Thursday, May 26, 2011

Passing on the Heritage

How did the students of RH Ives Gammell fare once on their own? I wanted to make a gallery - one painting for each student...if any work could be found online. Some of the names include links to more information on them or their own websites. Enjoy!

Robert Moore

David Zeigler

David Lowrey

Gary D. Hoffman

Paul DeLorenzo

Robert Scott Jackson

Richard W. Whitney

Richard Byron

Sam Rose

Robert Douglas Hunter, The Little Leaguer, 1956

Richard Lack

Stapleton Kearns

Monday, May 23, 2011

Studies with Mr. Gammell . Part 3

RH Ives Gammell had taken on a difficult task. He was on a mission to pass on the knowledge of traditional Western art to the next generation - in opposition to those who were forwarding the modern art agenda. It was a battle. For example, art schools that had championed plaster cast drawing now had their students throw them into a nearby river or used them as fill for their parking lot. One of our readers wrote: "In the 70's, I walked out of a Life Drawing class (with a live model) when the prof caught me doing a realistic rendering, rather than the assigned abstraction interpretation. It had been only abstracts for that whole semester, and seemed like a waste having a live model there. He told me, 'Buy a camera, realism is out!'"

That is why Stapleton Kearns and others who loved the traditional style went to a lot of trouble to become one of Mr. Gammell's students. We continue Stape's recollection here:

"As soon as I arrived, I became a part of the routine in the studios. We would assemble in Gammell's large studio every weekday morning at 9:00, and he would discuss with us newspaper editorials he had read and disagreed with, and he would quiz us on various painters from art history or recollect his days studying with the greats of the Boston school. We were David Lowrey, Tom Dunlay and myself and were joined later, by the returning David Curtis. Gammell would arrange when he would arrive in the students studios to critique their paintings and then we would be dismissed to 408, another large studio Gammmell rented down the hall. There we would spend the morning drawing figures. We had the same pose for three hours a day five days a week, often for up to two weeks. Sometimes less, but I recall no gesture drawing or quick poses.

The first day I was there, or maybe the second, Ives came to see what each of us was doing. He sat and individually corrected in an incisive and usually deadly accurate line the work of each of the others, often noting the anatomical points to which he was driving his lines. Then he came to me. I was drawing in pencil on a sheet perhaps 9 x12 and I was doing pretty well. I had been drawing the figure daily at the university for a year or more, studied briefly in the night classes of Richard Lack in Minnesota and copied a lot of Ingres drawings, so I was not a beginner by any means. I had practically memorized Vanderpoels anatomy, still my favorite book on the subject. As Ives had not asked to see any portfolio from me, this was the first piece of my work he had actually seen. He sat in my place and I stood beside him. He looked at the drawing for awhile and said,"this is better than it has any right to be". He made corrections on it and went on his way, but I did feel as if I had earned my place in front of the model.

The studio was huge and high ceilinged with an entrance a floor above onto a balcony from the hallway, and three big north light windows providing cool and beautiful light throughout the day. The model was at one end of the studio by the staircase, with her position marked in masking tape on the floor at here feet. I don't remember a model stand, although they were around for portraiture. We had two models, one was Betty, and the other was, I think, Linda or Nancy. Both were dance students and very fine models. We would hire them and use them half days for many weeks. They were well paid and they were devoted and reliable. I still remember how excellent they were to this day. Most of the time we drew in charcoal about 18 inches high and we worked on the same drawing for about two weeks. I remember being very impressed with the pencil drawings done by David Lowery.

After spending the morning drawing the figure we would all go to our own studios to work on our individual projects. For Lowrey and Dunlay that meant still lives and portraits, for me it meant first what Ives called books and bottles and then later cast drawings. Books and bottles was an exercise in accuracy for the beginner, and it was just what it sounds like. A little pile of two or three books and a little ceramic mustard bottle or small ball were placed on a felt or velvet cloth on a stand at about chest level. We worked in a system called sight size. Much has been said about sight size and there has been some warfare over its value. But I think it was an excellent training method. Ives called it teaching us to see.

