American Impressions: Selections from the National Academy Museum.American Impressions: Selections from the National Academy Museum
Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
February 28-June 28, 2009
Reynolda House, once the mansion of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds and today the home of an extensive collection of American art, recently featured an exhibition of thirty-six paintings by American Impressionists, from the National Academy Museum in New York. These works, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are at once familiar and unknown. The first painting that greets the visitor, for example, Robert Vonnoh's A Sunlit Hillside (1890), portrays a hillside of flowers accompanied by houses, recalling the works of Camille Pissarro and Paul Cezanne and effects of light reminiscent of Claude Monet and Pierre Auguste Renoir. The themes and subjects are easily recognizable from the French Impressionist pieces that inspired them--including landscapes, garden scenes, portraits, small interior scenes, and representations of artists at work (including portraits and self-portraits)--allowing for easy entry into a show representing artists who are not household names.
The National Academy was established in 1825, modeled after the great European art schools. It is an honorary society of professional American artists, and today encompasses a fine arts school and museum as well. The artists in the exhibition, which was curated by Mark Mitchell, are all elected members of the National Academy. With the exception of four works from Reynolda House's own collection, all the paintings on view are from the National Academy Museum. They largely consist of the Diploma Presentations of the artists. As a result, the exhibit contains works by the most important American painters of the period, but perhaps not their most recognizable pieces. This focus adds an interesting element to the exhibit, allowing a different view of some of the artists included, although it is not made as clear as it could be in the exhibition materials. While a scholarly audience may be familiar with the abbreviations "ANA" and "NA" that appear after the artist's names on the wall labels, many members of the general public may not be. However, this is a small criticism of an otherwise successful exhibition.
A prominent theme of Impressionism is the landscape, and this subject is well-represented here, starting with Chauncey Foster Ryder's Phantom Lake (no date). This painting is dominated by a group of tall pine trees, whose thin, bare trunks reveal the eponymous lake and a broad expanse of sky, evoking the forest scenes of the earlier Barbizon School. One of the foremost American Impressionists, Childe Hassam, is represented by a lush, autumnal forest scene, entitled The Jewel Box, Old Lyme (1906). The rich, jewel tones created by the strong light hitting rocks and trees in the New England setting is said to have inspired Hassam to change the name of the canvas (from The Pines) a decade after painting it. In contrast to this vibrant fall landscape, there are also many winter scenes, including Abbott Thayer's Winter Landscape (1902), John Folinsbee's The Canal at Trenton (c.1924), and Aldro Hibbard's Snow Scene (no date). Thayer's depiction of a southern New Hampshire winter features a turquoise sky, revealing a color more often seen in a Caribbean sea, over deep white snow that somehow creates a scene not at all bleak--uncommon in treatment of this theme. The white snow in Folinsbee's canal side scene also provides ample opportunity for tonal variations, showing extreme highlights and shadows, an important Impressionist technique.
There is also a very unusual night landscape by Birge Harrison, The Hidden Moon (c.1907). Harrison was influenced by many of the noted Impressionist landscape painters, such as Monet, Sisley and Pissarro, but was also "drawn to the more evocative, poetic tonalities of the night sky," according to the wall label. Considering the emphasis that the Impressionists placed on experimenting with the qualities and effects of light and shadow, a moonlit landscape, with just a sliver of the scene revealed by that light is a wonderful, if unexpected, inclusion. Another image which may at first seem surprising is On the Range (1920) by German-born painter Carl Rungius. This landscape certainly fits into the Impressionistic mold, however, the focus on the large horse in the foreground, and the resting rider just below it, marks it as a typically American work. Rungius was a hunter as well as a painter, who traveled with Teddy Roosevelt on hunting trips, and his work captures the frontier vista associated with this era.
