a large, wide, mural-size, classically-flavored landscape without a great deal of appeal.

Personally, we blame the facile Hassam as much as anyone for the quickly painted, low-quality, “impressionistic” paintings you see at “starving artist” markets. He made it look as if there was nothing to it — and sometimes there wasn’t much. But the best of his material has a lot of charm.

2. Theodore Robinson. Hassam may have the cringe-making nickname “the American Monet”, but Theodore Robinson robinson-low-tide-riversider-yacht-club-met-1894actually painted with Monet in Giverny, France. This pleasing New England scene, painted in 1894 and entitled Low Tide, was just acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Emsworth noted several Robinson pictures in the collection of the Terra Museum in this post last summer.

tarbell-mother-and-child-in-a-boat-mfa3. Edmund C. Tarbell. Don’t tell us that the best of Tarbell’s paintings don’t afford as much pleasure as a fine Monet or Degas. His dazzling Mother and Child in a Boat makes our point. We think it’s the best of the American impressionist paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the city where Tarbell lived and worked.

metcalf-icebound-chicago-19094. Willard Metcalf. We have so gotten to enjoy the landscapes of Willard Metcalf that we had difficulty choosing a representative picture. One of the superb winter snow pictures that made his reputation? Or one of his colorful autumn pictures, like The Golden Carnival at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery? This 1909 picture, Icebound, belongs to the Art Institute of Chicago.

5. Daniel Garber. As we noted in an earlier post about our visit to the Michener Art Museum (in southeastern Pennsylvania), which has several superb Garbers, garber-tohickon-smithsonian-am-art-mus1his paintings tend to have a magical, mystical quality about them.

But there is nothing at all cartoonish about Garber’s paintings, though some of them remind us vaguely of the cinematography in Sleeping Beauty. This large, marvelous landscape, entitled Tohickon, belongs to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., which has just recently (as of fall 2009) put it on display in the Grand Salon of the Renwick Gallery.

6. Philip Leslie Hale. If this was the only painting he’d done, we’d still include the Boston impressionist Philip Leslie Hale hale-crimson-rambler-phila-acad-fine-artson our list. We nominate The Crimson Rambler, a 1908 painting that is in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, as one of the very finest of all American impressionist paintings. This image doesn’t do it justice.

Bits of trivia: Philip Leslie Hale was the son of the noted preacher Edward Everett Hale. And his wife Lilian Westcott Hale was also a well-known painter; we saw a couple of of her paintings at a traveling exhibition here in Rochester last spring. Her picture Home Lessons was noted in this Emsworth post..

7. William Glackens. The great American collector Albert Barnes, who amassed the finest collection of Renoirs and Cezannes in the world, glackens-bathing-at-bellport-1912-brooklyn-museumunfortunately didn’t think much of his own country’s artists. His friend William Glackens was practically the only American impressionist Barnes cared for, and if you make your way out to the ritzy Philadelphia suburb of Merion, Pennsylvania to visit the Barnes Foundation, you’ll find Glackens sharing the walls with Renoir, Seurat, and Picasso. (The Barnes has a couple of paintings by the American impressionist Ernest Lawson as well.)

The Renoir-like painting shown above, Bathing at Bellport, is at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Clearly Glackens studied Renoir closely. No doubt that’s one of the reasons Barnes thought so well of Glackens; Barnes thought every aspiring artist should study Renoir. I enjoyed this blogger’s excellent illustrated note on Glackens’s paintings of Washington Square, in Manhattan.

lawson-spring-tapestry-new-britain-19308. Ernest Lawson. Like Vincent van Gogh, Lawson slathered paint onto his canvases pretty freely, and to marvelous effect. We’ve noticed that a lot of his paintings show a broad landscape through a screen of trees in the foreground, like this painting, Spring Tapestry, which is in Connecticut at the New Britain Museum of American Art.

cooper-main-street-bridge-rochester9. Colin Campbell Cooper. Cooper’s best-known pictures are urban landscapes set in Philly or New York City.  In the 1920s he moved to California and painted there.  But the finest Cooper we’ve ever seen, Main Street Bridge, Rochester, is right here in Rochester. We walk across the Genesee River all the time over this very bridge.

