Visual Arts

Painting the Light Fantastic

Impressionism has become so lovable and precious ($78.1 million for a Renoir painting in 1990) that we tend to forget what a poke in the eye the paintings of Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, Cezanne, Sisley and friends once seemed to be. Or that the movement's name was coined by a critic deriding the uppity idea that fleeting impressions of atmospheric light could possibly amount to anything worth seeing.

"They appear to have declared war on beauty," wrote one critic of the impressionists' first organized show in 1874. And the young American painter J. Alden Weir, then studying in Paris with the academic Jean-Leon Gerome, complained, "They do not observe drawing nor form, but give you the impression of what they call nature." Their exhibition, he concluded, "was worse than the Chamber of Horrors."

The few examples of Weir's own landscape paintings in Fleischer Museum's current exhibit, "East Meets West: American Impressionism," show that he didn't hold that opinion for very long. Within 10 years, he was trying his hand at the outdoor approach to painting advanced by the French. And by 1895, the date of his earliest landscapes in the Fleischer show, he had swapped the stuffy, indoor world of classical lighting, themes, line and perspective for a thoroughly impressionistic outdoor one of atomized color and light.

In the catalogue accompanying the show, historian William Coles points out that--like many other art movements--impressionism embraced painters with widely varying interests and approaches. Yet they shared a similar preoccupation with capturing the true effects of color and light. Instead of blending colors on a palette and applying them in smooth gradations of tone, they dabbed and stroked pure pigments directly on canvas, forcing the eye to do the mixing. The result was radiant and startlingly flat. It had none of the dramatic solids and volumes depicted in academic painting of the day, just shimmering surfaces of colors vibrating against one another.

"East Meets West" is hardly a comprehensive examination of what Weir and other Americans did with this new approach to painting. Drawn only from the Fleischer's own collection of California landscape painters and the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company's holdings of turn-of-the-century artists working in Connecticut, it contains no major works from any American museums, and too many minor works by key painters. Yet its approximately 120 paintings by 85 artists highlight the various ways Americans adopted and altered impressionism.

What's clear is American painters helped to countrify impressionism. Returning from studies in Paris, they took to the hills and shores--to places like Old Lyme and Cos Cob, Connecticut, or Carmel and Laguna Beach, California--where they worked at what was to become American art's most dramatic 19th-century subject: the landscape.

In the East, the likes of Weir, Childe Hassam, John Twachtman, Willard Metcalf and Edward Simmons traded the early French preoccupation with urban streets, trains and sun-brightened palls of smoke and steam for bucolic scenes of rolling fields, wooded glens, beaches, inlets and meandering streams. And West Coasters like Guy Rose, Maurice Braun, Elmer Wachtel, Edgar Payne, Alfred Mitchell and William Wendt put impressionism to work depicting the region's big bright mountains, quiet arroyos and canyons, and sea-pounded cliffs.

The differences between eastern and western versions of American impressionism are fairly obvious. In Weir's "Windham From Mullins Hill," Dwight Tryon's "Evening Autumn" and many other works by easterners, the brush strokes are generally smaller, more concentrated than the broader smears of pigment seen in Payne's "Canyon de Chelly," for example, or Wendt's "I Lifted Mine Eyes Unto the Hills." The light of the East--often veiled and filtered by trees--is less intense. And the smaller scale of eastern pictures, like Weir's "Windham . . ." and Metcalf's "Thawing Brook," make them a bit more intimate than Wendt's and Payne's western pictures, or Guy Rose's Monet-inspired "Mist Over Point Lobos."

Yet there is little difference in the universal "oohs" and "aahs" those scenes draw from viewers, as if they were sitz baths for eyes bruised by the changes that the Fleischer and other developments have brought to the desert landscape of north Scottsdale.

On the one hand, the power of these pictures to soothe indicates just how comfortable impressionism has become. On the other, it shows how easily American painters--and plenty of French ones--were able to turn what had been a radical new vision of art into a formula for scenic charm.

That is one reason American impressionists--good as some of them were--have always taken a back seat to the French instigators of impressionism. Historians have worked hard in the past 20 years to boost their status, but as a group, the Americans were far less interested in reinventing painting or in new definitions of reality than in simply using the new painting techniques to continue America's 19th-century romance with the landscape. What the work by the American painters, both western and eastern, expresses is a vivid nostalgia about their surroundings.

In Alfred Mitchell's "Summer Hills," it took the form of a glowing view of early California sprawl. But for the most part, it steered clear of anything related to urban or industrial progress. The beautiful quiet of Wendt's "I Lifted Mine Eyes . . ." and George Bruestle's "Lyme Landscape," or the remote beauty of Payne's buttery depiction of "Canyon de Chelly" suggest not that the grand American romance with its "Purple Mountains' Majesty" was washed up, but that it had changed. No longer rising as shimmering visions of a distant Eden, the picturesque ideal was now more personal, intimate. Made up of smaller, quicker glimpses of the land, its reality now seemed as fleeting as the effects of light that played across it.

"East Meets West: American Impressionism" continues through Sunday, May 4, at Fleischer Museum, 17207 North Perimeter Drive in Scottsdale. For more details, see Art Exhibits in Thrills.