Between reality and paint: American Impressionism exhibition at the National Galleries of Scotland

Eleanor, by Frank Weston Benson (1901)

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh is currently hosting American Impressionism: A new vision. This is an extremely uplifting show, with a fine spread of painters; sunny and bursting with life. It shows the Americans’ ties to the French Impressionists, but emphasises their distinctive approach to the then new ideas concerning light and colour and vision. While impressing glinting and changing sunlight into their works, the Americans held fast to rich and deep palettes; while invigorating their works with fast and loose brushwork they draped it across well-designed, heavy lines. The Impressionists—French and American—remind us of the unadulterated joy of paint, and this exhibition is a heady celebration of that buttery substance and the visual and tactile pleasure it stirs in us.

Children playing on the beach, by Mary Cassatt (1884)

Mary Cassatt gets a glowing representation, dominating a room also hung with Degas and Berthe Morisot. Her pictures of rosy-cheeked babies and toddlers are skilfully designed, the tightness of construction and execution outweighing the sentimentality of the subject matter. Cassatt does not rely on button-noses and chubby faces to carry her paintings, tender as they are: rather, the painter’s whole spread of tools is dazzlingly on display. The fullness of chubby arms and legs sits comfortably in the pleasing two-dimensional arrangement, set off against flatter areas of furniture or sand and ocean. And her use of sure and heavy lines wrapped around these forms beautifully emphasises the importance of design and the care she has taken with it. Often a deep, rich blue, these unexpected bounding edges resonate against pink flesh but never detract from the illusion of fullness. Cassatt confidently walks the line between reality and paint: these are representational paintings, but they are proudly constructed of paint.

Meadow with haystacks near Giverny, by Monet (1885)

A number of Monet’s paintings are interspersed amongst the American painters, including some exploratory haystacks gleaming with colour in every shadowy crevice. It was wonderful to see these French impressionist works—Meadow with haystacks near Giverny (1885), Haystacks: snow effect (1891), Poplars on the river Epte (1891), Meadow at Giverny (1885)—among the paintings of those who took up their ideas and ran with them. There is an unmistakable assuredness to Monet’s colours, applied thickly and with certainty. The contrast is obvious as his admirers who visited him at Giverny wrestle with selecting such pure and glimmering colours; hastiness of application does not assure the glinting ‘impression’ of Impressionist fame.

Claude Monet painting by the edge of a wood, by John Singer Sargent (1885)

It’s a nice touch that Monet’s own painting hangs next to John Singer Sargent’s work of Monet painting it (Claude Monet painting by the edge of a wood, 1885). The brushwork in Sargent’s picture expresses the urgency of plein air painting, and the looseness and the stilted colours make it feel like an experiment. One feels the cogs of Sargent’s brain churning as one wanders this painting, noting how faithful he is to Monet’s colours in the image of his canvas, permitted, as we are, to see them side-by-side. Sargent is wholly present in this work, completely open and ready to learn. Monet commented in 1889, ‘I see that Sargent is engaged in this project and proceeds by imitating me.’ It is the gift of an exhibition like this to see Sargent’s debt to Monet and to see the American Impressionists’ roots in French Impressionism, but also to see how Sargent and his countrymen forged their own way with these nascent ideas.

The works of Sargent in this show are varied and it’s nice to see these exploratory studies—smaller figures for The oyster gatherers of Cancale; Dennis Miller Bunker painting at Calcot (1888). The Sargent known for his slick portraits and deftness of stroke was also a searcher, meeting the world with open eyes and an open mind, graciously learning from those he admired. On seeing these other paintings, I feel sure that Sargent’s certainty comes from years of testing his medium, of pushing it and battling it and wrestling with the effects he could achieve with it. Sargent knows paint inside out, and it is herein that his facility with it lies, not in a heaven-sent, unthinking virtuosity.

