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Beyond the Picturesque

American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885–1915 10–July 24, 1994

an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May

American Impressionism and Realism: Drawings, Prints, and Photographs 3–July 24, 1994

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May

American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885–1915

catalog of the exhibition by H. Barbara Weinberg et al.
Abrams, 384 pp., $75.00

The megashow gives way to the talk show—an art exhibit where more time is spent absorbing the pedagogic text on the walls than in looking at the pictures. As insurance costs rise and government support dwindles, and the number of artists for whom the public will form long queues approaches its limit, the kind of global roundup that Matisse and Renoir and Picasso and Degas and Sargent and Caravaggio have received in recent years may be joining the junk-bond boom in the annals of heydays; in these drabber times museums are turning scholarly, delving into their and their fellow institutions’ copious reserves of less than supremely fashionable works of art to assemble purposeful lectures through which we walk as if galleries were paragraphs and paintings were slides of themselves. “American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885–1915,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, uses eighty-five canvases by twenty-six artists to illustrate its deconstruction of a verbal distinction that, in the minds of all but art curators and professionals, was rather hazy anyway.

According to received cultural history, the American Impressionists, following their French masters in rebelling against the studio-bound academic tradition of the nineteenth century, had become by the beginning of the twentieth century the contemporary art establishment and were in turn rebelled against by the Realists, who signaled their rebellion with an independent exhibition, at the Macbeth Gallery in 1908, of The Eight—named in distinction to The Ten, a group of Impressionists that had seceded from the Society of American Artists in 1897. The Impressionists were exemplified by William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, and J. Alden Weir, and the Realists were led by Robert Henri, William Glackens, George Luks, and John Sloan.

But according to the abundant wall inscriptions, the more than usually ample exhibition brochure sponsored by Alamo Rent A Car (“If, after you’ve seen these scenes of American life in the exhibition, you’re inspired to take your own show on the road, call us,” the brochure cunningly urges), and the heavy, opulently informative catalog by H. Barbara Weinberg, Doreen Bolger, and David Park Curry, the Impressionists and the Realists weren’t as different as has been thought. “Both studied in Europe, taught in the same schools, sought patronage in the same circles,” the first wall tells us. And both, the dominant message of the commentary repeatedly insists, were guilty of “genteel euphemism” in presenting the grim facts of an America in the throes of urbanization, industrialization, and mass immigration.

True, the Realists employed a more somber palette and sometimes depicted the poor and the slums, but even when they did so they sheltered the viewer from the true hardness of the case. John Sloan’s painting A Woman’s Work (1912) shows a healthy-looking—nay, attractive—young woman hanging wash from a tenement fire-escape landing; the wall caption points out that this clean, sunny moment leaves out of sight the dirt purged by “soapy water heated on a stove” and that the woman has “not yet struggled with the heavy iron.” The fuller text of the catalog finds even more to raise an eyebrow at: it quotes Sloan’s words, in which he confesses: “An urge to record my strong emotional response to the city women, any woman running up the colors of a fresh, clean wash. Sun, wind, scant clothing, blowing hair, unconscious grace give me great joy.” The catalog’s gloss follows with the swiftness of divine vengeance: “Sloan’s evocation of outdoor elements and the ‘fresh, clean wash’ sounds as if he were describing a sporty racing sloop, effectively masking his desire to observe these women in intimate moments.” Sloan is taken to task for voyeurism, his decision to “depict the most pleasant moment in the washing process,” and his failure to show us how his “faithful wife, Dolly,” felt about the laundry, which, before the advent of electric washers and dryers, “occupied as much as a third of a housewife’s working time.”