About ten feet or so back from the books and bottles was a position from which we always observed the setup. It was marked on the floor with a piece of tape where our toes would go. The drawing paper was on an easel directly next to the subject. We could look from the subject to the drawing paper next to it and make close comparisons to determine the accuracy of our drawings. The point was to draw as accurately as we could. We would stand on our line and make an observation, then walk forward to the easel and using our vine charcoal filed to a sharp point that Ives called a "dental instrument" make a mark on our paper. Then we would walk back to our observation point and make another observation, walk to the easel and make another little piece of the drawing. It was very addicting and the hours would slide by quickly as you worked.

The idea was that you only looked at the drawing from the observation point. We used plumb lines to determine what fell above or below another element. We would often push a drawing for several weeks. There were stories of legendary drawings that were worked on for months, although I never did one. We were expected to work for months in charcoal before we were allowed to work in paint.

Every few days Ives would come to the studio where I was working at a prearranged time to look at what I was doing. I was renting a working space from a former Gammell student named Sam Rose. Sam and Gammell had a falling out years before so when Ives arrived Sam would go hide in the back room of the studio and both he and Ives would pretend not to know the other was there. Ives had a wooden box he would stand on to critique our work. He called it his equalizer. He was a little guy, and all of us who were his students were over six feet. I was six foot four.

He would mount his box and you would stand next to him so he could hold your wrist to steady himself up there. Then he would squawk like a big parrot something like "Its wrong! wrong, wrong. wrong! I don't know how in the world you could have gotten it so terribly, terribly wrong!" He would gingerly step down from the box, remember he was over eighty years sold at this point and trot energetically up to my drawing and correct a line or show me how I had missed the shape of something. His line was always righter than what had been there. If you have a problem with a teacher making corrections on your drawings Ives would be a nightmare for you. That was how he taught and he was merciless. I don't remember anyone ever telling him he couldn't, and if they had, they would have been ousted from the atelier. Ives was very severe, but I had been in a boarding military academy a few years before, so I had dealt with guys like him before, and worse.

One time he told me that what I needed was not a teacher, what I needed was an oculist. He could be brutal. But he charged us nothing and spared no effort to train us to paint. I owe him a lot and despite his prickly and neurotic behavior, I remember him fondly as a remarkable character. That time was the low ebb for traditional painting and what he was doing was a radical act. Her was training revolutionaries. Things are much different today and it is difficult to imagine how exotic our training was at that time. There are many ateliers spread across the country today and virtually all are modeled on Ives Gammell's teaching methods. Within that milieu he has a legendary status. After Ives left, I would carry the box back to 408 and Sam would emerge from the back room and return to his easel.

After working for the day on my drawings, I would return to the studio upstairs where I lived. Part of the tine I had it to myself and part of the time I shared it with David Curtis. The Fenway studios were very primitive.. We had DC current, 120 volt DC current. As an early electrified building in Boston it was wired for Edison's system of direct current rather than the alternating current championed by Nicole Tesla. What that meant was that no electrical device newer than about 1917 would work. We had a device called a converter in the closet upstairs that was an alternating current generator than ran on DC. It was noisy and undependable. Much of the time we did without it. We had a hot plate with a cloth covered cord to cook on, and a sink.

The bathroom was down the hall about half a block, and there were no showers. You took a washcloth to the big enamel sink in the bathroom and washed yourself with that. We were always visiting people we knew who had showers. We would do this in rotation, first one friend and then another so as not to wear out our welcome by showering too often in one place. My friend Sam had a jury rigged shower up on base about six inches off the floor. Water was diverted to it from the sink and than collected in a coffee can where the drain would ordinarily be. From there it was returned to the sink with an aquarium pump. If you gauged the flow properly you could get a decent shower out of the thing, but if you got greedy and ran the water faster than the pump could remove it, you had a flood.

