Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
The Cos Cob Art Colony: Impressionists on the Connecticut Shore
"The Cos Cob Art Colony: Impressionists on the Connecticut Shore," on view in the Caroline Wiess Law Building of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston from June 17 through September 16, 2001, brings together more than sixty stunning works by twelve members of the Cos Cob art colony, an enclave of artists that thrived in Greenwich, Connecticut from 1882 Until Shortly after World War I. Childe Hassam, John Twachtman J. Alden Weir, and Theodore Robinson are among the major American artists who found inspiration in this lively colony. Together, the artists of the Cos Cob art colony quietly helped initiate and shape the dramatic shift in American art toward Impressionism, creating some of the most radical and modern paintings of their time.
The Cos Cob art colony flourished during a period of sweeping social, cultural, and artistic change in America. In the late nineteenth century Greenwich, in particular, was changing from a farming and fishing community to a prosperous suburb of New York. Keenly aware of this transformation, the artists at Cos Cob produced work that reflects the underlying tensions between tradition and modernity, nature and technology, and country and city. At the same time, Cos Cob became a testing ground for the artists' new styles and themes. As they encouraged one another to challenge artistic conventions, they benefited from the stimulus of the writers, editors, and journalists who were also members of the art colony.
"The beautiful works in this exhibition were unparalleled in American art at the turn of the twentieth century," said Peter C. Marzio, director of the MFAH. "After training in Europe and absorbing French Impressionism, the artists at Cos Cob embraced their American surroundings, painting in a revolutionary style that transformed American art." Emily Ballew Neff, curator of American painting and sculpture at the MFAH explains, "The Impressionists of the Cos Cob art colony responded to the changes of modern life with considerable depth and clarity. Invigorated by an experimental spirit, they painted ordinary subject matter with unusual perceptiveness."
The exhibition is divided into the four key themes that engaged the artists most: the nautical landscape; images of women and children; images of Cos Cob's architecture; and intimate landscapes. Examples include The Anchorage, Cos Cob (c. 1894) by Robinson, The Goldfish Window (1916) by Hassam, View from the Holley House, Winter (c. 1901) by Twachtman, and Hollyhocks (1914) by Elmer MacRae. Works from the MFAH's permanent collection of American art, such as Woodchopper (1902) by Hassam, complement the exhibition.
In their portrayals of the nautical landscape, the Cos Cob Impressionists suggest the dynamics of change and their own ambivalent attitudes toward it. The artists depicted old working vessels, leisure craft, and the railroad in combinations that reveal a maritime culture during a time of transition. In Robinson's The E.M.J Betty (1894), the railroad bridge squeezes a battered steamer into a confined space, a visual analogy for the economic pressure the railroad exerted on the cargo fleet. Twachtman's Sailing in the Mist (c. 1895) is among the highlights of the exhibition. Twachtman uses the solitary female figure sailing a small boat as a metaphor of life's journey from birth to death. The painting's feathery brushwork and near-abstraction powerfully express the artist's own grief after the death of his 8-year-old daughter. Boats at a Landing (1894) by Robinson reveals the influence of Japanese art techniques among the artists at Cos Cob. Many compositional elements--the asymmetrical design, the flattened shapes, and layered space--are inspired by Robinson's study of Japanese prints.
The artists' paintings of women and children promote contemporary ideals of family life and illustrate their attitudes about tradition, modernity, and the role of women. Twachtman depicts his daughter feeding chickens and roosters under the watchful eyes of her mother in Barnyard (c. late 1890s). The mother, framed in a trellised gate with a dove hovering above her head, recalls religious images of the Holy Spirit. The female figure was a major theme for Hassam, who portrayed his sitters as idle women in a genteel, refined home. Bowl of Goldfish (1912) demonstrates Hassam's virtuoso skill in depicting light and form through dashes of colored paint. The bowl unites the interior with the exterior by serving as a lens, magnifying the natural world and bringing it indoors. The young woman, holding a blossom close to her chest, is at one with nature as she gazes out an open window toward the lush, inviting landscape.
The historic buildings of Cos Cob provided a continuity of past to present that engaged the artists. In these unassuming warehouses, cottages, and old-fashioned country stores, which one contemporary journalist described as "moss grown and worm eaten," the artists found a genuine, indigenous tradition. The Holley House, the boardinghouse where the Cos Cob artists congregated, was a favorite architectural subject and appears in seven works in the exhibition. The house provoked introspection on themes of time and change for Twachtman who suggests the steadfast endurance of the building in Old Holley House, Cos Cob (c. 1890-1900). Hassam, who focused on the warmth and familiarity of Holley House, surrounds the old building with lilacs, a graceful elm tree, and flickers of sunlight in The Holley Farm (1902).
Reverence for the natural environment pervades the outdoor landscape paintings by the Cos Cob artists. They expressed in their art a personal response to the land that they knew, loved, and, in many cases, owned. The Ice Cutters (I895), by Weir, commemorates a traditional winter farming chore that seemed to be vanishing by the turn of the century. More than any other artist painting at Cos Cob, Twachtman instilled his landscapes with deep emotion and spirituality. Last Touch of Sun (c. 1893) conveys the sense of security the simple farmhouse represented to the artist. As a cozy retreat from the busy world, the house nestles into its peaceful, snow-covered setting. Twachtman's paintings of the brook that ran through his property are among his most famous. The natural looking landscape was as much the artist's creation as the canvases it inspired.
Twachtman did not simply paint what he found on his property, but cultivated a woodland garden along the edges of the brook. In The Little Bridge (c. 1896), Twachtman harmonizes the white footbridge with the surrounding vegetation--the bridge representing a transition between the domestic and the natural areas of his garden.
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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
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