American Impressionism to Modernism: A Brief History


Events in Europe

Gustave Courbet (1819 - 1877) was one of the first artists to openly confront the world and publicly go against "the system" and the status quo. As the first avant-garde artist he opened the door to freedom of expression in art, although his work had little to no comment on the political or social life in France. Courbet exposed through unorthodox views what he wanted the public to see, not what was traditionally expected to be presented in art.

During the early nineteenth century freedom of expression was almost foreign to the art world. The now famous 1863 Parisian Salon des Refusés proved to be a landmark in the history of Modern art.

Napoleon III set up the Salon des Refusés to appease those painters (Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Whistler, Jongkind and others) who were insulted by the rejection of their works by the official Salon. Artists who had gone against established and acceptable painting techniques were given, for the first time, the right to a public viewing and this exhibition marked the beginning of an artistic independence.

Dusseldorf, Munich and Paris were the three leading art meccas of the nineteenth century. Although Eugene Delacroix (1799 - 1863) had taken an independent stand against the value of technical painting as the Academicians taught it, it was Claude Monet (1840 - 1926) who revolutionized art by organizing an independent group of artists who would exhibit their recalcitrant canvases in an 1874 show which would shock critics and public alike. Their purpose was to present new ideas and not "old tendencies, and hope for the adhesion of all serious artists." The show opened April 15, 1874, and when Louis Leroy characterized the entire exhibit as an "Exhibition of Impressionists", a title meant in jest and cued from Monet's painting Impression-Sunrise (1872), the names "Impressionist" and "Impressionism" were born. (right above: William Merrit Chase, Sunset at Shinnecock, 29 x 37 inches, oil on canvas, Courtesy of R. H. Love Galleries, Inc., Chicago, IL)

Threatened with the artists' display of obstinate defiance of authority, critic J. Claretie said the artists "appear to have declared war on beauty." Under the banner of "Impressionism" painters launched an innovative concept of naturalism, showing new impressions of the visible world rather than the imitation of exact appearances. They perceived light as color sensations and were concerned with the effects of a fluid play of light. Color sensations were perceived as constantly changing, and forms as light reflected from a surface, while shadows were shown to be lights of a lower intensity. Light, not subject matter, became the most important aspect of their painting and this was foreign to the Salon painters' ideology. Variations of hue and intensity of light were stressed. The Impressionists were not dramatically concerned with line. They applied their paint to the canvas in small daubs and dashes of paint in order to heighten the effect of vibrations and changes of light effects. (left above: John J. Enneking, Along the Neponset River, d. 1888, 22 x 30 inches, oil on canvas, Private collection, Photo courtesy of Pierce Galleries, Inc.)

"French Imitations"

By 1885 hundreds of American painters had gone to Paris to meet and absorb information from the bold canvases of the Impressionists. John Joseph Enneking (1838 - 1941) had studied in Germany, Italy and in Paris with Pissarro and Monet by 1873, and returned to influence Boston painters by 1875.Mary Cassatt was specifically working with Degas by 1873; and by 1883 Theodore Robinson had worked with Monet at Giverny, while numerous other Americans were in the United States carrying the Impressionist banner through the art schools and museums. Boston had rejected most innovations in art, but Alexander Cochrane (a trustee at the Museum of Fine Arts) purchased Renoir's Grand Canal, Venice, and Lilla Cabot Ferry bought Monet's landscape at Etretat and presented it to Boston society in 1889. William Merritt Chase and the influential John Singer Sargent both encouraged patrons to purchase works by Monet. (left above: John Singer Sargent, F. D. Millet House and Garden, oil on canvas, 27 x 35 inches, Private collection, Photo courtesy of Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., New York)