There was little heat at night in the studios as theoretically no one lived there, although in practice almost every studio was occupied. We had an ancient sort of pre-World War I space heater. It looked like a flying saucer, the thing kids use to sled on, made out of shiny copper. In its center behind a grill like on an old style electric fan was a porcelain post from which bare copper wires were stretched to the perimeter of the saucer. These glowed red hot when it was plugged in and the thing hummed with an evil and malevolent menace. But by hanging a wool blanket over the entrance to the little room under the balcony in which we slept, it could be kept warm enough to be comfortable. In the morning David would grind French roast beans with a hand grinder and make delicious coffee on the hot plate which we drank with canned condensed milk as we had no refrigeration. There were no refrigerators in the days when the building was wired for DC.

We never had money for movies or other entertainment although I did have a fondness for the more inexpensive available whiskeys. All of our time was spent in study and ceaseless work or the contemplation of the days work propped up on a chair while eating canned ravioli cooked on that venerable DC hotplate. Grim..."

...and memorable for anyone that studied there!

* with many thanks to Stapleton Kearns for sharing these fascinating posts with us! I highly recommend his daily blogs.

Studying with Mr. Gammell . Part 2

Today's post - and the final one - will be a continuation of Stapleton Kearn's account of his meeting and studies with RH Ives Gammell. Already Stape has traveled from Minneapolis to Massachusetts to meet Mr. Gammell. The big question now was, "Would Ives accept him as his student?" He would find out soon as he arrived at Rm. 401 in the Fenway Studios for his 9 a.m. appointment:

"I opened the massive wooden doors with their black iron strap hinges and entered the balconied two story lobby area. It smelled of paint and varnish. Oliver Brothers, the restorers were the closest tenant to the lobby and in those days they did hot wax relining , that and the varnish combined into the most fabulous and evocative smell. It smelled like art history.

The old black man who was the guard and elevator operator, Reggie, cackled endearingly and waved around hands that were the size of tennis rackets as he talked nonstop. He opened the steel door to the elevator and piloted it with one of those bronze and black Bakelite levers mounted waist high on the wall. I believe there was one of those accordion style iron gates that had to be pulled closed before the elevator would run.

Reggie stopped the elevator at the 4th floor where Ives had his studio, and I walked down the narrow, creaking wood floored hallway to the oak door that belonged to studio 401. One of the students let me in and I descended the stairway from the balcony to the floor level of the two story studio. One wall was taken up by high windows facing north and divided into about a thousand panes. There were blackout shades drawn not from the tops of the windows but halfway up from the bottom.This had been William Paxton's studio, and I don't believe Ives had changed it much. Paxton's enormous blonde wooden studio easel with its crank and high mast stood in the middle of the room.

Ives spoke briefly to the other students, he had newspaper clippings of art criticism from the New York Times in his hand, and he was incensed at something a critic, perhaps Clement Greenberg had said. He dismissed his two students to studio 408 to spend the morning drawing figures as they did every day. Ives then beckoned me to a tiny living room under the balcony where he had a little sofa and a couple of chairs. Wearing a blue painters smock, he laid down on the sofa and told me what the format of our meetings would to be. Each day for three days I was to meet with him at 9:00. He would ask me three questions, and I would ask him three questions, each day.

He began by showing me a folio of his drawings from when he was very young at about the time of the Spanish American War. The drawings were, I think, of scenes of knights on horseback, perhaps they were illustrations for Ivanhoe. I don't remember too much about them other than that they looked OK, and that I thought I could match them. I didn't say that to Ives of course.

Each of the three days we met, and he asked me his three questions and I asked him mine. I remember him inquiring about my background and my interest in art. I have always spoken pretty well and I gave a good account of myself. He asked me about painters and painting. I had been studying for months to be ready.

The last question he asked me, I do remember, and that was, "Who was Alfred Stevens?" Now today with so many books around about 19th century painting you would find some artists who would know the answer to the question, but in 1974 being able to answer that was unusual in a 22 year old art student to say the least. I answered that there were actually two Alfred Stevens, one a painter from Belgium and the other an English sculptor whose lion for the railings of the British museum I had read about in Harold Speed. It was like an artistic version of the bar exam, and I had just passed it.