Cooper’s picture was painted in 1908. Till the 1960s, there were still buildings right on the bridge itself, on both sides. There aren’t any buildings on the bridge now; you can see the river as you drive or walk across. This is our favorite impressionist painting at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery.

10. Frederick Carl Frieseke.. Frieseke’s adventures in color took him as far past frieseke-the-bird-cage-new-britain-1910other American impressionists like Edmund Tarbell and Willard Metcalf as French post-impressionist Pierre Bonnard’s wildly successful experiments (we love Bonnard) took him past Monet and Sisley. This picture, The Bird Cage, can be seen at the New Britain Museum of American Art; the gift shop there will sell you a refrigerator magnet with the image.

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The Pennsylvanian Edward R. Redfield's "The Brook at Carversville," at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art

We had trouble limiting our list to ten painters; it was hard to leave off Edward W. Redfield, one of our very favorites (see this post), from the list. (Mary Cassatt worked in Europe for virtually her entire career, so we omitted her.) A longer list of famous American impressionists would include Cecilia Beaux, William Merritt Chase, John Twachtman, J. Alden Weir, Guy Wiggins, Elmer Schofield, Lilian Westcott Hale, Frank Weston Benson, Robert Reid, and Dennis Miller Bunker.

American art in Canajoharie: the Arkell Museum

100_7628Of all the art museums we visit, the Canajoharie Art Museum is the most unlikely. There’s not much to it, and it’s in the middle of nowhere (about half an hour west of Albany).

What attracts us to this upstate New York museum is a small but very creditable collection of American paintings from about 1860 to 1940: American impressionists, Ashcan artists, and regionalists. And anyone who cares for Winslow Homer at all must go to Canajoharie.

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The Homers at the Arkell Museum include "Watching the Breakers"

This was the first time we’d been back since the museum got a shiny new addition a year or two ago. The addition seems to allow for a little more gallery space.  The museum seems to have a new name, too — but we’re not quite sure what it is. The sign over the post in front still says “Canajoharie Library and Art Gallery” (see above), but a big sign on the side of the building now also says “Arkell Museum” in large letters, with “Canajoharie Library” getting second billing. Its website now calls it “The Arkell Museum at Canajoharie,” which for some reason reminds us of the ridiculously named Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

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Theodore Robinson's "Josephine in the Garden" was painted in 1890 in Monet's garden in Giverny, France -- one of our favorites in the Arkell Museum collection.

If the name “Canajoharie” seems vaguely familiar, it could be because you’ve noticed it on the signs for New York State Thruway Exit 29. You pass it on your way to Albany from Rochester or Syracuse. If you know where to look, you can see the museum building from the Thruway itself.

The location of the museum still leaves a lot to be desired. It shares its facility with the local library, and the same lady who sells you a $7 ticket to the museum also checks out library books. The museum isn’t located in a semi-glamorous tourist destination like the Feminore Art Museum in Cooperstown, about 40 miles west, or in an upscale residential neighborhood like the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut, a hundred miles east. Instead, it’s right across the street from a baby-food factory. (The Arkell family, founders of the museum, owned the Beech-Nut company, makers of chewing gum and baby food.)  The town of Canajoharie itself is the sort of slowly decaying upstate New York community that Richard Russo sets his novels in (like Empire Falls).

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Edmund Tarbell: "Girl Crocheting"

Still, it’s easy to get to — only about five blocks from the Thruway exit. A visit to the Canajoharie Art Museum is a pleasant and convenient diversion if you’re on a road trip, as we were a week and half ago.