In 1886, as the originators of the French Impressionist movement were holding their last organized group show in Paris, three hundred and ten Works in Oil and Pastel by the Impressionists of Paris were sent to New York City by the Durand-Ruel Galleries. This established and respected firm had previously promoted with success the French Barbizon school in New York which made it easier to obtain public acceptance for the Impressionists. In 1891, the same year Edmund C. Tarbell and Frank W. Benson were given their first two-man show in Boston, Durand-Ruel's Monet, Pissarro and Sisley extravaganza overshadowed the American's efforts. (right: Edmund C. Tarbell, My Three Granddaughters, d. 1937, 40 1/4 x 50 1/4 inches. Private collection)

In the following year the first one-man show of a French Impressionist held in America was given in Monet's honor at Boston's St. Botolph Club. Twenty-one of Monet's works were lent by Bostonians which proved that this Frenchman had gained an important place in the American collector's conscience. Although Tarbell and Benson had started an important art school (1889 - 1938) at the museum in that town and had gained national acclaim for their art, it took decades for the public to accept their work and those of their followers as anything more than "French imitations." Not only had the French painters given birth to Impressionism, they kept a tight hold on its umbilical cord of recognition, and it was only in a rare moment of objectivity that any American painter was given credit for fine work if that work even resembled a Frenchman's style, subject matter or flair. However, public recognition and reward came fleetingly. (left above: Robert Reid, Cape Cod Landscape, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 22 x 33 inches, oil on canvas, Private collection)

Competent American painters within the Impressionist tradition included Dennis Miller Bunker, John Joseph Enneking, Willard Metcalf, Childe Hassam, Thomas W. Dewing, William Merritt Chase, Frank W. Benson, Edmund C. Tarbell, Edward Redfield, Charles H. Davis, Ernest Lawson, Frederick Carl Frieseke, Robert Reid, Edward Henry Potthast, John Henry Twachtman, William S. Barrett and J. Alden Weir, along with the ''French-Americans" James McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent and Theodore Robinson (expatriates who became the most sought after of the group primarily because of their French connections). (right: John H. Twachtman, From the Holley House, Cos Cob Connecticut, c 1890-1900, 30 x 30 inches, oil on canvas, Private collection)

"The Ten"

In 1898, ten American painters led an active defense against what they considered to be poor American art. They tried to attract attention to fine canvases painted by native Americans. They showed the art world that their Impressionism could legitimately earn respect and recognition regardless of pedigree or the acceptance or rejection by a jury. Theirs was a bold step during a period of national insecurity. When many painters were suffering from poverty and neglect ten men left security and reputations by the wayside and ventured out into the unknown world of freedom in art by resigning from the Society of American Artists and the National Academy of Design. By so doing, "The Ten" (as they became dubbed) helped American artists escape from the stale art concepts and rules of past eras and helped lead the way to Modernism, placing the stepping stones for "The Eight" and the Armory Show. By resigning from the established and leading art societies, much like Monet and his followers had done in 1874, "The Ten" proved that American artists could exhibit whatever they wanted to show. (left above: Childe Hassam, The Old Lyme Church by Moonlight, c. 1905, 23 1/2 x 19 1/2 inches, oil on canvas, Private collection, Photo courtesy of Pierce Galleries, Inc.)

The two main teachers of "The Ten" were William Merritt Chase and Edmund C. Tarbell. Together these two men taught Impressionism to over 4,000 artists... and their diversified and challenging painting techniques are being followed and improved upon today.

In a capsule, "The Ten" was a self-confident group of painters who combined high-keyed plein air Impressionism with the genteel Boston school tradition, the academic strain of Chase and Twachtman's more radical poetic renditions of nature. Some critics felt "The Ten" had merely conquered a technically proficient, academic or formalized art from the ateliers of Gérome, Bouguereau, Gleyre, Laurens, Monet and others. As American Impressionism became more accepted by the public, new art innovators considered the Impressionists to be "old hat" and boring. Although "The Ten" had not complied with the rules and regimentations of the National Academy in 1898, by 1903 most of them had reentered its ranks, and they were justly accused of playing a political game in order to be financially successful. As their complacency re-emerged, a lack of growth accompanied it. Thus, by 1904, revolt once again started to fester within the artistic cults of American artists who wanted to show independent talents which might be foreign to the accepted Academician's formulas. Many painters showed discontentment by expressing their views in non-juried exhibitions where provincialism and Brahmin puritanism were tackled head-on with new expressions of realism.