The captious wall captions, which I quote as integral to the show, rather than the fuller sociological indictments of the catalog, are obsessed by what Sloan does not depict. Of the laughing figures in The Picnic-Grounds (1906–1907) we are told that he has “recorded the pleasures of their holiday outing rather than the hardships of the work in shops or in factories” and, apropos the snowman-making children of Backyards, Greenwich Village (1914), that the “lives of these youngsters [appear] much sunnier than those of the slum children recorded in photographs by more candid observers of the period, such as Jacob Riis.” The Realists, with their pretensions to honest democratic and urban perspectives, disappoint the wall-inscribers most often. George Bellows, in his crowded city canvas Cliff Dwellers (1913), “was at least as concerned with recording curious types as he was with offering a polemical account of conditions on East Broadway,” and of the sometimes polemical Robert Henri’s Street Scene with Snow (1902) it is complained that Fifty-Seventh Street “was a comfortable cultural and residential neighborhood far from the slums where the poor suffered in midwinter.”

But even the Impressionists, were capable, in their landscapes, of significant evasions. Childe Hassam, in his festive paintings of American flags, “even near the end of the second decade of the twentieth century…maintained American Imperialism’s rosy spirit,” and his elevated view of Union Square in Spring (1896) “ignored the Square’s association with political gatherings and protests, its role as a hub for the labor movement, and its decline as a theatrical and entertainment center.” But it is J. Alden Weir, in his Factory Village (1897), who works the most perfidious concealment of all:

The large tree spreads its protective canopy over the smokestack of the Willimantic Linen Company’s factory, its spool shop’s tower, and the telegraph pole. There is no hint of the immigrant labor problems that the company had experienced in the 1880s or of the financial problems it faced in the late 1890s.

The assemblers and labelers of this show have gone out on a provocative limb, and it would insult their sensitivity and expertise to harp on the obvious limits of what a painting can possibly include. The silence of the medium and its lack of an olfactory or tactile dimension make it inadequate to render the full reality of a slum or a squalid dwelling. Further, such documentary capacities as painting possessed had by 1885 been taken from it by the medium of photography; a Bellows painting could not bear the same testimony as a Jacob Riis photograph. Impressionism arose partly in response to the crisis imposed upon the pictorial arts by the arrival of photography; painting was driven to seek out those things that only it could do. The overt art of painting slowly replaced the covert skills of depiction. As one moves through the rooms of this show, resting one’s eyes from the incessant wall notes with an occasional peek at the paintings, the essential distinction emerges as not that between Impressionist and Realism but that between painting and depiction.

The Realists as a group tended to have been illustrators and their purpose remained illustrative even when it was not polemical. George Bellows’s The Studio (1919) and William Glackens’s Central Park in Winter (c. 1905), for instance, are depictions; once the facts of the setting have been indicated, the figures solidified and disposed, and the colors filled in, the artist’s task is complete, even if details are left hasty and coarse. Childe Hassam’s The Room of Flowers (1894), by contrast, is unintelligible and chaotic in impression; the background is painted with the same intensity as the foreground, and a process of meditation, or enjoyment, seems still in progress and could have been extended beyond the final state of the canvas. Hassam’s Charles River and Beacon Hill (c. 1892) records a moment when Back Bay was still muddy and life preservers hung on its fenced edge, but such historically interesting depiction feels incidental to its flattened flurry of paint, to a turbulent and visibly tentative process. One of the secrets of Hassam’s continuing vitality is his willingness to throw himself and his paints at nearly anything; if his American flags are imperialistic, then so are Jasper Johns’s.

Several of the Realists, we learn from the catalog, had well-to-do wives, and thus could afford venturing into the world of the common man for subject matter. Almost all, Realists and Impressionists both, made good livings at what William Merritt Chase called “the most magnificent profession that the world knows.” Sloan’s lustful gaze upon the city women he could see from the window of his studio on East Twenty-Second Street, considered politically, carries on centuries of inequitable power relations between the artist and his models, generally recruited from an inferior class.