The group of American impressionists at the Arkell Museum is especially rewarding. By a nose, our favorite was a 1904 painting by Edmund Tarbell called “Girl Crocheting,” a gentle, golden interior with hints of Vermeer and de Hooch. We think it’s as fine a Tarbell as we’ve seen. The wife of our bosom, on the other hand, would have chosen hassam-provincetown-canajoharie-1900Childe Hassam’s “Provincetown” (shown here) a richly worked canvas that we agreed was among his finest. The collection also includes impressionist paintings by Willard Metcalf, Edward Redfield, Edward Lawson, John Twachtman, and William Glackens. We were taken with a remarkably bright snow scene by Walter Launt Palmer, a new artist to us. We couldn’t find an image of his Arkell Museum painting, but you can get an idea of its light effects from a couple of his winter scenes in this excellent blog post about Palmer by Matthew D. Innis.

sloan-gloucester-trolley-canajoharieThe Ashcan painter John Sloan is one of our very favorite American artists, and our heart was gladdened to see once again his lively 1917 painting “Gloucester Trolley.”  Remarkably, the Arkell Museum has two paintings by Thomas Hart Benton, both portraits from the 1920s (this one is “New England Postmaster,” painted in 1924). benton-new-england-postmaster-1924-canajoharieAlthough we are devoted to Benton, we liked even better a delightful painting by a lesser-known regionalist, Ogden Pleissner, whose works we have not often seen in museums. Pleissner’s 1939 painting “Circus Comes to Rawlius, Wyoming” (unfortunately we couldn’t find an image) shows the organized chaos of a traveling circus getting ready for a show — a circus tent, brightly colored caravans, and the rear ends of several elephants.

But what makes the Arkell Museum special is its collection of Winslow Homer. The museum has some six or seven Homer oil paintings (they weren’t all on display ten days ago), including the late marine shown toward the top of this post, and more than a dozen Homer watercolors.

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Homer's "Home, Sweet Home," in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

As might be expected, the watercolors are exhibited sparingly, only once every several years. We’ve seen them before, but missed them during our recent visit; we suppose the museum’s website will announce when they’ll be up again.  Of the Homer oil paintings, our favorite here is “Punishment for Intoxication,” which we think is one of the best of Homer’s dozen or so Civil War paintings. It’s a Union Army camp scene; a soldier, holding a stick instead of his rifle, is standing in disgrace on a box, while another soldier paces nearby. We couldn’t find an image of “Punishment for Intoxication,” but it’s as richly detailed, 100_76271and has the same atmosphere, as Homer’s poignant “Home, Sweet Home,” in the National Gallery of Art.

We stumble across some famous American paintings at the New-York Historical Society

No matter how many times you visit New York City to see art, you can’t ever do more than scratch the surface. Still, it’s surprising to this art museum junkie that he failed to visit the New-York Historical Society until earlier this month.

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Thomas Cole's "The Destruction of Empire," from the series "The Course of Empire," in the collection of the New-York Historical Society

One reason it took so long is that this museum is on the wrong side of Central Park. Emsworth is used to taking in the row of art museums on or just off Fifth Avenue (on the east side of Central Park), from the Guggenheim at 89th Street down to the MOMA on West 53rd Street, but getting to other parts of Manhattan is more challenging.

But the New-York Historical Society (yes, the hyphen is part of the name) is on the west side of the park, on Central Park West, between 76th and 77th Street. Feeling adventuresome, we actually got there quite easily (by taking the B train from the PATH station at 33rd Street), congratulating ourselves on our navigational skills.

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Let Us Have Peace, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (in the Grant-Lee exhibit)

The New-York Historical Society is not a place for art-lovers who are interested mainly in the American impressionists or in 20th-century American art; we saw little of that. In fact, judging solely from our first visit, this museum is devoted as much to artifacts of the history of New York City as it is to art. During our visit, for example, we saw a modest but riveting exhibit of relics from the September 11, 2001 bombing of the World Trade Center, a more substantial exhibit of relics from the two centuries during which slavery was prevalent in New York City (a pair of slave foot shackles is very sobering), and a very large and altogether fascinating exhibit on General U. S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee. — photos, paintings, uniforms, swords, and other good stuff. We didn’t have nearly enough time to do justice to Grant and Lee.

beard-the-bulls-and-the-bearsThat aside, the New-York Historical Society startled us with some marvelous American art, including some very well-known paintings — like William Holbrook Beard’s The Bulls and the Bears, painted in 1879.  We knew about this picture — a gory, fantastic allegory of Wall Street, set in front of the New York Stock Exchange — but we had no idea that it was here.  What a black sense of humor Beard must have had (the bears are actually tearing the flesh of the hapless bulls)!  poussin-the-rape-of-the-sabines-louvre-1637Seeing the original of this famous image, we thought Beard must have been thinking about Nicolas Poussin’s 1637 painting The Rape of the Sabines (the version in the Louvre, not the one at the Met, which doesn’t have all that architecture in the background) when he designed his picture. 