A New Century

The new era artists sought solutions to any and all artistic problems facing them. They were bored with, and felt strapped into, the dictates of the past and by 1905, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, Jane Peterson and Robert Henri felt Impressionism was a hen which laid rotten eggs. Experimentation, optimism and the advancement of progress during the era of industrialization encouraged the individual artist to seek independence.

During the period from 1900 to 1930 Americans believed that they were strong enough to solve any economic or social horror because they saw progress marching forward. The works and thoughts of Sigmund Freud questioned the accepted mores and beliefs of the Victorian age and altered literature, science and religious thinking in America. The new "liberal" had an experimental mind, and tradition was assaulted by labor-capital partnerships, socialism and hundreds of inventions. Henry Ford catapulted the idea of mass production, while gasoline engines and electric power thrust the United States deeper into a fast-moving, progressive, optimistic and complicated attitude. As advertising increased in
magazines, beaks and newspapers, production work forces expanded and needs rose. This new demand gave traditional artists a chance to work. But monopolies within industry became a devastating problem and wealthy moguls were hated and questioned by the lower and middle classes. This created an air of revolt which in turn developed new traditions and ideas. The cues for reform lurked almost everywhere.

One twentieth century egocentric genius, Alfred Stieglitz, was as radical as any artist of the first decade. Feeling that art and its end results were all- important, this maverick (as he was often called) opened his Photo-Session Gallery (nicknamed ''291" in 1905 where he exhibited any work of art which could act as a protagonist going against staid art concepts. Stieglitz defended anything new in art and battled for modern art. He won artistic renown for his innovative photography and introduced hundreds of American and European Modernists to the American public.

After World War I and the closing of Gallery 291, Alfred Stieglitz showed the courage of his newest convictions when he denounced French Modernists (a group he had previously promoted) as being the commercial gimmick and packaging of 59th Street dealers. His last gallery,''An American Place", opened in 1930 but did not receive the glamour or applause which ''291" had commanded. Because of his radical stand regarding the French Modernists, the once declared art-messiah was reduced in appeal and popularity. However, Stieglitz gave the public the unprecedented opportunity to seriously survey, view and attempt to understand American and European modern art. His coterie, or stable, included Max Weber, John Marin, Oscar Bluemner, Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe (his wife), Alfred Henry Maurer, Charles Demuth, Abraham Walkowitz and Marsden Hartley. These artists would be instrumental in turning the tide of American art several degrees in the direction of freedom.

World War I produced economic and political strains which encouraged labor revolts and strengthened socialism. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson, a liberal Democrat, was elected President of the United States. His election stimulated people to push for social justice, women's suffrage and to be vehemently against child labor and slavery.

"The Eight" and the Ash Can School

By 1906, Pablo Picasso entirely broke away from natural beauty with his first public display of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. By 1908, Cubism became all-important in the Bateau-Lavoir group (Leger, Picasso, Braque and so forth) while Robert Henri and John Sloan organized a group of American realists called 'The Eight" to paint facts directly and go against the ideology of tradition-for-tradition's sake. Picasso proclaimed painters should paint what they think, not what they see, and by 1908 his art based itself on the disappearance of the object. "The Eight", however, were more conservative than the Bateau-Lavoir group and tried to show American life realistically no matter where that life took place. "The Eight" became the leading members of the Ash Can school. They no longer painted illustrative works or canvases which were painted to please a Brahmin or genteel society. Their works depicted bowery derelicts, prostitutes cavorting with sailors, run-down tenements, theater views, starving children begging along the streets of New York and gaunt portraits of commoners. They painted what they knew -- that which they saw daily, and that which they felt the public should be shown.