But an artist must capture beauty where he sees it, and there is a progressive if not revolutionary content in the artist’s announcement that beauty and joyfulness arise among the humble and lowly as well as among the fortunate. The democracy of the eye implies a democracy of law; lust stirs the melting pot more effectively than pity, and crediting the working classes with moments of jubilation and triumph—even the minor triumph of clean wash—acknowledges them as kindred souls. To reproach the American Realists with optimism and euphemism is to denigrate the affirmative message that art brings us all. No Realist was more immersed in the noisome life of the poor than George Luks, yet his painting of two ragged children dancing together, The Spielers (1905), is a celebration out of Franz Hals and Brueghel. A critic wrote of it in 1915, we learn from the catalog, “For all their ragged attire, the two little maidens, locking their hands together, are as happy as princesses.”

An ancient decorum still ruled in 1915 whereby beauty, harmony, and energy were thought to be the natural subjects of art, and the ugly and pitiful were relegated to the inferior genre of the grotesque. The painters had to think of their buyers, and the domestic settings their paintings were meant to adorn. The modes of photography and black-and-white etching had a different, journalistic market, and indeed the unsoftened views of labor and squalor that the wall commentary seems to demand are more easily found in the companion exhibit of prints, drawings, photographs, and watercolors assembled entirely from the Metropolitan’s own collection.

Black-and-white images can be news, with the shock value of news. Bellows’s lithograph Why Don’t They Go to the Country for a Vacation?, published as a frontispiece in a 1913 issue of the socialist journal The Masses, gives a much stronger impression of the hellish crowding of the lower East Side than the painting closely derived from it, Cliff Dwellers (1913). In the painting, the foreground figures in white suggest the heavenly thronging of a Tiepolo, and the chiaroscuro of the receding crowd and the sunless tenement front holds these elements to a plane of their own, so that they no longer press mercilessly forward, as in the lithograph. Several bearded, distinctly Jewish faces have disappeared, and a certain generalizing pervades the broad, fluid brush strokes. The figures of the child-carrying woman on the right, and the seated women beneath her, have become monumental and heroic, and a balanced calm, as in a crammed but carefully spaced Renaissance tableau, has overtaken and subverted the unmistakable editorial message of Bellows’s scratchily drawn black-and-white image.

Viewed without reference to the hectoring comments on the walls, or to the catalog with its Braudelian accounts of the evolution of bathing attire and laundry appliances, and American attitudes toward boxing and beaches, the eighty-five paintings less describe social conditions between 1885 and 1915 than provide a luminous if faintly bland view of the human condition in general, as it perennially manifests itself beneath blue skies, on crowded streets, and in furnished rooms.

The painters most represented, with nine canvases each, are Hassam, Sloan, and William Merritt Chase. Chase, of these three the least familiar to me, emerged as the exhibit’s hero. His somewhat cursory and gaudy At the Seaside (c. 1892), with its Chinese-red big beach umbrella, is the picture chosen for the catalog’s cover, and was made into a poster as one of the exhibit’s signature pieces. A striking work, in its sunstruck brilliance and lateral shape, and a good example of Chase’s stabbing, crumbling brushwork, it seems less finished and consummate than the two other displayed landscapes of Southampton, both of them grassy, scrubby seaside expanses decorated with a few white-clad summer folk. The wall commentary, besides irritably noting that the summering women and children of the 1890s were “isolated from male company, from the working world, and from nature’s discomforts and dangers,” appears also to feel cheated by the “artful” way that Chase was able to make the “unprepossessing topography of Southampton’s Shinnecock area” look so “delightful.” As their titles—The Fairy Tale (1892) and Idle Hours (c. 1894)—suggest, these are not Realist works, though surely the halcyon moment of American summer was real enough. “Paint the commonplace in such a way as to make it distinguished,” Chase advised his students. He also declared, “When I have found the spot I like, I set up my easel, and paint the picture on the spot.”

