Sydney Morning Herald Column

American Impressionism and Realism

Published July 25, 2009
Thomas Eakins, The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton, 1900, Oil on canvas 82 x 42 in.

“Balzac had described many cities,” wrote Henry James in his late novel, The Ambassadors, “but he had not described Woollett, Massachusetts.” Neither did Balzac get around to describing Brisbane, although to be fair, there was not much to describe in his day. “Woollett”, for James, was a bastion of New World earnestness, industry and ambition. Cultural matters were taken seriously in Woollett, although its good citizens looked always to London and Paris for guidance.
Woollett is a symbol of provincial pretensions and insecurity: those conditions A.A.Phillips famously dubbed the ‘Cultural Strut’ and the ‘Cultural Cringe’. Yet, in his ambiguous way, James was also emphasising America’s energy and innocence against a backdrop of Old World decadence. One hundred years later, the United States is looking suspiciously decadent, while Brisbane has entered its Woollett phase. The hosting of a show such as American Impressionism and Realism at the Queensland Art Gallery bears testimony to the city’s growing hunger for the arts.
This loan exhibition from the Metropolitan Museum in New York includes more than seventy pictures by American artists of the Impressionist era, supplemented by thirty Australian works from local collections. This is a modest continuation of the ‘compare and contrast’ approach adopted by the National Gallery of Australia in its 1998 exhibition, New Worlds From Old, which put nineteenth century American and Australian paintings side by side. It was pleasing to see how strongly the Australian works performed in that unofficial contest, and they look equally good this time around.

It would be wrong, however, to overplay the cross-Pacific comparisons. Indeed, the Australian works have been chosen so there is no attempt to overshadow their American counterparts in terms of scale or significance. The relationships have been carefully calibrated, and if an iconic picture such as Hugh Ramsay’s The Sisters (1904), Tom Roberts’s Allegro con brio: Bourke Street west (1885-90), or Charles Conder’s A holiday at Mentone (1888), stands out from the crowd, it is certainly not because the work is larger and more overbearing.
As is customary with touring ‘blockbusters’, there are a handful of outstanding works in the Met selection, and a good deal that is of the second division. Nothing comes within coo-ee of a trio of magnificent full-length portraits by John Singer Sargent, and another two by Thomas Eakins. One of Eakins’s portraits: The artist’s wife and his setter dog (1884-89), is to my mind, the high point of the show. It is an almost painfully deep and poignant work.
Although not overburdened with masterpieces, there is a powerful fascination to be found in this selection. Many of the supporting cast of American artists will be unfamiliar names to local audiences but their paintings are uncannily similar to the works Australian artists were making at the time. Paris was the common element for both groups of New World artists, and their experiences were very close. The Australians and Americans went to Paris with similar aims and studied in the same ateliers, notably Julian’s and Cormon’s. For the most dedicated, the École des Beaux-Arts was their goal, and they worked hard to meet its stringent entry requirements.
The Australians and Americans shared a fierce work ethic. Artists were conscious that their time in Paris was brief, their funds were limited, and they carried a great weight of expectation from the families and patrons who supported their studies. Allowing for exceptions such as Conder, they had little time to enjoy la vie Boheme. They tended to admire established masters such as Gerome, and shun the more radical experiments of the Impressionists
This would change as the turn of the century loomed. In 1888 the Parisian dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel began holding exhibitions of Impressionist works in New York, and the success of this venture proved crucial in winning acceptance for the movement in the United States and France. More and more Americans and Australians began calling themselves Impressionists, although their efforts were cautious in comparison with trailblazers such as Monet, who found himself surrounded by eager yankees in Giverny.

