The Boston Phoenix
October 9 - 16, 1997

[American Impressionism]

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Delivering on the promise

Worcester gives America a birthday present

by Jeffrey Gantz

"AMERICAN IMPRESSIONISM: PAINTINGS OF PROMISE", At the Worcester Art Museum, through January 4.

[Frank Benson] As we approach the millennium, it's tempting to look back at America of the 1890s and wonder whether we're heading in the right direction. "Paintings of Promise," the Worcester Art Museum's fall extravaganza (and 100th-birthday celebration), is like a picture album of our youth, when we were indeed full of hope, of promise. Not that growing up is bad -- but it is fun to be young again for a little while. Even if you're in your teens or 20s, you'll never be as innocent as we were a hundred years ago.

"Paintings of Promise" delivers a visual record of America growing up. Think of it as the illustrations to your favorite Edith Wharton or Henry James novel. Or else the movie version, where you get to write the screenplay and direct. The show is photographic as well as pictorial: curator David Brigham has surrounded the introductory wall text with illuminating shots of early Worcester Art Museum shows, shots of Worcester, shots of what the artists painted.

The exhibit proper is small but choice: 48 works in all (some of the watercolors are being rotated), two-thirds of them drawn from the museum's own impressive collection. While Boston collectors were gobbling up French Impressionist canvases, Worcesterites, being more provincial, gravitated toward the American variety. That doesn't mean Worcester came off second best. "Paintings of Promise" promotes Childe Hassam and Frank W. Benson as international superstar material. At the very least it shows the finest American Impressionist canvases to be a match for their French cousins.

Rather than arranging the show chronologically (which, with so many different artists and subjects, would serve little purpose), curator Brigham has grouped the works under five themes: "Japan: A Model of Restraint and Refinement"; "The Landscape as a Place of Retreat"; "Images of Women in American Impressionism"; "The Landscape as Respite"; and "Working Methods of the Impressionists." On paper these classifications may look a bit jury-rigged. Why start with Impressionism's Japanese influences? What's the difference between respite and retreat? And doesn't "working methods" suggests broccoli just when we're looking for dessert?

There is some sleight-of-hand here, plus some arbitrary choices, but Brigham has created five small areas that you can manage easily, one at a time. The works themselves are stunning. And they often play off one another in ways that go beyond the ostensible themes. Here are some of the highlights:

Japan: A Model of Restraint and Refinement

Yes, this seems an odd way to start, but it does illustrate how American Impressionists, like their French counterparts, initially looked to Japan as a non-industrial model (idealized, of course) of traditional values and gracious living. In that sense, the opening room serves as an introduction to the show. As the Age of Impressionism developed, the artists gradually discovered the American roots of what they were looking for.

*Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler. William Merritt Chase's huge (roughly five feet square) 1883 portrait of Dora Wheeler is almost overwhelmed by the yellow cloth behind her, a Japanese-like affair of birds, dragonflies, and flowers. Wheeler herself was a textile artist; here she looks thoughtful and a little awkward (almost like the slouchy Madonna of Simone Martini's Annunciation), as if all her personality had been sucked, Klimt-like, into that cloth. This is one of the earliest portraits in the show. The later heroines of American Impressionism define themselves so completely, you scarcely notice the background.

*Arrangement in Pink and Gray (Afternoon Tea). Edmund C. Tarbell's 1894 effort appears to be a portrait, but if you look carefully you'll see another figure in the dusk at the left. Here too there's a Japanese backdrop, in the form of a rose-colored screen -- but the center of attention is the frail (and maybe just a bit spoilt) beauty on the sofa who looks straight out at us, as if to say, "My guest is s-o-o boring -- won't you come talk to me?"

[Elder Ducks Flying] *Eider Ducks Flying/Eider Ducks in Winter. These two magnificent Frank W. Benson watercolors (circa 1913) show how America and Japan, at opposite edges of European civilization, could share a feeling for abstraction and stylization that bypassed Europe. Eiders, with their long sloping bills, look stylized (even Oriental) to start with; Benson turns them back into elements of nature, all wind and water.

*Girl Playing Solitaire. This 1909 Benson portrait features a large autumnal Oriental screen. Yet once again it's the human figure who claims the spotlight. Her chin sunk in one hand (the other holds a card languidly), her expression downcast and gloomy, this young girl could be Washington Square's Catherine Sloper: all dressed up but with no one to entertain and no place to go. The artist has deepened the pathos of his scene by matching the patterns on her dress and even the flow of her body to the flow of the clouds on the screen, as if to say she's no wallflower but one of nature's neglected blooms.