Robert Henri and Alfred Stieglitz, two crusading prophets within a new era of American art, led the way to Realism and Modernism in America. Henri's philosophy (not necessarily his art) which was inspired from within the man, encouraged hundreds of painters to seek art inspiration within their own unique inner eye. They should produce works which interpret real life regardless of moral influences or beliefs, intellectualisms or political or religious views. Henri's motto to the artist was to show real life from what the artist feels, and then to present that feeling in paint. In other words, the artist must be honest to himself or herself. Robert Henri was the catalyst whose philosophy made it possible for artists not to fear painting life as it is. He further suggested that art be fair-minded and show justice. If a painter must challenge the status quo and tradition in order to uncover injustice and truth, Henri felt the painter must do so. Like Alfred Stieglitz, Robert Henri nurtured open-mindedness and told artists to accept all beliefs in order to see the good and bad in each doctrine...

By 1910 nonobjective (abstract) art was born with Kandinsky in Munich. At this time Henri's broadening American influence was emerging in the social conscious works of Gifford Beal, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent and Leon Kroll. Teaching artists not to paint mere pictures, Henri believed "all
art that is worthwhile is a record of intense life." Henri antagonized and threatened art conservatives. Many Academicians, therefore, dubbed Henri and his followers "Ash Can' painters. This symbolic term was designed to degrade the artists and their art, for, in the eyes of the conservatives, "Ash Can" art was merely a justification for the portrayal of the ugly, seamier side of life.

The Ash Can school heralded life the real, the truth. The traditional Impressionists, who held beauty, fine art and technique to be all-important ingredients for good art saw the reality of the Ash Can school as artificial and purposely agitating and disgusting. The Impressionists claimed the Ash Can painters created canvases of the cruder or more robust aspects of life to gain personal attention and that their art was a sad display of nontechnical art training. Although "The Eight" have been criticized for their seeming dramatization of over concern for the oppression and social degradation of the poor, their works drew public attention to the lack of human dignity of their American subjects, from which their works illustrated the people's struggle to obtain that dignity. "The Eight's" humanistic social works showed that independence in art reigned, and this individualism challenged the public's aesthetic tolerance. Henri believed and taught that all men are capable of enriching or improving life and that each person has good potential. His philosophy is an optimistic one. Although some critics label Henri as the father of America's native school of Realism, credit should also be given to Henri's predecessors Thomas Eakins and Thomas Pollock Anshutz who each taught Realism in Philadelphia while Robert Henri and the rest of "The Eight'' were newspapermen and illustrators in that same city.

While Henri and Stieglitz were developing new art trends in America, Expressionism was first exhibited in 1911 with works by Braque, Derain, Friesz, Picasso and Manguin in Berlin at the New Secession. Expressionism had been experimented with as early as 1907. Herwarth Walden created the term during a 1912 exhibition in his Der Sturm Gallery. Loosely, the term labeled anyone who had gone beyond Realism and/or Impressionism, and it became a spontaneous label for anyone who could not otherwise be categorized. The Expressionists gave outward expression to feelings and ideas. They distorted visual reality but claimed this distortion not for pictorial ends. Expressionistic works are often somber or melancholy, hjgh-strung or passionate. They show an anxiety, a tension, a revolt, a dissatisfaction or torment. Out of this school came many other tendencies which lead deeper into abstract painting.

1913 Armory Show

Art is usually related to specific social climates. A decade of artistic and social revolt predetermined the artistic climate which lead to the cataclysmic 1913 Armory Show held in New York City. Prior to the Armory Show, the MacDowell Club exhibitions were unpretentious and too small in size to affect public awareness, but they nevertheless showed independent radical art. The 1910 Independent Show in New York City was also too insignificant to abolish established theories about what was or was not to be accepted as relevant American art. Modern art made its biggest impact during the Armory Show which opened February 17 and closed March 15, 1913.

