How American Impressionists carved a niche for themselves under the overarching influence of their French counterparts.

By Ornella D’Souza

American Impressionism developed in the United States after the American Civil War, when its artists began travelling to European countries and visiting artists’ colonies that propagated the concept of outdoor painting and other aesthetics of the French Impressionist art movement in the second half of the 19th century. The term ‘Impressionism’ was derived from Claude Monet’s iconic work, ‘Impression, Sunrise’ (1872), after critic Louis Leroy declared that “a preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape” and wrote off the entire show in his review as ‘The Exhibition of the Impressionists’. The painting had debuted at the 1874 Salons des Refusés (French for ‘Salon of the Refused’), which featured several artists, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Berthe Morisot and Edgar Degas. These artists were part of Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (‘Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers’), which protested the lack of opportunities for artworks that did not conform to traditional academic-style painting of the state-run Salon.

American artists initially guffawed at the sketch-like paintings with haphazard brushstrokes and bright, unmixed colours by French Impressionists, but gradually became besotted with those very attributes that discarded elements of Realism, including its blind imitation of colour and outline. Their artworks merged the painterly aesthetics of European old masters with everyday life in American society. These Impressionist paintings also had a sociopolitical edge, capturing the transition from agrarian countryside to industrial landscapes. The initial lot of American Impressionists, grouped under the moniker The Ten, comprised a brotherhood of non-conforming artists helmed by Childe Hassam, John Henry Twachtman and J. Alden Weir, and consisting of seven others, namely, Frank W. Benson, E. E. Simmons, Joseph De Camp, Thomas W. Dewing, Willard Leroy Metcalf, Robert Reid and Edmund Tarbell.

From the French, they adopted the practice of en plein air (French for ‘painting outdoors’), a style mastered by American art movements such as the Hudson River School and the Tonalists. The invention of collapsible tin paint tubes in 1841, then synthetic paints, followed by the portable easel, became gamechangers. American Impressionists could now directly press colour from the tube onto the canvas to create impasto with thick, broken, hurried or flickering brushstrokes ‘like a quick impression of a place’. A speedy production. Like a photograph. The pigments were loud, bright and resonated with what French Impressionist Renoir once allegedly remarked: “One morning one of us had run out of black; and that was the birth of Impressionism.” The Impressionists demonstrated light as short, broken brushstrokes in different bright colours, positioned close to each other, which when viewed together from a distance, merged. According to them, their works were more ‘realistic’ than the Realists, as they had gone to some lengths to study their subject up close.

The influence of 19th-century Japanese prints—their tonalities, patterns and compositional elements—which made an appearance in French Impressionist works, was also evident in Twachtman’s ‘Winter Harmony’ (1890–1900), Chase’s ‘Studio Interior’ (1882) and Dewing’s ‘Venetian Brocade’ (1904). Artists no longer painted in their studios or from memory. Due to the development of suburbs, urban parks and their connectivity to city centres via railroad, trams, etc., they could travel to the actual site, set up their portable tools, study their desired subject first-hand, understand how light enveloped this subject in relation to atmospheric qualities, time of day, colours in and around, and produce a copy of this imagery in their own Impressionistic ideals.

To truly comprehend the process behind en plein air masterpieces, American painters undertook extensive voyages to Europe, attended art exhibitions, visited museums and painted in artist colonies. Chase gained repute with paintings of New York public parks. He and Weir also taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. John Singer Sargent, settled in Florence, found a mentor in Monet and, under his influence, painted urban landscapes. Hassam depicted the booming cultural energy of New York and Paris, while Sargent became attached to scenes in the village of Broadway in the Cotswolds in England. Still others found inspiration in their own quarters, like Twachtman, who painted scenes from his garden and farm in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Women artists struggled to carve a niche in the art world, like they did in other male-dominated fields in the 19th century. The most pioneering female figure of the American Impressionists was Mary Cassatt. The Pennsylvania-born painter and printmaker moved to Paris in 1874, and after viewing her paintings, French Impressionist Degas invited her to exhibit with The Ten. She was brutally typecast as a ‘painter of babies’; a tag that feminist art critic Griselda Pollock overturned in her book, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, calling Cassatt a ‘painter of modern women’ who carved an identity even in an arena dominated by the likes of Manet and Degas. She and other women artists such as Berthe Morisot, Eva Gonzales and Marie Bracquemond painted scenes showcasing tender and private moments of 19th-century women when their male counterparts depicted public spaces like cafés and scenic landscapes.

Public spaces, especially the inclusivity around gardens and growing interest in gardening, was a thematic favourite of French and American Impressionists. Georges Seurat used pointillism to depict people from diverse social classes relaxing in a park by the Seine, in ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte’ (1884) while Monet’s humongous canvases of water lilies and his gardens at Giverny came to epitomise his oeuvre. In America, Hassam’s ‘Descending the Steps, Central Park’ (1895) or Edmund Greacen’s ‘The Old Garden’ (1912) show a similar fascination for the garden. Anna Marley, in her book The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, found a correlation between the two spheres noted in her book’s title. Landscape architect Beatrix Farrand in her 1907 essay titled, ‘The Garden as a Picture’, wrote: “The two arts of painting and garden design are closely related, except that the landscape gardener paints with actual colour, line and perspective to make a composition, as the maker of stained glass does, while the painter has but a flat surface on which to create his illusion.”

By the late 19th-century, American Impressionists had the support of private art collectors and the moneyed class. While interest in the movement dried up by the end of the 1910s, the impact continued to be felt in artist colonies and art schools.


 This article was originally published in the November 2023 issue of the On Stage.