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Lisa Peters begins her beautifully illustrated book John Henry Twachtman: An American Impressionist with strong language: “A painter of intimate landscapes rendered in an original and expressive style, John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902) was the epitome of the modern American artist in the late nineteenth century” (13). This position is antithetical to the usual understanding of Twachtman within the canon of American art. In Wayne Craven’s textbook American Art: History and Culture (1994), we learn that Twachtman “never received the critical acclaim he hoped for, and he died at age forty-nine” (353). In Milton Brown et al.‘s text American Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Decorative Arts, Photography (1979), we read that Twachtman’s work is often “strangely un-Impressionistic” (310).
Lisa Peters wants to set the record straight. After articulating her intention to prove Twachtman’s rightful place within the canon of American painting, Peters takes the reader through various stages of the artist’s life. Twachtman was born in Cincinnati to German immigrant parents, and received “his first exposure to the new art of his day when he enrolled in an evening class at the Mechanics Institute taught by Frank Duveneck, who had recently returned from four years of study in Munich” (20). Twachtman was introduced to a new style of painting that Duveneck had learned from the antiacademic, German Realist painter Wilhelm Leibl. Duveneck quickly noticed his young student’s talent and took him to Germany where he could study Leibl’s technique.
Peters continues her biography by exploring Twachtman’s early years in Munich and Venice (1875-78). She notes that Venice was a city adored by the English critic and theorist John Ruskin; Ruskin implored artists to depict romanticized scenes of the Italian city that would encourage a fantastic conception of Venice’s past, visually altering the realities of a rapidly changing industrial city. Many artists followed Ruskin’s call for a preservation of Venice’s idealized past, but Twachtman painted Venice as a modern city. Peters does a wonderful job of unearthing contemporary reviews of Twachtman’s work from this period. For instance, she cites the important critic Mariana Van Rensselaer: “[Twachtman’s] landscape studies are bold, strong, and artistic, full of promise in many ways” (31). Peters then relates how Twachtman’s engagement with the modern city continued when he returned to the United States and settled in New York in the late 1870s. She provides excellent examples, such as Twachtman’s Dredging the Harbor (ca. 1879), to further her successful argument about the artist’s desire to paint the urban landscape.
After spending time in New York, Twachtman moved back to the place of his birth, Cincinnati, and married Martha Scudder. The couple relocated to a suburb of Cincinnati, called Avondale, where Twachtman started to paint more tranquil landscapes—pictorial spaces depicting the rise of the American suburb. In Bloody Run of 1882, Peters reveals that Twachtman was now less interested in the urban environment than in “communities of homes standing on snow-covered hills” (54).
In 1883, Twachtman returned to Europe and this time settled in Paris where he enrolled at the Academie Julian. Twachtman’s work in Paris became confident and visually conveyed more traditional concerns such as perspective. Once again, Peters has done remarkable work by finding American critics who celebrated Twachtman’s abilities. One writer in the Boston Daily Advertiser exclaimed, “It must be a great pleasure to paint such exquisite pictures” (69).
Twachtman continued to travel back and forth between the United States and different parts of Europe, but his return to America in 1885 marked a turning point in his artistic development. Peters signals this change with the title of her fifth chapter: “Toward Impressionism.” She claims that in Twachtman’s work from 1886 to 1888, “vigorous brushwork suggests his awareness of Impressionism, although his subdued palette of light browns and greens demonstrates that he had not yet adopted an Impressionist approach to sunlight” (74). Most of Twachtman’s work from this period focuses on tacit scenes of nature, but even these canvases, such as Brooklyn Bridge (ca. 1887-88), reveal a continuing interest in the industrialized New York landscape. The artist also had greater success exhibiting his work in New York galleries, including the Fifth Avenue Galleries in 1888, the Wunderlich Gallery in 1891, and the American Art Galleries in 1893.
By 1889, Twachtman had settled in Greenwich, Connecticut. He would call this New York suburb his home for the rest of his career. Greenwich was both a “practical choice” because of its proximity to New York, and an excellent career move because it provided the artist with visual inspiration. Twachtman made every effort to alter the landscape of his Connecticut home, clearly intent on making the grounds a more aesthetically pleasing environment to emulate on canvas.
In describing the later period of Twachtman’s career Peters makes her most explicit claims about the artist’s connection to French Impressionism, even linking him to Claude Monet. She states, “Like Twachtman, Monet returned over and over to the same subjects, finding infinite satisfaction in familiar views.” She does however acknowledge clear differences in the artists’ viewpoints (113), explaining that, unlike Monet, Twachtman was not as interested in the science of visual perception. Regardless of this disclaimer, the parallel between Twachtman and his French contemporary becomes integral to the rest of her book.
The same interest in Twachtman’s relationship to French Impressionism can be found at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) exhibition that is closely associated with Peters’ scholarship. The exhibit, also titled An American Impressionist, began at the Cincinnati Art Museum and can be viewed from October 16, 1999, to January 2, 2000, in Philadelphia. It encompasses two galleries of the museum as well as a small area referred to as the West Rotunda. In the larger gallery of the show, the viewer encounters wall text titled “Twachtman’s Impressionism.” Here we read, “The style of these paintings resembles that of Claude Monet. (A work by the beloved painter is on special view in gallery 10).” Upon leaving the Twachtman show, the first object the visitor sees across the hall is Monet’s Spring in Giverny from 1890. This canvas begins the show Impressionism at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts: From Beaux to Benson, intentionally partnered with the Twachtman exhibit. The introductory text to Impressionism at PAFA contends, “Monet exerted the greatest influence on American Impressionists.”
Peters’ book and the twin PAFA exhibits repeatedly stress the obvious link between French Impressionism and Twachtman’s oeuvre. This stylistic comparison helps us understand the formal concerns Twachtman brought to his work, but there are cultural concerns that Peters could have developed further. For example, Peters comments that Twachtman’s suburban landscapes reflect “a sense of the creative control of the landowner and a mood of settled contentment” that attended life in the suburbs (eg. Twachtman’s Greenwich garden) (143). It would have been enlightening for Peters to push this interpretive statement and make connections between Twachtman’s paintings of suburbia and its concomitant realities in late nineteenth-century America. Peters also touches on Twachtman’s position within the group of American artists known as the Ten. The Ten, which included Childe Hassam, Robert Weir, Frank W. Benson and other well-known artists, exhibited together after 1897 and had important social and cultural interactions. Peters might have examined the Ten in greater depth by positing Twachtman’s role within their important exhibitions.
The Twachtman show hints at, but fails to pursue, intriguing connections between the artist and turn-of-the-century American culture. The curatorial note next to the painting End of Winter (1890-95) explains that “art patrons and critics often praised these paintings for their power to elevate viewers to a higher, more spiritual state.” The art historian Kathleen Pyne has investigated the links that tie together evolutionary philosophy, spirituality, and late nineteenth-century painting in her book Art and the Higher Life: Painting and Evolutionary Thought in Late Nineteenth-Century America.Although Pyne and Peters worked together on an earlier catalogue titled John Twachtman: Connecticut Landscapes for a show held at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. (1989), Peters does not engage the evolutionary associations that appear to be a major philosophical component of Twachtman’s painting.
These concerns of cultural context aside, Peters provides an important overview of Twachtman’s biography and oeuvre. She concludes that Twachtman occupied a vital position “on the brink of modernism” (170). Twachtman’s work captured an unusual admixture of modernity and tranquillity, offering Americans intellectual respite from the drastic changes of fin-de-siecle culture.
Assistant Professor of Design Studies, Parsons The New School for Design, The New School