Another surprise: Robert Walter Weir’s St. Nicholas. The original Saint Nick! Well, not exactly, weir-st-nicholas-vsn-from-butler-instalthough Weir painted his picture in 1837, just 15 years after Clement Clarke Moore published his poem “The Night Before Christmas.” We did a double-take. Hadn’t we seen an original version of this famous picture before? Yes, we had. We couldn’t remember where, so we went home, checked our notes, and found that it was in Youngstown, Ohio, when we were visiting the Butler Institute of American Art a couple of years ago. (Shown here is the Butler’s picture; its details are slightly different from the one at the N-YHS.) 

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And fill’d all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose

Further research yielded the fact that Weir actually painted four very similar versions of St. Nicholas.  Another is at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. 

It turns out that the New-York Historical Society has a first-rate group of 19th-century American genre paintings. johnson-negro-life-of-the-south-1859-nyhist-socyAgain, to our delight, these were pictures we mostly recognized, even though we’d never seen them in person. Like Eastman Johnson’s 1859 Negro Life at the South — is this his masterpiece? And William Sidney Mount’s Undutiful Boys — surely one of his finest. The N-YHS has several of Asher B. Durand’s early paintings, which are in a “genre” mode, like his Peter Stuyvesant and the Trumpeter. Till our visit, the only works of Durand’s that we’d seen were his landscape paintings.

100_71832Unfortunately, all of these paintings, and dozens more, are very badly displayed in crowded glass cases. (Our photo of Tompkins H. Matteson’s iconic 1847 painting The Last of His Race gives just an idea of the deplorable viewing conditions.) There’s glare everywhere, and many of the pictures are either too high or too low to see well. Clearly the N-YHS doesn’t have enough room for its collection — but can’t the curators do better than this?

100_7236In fact, this museum has only one proper picture gallery. Fortunately, it’s a large, long, fine space with natural light. Currently it displays a wonderful selection of paintings by artists from the Hudson River School, all from the N-YHS’s own collection. This was the exhibit that enticed us to the museum in the first place, and we found it hard to leave it.

If we had to pick favorites, they might be be Asher Durand’s gentle and evocative Black Mountain from the Harbor Islands, Lake George (above), 100_7211a part of upstate New York we know well — or perhaps George Henry Boughton’s 1858 Winter Twilight Near Albany, a shimmering work that melds landscape and genre painting.  The gallery also included Thomas Cole’s celebrated and endlessly interesting series of five large allegorical paintings, entitled collectively The Course of Empire, one of which appears at the beginning of this post.

100_7249Emboldened by the ease with which we had reached the Upper West Side in the first place, we ventured to stroll across Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It was a fine fall day, and we were glad we had our camera.

American Impressionists at the Michener Art Museum

It’s well off the beaten path, but this the art museum junkie has found another small American art museum that he’d like to visit again if he ever has a chance. It’s the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, which is about halfway between Philadelphia and Allentown.

The museum is, of course, named for the prolific late author of Hawaii and other historical novels; Emsworth used to read him (The Source was his personal favorite). It was Michener’s money and art collection that made the museum possible, and in fact the museum includes a small re-creation of his study, with his typewriter (the very typewriter he’s shown with in the picture above), some manuscripts, parts of his library, and so on. But the focus of the museum is on a modest collection of American art, not on Michener.

The Michener Art Museum is about 20 years old, and it’s a counterpart of sorts to the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut. (See my post on the Griswold museum.) While the museum in Old Lyme focuses entirely on American impressionists who worked at the art colony there, like Willard Metcalf and Childe Hassam, the best part of the collection at the Michener consists of first-quality examples of painters who worked at the New Hope art colony in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, including two of my favorite American impressionists, Edward W. Redfield and Daniel Garber. (Redfield’s 1912 painting “Cherry Blossoms” is just above.)