This exhibit removed some of the glitter surrounding Monet's Impressionism and that of "The Ten." It also replaced in significance the realism seen in the paintings of the Ash Can school. The Armory Show took over where Stieglitz and Henri philosophically left off. This monumental exhibition sent a shockwave through the nonchalance of American academic art. This mammoth unjuried show stupefied the public which showed unreasonable opposition to the exhibition. The masses were outraged, confused, uneasy, ridiculing and overwhelmed by the art which they viewed. The Armory Show attempted to display all of the artistic developments which led to the current 1913 art trends. Works were shown by Ingres, Corot, Monet, Cassal, Rodin, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Daumier, Dufy, Friesz, Matisse, Archipenko, Picasso, Kandinsky, Maillol, Brancusi, Rousseau, Davies, Dabo, Kuhn, Dove, Myers and many other artists.

Some critics labeled the contemporary artists as neurotic psychopathic freaks. Others said they were fakes who couldn't draw. Kenyon Cox, a respected (but conservative) artist/critic called the Modernists' works "cheap notoriety" and he accused the artists of being dangerous anarchists. By 1913 the Orphists (or Synchronists) were more abstract than the Cubists. They overlapped planes of contrasting brilliant color in abstract design, a trait which conservatives like Kenyon Cox could not begin to comprehend. Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Morgan Russell were advocates of this tendency of modern art which was exhibited at the Armory Show. Although some of the art shown (such as Marcel DuChamp's futuristic Nude Descending the Staircase) was given wide publicity because it was considered to be totally a "horrid" work painted by an "insane artist," the Armory Show was instrumental in focusing public awareness and critics' attention on all contemporary art.


Anything Goes

After the Armory show the strain of realism which Robert Henri and Alfred Stieglitz had nurtured in America was overshadowed (or dominated) by the spreading presence of Modernism. Post-impressionistic Realism would regain recognition after the World War with works by the members of "The Eight" and Glenn O. Coleman, Jerome Myers, Charles Burchfield, George Bellows and Guy Penn du Bois. The Armory Show opened a free-for-all attitude in the art world and an 'anything goes" motto reigned. However, the movement was against painters who imitated appearances. This bias indicated that only 'new" was virtuous and that, in fact, everything did not go.

The 1913 Armory Show generated a fervor of Post-impressionist exhibits, and new names were given out freely to painting innovators who could not be placed in an already accepted art category. Faddists, for instance (1913/14) were Modernists with often incoherent designs but coherent ideas. Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism and Abstractism grew out of, and were promoted by, the Armory Show. "Dada" (meaningless French baby talk) signified exactly that -- the lack of a message. The Dada theories indicated radical subversion and profound crisis and therefore Dadaism was not comfortably accepted in America. The Fauvists (John Marin, Walt Kuhn, Max Weber, Marsden Hartley) who showed wildness, distortions, emotionalism and violent or intense dynamics, were all influenced by Cubism. Works with deliberately conflicting lines, shapes and logic were the norm.

Cubism, the most influential movement of Modernism, attempts to find the essential truths of the material world -- not as the world appears -- but on a fundamental deeply abstracted level. Cubism began with the Armory Show and lasted almost ten years under the inspiration of Patrick Bruce, K. Cramer, Man Ray, J. Stella, S. Davis, A. Dove, C. Demuth, J. Marin, M. Russell, MacDonald-Wright, Feininger, Dasburg, Dickinson, Bluemner and others too numerous to name. While Cubism was developing, Malevich founded Supermatism in Moscow in 1913, which carried abstractionist ideas to the absolute limit of possibilities. Everything is permissible in Supermatism.

Although Modernism often has a deeply personal, lyrical, romantic, social or moral side to it, the American public had a hard time understanding or even tolerating most of it. When Abstractism took hold, the tendency to go for 'the pure" in art, regardless of subject matter or reality, was an accepted artist's trend which was unencumbered by recognizable object form. The public, however, did not comprehend it. By 1913 most American Modernists had been to Europe and the majority of American radical developments in Modernism were strongly influenced by the French (especially by expatriated French painters residing in the United States: DuChamps; Picabia; Crotti). Much like the impressionists before them, the Modernists from Europe were given credit for most of the innovations of the era. Yet another goal set by the Armory Show's attempt to highlight the leadership of American artists had failed: The Americans were still second to the French.

