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Weir Farm: Home of an American Impressionist

Julian Alden Weir holding a palette and paintbrushes in front of the Weir House.
National Park Service, Weir Farm National Historic Site

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Sunny north light streams into the small wooden studio built high on New England's rocky landscape. Paintbrushes, canvases, and sketchbooks still clutter the artist's work space. The acrid smell of oil paint pervades the atmosphere and brings to mind a time when an artist found creative energy at this rural escape from city life. Outside, the rolling green landscape is intersected by picturesque stone walls. The sweeping hillside is further punctuated by blossoming fruit trees and mature oaks and sugar maples. It is not hard to imagine a distinguished gentleman in a three-piece tweed suit standing before an easel, a paintbrush in one hand and a palette in the other. This is clearly the home of an artist. This is Weir Farm.

Weir Farm, in Branchville, Connecticut, exemplifies the "quiet marriage of art and tended landscape that so clearly defined the American Impressionist movement."¹ The painter Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919) acquired the farm in 1882 and summered at this country retreat for nearly forty years. During a period when railroads were expanding, populations were increasing, and America's agrarian system was being replaced by industry, Weir was one of a group of artists who found comfort and inspiration in the quiet everyday settings of New England, and, in many ways, defined our vision of the American landscape.

¹Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, quoted in the Weir Farm National Historic Site General Management Planning Newsletter No. 2, Spring 1993.


Determining the Facts

Reading 1: A Truly American Impressionism

Impressionism is an art movement that began in France in about 1874. The movement was characterized by painting outdoors, using small brushstrokes of pure color and depicting scenes of modern contemporary life viewed at a specific moment in time. Artists attempted to depict their "impression" of a scene by simulating the effect of reflected light and atmosphere in their work. Space was often distorted; figures were often flattened. Previously, the majority of artists had painted landscapes in a realistic manner, so the results of the Impressionists' work were at once shocking and exciting.

American artists studying in Europe were some of the first to see the French Impressionists' work. J. Alden Weir was a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris for five years during the 1870s and visited one of the first exhibits of the French Impressionists. Like most Americans studying abroad at that time, Weir was focusing on academic drawing and the techniques needed to represent the human figure as realistically as possible. When he saw this new style of painting he wrote home to his parents saying, "I have never in my life seen such horrible things.... They do not observe drawing nor form but give you an impression of what they call nature. It was worse than a Chamber of Horrors. I was there about a quarter of an hour and left with a head ache."¹ In spite of his first response to this new style of painting, Weir would, in the years to come, become one of the champions of American Impressionism.

There was already an American tradition of paintingen plein-air (out-of-doors). The Hudson River School and Luminist painters of the 19th century had focused on scenes of grandeur and magnificence in the natural world. As Weir and his friends sought to evoke the spirit of more common or ordinary American landscapes, they turned to impressionist techniques to capture the sense of actually being in a particular place. Like the French, the American Impressionists used pure color applied directly to the canvas. Upon close examination of the paintings, one can see all the little dabs and strokes that make up the picture; from a distance, the colors create the illusion of flickering light. These painters did not use neutral tones and blacks and grays for shadows; instead, they used color for that purpose. They employed compositional elements borrowed from the new world of photography and from the art and prints of the Orient such as cropping, asymmetry, and various levels of focus. Even with this emphasis on new techniques, the Americans clung to their earlier training. Unlike the French impressionists who were primarily interested in depicting the surfaces of their subjects, the American Impressionists maintained a sense of three-dimensional volume in their paintings. This was particularly true of Weir's work.

Weir continuously painted his family and life at the farm. The people are recognizable; the places can be identified on the landscape. There is no doubt that his paintings were of his own backyard, the farm he loved and cherished. American Impressionism offered Weir a new and freer way of viewing his surroundings. He came to embrace this new style as a means of achieving greater truth. In 1892, Weir wrote of his work:

I am in a way to progress as I never have been before--My eyes, I feel have been opened to a big truth and whether or not I can develop in that direction I know not, but one thing I do know is that painting has a greater charm to me than ever before and I feel that I can enjoy studying any phase of nature which before I had restricted to preconceived notions of what it ought to be. I do not say that I am right but I do say that if nature and art have greater charms to me owing to my "hypnotism," as one of the papers calls it, then I cannot be far wrong, my art is my life.²

Questions for Reading 1

1.What are characteristics of the style of painting known as "Impressionism"?