My last question to Ives was "Will you teach me to paint?" He answered that he had a full contingent of students already, but if I could secure a place in the studios somewhere, he would give me criticism. At no point did he have an interest at all in seeing my portfolio. He explained that it was impossible that I could know anything about drawing from the inadequate training I had received in the art schools . He merely wished to ascertain whether I was sufficiently interested to work diligently to learn the art and that I was smart enough to be worth the trouble of teaching.

Someone suggested that I talk to a student of another artist, Robert Cormier who had a studio in the building in which I could rent a place to sleep. There was no room in that studio for me to work, but the cadre of students quickly found me a spot to work that I could rent from an artist a few floors below, Sam Rose. I now had a studio and a place to sleep in Fenway studios. I took the bus back to Minnesota and packed a few belongings into my fathers old army footlocker, grabbed my Epiphone six string and took the train, The Empire Builder, back to Boston to begin my training in the art of Classical oil painting at the hands of R.H. Ives Gammell.

...Next, the final episode . Stapleton's Studies with Mr. Gammell

Friday, May 20, 2011

Studying with Mr. Gammell . Part I

Mr. Gammell Taught at Fenway Studio in Boston

RH Ives Gammell taught approximately 20-22 students during his years as a teacher. Most of them are still alive. Stephen Gjertson, who studied with Richard Lack, who was a student of Mr. Gammell, made up a list of them which he says is not complete:

Chronological List of the Pupils of R. H. Ives Gammell
. 1930 - 1981
  • George Melnick (32-40)
  • Jack Breslaw
  • Robert Cumming (47-53)†
  • Robert Cormier (49; 53-62)*
  • Richard F. Lack (50; 54-57)†
  • Robert Douglas Hunter (50-55)*
  • Richard Byron (55-57)
  • Samuel Rose (62-72)†
  • Mark Bellerose
  • Richard W. Whitney (66-71)*
  • Robert S. Jackson (1 summer)
  • Paul DeLorenzo (April 67-Dec. 67)‡
  • Chris Kendell (67-68)
  • David Curtis (69-71; 74-75)
  • Charles Cecil (69-71)‡*
  • James Childs (summers 71-73)‡*
  • Stapleton Kearns (73- )
  • Thomas R. Dunlay (73-79)*
  • Gary D. Hoffmann (75-77)‡
  • David Lowrey (75-79)*
  • David Zeigler
  • Jan Posvar (76-78)
  • Allan R. Banks (summer 76)‡*
  • Hilary H. Holmes (76)
  • Paul Ingbretson (75-78)*
  • Robert Moore (77-81)†*
  • Carl Samson (81)‡
‡ Artists who studied with both R. H. Ives Gammell and Richard Lack
* Artists who are currently teaching or who have taught in the past
† Artists who are deceased

(Curtis Hanson, who studied with Mr. Gammell for three years, should also be on this list.)

As you can see, my teacher Carl Samson was his last pupil. He had been accepted to Richard Lack's atelier, but his first meeting with Mr. Gammell changed his plans for the year:

Carl Samson: "Happily, I met and began studying with Allan Banks at age 14. It wasn't long before I heard Gammell's name. I read the Twilight of Painting, which spoke to me mightily. Meanwhile, I had been accepted at Atelier Lack in Minneapolis where I was to go upon graduating high school.

Feeling it to be a last chance to visit a living legend and link with the past, I decided to try calling Gammell to see if he might entertain a visit. So, at age 18 and with my sister's borrowed VW Rabbit, I drove to Boston during spring break to meet the man. He greeted me at the door of his Fenway Studios atelier, whereupon we had a very intense and memorable meeting.

I showed him examples of my work. When I asked for his advice on what to do going forward, he smiled and said he'd like for me to stay the week, then ask the same question. The week was filled with museums, tours and meeting other artists at the Fenway. It was a whirlwind. When we sat down again, he offered me a spot in his atelier for the fall of 1979. I accepted, and spent much time with Gammell in what was to be the final year of his life. It was transformative, and I'll always be grateful for this extraordinary experience.