The issue of the “picturesque” is raised by a pair of placards surprisingly placed in two of the museum windows looking into Central Park, treating it as a work of art 840 acres in dimension, of “natural materials rear-ranged,” credited to Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. A contemporary commentator is quoted on the challenge their raw materials posed:

Long and narrow and flat…without a natural stream or any sheet of water, and with one of the most uninteresting varieties of rock-formation on which forming Nature ever tried her hand, the picturesque seemed impossible

Impressionism, like the Barbizon School which preceded it and the Realism which followed it in America, extended the meaning of “picturesque”—indeed much of Western painting can be seen as an expansion, since the holy scenes on altarpieces, of what was considered worthy of being painted. Impressionism appropriated photography’s apparent randomness of inclusion. Chase’s handling of shape and color, whether found outdoors or in the gilded-age decor of his studio, is bright and crisp and sturdy, but he often contrives in his compositions to include an amount of empty foreground space that throws us off balance. Prospect Park, Brooklyn (c. 1886), The Lake for Miniature Yachts (c. 1890), and Ring Toss (1896)—all are jaunty in this Japanese, Whistlerish way. The classic full-length portrait of Whistler is by Chase, whose paintings overshadow those of Sargent in the show, save for Sargent’s spectacular double portrait of Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes (1897). When Sargent attempts to be bucolic, the effect can be somewhat sickly; he never really seems at ease with the color green.

In the so-called Realist camp, it is John Sloan who most poetically depicts the electric light and dark of city life, its shadowy, cooped-up flavor and flares of human incident. His depiction, in a canvas like Sunday, Woman Drying Their Hair (1912), remains as painting rather loose, but the anecdotal element co-exists with a strict and inventive pictorial sense in Easter Eve (1907), the maligned A Woman’s Work, and a charming gem, Chinese Restaurant (1909). The Cot (1907) is the only painting in the show that directly invites us to contemplate the sexual life that teemed within the tenements, and is powerfully fleshy in its sullen reserve; as the light from an unseen window breaks in a few slashes of white on the edge of an unmade bed, while the bare-armed, bare-legged woman and her ruffled undergarment keep to the urban shadows. The olfactory barrier is almost broken; the smell of warmed bedclothes seems to waft out. The tints of city life so thoroughly imbued Sloan’s blood that even his jumbled rooftops and blue waters of Gloucester Harbor (1916) have to them a somber indoor cast.

George Bellows’s paintings of pale, baroquely bent boxers remain the most memorable Realist works, but only one is hung here—Club Night (1907). His Kids (1906)—showing slum children in a state of staring, smoking, squalling idleness—is the most forthrightly proletarian of the exhibit’s numerous vivid paintings of children, including Mary Cassatt’s chalky, elegant Mother About to Wash Her Sleepy Child (1880) and her masterly, much-reproduced The Bath (1891–1892).

Cassatt and Sargent were, of course, expatriates, and yet the training of all the artists in the show, except Bellows and Sloan, involved some European intervals, so that the artistic milieu of the period could be called transatlantic. In the transatlantic current, Americans were receivers rather than dispatchers, as critics of the time were not too patriotic to point out. “A good Monet is worth money; an imitation is worth nothing,” Alfred Trumble wrote in Art Collector 2. Americans were buyers rather than sellers, also; not one of these eighty-five canvases was borrowed from a European museum.

Our native performers had their spirited twists of private style, and their own continent to paint, but the attitude they as a group project is of dutiful students rather than of inspired truants. Only a single canvas, Central Park (c. 1908–1910) by Maurice Prendergast, a Newfoundland-born display-card designer who had fallen under the influence of Cézanne and the Fauves, dares to look primitive and gives an indication of what Post-impressionism might become. With its faceless figures, friezelike composition, and stained-glass colors applied in fat lateral brushstrokes as discrete as flagstones, the picture resembles none other in the show and depicts Central Park only as a point of departure. The departure was already wildly underway in Europe (Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was painted in 1907) and would give the peace of a backwater to our Impressionism and Realism both—a peace that not all the sniping from the wall can quite shatter.

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