2.As a student in France, how did Weir respond to his first visit to an exhibit of French Impressionists?

3.What was special or unique about American Impressionism?

4.Weir found that his painting style changed greatly after he adopted Impressionism. How did he describe that change?

Reading 1 was compiled from Dorothy Weir Young,The Life and Letters of J. Alden Weir (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960).

¹Letter from J. Alden Weir to his mother and father dated April 15, 1877, 3 Bis Rue Des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Younf, 123.
²Letter from J. Alden Weir to John Ferguson Weir, c. 1892. Young, 176.

Reading 2: Impressions of Weir's Farm

"Here shall we rest and call content our home."¹
J. Alden Weir's farm in Branchville became the favored retreat of many important American painters. Like Weir, many of these men had studied in Europe where they spent long hours painting and drawing together in the academic teaching studios of Paris. This communal habit of working was continued even after their return to America. Weir welcomed his friends and contemporaries to his "little house among the rocks" for painting, conversation, and good fellowship.

Perhaps the painter closest to Weir was his half-brother, John Ferguson Weir, a member of the Hudson River School and the first Dean of Fine Arts at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. John was a frequent visitor to the farm and also drew inspiration from the gentle landscape. The brothers exchanged thoughts and criticism about their work for their entire lives, always drawing support and encouragement from the other's opinions. They also shared a deep love of the Connecticut landscape. In a letter to J. Alden dated 1883, John informed his brother of his relaxing trip to the farm:

We often speak of you as we sit on the pleasant porch in the evening twilight. I imagine you and Anna [Weir's first wife], seated in your two armchairs, sitting in these twilights in the future summers. I advise you to hang on to this place, old boy, a "lonesome lodge" which is a pleasant place of retreat in storm and drought is no bad thing to have--for an artist--keep it trim and untrammelled, and you will find it a haven of refuge. The air is fine and healthy--and I see no drawbacks....²

Like John, J. Alden agreed that only good could come from time in the country. In fact, he provided the benefits of his farm to his friends and acquaintances, and invited many to come relax and recover at his retreat. A Weir family legend tells of the great John Singer Sargent visiting the farm for the first time, running around the backyard trying to catch fireflies which he had never seen before.

A third famous artist to visit Weir Farm was Albert Pinkham Ryder. Even today, art historians have difficulty categorizing Ryder. Reared in the city, he was an urban recluse, prone to illness and insomnia. Ryder was persuaded, however, to join the Weir family in the country on several occasions. Ryder used the visit to recover his health, coming and going undisturbed from the main house through a door Weir had cut into the guest room for this sole purpose. Ryder completed several paintings of Weir's landscape, and later thanked Weir for the pleasure of his visit:

I have never seen the beauty of spring before; which is something to have lived and suffered for. The landscape and the air are full of promise. That eloquent little fruit tree that we looked at together, like a spirit among the more earthy colors, is already losing its fairy blossoms. Showing the lesson of life; how alert we must be if we would have its gifts and lessons.³

Questions for Reading 2

1.How did Weir's student experiences in Europe influence his life at Weir Farm?

2.Why do you think John Weir thought his brother should hang onto the "lonesome lodge"?

3.Compare the descriptions of the three visits to the farm. How would you describe the effect life in the country had on these grown men? Is there a place that makes you feel this way?

Reading 2 was compiled from the Dorothy Weir Young Scrapbooks and other sources at the Weir Farm National Historic Site.

¹Letter from John Ferguson Weir to J. Alden Weir dated August 2, 1883. Dorothy Weir Young Scrapbooks: 1882 to December 1883, Weir Farm National Historic Site.
²Ibid.
³Letter from Albert Pinkham Ryder to J. Alden Weir dated May 5, 1897, Branchville, Connecticut. Dorothy Weir Young Scrapbooks: January 1892 - December, 1900, Weir Farm National Historic Site.

