Thursday, July 03, 2008

American Impressionist Masterpieces Arrive at Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts

American Impressionist Masterpieces Arrive at Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts


Gifford Beal (1879-1956), On the Hudson at Newburgh, 1918. Oil on canvas. 36 x 58 ½ in. The Phillips Collection, acquired 1924.

MONTGOMERY.- In America, the radical new style of impressionism blended European approaches to painting with American sensibilities and preferences. Celebrated American artists including Childe Hassam, Maurice Prendergast, John Henry Twachtman, and J. Alden Weir transformed the heroic American landscape into a modern idiom. Join the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts with a new exhibition entitled American Impressionism: Paintings from the Phillips Collection, which showcases more than 65 treasured works from the golden age of American impressionism (ca.1880-1920), assembled together for the first time in more than a generation.

"Over the course of a decade, from 1912 to 1922, Duncan Phillips assembled an impressive collection of American impressionist paintings,” says Jay Gates, director of The Phillips Collection. “They formed the very bedrock of the museum and have shaped the development of the collection ever since.”

When Duncan Phillips opened his museum in the fall of 1921, the collection included 237 paintings, of which 87 works by 25 different artists were examples of American impressionism. By far, the greatest number of these were by the acknowledged “mature” masters of the style such as Childe Hassam, Theodore Robinson, John Henry Twatchman, J. Alden Weir, and William Lathrop. The collection also included paintings by Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, Gifford Beal, and Helen Turner. These artists applied the brighter palette and broken brushwork of French impressionism to the American landscape, focusing on intimate and atmospheric views of parks and beaches as well as urban views and charming interiors. While all of these paintings were crafted with particular interest in the seasons, changing light, and optical effects, American impressionist painters differed from their French counterparts by continuing to imbue their work with larger ideas related to the emotional and spiritual character of the landscape.

Highlights of the exhibition include a range of work by many of the key players of the movement. Focusing largely on landscape painting, American Impressionism features some of the museum’s most treasured paintings. Many were painted in Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, eastern Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.

For Phillips, impressionism was always a question of personal temperament or subjectivity combined with natural phenomena. In the work of both Twatchman and Weir, for instance, Phillips found depictions of the intimate moods of the artists’ Connecticut properties as celebrations of the American countryside and pastoral respite from the modern world. Both artists used the language of French impressionism to explore nature’s emotional effects. Twatchman, whom Phillips considered one of America’s greatest artists, is still thought of as the pre-eminent American impressionist landscape painter. His painting, Summer, is a classic example of his work and Phillips regarded it as one of his best purchases for 1919, outranking all others, including those by Weir, Hassam, and Lawson.

The exhibition also showcases the work of a less well known but equally extraordinary artist, Allen Tucker. Phillips acquired Tucker’s paintings, Red Barns and The Rise, in 1926–1927. Considered by his colleagues to be the “American van Gogh” because of his vigorous and animated brushwork, Tucker captured the attention of Phillips who sought to add an original van Gogh to his growing collection of modern art during this period.

Duncan Phillips was a man of his time in his enthusiasm for American impressionist painting. When he arrived in New York in 1910, with dreams of becoming an art critic, impressionism was America’s popular mainstream aesthetic style. By the end of the decade he could count himself as one of its first collectors. American impressionist works were the foundation of the museum and significantly shaped its development, playing a vital role in Phillips’s maturing appreciation of abstraction.

In the early 1920s, the writings of contemporary critics, such as Roger Fry and Clive Bell, opened Phillips’s eyes to the intent of abstract art, and his collecting in that decade reflected his new understanding. He added very few American impressionist paintings to his collection after 1923. As Phillips became more knowledgeable in his understanding of abstraction, he turned his attention towards other artists. He was drawn not only to the new American realism, but also to the American moderns around Stieglitz and the artists of the School of Paris, including Bonnard, Vuillard, Matisse and Braque.

Phillips’s collecting practices were ultimately driven by his desire to create a cohesive collection. Only artists whom Phillips saw as “modern in mind,” or whose work could be seen as links between the past and present, found a permanent place in the collection.


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