The members of the Ash Can school were noble in their attempt to give artists an opportunity to freely express themselves in their art. Out of the Ash Can school came social realism in art, the 14th Street school and the rural American Scenists. The 14th Street school, under Kenneth Hayes Miller, exploited folklore realism and gave genre local color and action as seen in the paintings from the Greenwich Village artists (Reginald Marsh, Morris Kanto, Kenneth Hayes Miller, Raphael Soyer and Moses Soyer). These men rivaled the members of "The Eight". A counterpart to these painters was Edward Hopper whose mansions, railroads and false fronts gained public acclaim partially helped by his close association with the Whitney Museum director, Lloyd Goodrich.

The socially oriented Ash Can canvases retained their popularity for a short while until the school was superseded by the radical non-social art of Modernism. The decline in their popularity was a direct consequence of their promotion of the Modernists in the Armory Show. Because of the growing public appreciation of foreigners' art, jealousies and hatred heated the already dynamic controversy over who was "right" in art -- the Americans or the French? The Modernists or the Academicians? The latter two groups were arrogant and intolerant of the other. American Impressionists and Modernists were considered neophytes compared to their French counterparts, and acclaim was unevenly distributed throughout the artistic world while traditional ideologies clashed dramatically with those of the Modernist movements.

Hysteria -- almost of lunatic proportions -- reigned from 1913 to 1918. Conservatives felt threatened by the Modernists. This was a case of mutual over-reaction, although the Modernists claimed to have wanted only to broaden the horizon of artistic possibilities. When they turned their backs socially on the more traditional painters and when they publicly denounced some artists' work, the Moderns refuted the ideals which they themselves cherished. Because the traditional painters often thought of their Modern colleagues as iconoclastic charlatans the two Sides rarely saw eye-to-eye.

Individualism, a virtuous and noble trait within art, often conflicts with mainstream beliefs of the status quo. But time proves to be a healer as well as a forgiver.

The objectives of the Armory Show, therefore, were only partially met. The organizers publicly stated that no one was to be rejected from the exhibition despite the fact that many artists were refused. When artistically non-trained Mrs. Woodrow Wilson was accepted by the Armory Show organizers to exhibit her works, many notable artists who had been rejected formed the Allied Artists of America, attempting to give American art an even wider base. While crusading for truth, the organizers of the Armory Show tried to expose self-deception and biases; but in fact they deceived each other and were considered to be esoteric by outsiders who knew the truth about their organization.

In January, 1914, in an attempt to heal all wounds, the National Arts Club of New York City gave a Modernist exhibit and in the following year, Futurist works, highlighting those of Marinetti, were shown at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco.

Individualism, a virtuous and noble trait within art, often conflicts with mainstream beliefs of the status quo. But time proves to be a healer as well as a forgiver. Impressionism and various arms of Modernism provoked eclectic aspects of thought, inspired creative freedom and broadened our understanding of what an artist is capable of developing and nurturing to maturity -- both artistically and psychologically.

The period from 1913 to 1915 proved to be an explosive, dynamic, intrinsically creative (but hysteric) time slot in which the art communities throughout America and Europe had to learn truths about themselves. They each watched innovations and traditions come and go and many artists learned they had the right to choose on which side of Modernism they wished to work. The art world was faced with overwhelming conflicts within its own ranks and it was continuously challenged and stunned by its own complex diversity of ideologies, styles and seemingly insoluble problems. As conflicts developed and eased between one school of thought and another, certain tendencies were accepted and developed while others were rejected as unstable or meaningless.

Excerpted from the book titled Richard Earl Thompson, American Impressionist, A Prophetic Odyssey in Paint, authored by Patricia Jobe Pierce and edited by John Douglas Ingraham. Courtesy of Richard Thompson, Jr. of Cotati, CA. Mr Thompson may be reached at 707-664-1900.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 10/26/10

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