Reading 3: Home Is the Starting Place

J. Alden Weir was comfortable and confident with his art by the year 1900. As the new century began, Weir enjoyed his greatest success. He exhibited widely during the winters, won numerous awards, and sold paintings to the country's leading museums. Throughout the next two decades, his summer home at the Branchville farm remained his center, his home, the source of his inspiration. "Home is the starting place and love the guide to your actions,"¹ he told the son of his good friend John Henry Twachtman, a prominent painter.

Weir took great pride in his farm. He employed a tenant farmer to live on the site year round and grow crops of grains such as rye, buckwheat, and barley on the rocky fields. While the contrast of golden tall grasses against the stone walls and orchards provided a pleasing image, Weir was not content to leave the setting alone. Instead, he made the landscape of Weir Farm a work of art. Weir manipulated and reworked his property to create an environment that would continue to stimulate and soothe his creative spirit. He cleared some of the land to open up dramatic views, and he introduced new features to the property. One of Weir's students wrote:

Few artists of character I have known have escaped the diverting effect of the purchase and development of run down property. [Weir] was no exception. He had much property. It was lovely. It charmed him. He gave much thought, time and energy to its improvement. How he enjoyed clearing vistas, trimming trees well up from the ground revealing beautiful notes and things unseen before.²

The best example of Weir's improvement and rearrangement of nature was the pond he built at the farm. In 1896, Weir had won first prize ($2,500) at the Boston Art Club. Using that money, he dammed a small brook to create a four-acre pond beyond the fields of crops at the farm. Not only did the small lake and surrounding woodland make great subject matter for an Impressionist, it also provided a place on the farm for fishing. Weir was an avid fisherman, and it was said of him that he always had in his hand either a paintbrush or a fishing pole. The pond was large enough for boating, so Weir soon added a boathouse. He built a summer gazebo and a rustic bridge so Victorian ladies in their long white dresses could cross the marshy expanse.

At the farm, Weir's intention was to enhance nature, not to change or spoil the character of it. Any boulder that was moved, every tree that was relocated, was done with the eye of an artist. Weir wanted his family and his guests to enjoy leisure activities on the land and to always be able to experience and enjoy the landscape that was so dear to him. Weir often painted his family and guests enjoying these surroundings.

Weir's commitment to nature was clear in an interview he once gave in connection with a large exhibit at the National Academy of Design. He was asked what interested him about painting. He answered after a moment with one word, "Character," which he meant was to catch the essence of his subject. Weir went on to explain that he had once met a young painter who asked him for a few words of wisdom about his work. Weir replied:

I told him to throw away his brushes, go out in the country and paint with a stick--look at nature and get the paint on anyhow. [The young painter] was disgusted--thought that was fool talk. But the next I heard of him, he had done it--actually gone out and tried to get the character of the scene and daub it on the canvas, and he got the real thing.³

Questions for Reading 3

1.In what ways did Weir manipulate the landscape?

2.What types of activities did Weir and his family enjoy at the farm?

3.Why did Weir tell the young student to go "paint with a stick"? Do you think that was good advice?

Reading 3 was compiled from David F. Ransom, "Weir Farm Historic District" (Fairfield County, Connecticut) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1984; "Weir Farm National Historic Site Bulletin;" and Dorothy Weir Young,The Life and Letters of J. Alden Weir(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960).

¹Letter from J. Alden Weir to Alden Twachtman dated January 3, 1892. Young, 177-8.
²Account of Branchville farm by Joseph Pearson from a letter to Dorothy Weir Young. Young, 193.
³Young, 248.

Visual Evidence

Use the following link to answer the questions below: link

Questions for Photos 1-3

1.How can you tell these photos are in the country?

2.What are some distinguishing features of this landscape?

3.What types of activities are people engaged in?

Use the following link to the painting of The Fishing Party to answer the questions below: Link

Questions for Painting 1

1.Examine Painting 1, The Fishing Party, and compare it with Photo 1, a view of the fishing bridge.

2.How are the two images alike? How are they different?

3.Are the photograph and the painting showing the same place? How do you know? Has Weir changed reality in his painting?

4.Do you think both were created at the same time of year? Provide reasons for your answer.

5.How does Weir communicate the distinguishing features of the landscape in his painting?