The Landscape as a Place of Respite

Even a hundred years ago city dwellers would grab at a patch of greenery, a moment of repose, to remind them what life was, or ought to be, all about. Some of the works in this room seem misplaced -- surely Sargent's Oranges at Corfu and his Florida watercolors represent an extended vacation retreat rather than a brief, city-park respite? No matter, it's the escape that counts, Paradise regained.

*Early Morning Stroll. Quick, where are we in this William Merritt Chase 1887-'91 canvas? Looks a little like the Tuileries in Paris. For that matter, we could be in Boston's Public Garden. Actually it's Central Park. The lesson here is that the difference between American Impressionism and its French cousin is often a matter of light and color. The American variety tends to be a little harder, a little colder, especially in its blues and greens. In Early Morning Stroll Chase has chosen a warmer palette for his trees and the sky, and the sandy ground looks almost beachlike. These color values are underlined by the red of the seated lady's hat and, most of all, by the central child's red ball. The child itself, a solitary figure in white secure in its world of play, embodies a universe of lost innocence.

*Winter, Central Park. Monet, anyone? This Childe Hassam canvas from 1901 could just about pass -- perhaps the focus on a single figure is more suggestive of Manet. Hassam's lady is hitching up her skirt in anticipation of crossing the street (Fifth Avenue?) and entering Central Park. The moment looks spontaneous -- and Hassam took great pains to give that impression. Note how two foreground trees frame the scene, how the woman off-center front left balances the building off-center back right, how the two strollers left balance the policeman right, and how the (setting?) sun in the distance centers everything. The woman herself is about to step into the center; if this were Hyde Park she could be Kate Croy going to meet Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove. Even a moment caught out of time, American Impressionism tells us, reflects an ordered and not a chaotic universe.

Images of Women in American Impressionism

The American woman? Compare the portraits in this room with Chase's Dora Wheeler and you'll see the American woman coming into herself before your eyes.

*Mother and Child, or Reine Lefebvre Holding a Nude Baby. Isn't a Mary Cassatt mother and child just too obvious for words? Maybe not. Mother and Child is the title that's attached to the frame, but the title that was subsequently discovered suggests the woman holding the child is not its mother. Certainly Reine Lefebvre has a peculiarly distant expression on her face, sad, almost sensuous (does it remind you of Ingrid Bergman?), as if she wanted to be a woman and not a mother. Then again, you can see this expression on the faces of numerous Madonnas, all anticipating what's in store for the Holy Infant. Whichever, this is not a simple painting.

[Portrait of My Daughters] *Portrait of My Daughters. If there's one canvas that sums up this show, it's Frank W. Benson's 1907 portrait of his three daughters, Elizabeth, Sylvia, and Eleanor, at their summer home on the island of North Haven, Maine. Elizabeth, on the left, is absorbed in arranging a bowl of orange nasturtiums; she looks very serious. Sylvia is watching intently; her hair is hanging loose and she's pulling at it -- she appears to be the youngest of the three. Both girls wear white dresses. Eleanor, on the right, wears a white blouse but a matching beige jacket and skirt, suggesting she's older and perhaps less innocent. That feeling is underlined by the way she's turned her head away and is looking down reflectively, as if filled with thoughts she can't share with her sisters.

The trees overhead are in bloom and the entire scene is flooded in sunlight. Behind the sisters is a yellow meadow, for romping; beyond that is a little house, in case it rains, and then there's the infinite promise of the ocean. Elizabeth and Sylvia are on one side of this backdrop, Eleanor on the other -- as if Eleanor could no longer look at it in quite the same way. She's growing up. So is America.

Critic William Howe Downes wrote of this painting, "It shines like a good deed in a naughty world." Can't improve on that.

*Dorothy Lincoln/Portrait of a Lady (Edith Perley Kinnicutt). These two Benson portraits show American women at their most, well, American. Dorothy Lincoln (1907) recalls Sargent's portrait of Lizzie B. Dewey (not part of the show, but you can see it on the landing) in its frank sensuality. With its predominantly white color, modest bodice, and puffy sleeves, Dorothy's dress seems chaste enough; what's inviting, even unsettling, is the resolute gaze, the full lips, the rounded bare arms, the clutched right hand. Like Henry James's American heroines (Daisy Miller? Isabel Archer?) she plays by the rules -- but perhaps she also makes up her own. I get the feeling she'd marry the man she wanted, even if her parents disapproved. We'll never know: shortly after this portrait was painted, she died while on a Grand Tour.

