Ohio Impressionists and Post-Impressionists

by James M. Keny



Dayton, Springfield, Toledo, and Western Ohio

Although Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland were the primary centers of artistic activity in Ohio between 1870 and 1940, there were other active artistic communities throughout the state. Dayton, Toledo, and Springfield were important centers along Ohio's western border.


ERNEST BLUMENSCHEIN (1874-1960) was born in Pittsburgh but raised in Dayton, Ohio. He received his formative training in Cincinnati from 1891 to 1892, then studied in New York and Paris. Blumenschein, a master of paint handling, is best known for his powerful Post-Impressionist images of the American West. Canyon, Red and White (1934) is a palpable interpretation of the Southwestern landscape. Alive with color and light and expressive surface, it has the emotive and reductive power in oil that Burchfield's Eroded Sand Pits has in watercolor.


FRANK BOGGS (1855-1926) was born in Springfield but left the state at an early age. He studied during the late 1870s at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and did not return for any length of time to the United States. In Paris he won wide recognition for his atmospheric paintings of the ports of France and the quays along the Seine River in Paris. Eventually, word of his success traveled to the United States, and today his work is owned by many major institutions in America as well as France. Boggs was a master of plein-air painting who delighted in capturing the fleeting effects of the constantly changing skies of northern France and southern England.

In spacious paintings such as La Seine, Paris Quai des Augustins (1922) Boggs orchestrated remarkably rich yet subtle, restrained colors-grays, dusty blues, and tans. His command of changing atmospheric effects echoes the work of early pre-Impressionist painters such as Eugène Boudin and Johann Barthold Jongkind, artists who also had an impact on the French Impressionist Claude Monet. Boggs's subdued palette and broad flowing brushstrokes are quite different from the daubs of high-key color so essential to the Impressionists, but his sensitivity to the transistory effects of nature certainly aligns him with these artists. Voiliers, Venise (1890) is a warmer variant of his chilly northern work. The languid ease suggested by the blond light, the lushly indolent application of buttery paint, and the whimsical clouds distinguish this early work, aligning it more with the paintings of Duveneck and his followers than with Boudin.


ETHEL COOKE (1887-1976), who hailed from the industrial town of Springfield, studied with Chase and Henri in New York and then, after extensive travel in the United States and abroad, returned to Springfield. From 1946 to 1962 she taught at Wittenburg University in Springfield.

Cooke's most respected works are the small brushy vignettes she painted on panel between 1908 and 1930. Chase advised her, as he did all of his pupils, to paint, paint, paint until the moment is captured. This talented artist must have listened, for although her actively painted five- by six-inch panels have a minimum of detail, they succeed through their carefully observed tonalities. Often the flavor of the place and moment is preserved in her small but compelling works.

In viewing Spicer's House, Hampton, Connecticut (1930), at some visceral level one feels the warm afternoon sun that bakes the side of the New England cottage so palpably that it becomes a small but clear window to remembered experiences. Just as the fragrance of a certain perfume or the aroma of a favorite dish propel one back in time to treasured moments, so a faithfully rendered quality of light can also recall powerful memories.


LUTHER EMERSON VAN GORDER (1857-1931) was the strongest, most successful exponent of Impressionism in Toledo. Like Boggs, Van Gorder enjoyed painting the streets of Paris, as he did in the two versions of Quai aux Fleurs, Paris (n.d.) in this exhibition. Van Gorder studied with Chase, as did Cooke, and then at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, as had Boggs. Van Gorder lived in Paris for five years, then settled in Toledo. He exhibited his work at annual exhibitions nationwide during the late 1880s and 1890s, staying closer to home in later years.

Van Gorder's works, such as the Toledo Quai aux Fleurs, Paris, have the same deep space and strong diagonals that dramatically pull one into pictorial space, as in Boggs's paintings. But Van Gorder's paintings are more generous in color and more anecdotal than those of Boggs. Further, Van Gorder's paint handling is tighter and the brushstrokes are shorter than those of his more expressive contemporary. The smaller, more sketchy version of Quai aux Fleurs exhibits greater spontaneity, and thus more immediacy and vitality than its more formal, larger variant.


