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This side of the Atlantic: Springfield Museums hosts new exhibit on American impressionists

Last modified: Wednesday, October 07, 2015

In the early 1870s, a group of painters in France began bucking tradition and accepted technique to produce a new style of work: paintings done with quick but visible brushstrokes, an intense mix of colors, and often produced outside to capture changes in light. The goal was to depict not the details of a subject but its overall visual effect — its impression.

Though the impressionists initially attracted scorn from many critics, their work began to win increasing acceptance from the European public in the later 1870s and into the 1880s — and that work also found an appreciative following among American artists in succeeding years.

Just how much did the French impressionists influence American art? The D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield addresses that question with a new exhibit, “American Impressionism: The Lure of the Artists’ Colonies.”

With more than 100 works, including close to 80 paintings — seascapes, pastoral landscapes, portraits and still lifes — and another 30-plus prints and etchings, the show details how impressionism took root in the United States in the late 19th century, largely through work done in numerous artist colonies in New England, New York state, Pennsylvania and some western states.

Heather Haskell, director of Springfield Art Museums, says the exhibit includes the work of more than 40 American artists, many of whom soaked up the impressionist style while studying in Europe, or who lived abroad, like Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent. And since the show features multiple works by some contributors over a period of decades, Haskell adds, it also gives viewers an opportunity to see how other artistic movements influenced those painters.

“The foundation of the show is American impressionism,” she said. “But one of the most interesting things is you get to see some works from both before and after impressionism became popular, so you can see how some of the artists evolved.”

For instance, consider two paintings by Charles Webster Hawthorne, a seminal figure among American impressionists; he founded an art school in Provincetown on Cape Cod in 1899 to teach the style. Hawthorne’s “A Study in White,” from 1900, is a classic impressionist work: a portrait of a young woman in a white dress, seated outside, that uses broad brushstrokes and sharp contrasts between light and dark to depict the warmth of a summer day in a pastoral setting.

Yet a 1919 portrait by Hawthorne, “Constance Le Boiteaux,” has much more of a modernist touch, with a darker background and a more clearly defined face on the woman. “There are similarities between [the two paintings], but he’s much more interested in shape now,” Haskell said.

And, Haskell noted, another appeal of the show is the way it showcases the way in which American painters not only influenced one another but brought certain regional touches to the overall body of work, giving it its own distinctive American flavor.

The exhibit comes entirely from the Reading Public Museum in Reading, Pennsylvania, started around 1900 as a library and collection center. The Springfield Museums’ own collection of impressionist art is located in an adjacent gallery to offer additional perspective.

Painting outdoors

As the exhibit outlines, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, artist colonies sprang up along the coastlines in Massachusetts, Maine and Connecticut, where the light and water produced compelling subject matter for painters. These colonies — in places like Cape Cod and Rockport in Massachusetts and Cos Cob and Old Lyme in Connecticut — were close to Boston, New York and other urban centers, giving artists a convenient place to get away from the city, share ideas, and paint en plein air like their French counterparts.

“These were avenues for artists to get together, sort of like the salons in Europe,” Haskell said. “They could discuss art and learn from each other, teach and display their newest work, and get commentary on it.”

That kind of feedback was important, Haskell notes, because just as impressionism failed to be welcomed with open arms in France when it debuted, many American art critics had a mixed reaction to the style when it was first taken up by artists here in the 1880s and 1890s.

But as the popularity of impressionism expanded among the artists themselves, additional colonies and centers were founded in New Mexico and California. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia became the center of American impressionism, according to exhibit notes, drawing many painters who studied under teachers such as Hugh Breckenridge and William Merritt Chase (the founder of what is today the Parsons School of Design in New York).

The exhibit is organized geographically, based on the colonies American artists stayed at. The show begins with the work of artists who painted in Massachusetts, where some of the first art centers and schools opened up, and with canvasses by the expatriates Cassatt (who became a friend of Edgar Degas) and Sargent (who came to know Claude Monet and painted him as the French artist was working on one his own en plein air paintings).

Many of the exhibit’s early works depict Northeast seascapes and harbors, like “Gloucester at Twilight,” a 1916 painting by Guy Carleton Wiggins; canvasses from Shinnecock Hills, a school on eastern Long Island in New York, are also featured. In addition, there are landscapes from the region’s rural interior and other locales, including some of considerable scale.

For instance, “Homeward Way,” a 1900 work by Charles Paul Gruppe, measures nearly seven by five feet. In this painting, Gruppe, who grew up near Rochester, New York, and later lived and studied in The Netherlands, created an impressionistic image of a shepherd, flanked by a dog, leading a flock of sheep down a muddy, tree-lined path toward a farmhouse.

Winter landscapes are not commonly associated with impressionist painters, but the Springfield exhibit features several, such as “Winter in the Valley” by Edward Willis Redfield, who did much of his work near the small town of New Hope, on the Delaware River north of Philadelphia, that hosted one of the artist colonies.

In “Winter in the Valley,” from the mid-1920s, Redfield depicts a lightly wooded hillside sloping down to a river, with other hills rising in the distance above the opposite bank. In the foreground, an old farmhouse and smaller buildings stand in a field half-covered in snow, but the scene is bathed in bright sunlight. Though there are impressionistic touches in the painting, there are also sharper lines and detail; U.S. critics of the time praised Redfield for creating art that reflected European influences but was “firmly rooted in the American soil.”

The exhibit also offers more bustling images, such as Nancy Maybin Ferguson’s “Market Day,” a 1915 painting of Main Street in Provincetown, and Paulette Van Roeken’s “Towers in the Mist,” a 1925 image of downtown Philadelphia in which pedestrians and cars move along wet streets overlooked by several large buildings. Clouds of steam hang in the air in a work that references impressionism but also reflects a modernist view of urban America.

Though most of the paintings (and works on paper) are from the eastern U.S., the show includes vivid landscapes and other images from the West. Richard Summer Meryman, at one time an art student in Boston, later spent time in southern California. His 1923 painting “Arcadia: Montecito, California” indeed offers a view of how beautiful that region must have been before it was swallowed by urban sprawl; the image is centered on a rich, green lawn flanked by huge white maple trees, with rugged mountains visible in the distance beneath a deep-blue sky.

And Albert Lorey Groll, born in New York City in 1852, lived in the Southwest for several years in the early 20th century, documenting locales such as the Painted Desert in Arizona. According to exhibition notes, his ability to capture the towering skies and sweeping landscapes of the desert led Indians in the region to call him “Chief Bald-Head Eagle-Eye.”

“I love the variety of the show,” Haskell said. “There really is so much to see.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

“American Impressionism: The Lure of the Artists’ Colonies” will be on view through Oct. 25 at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield Museums. An accompanying exhibit, “Provincetown Artist Colony: Woodblock Prints,” can be seen in the Collins Print Gallery through Jan. 10, 2016.

Museum hours are Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.. Admission costs $18; $12 for seniors and college students with ID; $9.50 for children 3 to 17; children 2 and under are free. For information, visit


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