- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

Museumgoers who’ve grown accustomed to a steady diet of traveling “blockbusters” may not know quite what to do with a small-scale art exhibit like “The Impressionist Tradition in America.”

The Corcoran’s nice new show is an anti-blockbuster: a diverse collection of canvases by both famous and largely forgotten painters presented without a hint of hype. Instead, curator Sarah Cash has chosen to offer a short lesson in the history of artistic taste and influence.

The works here were the kinds of paintings that dominated gallery walls in the United States from, roughly, the turn of the century through the 1920s, a period of intense ferment and cultural flux during which Americans were increasingly exposed to European culture and taste. And these are the kinds of paintings, so successful and admired in their day, that later generations of artists and art historians, eager to promote modernism or more “original” American work, rejected as old hat in the decades before and after World War II, relegating them to the storerooms until quite recently.

The pictures on display here, in other words, represent a notable episode in the development of American painting. Drawing from the Corcoran’s permanent collection and with great economy of means — there are only seven wall labels and no catalog at all — Miss Cash has thus begun to block in part of the visual background in the years before American painting’s rise to international preeminence in the mid-20th century.

The exhibition galleries follow the first impressionist-influenced painters, who most often painted landscapes, through to the realists, who included much better known painters such as John Sloan. The variety of painters is great and the time span about 30 years, but Miss Cash has boiled the story down to an essential narrative structure for her wall labels.

First, the liberation from literary or historical subjects and the simultaneous embrace of modern subjects, through the example of the French impressionists, transmitted by several important American expats (especially Mary Cassatt, a practicing painter with strong ties to the impressionists, who advised several important American collectors). Next, the growing preoccupation with formal concerns — virtuoso effects of paint or focus on light, atmosphere, color, and surfaces in general. Finally, in the home stretch, the fairly long tenure in America of impressionist-influenced work as the establishment style and the beginnings of the realist tradition.

Two rooms of landscapes, comprising works by artists who worked in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, are reticent in the main — muted by low-key palettes and missing the more palpable sense of atmosphere that you so often see in the French models. Compare Camille Pissarro’s “Louvre, Morning, Rainy Weather” (1900) to Robert Vonnoh’s “Notre Dame de Paris” (1890), and you’ll see what I mean. Theodore Robinson’s “Valley of the Seine from Giverny Heights” (1892) is a bright and ingratiating exception.

Next come some examples of work by the influential expatriate artists who served as aesthetic conduits to American painters and collectors. These canvases are notable, collectively, for their comparative confidence and suavity; John Singer Sargent, James Whistler, and Cassatt, however disparate their work, pursued their careers on the international stage, and the pictures reflect this.

The next galleries show a big group of paintings of women. Perhaps to try to unify an extremely varied group of pictures, Miss Cash notes that impressionist paintings and sculptures were “embraced … as soothing, nostalgic antidotes to the stresses and strains of modern life” during a period of massive industrialization and urbanization. Do the images here and their treatment (Miss Cash says the women are portrayed in “gilded cages,” surely an idea that has been imposed on the pictures by post-1960s, post-feminist sensitivities) demonstrate something of this impulse? It’s hard to say with just the pictures as evidence, and it is in this room that viewers will feel the lack of a catalog most.

Spanning the 1890s to the 1920s, the images, most often of upper- and upper-middle-class women, are decorative, aestheticized, and a little impenetrable. The motifs — and most of the figures are just that, motifs, as opposed to portraits — will seem familiar to anybody familiar with impressionist or post-impressionist paintings: women sewing, women at tables, women in nurseries, and several later canvases of women looking at themselves in the mirror. Rather than expressions of longing for simpler times, the paintings seemed to me more like still lifes lacking much overt emotional or expressive content at all. They are studies of light, color, shadow, reflection, refraction, space. Most of these wives and daughters are looking down, absorbed in their work or writing.

The two paintings with women looking at themselves — Frederick Frieseke’s “Dressing Room” (1922) and Samuel Baker’s “Interior with Figure” (1920s) — do, possibly, give away a little more, a hint of erotic appreciation for their subjects by the painters. Only one woman, Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s “Lady with a Mask” (1911), looks out at the viewer. However, even here the style is so characteristically indistinct — the woman’s face is half in shadow, and our attention is drawn by her subtly colored dress and the delicate and exotic mask of the title — that extended interpretation seems illusive, though the mystery and interest of the gaze are undeniable. These galleries also show the cheerful bronzes of Bessie Potter Vonnoh, a sculptor whose women and children have the draperies and lounging poses typical of much beaux-arts sculpture, but distinguished by a sunny casualness and sense of life that is attractive.

The last gallery shows a small group of paintings by realist painters whose work most people will know better. Miss Cash places them, properly, in the continuum of impressionist-influenced facture, and in so doing she denies them the heroic status accorded them in the past by nationalistic American art historians. If the differences among these artists are glossed over in this project, the larger point is well taken. To see the shifts in subject and treatment in these canvases is of particular interest in the context of what we’ve just been soaking up — the genteel aesthetic that the Eight (proponents of a realistic portrayal of American life), Stieglitz and other modernists and avant-gardists were abandoning in the early 20th century.

In assembling this show, Miss Cash faced a daunting problem. How is one to make sense of a disparate group of painters working over a long period and subject to a complex and shifting barrage of individual, historical, technical, aesthetic, and economic influences at a time of increasing professionalization among American artists and growing sophistication among critics, collectors, and the art public? Her solution is resourceful. To see these domestic productions, and through them the trajectory of the various impressionist influences in the United States, in however glancing a form, is interesting and instructive.

If the complexities of artistic production — especially the specifics of influence and its dissemination, the art market, and the development of individual artists — are missing, the show’s unobtrusive mechanics have a pleasing modesty and seriousness. In this, they are kind of like the pictures themselves — showing so clearly the influence of their more flamboyant French models, but without the showmanship. So go see this show, you’ll learn something.

Darcy Tell is currently working on a book about Times Square.

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