KARL KAPPES (1861-1943) was active in Toledo and Texas (an Ohio town west of Toledo), where he maintained his summer residence from 1912 until his death in 1943. Born in Zanesville in 1861, he studied there privately and then in Cincinnati, New York, Paris, and Munich during the late 1870s and 1880s. While in Zanesville, he headed the art department at the nationally famous Weller Pottery Works and maintained a studio. In 1912 Kappes went to Toledo, perhaps attracted by the city's industrial boom and the concomitant opening of the Toledo Museum of Art with funds from Edward Drummond Libbey, owner of the large glass manufactory.

Kappes's work is more heavily influenced by his Cincinnati and Munich training than his French training. While his works, such as The Kappes Garden (ca.1935) have the vibrant shimmering hues of Impressionism, the plastic handling of the paint and related concern with surface is more related to the Munich school, a strong strain of influence, as we have seen, throughout the work of many other Ohio painters. Kappes's brushwork and concern with space more than surface is a conservative variant of Impressionism.


CHARLES COURTNEY CURRAN (1861-1942) was raised east of Toledo, in the smaller Lake Erie port of Sandusky, Ohio. Most of his career was spent in New York during the winters and at the Cragsmoor Art Colony north of New York during the summers. He returned briefly to Ohio in the late 1880s and 1890s to paint scenes on and around the Lake Erie shores. Trained in Cincinnati, New York, and Paris, Curran was a technically superb painter. His early, somewhat academic, masterworks, such as Lotus Lilies (1888) and Chrysanthemums (1890) reveal his mastery of the human figure as well as his feel for texture and instinct for color.

Lotus Lilies is one of the artist's most famous works. An elegant essay in luminous yellows, greens, and whites, it is a painting in which tight academic drawing prevails. The two women seated in the solidly drawn boat are flawessly rendered. Although the artist has beautifully captured the play of light as it bathes the figures and dances across the flower-strewn surface of the pond, the primary focus of the picture remains the figures. These are not color notes subservient to the landscape, as they often are in French Impressionist paintings, but here they are a storytelling element as they go about their occupation of picking flowers.

Chrysanthemums is another stunning example of Curran's early work. The delicately modeled skin tones, myriad of carefully delineated yet wonderfully animated flowers, and sensitively painted sun-flecked hair of the child reveal his thorough command of observation and technique. The postures and sculpted forms of the figures are equally convincing. Just as in Lotus Lilies, Curran displays his delight in the play of light and the pageantry of rich color, and the genteel figures that tell a story remain of paramount concern.

In 1903 Curran began to spend his summers in the art colony of Cragsmoor in upstate New York, close to Woodstock, where Bellows would paint in the early 1920s. There he became famous for his depictions of athletic women standing along the bluffs and slopes of this hilly region. In these works, such as Wild Flowers (1913), his brushwork is looser, and changing atmospheric qualities are more important. The bell-jar clarity of his early Salon paintings gives way to a more diffused and transitory envelope of fleeting light. Here, motion of the figures becomes more important. No longer suspended in a timeless, still space, they are frozen in action.


HOWARD THOMAS (1899-1971) was born in Mt. Pleasant, Ohio, in 1890. One of the most recent-born of the artists represented in this exhibition, Thomas was a powerful Post-Impressionist painter. His Houses at Montgomery, Pennsylvania (1929) is alive with expressive daubs of vibrant color. Its strong impact belies its relatively small size, recalling the work of the great Canadian Post-Impressionist painter Tom Thompson. Thomas taught for most of his career at the University of Wisconsin, the University of North Carolina, Agnes Scott College, and the University of Georgia.


OTHER NOTEWORTHY OHIO IMPRESSIONISTS AND POST-IMPRESSIONISTS, some of whom have been almost entirely forgotten, are listed in an appendix at the back of this book.

So ends this roster of Ohio's foremost practitioners of the modernist aesthetic. Their numbers and their significant contributions to American art attest to the wealth of artistic genius that Ohio has nurtured through its rich physical, institutional, and personal resources.


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