For the last two consecutive Wednesdays, I have been attending The Smithsonian Associates’ lecture series for American Art. The most recent lecture, focusing on American Realism & Impressionism, was led by art historian, Bonita Billman, a long-time praised instructor with The Smithsonian Associates and lecturer at Georgetown University. The lecture examined intergenerational developments and the process of organic movement between America’s Realism and Impressionism. Sometimes statements like these go without saying, but art, a representation of culture and human ethos itself, is highly reactionary-- some of our greatest historically documented movements are mere reactions or aversions to previous styles and genres. Impressionism in Europe had its impact on Americans who either came to study in magnet cities (Paris was the ultimate hotbed for Impressionism) or long-term expatriates who practically were European citizens.
Mary Cassatt, Child in a Straw Hat, c. 1886
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
Many of them returned or visited the states after their exposure to famous Impressionistic proponents such as Renoir, Monet, and Degas. While not all of these American artists adamantly defined themselves as Impressionists or associated their work with that particular body of work, they most certainly reflected this influence in some manner. A lot of artists discussed in the lecture lingered on a spectrum between impressionistic and realistic technique with varying subject matter. Mary Cassatt, for instance, was heavily considered an Impressionist while John Singer Sargent’s collection of work employed impressionistic techniques, e.g. loose brushwork that appeared tight and naturalistic from a distance.
Portrait of the Lady Agnew of Lochnaw demonstrates the finesse at which he traveled between his stylistic contradictions: parts of the paintings appear sharp, deftly attended to with precise detail, while others allow you to capture the vagueness of his work, such as Lady Agnew’s dress and sash. While examining these executionary elements, you begin to realize that even the most minute details are just gestural indications of color and light.
John Singer Sargent, Portrait of the Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, c. 1892
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of National Gallery of Scotland
Artists like Mary Cassatt, James McNeill Whistler, Winslow Homer, and John Singer Sargent (artists that were Impressionists, Realists, and somewhere in-between) all had a profound effect on early 20th century Realist artists. When I say “Realist,” bear in mind that I am not referring to the technique of realism, which is a stylistic approach to painting that allows the artist to replicate what they see explicitly; I am referring to realism as an American art movement where artists attempted to convey the truth of the more urbane and gritty American experiences. A lot of these artists rebelled against Impressionism as a whole and hated polished naturalism (academic realism), and in doing so detested artists like Cassatt and Singer while channeling the likes of Whistler, whose nocturnes demonstrated the everyday perspective of existing in a quickly industrializing world (not to mention his slight abstraction being pivotal in further developments of modern art).
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, c. 1875
Oil on panel
Courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts
After the lecture with Bonita Billman, I had a more comprehensive understanding of the developments in American Impressionism and Realism, including what inspired them, how the movements traveled, how artists affected and dictated each other’s art, as well as a glimpse into the personalities and passions of many greats. Who knew that someone who wrote a book titled The Gentle Art of Making Enemies would be so quarrelsome? You’ve got to appreciate some of the more eccentric artists’ sense of candor… here’s to you, Whistler!
If you’re interested in learning more about art and/or architecture, The Smithsonian Associates are offering a handful of intriguing tours, lectures, and seminars on various art-related topics. Alternatively, if you want to experience any of Bonita Billman’s lectures in person, she will be presenting an evening seminar on the French artist, Edouard Manet, on Wednesday, December 2nd from 5:45 to 9:00 pm as well as an all-day program on Art Deco on Saturday, March 19th.