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American impressionism show at Walters


Aside from providing an opportunity to see a lot of lovely pictures, the exhibit of American impressionism now at the Walters Art Gallery leaves two main impressions above all:

That American impressionism was different from French impressionism, but not different enough to be really American; and that the collection favors breadth over depth, with the advantages and disadvantages that that implies for an art audience.

To take them in reverse order, "Masterworks of American Impressionism from the Pfeil Collection" presents 87 works from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Pfeil of Chicago. Mr. Pfeil, 42, an investor who specializes in futures trading, is spoken of by his friend and business manager Paul Swisher as "one of the most successful individual traders in the business" and "not a real public person." The Pfeils "started out collecting modern art," according to Mr. Swisher, and "gradually focused on American impressionism," building the present collection in less than 10 years.

They have been successful in assembling works by a wide range of artists from forerunners of impressionism such as George Inness to late practitioners including Harriet Randall Lumis and Henry Hammond Ahl. The show allows an extremely broad view of the subject, dealing with painters who are relatively unknown, such as Karl Albert Buehr and Frank Russell Wadsworth, as well as the big names, including Childe Hassam, Theodore Robinson and William Merritt Chase.

In addition, the Baltimore installation by Walters curator William R. Johnston highlights various aspects of the movement: the painters who worked in Giverny, near Monet's home; regionalism in American impressionism, from Massachusetts to Connecticut to Pennsylvania to Indiana; impressionist-related work by artists whom we don't ordinarily think of as impressionists, such as the early 20th century group of painters known as the Eight (John Sloan, George Luks and others).

Sacrifice of depth

Taking the collection as a whole, the collectors' interest in breadth has resulted in a -- perhaps necessary? -- sacrifice of depth. Except for Maurice Prendergast and Frank Weston Benson, represented by three works each, there are no more than two works here by any artist. There are artists one wants to see more of, and not just the big names such as a Hassam or a Chase, but people whose work one has never met before -- Richard E. Miller or Louis Ritman or William Forsyth, for example.

Had the Pfeils decided to collect any particular artists in depth, they might not have chosen any of the above; everyone's tastes are different. But this show as constituted leaves some question to what the collectors' taste is.

One knows that they like American impressionism, but they don't seem to have fallen in love with particular artists, and as a result they have a somewhat impersonal-looking collection, but one that is certainly inclusive.

The big advantage of such inclusiveness is that it affords an overview that ought to allow the drawing of conclusions about the nature of American impressionism. In his catalog essay, art historian William H. Gerdts here and there mentions characteristics of French impressionism that American painters embraced to a greater or lesser degree, such as bright colors, broken brushwork, interest in landscape, emphasis on light, dissolution of the figure, contemporary subject matter, informal compositions. But there is no satisfactory discussion of what characterized American impressionism as distinct from the French version.

In a way it's impossible to say, for each artist took what he or she wanted, and adapted it to the preferences of an individual sensibility and the demands of an individual career. If you say that artist A is different from the French in this or that way, that may be just the way that artist B is like them. But a visit to the show together with a conversation with curator Johnston makes a few generalizations possible.

Among them, American artists were not as committed to pure landscape as their French counterparts; their work is more figural. Time and again these landscapes are peopled and often a person or persons constitute the subject of the picture, with the landscape or interior the background.

American impressionism tends more toward solid and even at times delineated forms, rather than the dissolution of form in light, resulting in a look that is somewhat heavier than the French.

In French impressionism there is more tension between the two-dimensional surface of the painting and the illusion of depth in the picture; American impressionism tends more toward illusionism.

From such generalizations it is possible to draw the conclusion that American impressionism was less pure than French impressionism, less committed to theory, less revolutionary. Americans tended to take elements of impressionism and combine them with other influences or demands -- academic training, contemporary but somewhat different styles such as tonalism, or perhaps what the artist's audience responded to. Maybe it is possible to say that American impressionism was more pragmatic.

Ultimately conservative

And, while it obviously didn't seem so at the time, it was ultimately a conservative movement: one that caught French impressionism on the wane from the 1880s to the beginning of this century, and continued it for decades for an American

audience; one that also continued American art's dependence on European art rather than one that was used as a means to freedom.

American impressionism, in the words of one of the show's texts, "attained its apogee at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915," with awards going to half a dozen practitioners of the style. By that time, Europe had proceeded to cubism, expressionism, futurism; Marcel Duchamp had introduced readymades, Kandinsky had made non-representational pictures, dada was about to emerge, and some of this avant-garde had even reached our shores. It had been a long time since impressionism was avant-garde.

A generation later, American artists would take what was coming out of Europe and use it to create abstract expressionism, a distinctly American movement that moved the capital of the art world from Paris to New York. American impressionism, on the other hand, seems to have taken French impressionism, fiddled with it a little, fed it to an American audience for longer than was good for either the art or the audience, and then petered out.

The greatest difference between French and American impressionism may be that even at its height the latter doesn't look as fresh and new as the former. The works in this show are lovely, yes, and it's nice to have them here. There are outstanding individual works. But taken as a group they're not extremely exciting. There comes through them the inescapable sense that these artists were using a style, not creating one, and the very breadth of the exhibition only makes that all the more evident.

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