Of the Australians who studied in France only John Peter Russell and perhaps Emanuel Phillips Fox could be considered to have made a thoroughgoing attempt to paint in the Impressionist manner. Among the Americans, Mary Cassatt has the singular distinction of exhibiting in four of the Impressionist shows. Theodore Robinson seems to have mastered the theory of Impressionism, but could never escape his academic training.
On the evidence of this selection, the most accomplished of American Impressionists was Childe Hassam, who painted scenes of modern life using broken brushstrokes and bright, clear colours. There are nine of his works in this show, and they are among the most delightful pictures on display. Hassam is best known for his flag paintings, one of which Barack Obama has recently installed in the Oval Office
There are six works by Mary Cassatt, whom Degas rated so highly, and four by William Merritt Chase, said to be the first artist to paint an ‘Impressionist’ picture in the United States. The other major drawcard is James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the flamboyant expatriate who exerted a greater influence on the Australian Impressionists than any French master. Unfortunately there is more of Whistler in Chase’s lively full-length portrait (which the subject detested), than in his contributions to this show. His two portraits are woeful – no better than perfunctory in every aspect
Alongside works by Sargent, Eakins, and John White Alexander’s  Repose, Whistler is a serious disappointment. It is a pity he is not represented by a better picture.
John Singer Sargent’s Mr and Mrs I.N. Phelps Stokes (1897) is hardly his most famous painting in the Met – that honour belongs to the enigmatic Madame X (1883) – but it is as full of character as a novel by Henry James or Edith Wharton. In one glance we meet Enid Minton Stokes, the epitome of the active, forthright ‘New Woman’. She stands with hand on hip, in a full-length white skirt and dark jacket, looking out at us with startling insouciance. Her eyes are blatantly asymmetrical, her mouth skewed into a crooked smile. Enid is not portrayed as conventionally beautiful – her attractiveness lies in her aura of intelligence and restless energy.

Behind her right shoulder stands her bearded husband looking stoical and ponderous. The story is that Sargent was originally going to paint Enid with a Great Dane, but when the dog became unavailable Mr. Phelps Stokes took its place. As a self-proclaimed “accessory” in the painting he does an excellent impression of a Great Dane. Partly in shadow, he stands for the world of business; for all that is solid and pragmatic. His wife, whose face catches the light, is a study in idealism and inspiration. Sargent has painted the couple in the elongated style of a Mannerist work, making them as towering as a pair of Redwoods.
Thomas Eakins’s The Thinker: Portrait of Louis S. Kenton (1900) is just as evocative in a completely different way. The subject is lost in introspection, caught staring at the ground with his hands in his pockets. It is impossible not to wonder what he is thinking about. Is he anxious or merely distracted? Has Eakins captured a fleeting moment, or revealed something fundamental about Kenton’s personality? The latter, one suspects. Eakins was one of the most penetrating of portraitists, and inspired a generation of realists who rejected Impressionism for being more concerned with style than subject.
With The artist’s wife and his setter dog the catalogue entry speculates that Eakins projected his personal depression into his wife’s portrait, after he had been forced to resign from his directorship at the Philadelphia Academy for removing a male model’s loincloth in front of female students. It is just as likely that Susan Macdowell Eakins felt no less crushed than her husband over this affair. The pain in her red-rimmed eyes is her own. Her misery is made more striking by the false gaiety of her shiny, old-fashioned dress and the single red sock that protrudes from the hem. Her hand rests on her lap, limp and palm uppermost. Behind her, a heavy swathe of curtain makes her seem even more isolated. The feeling of despair is unmistakable, but the painting remains a mystery.
Even allowing for Eakins’s professional disaster, there is something in this image we will never fathom. It is so unusual to see a person’s private sadness depicted in a portrait that this painting has an almost shocking impact. It is so contrary to the energy and can-do spirit we associate with the American ethos, as personified by Mrs. Phelps Stokes. It is a reminder that a great work of art can make a mockery of all our theories about styles, movements and national characteristics. In The artist’s wife’ we are thrust into direct communication with the dead, and her misery seems no less real today than it did in 1889. This is perhaps how a culture really demonstrates its maturity – not through acts of extravagant display, but in its ability to capture moments of inwardness and self-reflection.
American Impressionism and Realism, Queensland Art Gallery, May 30-September 20, 2009

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 25, 2009