Use the link to After the Ride to answer the questions below: Link

Questions for Painting 2

1.Examine Painting 2, After the Ride, and compare it with Photo 2 showing the girl on the horse.

2.What is the subject of this painting?

3.How does it compare with the photograph? What does this tell you about Impressionist technique? For example, how does Weir communicate the grass at the girl's feet?

4.Do you think Weir distorted details too far beyond reality? What is your opinion of the work?

Putting It All Together

Each part of the country has unique vistas. Landscapes can be green stretches lush with trees and shrubs or dust-covered, flat land punctuated by jagged rocks. Landscapes can also be urban spaces densely packed with soaring buildings. The following exercises encourage students to look at their surroundings with a different eye--an artist's eye.

Activity 1: Find a Painting Site
Have students find places in their community that date from Weir's time at the farm--1882-1919--and that they think would be good subjects for an Impressionist painting. Have them consider the time of day and the types of places that Weir and his friends looked for. They might consider parks, scenic roads, streets where houses have deep front yards or gardens, or even a building with interesting shapes and surfaces. Some interiors may even be appropriate. Have each student find a view they believe would make a good painting. Ask them to sketch or photograph their "place," and then share their impressions about that place with the class. Do they think Impressionist techniques would be better than realism in conveying the sense of what being in this place is like? Allow time for discussion about students' choices.

Activity 2: The Impressionist Experience
If possible, plan this activity cooperatively with an art teacher. Choose an interesting site at or around your school and ask each student to prepare a finished work using pastels, cray-pas, crayons, watercolors, chalk, or poster paints. Encourage the students to experiment with Impressionist techniques. Have them paint outdoors, use bright colors, paint with dabs and small strokes, and include light and shadows at different times of the day or in different weather conditions. Make it clear to the students that no one is expected to produce a masterpiece. As the American Impressionists did, have the students work side by side and encourage one another--each student should try to produce some sort of personal "impression" of the subject. Then have students share their work and discuss the experience as a group. You may wish to post some of the completed works on a bulletin board or in a showcase.

Activity 3: Art in Your Community
American Impressionism was centered around the New England countryside and reflected the popular back-to-nature movement. Have the students conduct research to discover local artists who depict images of their region's landscape. These works need not be traditional landscapes. Some abstract painters respond to the landscape in unique ways and many Native American, Hispanic, and African American artists imprint their own interpretations of place on their works. Invite educators from local art museums, historical societies, galleries or libraries to the classroom to discuss and show slides of the different styles of art popular in the region. If possible, arrange a field trip to a gallery or museum.

When research is completed, have students make short presentations about the artist or artists studied. Then have the class discuss what is artistically unique about your region and how the artists were inspired by that uniqueness.

Additional Resources

Where it Fits into the Curriculum
Topics: This lesson could be used in studying the Industrial Revolution, America's back-to-nature movement, the rise of middle-class culture and values, or as an introduction to American art history. 
Time period: Late 19th century and early 20th century 
Relevant United States History Standards for Grades 5-12 
Relevant Curriculum Standards for Social Studies
Find Your State's Social Studies and History Standards for Grades Pre-K-12

Objectives for Students
1) To describe how American Impressionism replaced earlier forms of landscape painting at the end of the 19th century. 
2) To describe the techniques associated with Impressionism. 
3) To explain the importance of his farm to Weir's creative process. 
4) To investigate the work of artists currently working in their own community and where they get their inspiration.

Materials for Students

The materials listed below either can be used directly on the computer or can be printed out, photocopied, and distributed to students. The maps and images appear twice: in a low-resolution version with associated questions and alone in a larger, high-quality version.
1) two maps of the area, and the Danbury Norwalk Railroad line and train schedule;
2) three readings that describe the American Impressionist movement, the experiences of artists at Weir's farm, and Weir's dedication to his farm;
3) three historic photographs of the farm and his daughter; 
4) two paintings of different scenes on the farm.

Link to Teaching with Historic Places Lesson Plan - Weir Farm: Home of an American Impressionist

Details

Subject:
Art, History, Social Studies
National/State Standards:
History Standard 1B, 1D, 2C
Social Study Standards: Theme III: Standard A & G; Theme IV: Standard B
type:
Curricula