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First Impressions: Fresh perspectives on American Impressionism

July 18th, 2014 | by edfest
First Impressions: Fresh perspectives on American Impressionism

The often-overlooked genre of American Impressionism is given a fresh perspective in a major exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

If Frances Fowle went on Mastermind, her specialist subject would be the French art of the 19th century. She is the Scottish National Gallery’s senior curator of French art, as well as being a reader in history of art at the University of Edinburgh. But despite her erudition, there’s always more to learn, which is why she has found working on the new exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art such an eye-opener. There should be nothing she doesn’t know about impressionism, but thanks to American Impressionism: A New Vision, she’s been able to open a whole new chapter.

“I’ve worked a lot on the Franco-British connections, so Whistler and Sargent are well known to me, so it feels like I’m expanding that area,” she says. “And there are these amazing overlaps.”

When we think of the Impressionists, we recall a list of familiar artists such as Monet, Cezanne, Degas and Renoir. But they weren’t the only kids on the block. In the late 1900s, word got out that this radical new generation was on to something and a mini-school of American artists took note. “The French are very resistant to the idea of there being any kind of impressionism but French,” says Fowle, but this exhibition, a collaboration between the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Musée des impressionnismes Giverny, proves otherwise.

Some of the artists, such as Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler, lived in Paris and befriended their counterparts including Degas, Morisot and Monet. Others trained in France and followed in Monet’s footsteps to the artists’ colony in Giverny. Sure to attract particular attention is a gorgeous series of haystack paintings by John Leslie Breck, reflecting the weather conditions over a single autumn day and making a fascinating counterpoint to the haystack paintings of Monet.

The influence spread to other artists who absorbed the movement’s new techniques and gave them more of an American flavour. Back home, however, the critics were suspicious of this new European wave. They accused the new generation of being too French and instructed them to choose more American subjects. “Do not attempt to paint America through French spectacles,” warned one.

This exhibition covers the two formative decades from 1880 and includes work by 13 American artists. To help us get our bearings, there will be a couple of examples of French Impressionist painting, such as Monet’s Haystacks: Snow Effect, but for the most part, it will be refreshingly unfamiliar. “They’re the equivalent of the Glasgow Boys, in terms of the date,” says Fowle. “That’s a good thing to think about because the American artists were going to the same studios at the same time as the Glasgow Boys. The British and the Americans tended to stick together, so they probably would have known each other better than the French.”

She’s dividing the exhibition into two sections. The first looks at the American artists who came to Europe, in particular Cassatt, who exhibited alongside the Impressionists and was considered as a bona fide Impressionist in her own right. The second section looks at artists who brought the ideas back home, such as Sargent, who is best known as a portrait painter and sometimes overlooked as a landscape artist, and Childe Hassam, who is known more for his American work than his French.

Fowle says the Americans were sometimes more conservative than their French colleagues but, in their own terms, they were redefining American art. “The subjects they address are similar to Impressionist subjects, but they are, for example, of a Brooklyn park or the green spaces and boulevards that were being created as the cities were built for the rising middle-class population. The pictures are actually topical. Art historians have revisited French Impressionism and given it this political underpinning and no one’s really done it for the Americans yet, but it is possible to do. Their work doesn’t seem as radical to us, but in the American context it was.”

American Impressionism: A New Vision
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 19 July–19 October
£8, Tel: 0131 624 6200

Words: Mark Fisher