Phillips Spotlights Impressionists From This Side of Atlantic
The third-floor galleries at the Phillips Collection are filled with fuzzy pastoral landscapes, colorful beach crowds and serene scenes from nature. The cool, calm exhibit starkly contrasted with an earlier display, “Lyrical Color: Morris Louis, Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland and the Washington Color School,” a group of abstract paintings that was on view two floors below.
While the latter paid tribute to museum founder Duncan Phillips’s gusto as a collector of abstract art, the latest show celebrates the museum’s 85th anniversary with the more subdued pieces that laid its foundation.
“American Impressionism: Paintings from The Phillips Collection” features artists who first incorporated impressionist techniques into American painting—among them, William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, Theodore Robinson, John H. Twachtman and J. Alden Weir. Because impressionism was at its height of popularity when Phillips first came to New York in the early 20th century, many of his initial purchases came from these artists.
Given Phillips’s love affair with modern art, which developed into a growing appreciation of abstraction, this show might seem strikingly sedate compared to some of the museum’s prior abstract-centered exhibits. But if not electrifying, the exhibit does have its charm. The American landscape—particularly New England—is featured prominently, illustrating how Twachtman, Weir and others like them were devoted to their native countryside, unlike their predecessors who traveled the world for idyllic inspiration.
Beach scenes, leisure activities and pleasing metropolitan settings all became features of the time. Gifford Beal’s “The Promenade,” for instance, forgoes shadows and dark colors, using only pastel shades for the obscured young men and women as they make their way down the walkway.
Many of these American impressionists found inspiration in their own backyards as they settled into farms and cottages meant to serve as “pastoral respites from the modern world.” For years, Weir’s Connecticut farm hosted many of his artist friends, who came to view the abode as a retreat for both painting and relaxing. Two of Weir’s paintings on display, “The High Pasture” and “Afternoon by the Pond,” portray this rural setting in soft dabs of greens, yellows and pale blues.
The pieces range from genteel to playful, but never steer in the direction of dark or sinister. Only once in a while is there a hint of something other than recreation or natural beauty, such as in Beal’s “On the Hudson at Newburgh,” which depicts a mother and young child as they watch a troop of soldiers marching through town.
The description that accompanies Maurice Prendergast’s “Landscape Near Nahant” mentions Phillips’s admiration for the artist’s ability to combine abstract with the intimate. The canvas is filled with thick, broad brushstrokes that render the piece more striking than some of its softer counterparts. “Ponte della Paglia,” another alluring piece by Prendergast, does the same with a similar technique that depicts a lively Venetian crowd through a rainbow of vivid colors.
The paintings selected by Phillips, when viewed together, reveal an important contrast to the impressionists’ counterparts in France and other parts of Europe. Unlike works by artists such as Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, the American impressionists remained somewhat grounded in realism, giving many of their paintings three-dimensional qualities.
More important, the diversity of the painting techniques used by these American artists is matched by a surprisingly consistent theme—one that, intended or not, was well-timed with the summer holidays: America, the beautiful.
American Impressionism: Paintings from The Phillips Collection through Sept. 16 Phillips Collection 1600 21st St., NW For more information, please call (202) 387-2151 or visit www.phillipscollection.org.
About the Author
Heather Mueller is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.