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American Impressionism Essay, Research Paper

In the years following the Civil War, American art underwent a fundamental

shift. The traditional Romantic style of painting, which focused on portraying

majestic scenes in stark, vivid lines and shapes, gave way to a new concern for

light and atmosphere. It was the age of Impressionism. Impressionism was not

indigenous to America. In fact, its origins lay in France, which had long been

at the fore of artistic innovation. The French Impressionists threw off the

shackles of traditional painting in favor of an airier, lighter style. The

purpose of Impressionism was to convey the impression of an object by capturing

the patterns of light and color on and surrounding it. There were no sharp

outlines or definite edges; everything was very ephemeral, almost illusory. But

what factors were responsible for this movement? Why did it become popular in

America so much more so than in any other country? Wherein lay the Impressionist

appeal? These are important questions. For some time during the late eighteenth

and early nineteenth centuries, American artists had scoffed at European art as

too stuffy and urbane. The Americans drew inspiration from the beauty of their

native landscape, turning to naturalist and romantic styles to portray the land

they loved. The Literary World wrote, ?What comparison is there between the

garden landscapes of England or France and the noble scenery of the Hudson, or

the wild witchery of some of our unpolluted lakes and streams? One is man?s

nature, the other, God?s.? However, after the horrific Civil War, this proud

view of a ?New Eden? was shattered. Soon Americans were turning elsewhere

for inspiration. It is interesting to note that while dozens of Americans were

studying in Paris in the mid-1800?s, thousands came there in the post-war

years. It was in this time that the Impressionist movement began in France.

Thus, many Americans were about to discover the new style in their studies at

Paris, Munich, London, etc. Also, we see the seeds for Impressionism already

taking root in America before the war. Luminism, a primarily American movement

of this era, was a sort of precursor to Impressionism. Luminism was concerned

with portraying atmosphere as colored light, and the effects of this light on

solids. In addition, the ?glare aesthetic? was a movement concerned with

defining planar objects with vivid reflected light. This new focus on the

properties and effects of light paved the way for Impressionist art, and in

fact, many prominent Luminists? and glare painters? work sometimes resembled

Impressionist art. The artistic development of this period was further

encouraged by the photograph. During and immediately after the Civil War,

photography became ever increasingly prevalent. This technology filled the

former niche of painters, especially portraitists, who were used to depicting

the world as they saw it. Now, however, photography offered a much simpler and

quicker way to depict the world, often with greater accuracy. Therefore,

painters found themselves free of any obligation to objective reality, and began

experimenting with the subjective. Impressionism was the first manifestation of

this freedom; later came Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism. All owed their

creation to the creative freedom left by the invention of the photograph. The

early American Impressionists, like Mary Cassat and Willard Metcalf, were first

exposed to the art while studying in Europe. Later artists would encounter the

art at home, but virtually all traveled to France and Germany to study with the

masters. Paris, of course, was a major center for the emerging art, as became

Giverny, home of Claude Monet. A whole school of Impressionists, many of them

Americans, studied with Monet and came to be called ?Givernois.? By the turn

of the century, Impressionism could be further classified into French and

American schools. A shining example of the American Impressionists was Childe

Hassam. A contemporary art critic, Charles Gallatin, described Hassam as being

?beyond any doubt the greatest exponent of Impressionism in America.? He

continued, ?Momentary effects produced by sunlight is usually his theme, it is

true, and equally true it is that he paints by placing his colors in

juxtaposition, in order to create effects to be seen at a distance.? Hassam

tended to paint scenes of everyday life in America. A typical Hassam depicts a

small group of people, doing nothing extraordinary, but engaged in their own

business. In his own words, Hassam says, ?I believe the man who will go down

to posterity is the man who paints his own time and the scenes of everyday life

around him?There is nothing so interesting to me as people.? So we see that

many factors contributed to the fundamental shift in American art of the late

nineteenth century. It is important to understand that, while nearly all of the

great American Impressionists studied in Europe, they generally put their own

unique ?American? spin on the art. Very few can be said to have ?copied?

the European masters. It is also important to note that Luminism, in many ways a

precursor to Impressionism, had its heyday before the explosion of European

influence in American art. Finally, it was the effective use of photography

which freed artists to explore their own creative styles and escape the

restrictions of objective reality. These factors led to the creation of

something great and beautiful, at once a part of a larger movement, but at the

same time very definitely American. It was the age of American Impressionism.


Gerdts, William H. American Impressionism. Cross River Press, New York: 1984.

McShine, Kynaston. The Natural Paradise: Painting in America 1800-1950. Museum

of Modern Art, New York: 1976. Novak, Barbara. American Painting of the

Nineteenth Century. Praeger Publishers, New York: 1969. Unger, Irwin. These

United States: Questions of Our Past. Prentice-Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ:


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