After the end of the Civil War in 1865, the United States gained unprecedented international political and economic status. American art patrons—notably Northerners who had made fortunes from the war—traveled abroad and imbibed European culture. To announce their wealth and sophistication, they built grand houses and filled them with imported decorative arts and paintings by old masters and contemporary academics. To appeal to prospective patrons, aspiring American artists studied in Europe, especially Paris.
Soon after Americans began earnestly to collect and emulate European art, the French Impressionists made their debut in a private exhibition in Paris in 1874; they would show together eight times in all, until 1886. Rejecting the academics’ devotion to invented subjects and meticulous technique, Impressionist painters depicted landscapes and intimate scenes of everyday middle-class life using natural light, rapid brushwork, and a high-keyed palette. Young Americans in Paris in the 1870s, studying with academic teachers such as Jean-Léon Gérôme, ignored Impressionism. The few who took note of the radical style were repelled. After visiting the third group exhibition in the spring of 1877, J. Alden Weir wrote to his parents: “I never in my life saw more horrible things…. They do not observe drawing nor form but give you an impression of what they call nature. It was worse than the Chamber of Horrors.”
There were exceptions to the American disdain of Impressionism during its early years. Pennsylvania-born Mary Cassatt, who moved to Paris in 1874, was sympathetic. Her work attracted the attention of Edgar Degas, who, in 1877, invited her to exhibit with the group. John Singer Sargent, born in Florence to expatriate American parents and studying in Paris by 1874, met Claude Monet two years later and was inspired by him and his colleagues to paint lively urban scenes.
During the mid-1880s, as French Impressionism lost its radical edge, American collectors began to value the style, and more American artists began to experiment with it after absorbing academic fundamentals. Exhibitions of Impressionist works were held in American cities and sales were strong. In 1886, with a series of brilliant images of New York’s new public parks, William Merritt Chase became the first major American painter to create Impressionist canvases in the United States. At about the same time, Americans began to visit artists’ colonies that centered on outdoor painting, most notably Giverny, where Monet had settled in 1883. Those who sought inspiration there included Sargent, Willard Metcalf, and Theodore Robinson, who transmitted Monet’s ideas to his compatriots back in the United States.
By the early 1890s, Impressionism was firmly established as a valid style of painting for American artists. Even Weir was a convert. Most of the repatriated American Impressionists lived in the Northeast, tapping into the cultural energy that was increasingly concentrated in New York. Some of them taught in the new art schools that were a consequence of the growing professionalism; others conducted summer classes dedicated to Impressionism, as Chase did on the east end of Long Island from 1891 until 1902 and as John Henry Twachtman did in Cos Cob, Connecticut, during the 1890s.
The American Impressionists were much more cosmopolitan than their French counterparts. Several were expatriates or spent long periods in Europe; those who repatriated often crossed the Atlantic to attend exhibitions, visit museums, and work in artists’ colonies. In Europe and the United States, the American Impressionists witnessed the transformation from an agrarian to an industrialized urban society. They were simultaneously excited by change and nostalgic for the reassuring and familiar past.
While some American artists adopted only the surface effects of Impressionism, simply to accommodate collectors’ evolving taste, many of them shared the French Impressionists’ conviction that modern life should be recorded in a vibrant modern style. Their works, like those of their French counterparts, appear to be infused not only with light and color but with meanings inherent in the subjects they depicted. Some were captivated by the energy of urban life, responding to the fragmented experience that marked the age in rapidly rendered vignettes. Childe Hassam, for example, caught the flavor of characteristic neighborhoods in New York and Paris. But most American Impressionists chose to portray the countryside to which urbanites like themselves and their patrons retreated. Many favored artists’ colonies, especially those with architecture and activities that evoked a more tranquil era. In England, for example, Sargent found respite from the portrait studio by painting pastoral scenes in Broadway, a charming village in the Cotswolds. Repatriated Impressionists founded and frequented similarly picturesque colonies: the Isles of Shoals, off the New Hampshire coast, where Hassam painted, and Southampton, New York, where Chase taught and worked. Some American Impressionists worked alone in other distinctive rural locales. Twachtman found inspiration on his farm in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Vignettes of domestic life also engaged the American Impressionists. Cassatt, Edmund Tarbell, Frank W. Benson, and others often depicted women and children in tranquil interiors and gardens that ignored or denied the epochal changes taking place beyond their walls.
Many American artists worked in the Impressionist style into the 1920s, but innovation had long since waned. By 1910, the less genteel approach of urban realists known as the Ashcan School had emerged. In 1913, the immense display of avant-garde European art at the Armory Show made even the Ashcan School seem old-fashioned. Nevertheless, the American Impressionists’ focus on familiar subjects and rapid technique left an indelible mark on American painting. Their works bear witness to their creators’ experiences abroad and at home, and offer tantalizing reflections of a dynamic period as well as enchanting records of color and light.