Edith Perley Kinnicutt is the woman Dorothy Lincoln might have grown into -- except that Mrs. Kinnicutt was a Worcester society matron who founded the Worcester Girls' Club, whereas Dorothy looks ready to receive a proposal from a European count, or even an artist. In both these portraits, Benson created an outdoor setting suitable to the age of the sitter: vernal for Dorothy, autumnal for Edith. Yet both women outshine their backdrops. Mrs. Kinnicutt may no longer be young, but her frank, unselfconscious gaze conveys pride in who she is and what she's done.

*Katherine Chase Pratt/Mrs. Gardiner Greene Hammond (Esther Fiske Hammond). These two Sargents, on the other hand, depict less confident women -- just compare Katherine with Dorothy and Mrs. Kinnicutt with Mrs. Hammond. Katherine lounges uneasily in her chair; she seems swallowed up by her dress, and even more so by the floral backdrop, which screams "wallflower." She doesn't look the least bit satisfied with herself. Mrs. Hammond seems to be leaning forward slightly, as if asking for our approval; and her placing her hand at her breast just invites interpretation. Sargent tends to bring out the dark side of his sitters, if there is one; Benson finds the light.

*Sally/Natalie. These two portraits show American women at their most modern. Joseph DeCamp's Sally (his daughter) could hardly be simpler. The upward triangle formed by the V-neck of her sailor blouse and the black tie counterpoints the downward triangle of her arms and shoulders: both set off her neck and face. There's a luxuriance in her lips and her chestnut hair, yet her dark eyes are averted; there are secrets she's not going to share. Poised on a fencepost (the portrait was done in Wyoming), in a blouse and skirt and floppy hat, Benson's Natalie betrays no such inner turmoil. There's a gain in independence here, but also a loss. Dorothy Lincoln looks to want it all, to be society's woman and her own. Natalie Thayer will settle for being herself.

*Rehearsal in the Studio. This 1904 Tarbell canvas and Sargent's Venetian Water Carriers (which was in the museum's 1995 Sargent show) seem a little out of place in a room full of portraits, but they have their own stories to tell. The focal point of Tarbell's painting is the lady standing at the left: she's holding some sheet music and singing. On the other half of the canvas, a violinist accompanies her; two ladies sit uncomfortably on a sofa and chair; and a third lady lounges distractedly on the arm of a chair, sheet music in hand, waiting her turn. The singer wears a large, ostentatious hat and has placed her other hand aggressively akimbo, on her waist; we might conclude that her presence on the program owes more to her social standing than her vocal abilities. On the wall behind the sofa there's a reproduction of Velázquez's Pope Innocent X -- but Tarbell's reversed the image, so that the pope is facing left instead of right and appears to be listening. Is he a better judge of talent, or just more sympathetic?

Sargent's water carriers don't have the social status of the rest of the room, but in his own déclassé American way he makes them important. The one on the left has the carriage of a Sophia Loren, in the way she balances herself against the weight of the bucket, in the asymmetrical way her black shawl and red splash of belt set off the white dress, in the soft robustness of her arms. The one on the right goes about lowering the bucket without pretension.

The Landscape as Retreat

This room reflects the artists' summer-vacation spots -- Maine, Connecticut, Long Island. What's amazing is how the artists turn them into echoes of European sunlight or reflections on happy, relived childhoods.

*The Southwest Wind/Sylph's Rock, Appledore. These two Hassam landscapes from 1905 and 1907 remind us how easily color can make an American Impressionist landscape look French. Turn its trees into poplars and The Southwest Wind could be a Monet: it has the same cheerful greens and blues and yellows. The tiny figures at the right hardly register; what counts is the way the trees hide/shelter the central building, the balance provided by the building at the right, and the glimpse of sea/eternity in the distance. With its greeny blues and orangy browns, Sylph's Rock could lie off the coast of Normandy as easily as Maine. By putting us up close and personal with this hunk of granite (and not leaving us any apparent place to stand, unless we can walk on water), Hassam abstracts us from the world -- indeed this is a considerable step toward abstraction.