The works of these Pennsylvania impressionists resonated strongly with Emsworth, a native of the Commonwealth. In the northwest part of the state where I grew up, not much has changed in the last hundred years; many of the old houses, barns, and garages are still standing. Redfield’s richly worked Fleecydale Road (above) was probably painted a hundred years ago (it has no date), but it’s a scene I recognized from my youth during the 1960s. It’s quintessentially Pennsylvanian, and of the paintings on display during my visit, I liked it best.

The pride and joy of the Michener Art Museum is a large, dramatic mural by Daniel Garber, dated 1926, entitled A Wooded Watershed, which is beautifully displayed at the end of the museum’s large gallery of Pennsylania impressionists. It’s at least 15 feet wide. I would have been interested to know where A Wooded Watershed was originally installed before this museum acquired it, but didn’t see anything about its history.

Some of Garber’s work has an almost magical, fairy-tale quality; one especially pleasing Garber painting entitled Springtime in the Village fell in this category. For reasons that are probably not obvious from my photos, Springtime in the Village, which is dated 1917, reminded me almost immediately of a 1892 painting by the French post-impressionist Paul Serusier titled Apple Picking that had appealed to us greatly when we saw it some years ago in an exhibition focusing on the School of Pont-Aven. An exhibit at the Michener indicated that Garber had studied in France for a couple of years; I wondered if Garber became familiar with Serusier’s work. Garber’s palette for this painting also reminded me of another Pont-Aven picture, Gauguin’s Christmas Night (The Blessing of the Oxen), which is now at the Indianapolis Art Museum.

I was struck once again with the fact that while hardly any European artists that we know in America today were painting in an impressionistic style after about 1910, many Americans continued to paint in an impressionistic style through the middle of the twentieth century. Most of the paintings I saw at the Michener Art Museum were impressionist landscapes. The finest, however, I felt, was an outstanding 1914 portrait by Garber of his wife in a kimono, entitled The Studio Wall.

Other American impressionists on display included Walter Schofield, William L. Lathrop, and George W. Sotter. In other, smaller galleries there were some modern paintings by Elsie Driggs, Karl Knaths, and Helen Frankenthaler, among others, and a few from the first part of the nineteenth century. I gather from the Michener Art Museum’s website that it has a much larger collection than it presently has room to display. For now, this is a small museum.

American Impressionists in Old Lyme, Connecticut

Willard Metcalf's "May Night"

What art lover can get enough of the impressionists? Not Emsworth, certainly, despite his vow to partake of more solid fare, and so last weekend found us in Old Lyme, Connecticut treating ourselves to a second generous helping of American impressionists this summer. (The first was here in Rochester, with pictures from the Phillips Collection. See my earlier post.)

Old Lyme is home to the Florence Griswold Museum, the only museum I know of devoted solely to American impressionism. For a decade or two, beginning around 1900, a number of painters, including Childe Hassam and Willard Metcalf, came each summer to stay at Florence Griswold’s boarding house and to paint in the congenial and picturesque surroundings of Old Lyme. Metcalf depicted its classy facade in one of his best-known paintings, May Night, seen above. (The place is not nearly as mansion-like as Metcalf’s picture suggests!)

The boarding house is no longer the home of an art colony, but instead a small, unpretentious museum. The gardens have been nicely restored, a new gallery building (sadly devoid of architectural interest) was erected several years ago, and a good (though narrowly focused) art collection has been assembled.

Theodore Robinson's "The Wedding March"

The show that now fills the new gallery spaces (through July 27, 2008) consists of American impressionist paintings from the Terra Foundation. These were painted by Americans working from about 1885 and into the 1920s in Giverny, of all places, the French town where Claude Monet lived and tended his celebrated garden with its Japanese footbridge and lily pond.

These young Americans must have been quite a nuisance to Monet and his family. One of them, Theodore Butler, succeeded in marrying Monet’s step-daughter, Suzanne Hoschede, an event memorialized in Theodore Robinson’s painting The Wedding March, which is part of this show. Several of Butler’s own paintings, which did not especially appeal to us, were also on display. Willard Metcalf, who collected birds’ eggs (shown as part of this exhibit!), managed to get himself hired by Monet to teach botany to his son and stepson.

