Thursday, 2 October 2014

American Impressionism: artistic networks in nineteenth-century Paris

Welcome back to the postgraduate run blog for the Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies at the University of Glasgow. Yesterday, 1st October 2014, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr. Frances Fowle (Senior Curator at the Scottish National Gallery) to the first of the Centre’s 2014-2015 seminar series. In what was a fascinating lecture, Dr. Fowle discussed ‘American Impressionism: artistic networks in nineteenth-century Paris.’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Dr Fowle’s lecture focused on the current exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery, titled American Impressionism: A New Vision. Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art, A New Vision traces the discovery of Impressionism by American artists in the late 19th century.  On show are over 70 works produced in both Europe and the United States between 1880 and 1900, and the exhibition has received fantastic reviews from the press: The Herald called it "An astonishing show", while The Guardian deemed the exhibition as "...full of radical talent."

Having previously been on show at the Musée des Impressionnismes in Giverny, A New Vision went on display at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in July 2014. The exhibition ends on the 19th October 2014 (so there is still time to go!!) and will move on to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid (Here is the exhibition information:

Dr. Fowle began by discussing the four groups with which the exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery is divided into. The first group includes major figures such as Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler; these artists lived in Paris and were close personal friends of the French Impressionists, especially Edgar Degas and Claude Monet. The second group of American artists trained in Paris and/or settled near Monet at Giverny in 1887. The third group of American Impressionists worked in the USA, and includes William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam and Theodore Robinson. The last American group, known as 'The Ten', championed Impressionist art practices in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

After this introduction to the exhibition, Dr. Fowle began her talk by displaying and analyzing the sequence of women and children that shows the great Mary Cassatt at her most singular. For example, in one painting – a profoundly tender painting from 1890 of a child curled comfortably into a woman's body – Cassatt captures the domesticity of contemporary female life whilst showcasing the intimate bond between a mother and her child. Of interest for this particular painting is the fact that the mother has her back to the viewer, and as Dr. Fowle suggested, this can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

Dr. Fowle also highlighted that Cassatt objected to being described as an impressionist on the grounds that she was an “independent artist”. That vignette speaks volumes not only about Cassatt’s character but also about so-called ‘American Impressionism’ in general, a movement which never regarded itself as an offshoot of a weightier French parent. With this in mind, Dr. Fowle asked the audience to consider the question - what actually is ‘American Impressionism’?

One of the highlights of Dr. Fowle’s talk was her discussion of John Singer Sargent. Just as Cassatt had cultivated a close friendship with Edgar Degas, Sargent sparked a fruitful friendship with Claude Monet in Giverny, near Paris. Dr. Fowle introduced us to this by displaying the image below, where Sargent, who succeeded in Giverny where others had failed, paints Monet painting outdoors in the great studio of nature:

Sargent first met Monet in 1876 at the Second Impressionists Exhibit in Paris – the Impressionists had to have their own exhibits since the Salon, the official art exhibit of the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris, refused to display their paintings – but the two artists were closest ten years later and painted together at Giverny. Sargent admired the way that Monet worked out of doors, and imitated some of his subjects and methods in sketches such as the one above. It is characteristic of Sargent to give a human view of Monet's practice and of the patience of his wife, who sits behind him. Their friendship endured, and Dr. Fowle did a fantastic job of contrasting their works and showing the influence each took from one another to improve their works.

Dr. Fowle ended with John Leslie Breck's interpretation of the haystacks motif. These twelve small paintings each display the same vista but at different times of day. Individually one or two stand out, but their power is in their collection. They were apparently painted over the course of three days and they are a brilliant group of works to be viewed together.

To summarise, in her lecture Dr. Fowle mixed biography, art, history and criticism to create a brilliantly detailed picture of the story behind ‘American Impressionism.’ She suggested the ways in which art is both shaped and changed by the environment in which it is created, and interestingly left the audience to ponder the meaning of the term ‘American Impressionism.’ For example, Dr. Fowles made it clear that ‘impressionism’ is hard enough to pin down in art historical terms, never mind ‘American impressionism.’

Dr. Fowle’s lecture was informative, and as suggested by its attendance, was highly popular. And indeed, it certainly made this listener plan a visit to the exhibition before it concludes on October 19th, which, from the impression of those in the room who had already attended, will undoubtedly prove worthwhile.

By Joe Ryan-Hume
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues with Dr. Marian Lauret (University of Sussex) ‘Really Reading Junot Diaz: Literature of the “new immigration.”’ This is in collaboration with the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow, and forms part of the 'English and American Literature Lecture Series', co-sponsored by the Andrew Hook Centre. It will be held on Thursday 2nd October in Room 202, 4 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!

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