*Prelude/The White Mantle. Willard Leroy Metcalf's landscapes look like Pennsylvania to me, but that's where I grew up, so maybe it's just that he has the knack of re-creating the landscapes of memory -- yours as well as mine. Prelude (1909) was actually painted in Connecticut, along Long Island Sound. Its greens have that uniquely American darkness, but they're also soft, like childhood, or spring, or the hour just before dawn. You can almost sense the melting snow. The White Mantle seems to be nothing but snow, yet it too is soft and warm (think how different an Andrew Wyeth snowscape would look), Metcalf showing himself a master of a lavender-shaded grays and the strategic placement of inviting houses.

*Washington Bridge. I can't figure out why this 1912 Ernest Lawson scene isn't French -- it's got to be a small bridge over the Seine somewhere outside of Paris. Where else would you find such saturated turquoises and oranges and yellows? But no, it's the Washington Bridge over the Harlem River. The bridge is made of steel and stone; its steel blue color makes it seem like part of the natural environment. The subtle asymmetrical balancings here are the mark of a compositional masterpiece -- very few paintings are such a joy to look at.

Working Methods of the Impressionists

Are we really interested in "working methods"? Isn't that for academics? Well, maybe, but not in Worcester -- this is the most accessible, most engaging, most enjoyable "working methods" room you'll ever see. It practically explains itself.

*The Reader. Eleanor Benson was such a striking figure in Portrait of My Daughters, you were surely hoping to meet her again. Here she's seated in a sunlit garden, reading, with her oversized parasol laid temporarily aside. David Brigham suggests that the hortus conclusus, or enclosed garden, may signify the purity of the Virgin Mary. The accompanying photograph of Eleanor posing shows that on canvas Benson knocked a hole in the fence to suggest his daughter's happy future; he also removed the cushion she sat on, perhaps to bring her closer to nature. Eleanor is every bit as beautiful in the photo as she is on canvas; but as in Portrait of My Daughters her eyes are averted -- she's not an easy person to know.

*Columbus Avenue, Rainy Day/Columbus Avenue, Boston. Childe Hassam started out as a Boston painter, but when he returned to Paris he settled in New York. These two early (1885 and 1886) street scenes are the show's only trips to Boston. Rainy Day is a typically "hard-edged" (think Sargent, or Manet) American Impressionist canvas; centered on a single horse-drawn cab, it uses church spires, umbrellas, rainy reflections, and a warm brown tonality to create a cozy ambiance. A year later, Hassam appears to have discovered Turner: Columbus Avenue, Boston is an orange-brown blur, all rain and light and no form. You can't call one a study for the other -- they're splendidly independent depictions of the same scene by the same painter -- only he's a different painter.

* The Venetian Blind. This 1898 pair from Tarbell offer even more dramatic evidence of how a painting can change as it's taking shape. The study is uncomplicated: the woman lying on the sofa exhibits her nude torso, seen from the rear, for the artist's admiration and ours. In the finished painting she's not exhibiting but hiding: she has curled up and pulled some sort of coverlet over her lower body, and her face is buried in her arms -- as if her lover had walked out. Our attention is drawn instead to the light filtered through the Venetian blinds: it glorifies her but she rejects it. What was exhibitionism has been turned into art.

*The Table Garden/The Breakfast Room, Winter Morning/The New York Window. Three Childe Hassams, same location, same subject, but what a difference! The Table Garden gives us a woman in a blue dressing gown looking out over sets of lily bulbs at a curtained window, behind which we can vaguely make out high-rise Manhattan. The blue gown is bright; the bulbs offer promise; the filtered light is warm.

In The Breakfast Room, the woman is seated and much smaller -- The Table Garden, vertical, adjusted itself to the human figure, whereas The Breakfast Room is defiantly horizontal. The woman sits at the left side of the canvas, peeling an orange from the bowl of fruit on the right, but it seems a useless gesture, as does the vase of flowers on the table in the center. The Flatiron Building looms behind the curtains; it's as if New York were too much for this woman, as if her apartment were a prison, not a refuge.

The New York Window returns to vertical format, but it's a useless gesture. The blue of the gown has faded; the light has faded; the woman sits blankly on one side of the canvas, the untouched bowl of fruit is positioned on the other.

The real enjoyment of a show like "Paintings of Promise" is what you can discover about America -- and about yourself. The Worcester Art Museum has provided the context and a collection of paintings that few exhibitions could boast. It may be the museum's 100th birthday, but we're getting the present.

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