Still another American, John Leslie Breck, apparently tried and failed to marry another stepdaughter, Blanche Hoschede. Breck surely did his best to curry favor with the girl’s stepfather; he joined Monet in painting those tiresome haystacks. (The Breck picture shown to the left is titled Morning Fog and Sun.) One wall of the galleries was wasted on a dozen small haystack studies by Breck.

Breck's "Autumn, Giverny (The New Moon)"

But we did enjoy a large and impressive pastoral landscape by Breck entitled Autumn, Giverny (The New Moon), which shows the influence of Barbizon painters Jean-Francois Millet and Jules Breton — although everyone in our party agreed that Breck had devoted too much of the canvas to the foreground.

Ernest Lawson's "Harlem Valley, Winter"

The show in Old Lyme has a satisfying set of works by Theodore Robinson, some of which brought to mind paintings by Ernest Lawson we had recently seen in the exhibit from the Phillips Collection in Rochester. (For Emsworth’s reflections on that exhibit, see this post.) For example, Lawson had a habit of putting bare tree limbs in the foreground of a landscape (see above) as a sort of screen for the rest of the painting. Robinson’s earlier painting, Winter Landscape, done in 1889, used the same device.

Lawson’s work is characterized overall by the use of thickly applied, jewel-tone paints. But Theodore Robinson apparently used this technique first, as evidenced by my favorite of the Robinson pictures in this show, Pere Trognon and His Daughter at the Bridge.

Theodore Robinson's "Pere Trognon and His Daughter at the Bridge"

The highlight of the show for me was a wall of several paintings by my favorite American impressionist, the bold colorist Carl Frieseke, who produced his best work in the second and third decades of the twentieth century while Matisse and Picasso were taking modern art in quite different directions. In Frieseke’s Lady in a Garden, the stripes on the lady’s dress become indistinguishable from the reeds through in which she is standing; she becomes one with cultivated nature.

Carl Frieseke's "Lady in a Garden"

From Rochester, the Florence Griswold Museum is not exactly a day trip, but it’s easy to find once you’re in New England anyway. Old Lyme is just off Interstate 95, about thirty miles east of New Haven.

For an art museum junkie who cares about American art, and Emsworth stands at the front of that line, the Florence Griswold Museum is worthy of regular visits for its excellent permanent collection. Most of that collection is, unfortunately, in storage when the museum has a traveling exhibition like the present one from the Terra Foundation occupying its new exhibition space.

But highlights of the collection, including this quintessentially impressionistic work by Childe Hassam, can be seen in the first- and second-floor rooms of the old boarding house. A particularly pleasing painting by William Chadwick shows the veranda of the boarding house as it was when Chadwick, Hassam, and the others were working there a hundred years ago. Amusingly, the panels of the kitchen cupboards were all painted by the denizens of the art colony back in the day.
(July 15, 2008)

See Emsworth’s post on another small but fine art museum whose collection focuses on the American Impressionists: The James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, just north of Philadelphia. It’s at this post.

And check out some of the American impressionists, including Willard Metcalf and Childe Hassam, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. See my recent post.

American Impressionists at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery

(June 8, 2008) The Phillips Collection, an art museum in Washington, D.C., has once again sent a group of paintings out on tour, and for the next week or so they are here in Rochester at the Memorial Art Gallery.

The last time paintings from the Phillips Collection were here, several years ago, we got a group of abstract twentieth-century still lifes. This was the only occasion I can remember that a painting by Pablo Picasso has been shown in Rochester, but all in all, I don’t think Rochesterians were much impressed.

But now the Phillips has sent us a fine selection of its American impressionists, painted from about 1880 through 1925, and these seem to be better received by MAG visitors. At any rate, we like it, even though, in our pride, we like to think of ourselves as having advanced beyond the ever-popular impressionists in our appreciation of art.

