No doubt against the advice of the public-relations consultants, “Whistler to Cassatt: American Artists in France,” at Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, plays down its focus on Impressionism to such a degree that the word is almost unmentioned. If “Whistler to Cassatt” is not an Impressionist exhibition, what is it? The catalogue asserts that the aim is a “sophisticated examination of cultural and aesthetic exchange as it highlights many figures, including artists of color and women, who were left out of previous histories.” (Who would consider Mary Cassatt, Cecilia Beaux, and Henry Ossawa Tanner “left out”?) What this show does do is throw a spotlight on a number of lesser known artists with works ranging from academic formalism and plein air Impressionism to Tonalism and early intimations of modernism. Thus, it might best be described as an elaboration of Impressionism, which like any label is more a matter of convenience than definition.

Mary Cassatt, Child Picking a Fruit, 1893, Oil on canvas, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

The exhibition opens with a huge photograph of the incomplete Eiffel Tower—described by Gustave Eiffel as “the art of the modern engineer”—and a panoramic painting La Place de Bastille en 1882 (1882) by Frank Myers Boggs. With its street-level perspective, the painting presents the majestic results of Baron Haussmann’s citywide renovation project, which replaced Paris’s medieval buildings and squalid alleyways with parks, squares, and wide boulevards.

Passing through a set of red velvet drapes, we enter a gallery designed to replicate the experience of visiting an exhibition in the Paris Salon. One wall demonstrates the “French hang” with scores of empty picture frames ascending from eye level to the ceiling. The other walls display artworks hung “on the line,” or at eye level, with no explanatory labels. To learn about the art, one must pick up the “Salon Livret” booklet and match the painting’s number to its livret page; there’s even a lined page for commentaires in the back of the booklet. Encouraged to look first at the art—what a refreshing innovation! And there is much to see: two fine paintings by Henry Ossawa Tanner, two grand manner portraits by John Singer Sargent, Whistler’s compelling portrait of an aging flower seller, and two ravishing cityscapes by Childe Hassam. Perhaps most arresting is The Shepherd David (ca. 1895), which I first took for a Bouguereau. Consulting the livret, I learned that the work was by Elizabeth Jane Gardner. Rejected by the École des Beaux-Arts because she was a woman, Gardner obtained a license to wear men’s clothes and studied art at the Gobelins tapestry works. Later, she moved on to the Académie Julian, where she met her future husband—William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Gardner clearly mastered Bouguereau’s highly polished style, but she also steps out from under his shadow: her David looks rather like a gender-bending self-portrait, and Bouguereau never painted such a magisterial expiring lion.

The transition from Salon subjects to those focused on the outdoors is introduced with one of those immersive exhibits so popular today. (In the vfma’s recent Hopper exhibition, visitors could spend the night in a replica hotel room inspired by one of the artist’s paintings.) Bending around a corner covered inexplicably with a reproduction of the Boggs painting, one is greeted by a passage decorated with trellises and hanging wisteria. Birds twitter and soft lighting creates pleasing shadows on the wall. The reward for passing through this flummery is John Singer Sargent’s The Sketchers (1913; oddly not in the catalogue). Definitive in its style and subject matter—a man and woman sketching en plein air in a shadowy grove—it also includes one of the period’s finest sun-dappled parasols.

Frank Weston Benson, Sunlight, 1909, Oil on canvas, Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, © The Frank W. Benson Trust.

Americans in Paris learned well the lessons of their French counterparts, especially those of Claude Monet, who seems to have met practically every artist visiting France in the late nineteenth century. For example, the style of Monet’s Woman with a Parasol (1875; not in the exhibition), with its sun-drenched woman in white-and-blue shadow, looms over Sargent’s Judith Gautier (A Gust of Wind) (ca. 1883–85) as well as Frank Weston Benson’s Sunlight (1909)—the former a splendid sketch as only Sargent could dash off, the latter Impressionism at its most dazzling.

In Virginia, Whistler is represented primarily by four evocative beach scenes, their colors muted, the atmosphere poetic. There are also some fine Barbizon-style landscapes (Sunset at Grez, 1885, by Willard Leroy Metcalf) and two remarkable studies of young women in starched linen coifs (Elizabeth Nourse’s 1891 Étude and Cecilia Beaux’s 1888 Twilight Confidences). The American artist Richard E. Miller once observed that “Art’s mission is not literary, the telling of a story, but decorative, the conveying of a pleasant optical sensation,” an assertion borne out by his Afternoon Tea (1910), with its flattened picture plane and glowing, saturated colors.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a large selection of works by Mary Cassatt. After studying art in Europe, Cassatt was invited by Edgar Degas to exhibit with the Impressionists in 1879, the only American to be a part of the group. She was an innovative painter and printmaker and an influential art adviser to major American collectors such as the Havemeyers. But of course, she is best known for her domestic portraits of women and children. The technical assurance—a quite remarkable self-sufficiency—imbues Mother and Child (1893) with a sense of calm, stability, and security. These qualities are found in so many of Cassatt’s intimate paintings that it is easy to miss other sensations: the agitation and airless space of The Visitor (ca. 1881) or the ennui of Clarissa, Turned Right with Her Hand to Her Ear (1890–93).

James McNeill Whistler, The Beach at Marseille, 1901, Oil on panel, Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. Photo: © Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago.

In an exhibition of artists as closely intertwined as the French and American Impressionists, unexpected connections are a happy inevitability. One such is the line running from Degas’ Absinthe Drinker (1875–76; not in the exhibition) to Theodore Robinson’s Portrait of Madame Baudy (1888) and William Glackens’s Aperitif (ca. 1926). Robinson’s painting was made during his long sojourn in Giverny as part of Monet’s circle and shows an innkeeper’s wife against a neutral background. Like the Degas buveuse, Madame Baudy sits behind a table with a glass before her—in each painting the story is in the subject’s face and body language. Degas paints a woman of the demimonde slouched and resigned; Robinson’s more respectable subject stares fixedly—is she ill at ease with being painted, stiff with posing, or might she be scandalously tipsy? Glackens’s fashionable Parisienne heralds a new era: she is brightly made up with a jaunty hat, dangling earrings, and varnished nails. The painting’s highly keyed palette and staccato brushwork are reminiscent of the expressionistic style of artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

Expanding as it does the bounds of Impressionism, “Whistler to Cassatt” has the effect of transplanting French art into an American context. The French-trained American artists who returned to U.S. shores brought a heightened instinct for beauty, a refined sense of art’s separation from the regular world, and an eagerness to reinterpret what it means to be an American artist. Having listened to—and left behind—the old guard, they also arrived home just in time to encounter the first hints of modernism. When the American painter Willard Leroy Metcalf declined to exhibit in the 1913 Armory Show, he did so perhaps from a reluctance to appear out of step. He would hardly have been the most senior artist there, but his decision also speaks to a certain humility, a recognition that the revolution is constantly being renewed—plus ça change . . .

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 10, on page 58
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