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, by John Singer Sargent (1892)

Of course, Edinburgh’s gem Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (1892) takes pride of place in this show. And she is without peer, a work of true mastery by Sargent. Oozing grace, she melts comfortably into her armchair, and in person her feisty gaze has a sweetness and a playfulness to it. All of Sargent’s work in the wake of Impressionism, all of his choppy edges and faceted light, is thoroughly resolved in this work: it is seamless. At a distance, she is airy and alive: flesh and blood resting before you. As you draw closer, she is unselfconsciously broad, flat planes of paint, folding gently into each other. But Sargent takes no shortcuts: though he works broadly, it is ever truthfully, and not to demonstrate a hurried virtuosity. Despite the vast expanse of her dress, she might be nude, for we see every tilt and twist through her torso, her legs, her shoulders. In contrast to the startling simplicity of much of the work, her face is recorded with such precision, yet this shift in treatment is so expertly merged that it is not glaringly patched together: rather, it imperceptibly coaxes one in to Lady Agnew’s steady gaze.

Flanking Lady Agnew are two of the standout works of this show, and despite the tough gig they have in such glamorous company, they hold their own. To one side, Cecilia Beaux’s Sita and Sarita (1893-4) is as fiercely painted as the woman’s gaze. With a black cat perched on her shoulder such that their eyes align in a pleasing arc, it’s as though the woman—her fierce but queenly gaze turned away—sees you through the attentive, glowing eyes of the cat. Rich blues are introduced into the edges, most strikingly at the woman’s jaw, and it is incredible how this bold division can fit so pleasingly into such an image, never detracting from its strong representation, but prodding you and reminding you, ‘This is a painting! No photographs here!’ And for all its convincing representation this painting could never be abused with such compliments as ‘it looks like a photo,’ because Beaux never forgets her surface. The angularity of her drawing is echoed in the frenzied brushwork, and the patterns of the couch are achieved by scratching out paint rather than painstakingly adding any. The entire surface of this picture is alive.

Sita and Sarita, by Cecilia Beaux (1893-4)

To the other side, Frank Weston Benson’s breezy portrait of his young daughter Eleanor (1901, at top) sparkles with sunlight. The dramatic ‘S’ through her arms locks the composition, daringly chopped off at the left side, the pose itself bringing incredible vitality to the piece. The web of her hand is an expertly painted flourish, the sure drawing laid down in solid slabs of colour; these few strokes feel like the stretching of flesh. Benson’s colours, likewise, are dazzling: the sunlight bleaches pinks and blues and yellows into soft sherbet colours, with the richness of colour carried by the shadows. It is the lights which are more neutral in this picture, primary colours simply mixed with white, while the shadows are not tempered with grey but painted with gutsy high-chroma hues. Not a trace of black is to be found, with brown and a deep blue carving out the darkest tones.

In the park—a by-path, by William Merritt Chase (1889)

This is something I noticed again and again in this exhibition—the importance of the shadows, and how much work they do in terms of colour. It is evident in William Merritt Chase’s Park in Brooklyn (1887), Tompkins Park, Brooklyn (1887) and In the park—a by-path (1889), in which streaks of light often cut through the image, but the real vividness remains in the shadows. Dennis Miller Bunker’s Roadside cottage (1889) demonstrates it again, with the sparingly used creamy whites of walls in full sunlight playing off berry purples and pinks. Edmund C Tarbell’s In the orchard (1891), a huge piece composed of chunky, scratchy strokes, especially relies on the rainbow of colours to be observed in light reflected in the shadows from nearby surfaces, and amplifies these to great effect.

In the orchard, by Edmund C Tarbell (1891)

This show reminds us of two things: Of the importance of chasing after the painters you admire, of learning from them and from your peers what you can, of exploring and expressing what you learn through your own eyes and your own hand, of the invigorating atmosphere created by such a circle of masters and peers. For the Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Europe offered such a setting like nowhere else, prompting William Merritt Chase to declare, ‘My God, I would rather go to Europe than go to heaven.’ Let us not work alone, but let us find those who inspire us. And, secondly, the show reminds us that we are painters, not simply image-makers. No back-lit, pixelated, scaled-down impression can replace the full sensory experience of sitting before a shining, undulating surface manipulated by the very hand of another. Let’s express our love of paint, and inspire others with our exuberance. Paint is not reality, but through it we construct our own physical, not merely visual, universes.


By Samantha Groenestyn

American Impressionism: A new vision is showing at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh until 19 October 2014 (£8 / £6 concession).

Nick Leavey