Sisley's "Overcast Day at Saint Mammes"

The American impressionists have a reputation as second-rate imitators of the “real” impressionists, the French. But I think that is due more to our inferiority complex on matters cultural than to any marked differences in artistic quality. And, of course, the French themselves have never had much interest in art created outside France, Italy, or Spain. American museums are littered with Monets, Pissarros, and Sisleys (just above, a Sisley from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts; below, a Monet that can be seen right here in Rochester), but the Musee d’Orsay has nothing by any American impressionist. (It does own Whistler’s Mother, but Whistler was neither an impressionist nor terribly American.)

The best paintings of the American impressionists match up pretty well with the French. It is true that impressionism originated in France and that the Americans learned from the French impressionist masters. But who thinks less of van Gogh or Cezanne because they studied with Pissarro? Most artists are influenced by somebody.

The best-known American impressionist is Childe Hassam, represented among these Phillips paintings by Washington Arch, Spring (1890), a scene in soft pastels set in lower Manhattan. The show also includes three paintings by another prominent American impressionist, John Twachtman, including Winter (1891), a snow scene painted almost entirely in light blues and grays.

"Home Lessons"

Hassam and Twachtman will remind you of Monet. On the other hand, the juicy summer colors and broader brushstrokes of William Glackens’s Bathers at Bellport show him as a disciple of Renoir, while Theodore Robinson’s Giverny reminds us both in subject matter and style of Pissarro’s mid-career paintings of country people and farm scenes. We were especially taken with two interior scenes: Lillian Westcott Hale’s Home Lessons, a picture of a young girl studying a globe (affinities with Renoir), and Helen Turner’s A Rainy Day, a picture of a woman with a bird in her bedroom (affinities with the French post-impressionists Pierre Bonnard and Edward Vuillard).

Ice in the River

"Ice in the River"

However, the real focus of this show, and the main reason we returned several times, is that it includes enough paintings by Ernest Lawson (nine in all) to make up a decent exhibition by itself. The thick textures and glittering jewel tones that Lawson used to depict rugged urban and rural scenes, mostly from upper Manhattan and the lower Hudson river valley, put him in a class by himself, and the nine paintings visiting here from the Phillips, painted from 1900 through 1921, areSpring Night, Harlem River top-drawer. (So far as I know, no other museum owns such a large group of Lawsons.) I was especially drawn to Spring Night, Harlem River, a blue-green scene of a large bridge and the riverbank below it, and Ice in the River, done in greens and browns.

This exhibition does not amount to an overview of American impressionism because Duncan Phillips failed to collect several of the most notable American impressionists, and also because he seems to have preferred landscapes over interior scenes, still lifes, or portraits. Not represented, for instance, are Frank Benson, Edmund Tarbell, Philip Leslie Hale, Frederick Carl Frieseke, Guy Wiggins, Jonas Lie, Willard Metcalf, or Colin Campbell Cooper. Fortunately, the MAG has some of the best works of Lie (see picture just below), Metcalf, and Cooper in its permanent collection.

Jonas Lie's "Morning on a River"

The Memorial Art Galley has presented this traveling exhibition together with a room of American impressionist paintings owned by the MAG itself. I had never seen most of them, apparently because they were in need of restoration and not suitable for exhibition.

A few of these were undistinguished, we thought, but most were first-rate, including Edward Redfield’s River Hills (just below) and a small painting by Guy Wiggins, Fifth Avenue in Winter. I was especially irritated to know that Elmer Schofield’s Devon Countryside has languished in storage, unseen and unloved, for so long. (I would like very much to know whether this “Devon” is in England or New England.) This is a fine large summer scene of a sloping village lane, lined with stone walls and dappled with sunlight. Now that it has been cleaned, perhaps the curators will keep it on view after the exhibition is over.

I recommend a visit to the Phillips Collection itself, which is the proud home of Auguste Renoir’s grand and celebrated Luncheon of the Boating Party. We have visited this Washington, D.C. museum several times; it’s about 15 blocks northwest of the White House, too far to walk from the Mall, nowhere to park, best reached by subway. Duncan Phillips founded it in the late 1920s to showcase his own personal collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, and modern art. Besides Cezannes, Picassos, and van Goghs, it has an outstanding collection of paintings by Pierre Bonnard, Mark Rothko, and Jacob Lawrence.