How to Use
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 Impressionistsí work were at once shocking and exciting.
American artists studying in Europe were some of the first to see the French Impressionistsí 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 painting en 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 Weirís 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.