Related to the landscape theme, one corner of the exhibit features a sub-genre of that subject, the park or garden scene. Here five wide-ranging works are grouped, allowing for easy comparison and analysis. The highlight of the group is Gifford Reynolds Beal's The Mall--Central Park (1913). Accompanying Beal's painting are Frederich Carl Frieseke's Hollyhocks (no date), William Henry Glackens's Woman and Dog in Garden (1915), William Westcott Hale's An Old Cherry Tree (c.1920), and Karl Anderson's Wisteria (1915). Although tied together by subject, the five paintings are eclectic. The painting by Beal, a student of William Merritt Chase (also represented in the exhibit), is clearly influenced by works such as Monet's Tuileries garden scenes, with fashionably dressed people passing leisurely moments in a pleasant, green setting, but still within the city. The garden depicted by Hale is probably the artist's own, in Dedham, Massachusetts, which can be seen as an American counterpart to Monet's Giverny. Frieseke's Hollyhocks and Anderson's Wisteria are more concerned with color, pattern, and decorative elements than social interaction, representing another aspect of the Impressionist style. Glackens, known better as one of "The Eight" than as an Impressionist, not surprisingly produces one of the least successful pieces in the show. While there are loose, sketchy brushstrokes, the forms are too solid and the green grass too vivid, leaving this reviewer unconvinced that Glackens really "bought into" the Impressionist ideal. As a group, these five paintings epitomize the intent of this exhibit, showing us the influences of the French painters, and the manner in which their American counterparts used, adapted, and responded to them.
Henry Ossawa Tanner's Miraculous Haul of Fishes (c.1913-14) stands on its own, as one of the more atypical and extraordinary paintings on view. This is due to its biblical subject matter, uncommon for the Impressionist period, although typical of Tanner's oeuvre. The high horizon line forces the viewer to look down on the boat, which dwarfs the figures inside. But it is not the boat that really captures our attention--it is the reflection of the light on the water. A slight gleam of sunlight at the top center runs downward, exploding at the edge of the boat, where the hands of the fishermen are reaching out with the net. The impressionistic style, use of color, and capturing of light reflecting and dancing on the surface of the water serves the spiritual subject well in a manner similar to the fervent, frenzied, Mannerist brushstrokes that aided El Greco's religious paintings centuries earlier.
More expectedly, the exhibition also includes a representative selection of portraits. The most arresting is one by John White Alexander, entitled Young Girl (c.1902). The subject appears in an energetic pose: her head is in profile, while her body is turned three-quarters, with a raised arm. She is not speaking, but her lively, sparkling eyes, coupled with the turning, confident pose of her body, create an invigorating figure, quite reminiscent of the portraiture of John Singer Sargent. Sargent himself is represented in the exhibit with two portraits, although, unfortunately, they are not placed adjacent to Alexander's Young Girl. Sargent's Portrait of Claude Monet (c.1887) is a small, quiet profile image of the artist (16 x 13 inches), produced without the flamboyance or exuberance of Sargent's typical society portraits. This was Sargent's National Academy Diploma Presentation work submitted in 1897, and believed to have been painted when the American expatriate visited Monet at Giverny for the first time. This would correspond to the period when Monet's influence on Sargent would have been greatest and, thus, this painting again serves as a reminder of the purpose of the entire exhibition--to trace the relationships between the French Impressionists and the Americans who knew them, learned from them, and followed them.
Finally, Sargent's portrait of Marchesa Laura Spinola Nunez del Castillo (1903) is one of four works in the show which comes from the Reynolda House's permanent collection and not from the National Academy Museum. The portrait underscores the appropriateness of this exhibit at this venue (it was first shown in New York in 2007, but is not traveling elsewhere)--Reynolda House is focused exclusively on American art, and boasts a significant collection for a small-city museum. While this exhibition was installed in the newer Charles and Mary Babcock Wing, apart from the historic interior of the main house (built in 1917), the exhibit fits seamlessly, if only temporarily, into the setting.
Alison C. Fleming
Winston-Salem State University