Another student, Stapleton Kearns, has written more extensively on his experience at Mr. Gammell's school. These excerpts from his blog give insight into Mr. Gammell as a teacher:

Stapleton Kearns in the early 1970s

Stapleton Kearns:
"I am neither an expert on Gammell, nor am I anything like his best known student. Ultimately, I guess, I was one of the number who passed through his hands. I spent a time there, learned what I could, and then moved on and was influenced deeply by the Rockport school of painting. So I am not a typical Gammell trained painter although I guess I could still be called Boston school.

In the mid 70's, I figured out that art school couldn't teach me to do the kind of painting I wanted to do. In fact the teachers there were both dismissive and unaware of the historical art that interested me. I met a student of R.H.Ives Gammell whose work floored me. I had never seen anyone who could do figures as well as he could.

I read Twilight of Painting Gammell's book, then out of print. There was a student of Gammell, Richard Lack, who was running a training atelier in Minneapolis. I took a night course there but they didn't have room for another student and I wanted to get at the original stuff anyway, rather than learn it second hand. I began a correspondence with Ives Gammell and told him I would like to come to Boston and meet him. He agreed.

Through the Atelier Lack, I had met a few students who had met Gammell, and they told me what it would be like. He was an ancient and very demanding relic of the Edwardian age. He was at that point 82 years old and did not tolerate fools well at all. He was an intimidating curmudgeon. I was told that he was really only impressed by one or two qualities in young men. The first was if the knew their art history, particularly their 19th century art history. That took some doing, in those days there were very few books on the subject and much of what there was, resided in the graduate stacks at the University as it was written in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Today I could buy books to learn about these artists on Amazon, back then it was secret knowledge. You had to read Kenyon Cox, and R.A.M. Stevenson, Phillip Hale, Bernard Berenson, Eugene Fromentin, and Georgio Vasari. I studied Harold Speed and Lumsdens Art of Etching. I read about the old masters, there were books on them, particularly those published by Abrams. Those were thick, expensive, volumes with the old "tipped in" plates. That is, the pictures of the art were printed separately from the book on special paper and then glued in by their tops to the pages . I still have my books on Titian and Ingres that I studied then.

I bought a bus pass from Greyhound that gave me the run of the country for a month, I could get on and off as I pleased. I used this to travel across the country seeing as much art as I could in the museums scattered east of Minnesota, I saw a LOT of art. I had grown up with art books and touring art museums as a child with my mother who was a culture fanatic mostly interested in 18th century furniture. I knew my orders of furniture before I knew the facts of life. I stayed in cheap hotels and youth hostels and traveled much of the time in the company of European students who were more commonly the users of the month long bus passes. I ended the trip in Boston , where I was to meet with Mr. Gammell. I stayed at the old Armed Services YMCA in Charlestown' Massachusetts, across a short bridge from Boston.

Gammell was summering at his studio in Williamstown, Massaschusetts, and I took the bus a few hours to get there. I checked into a guest house, and one of the students came into town from the studio and picked me up. They were on their way to the grocery store and Ives was in the front passenger seat. He turned around in the seat and he looked just like a ferocious snapping turtle! Here is a picture of him.

RH Ives Gammell

I remember him grilling me for information about Atelier Lack. I couldn't give him much of that, as I had never been deeply involved with it. At the grocery store we all got out of the car, I think it was one of those huge station wagons from that era, it belonged to Gammell, but he always had a student drive. I don't believe he ever drove. As he got out of the cart, he tied his handkerchief to the radio antenna so he could tell his car from the others when the came out of the grocery. He said they all looked the same to him. I think it may have all been theater, but maybe he couldn't tell , he was born in 1893.

Now 35 years later I am trying to remember the details of what happened , but I only remember scenes in brief flashes like the night landscape illuminated by heat lightning. Gammell showed me the studios and introduced me to his students, Tom Dunlay and David Lowrey.

Gammell was returning in a few days to Boston, and he set up another appointment for me to visit him at the Fenway studios. This was the historic building where so many of Bostons impressionist painters had worked in their heyday. I returned to the Y and a day or two later I met as arranged with Gammell at his studio at 9.00 in the morning. The Fenway studios still exists, and it isn't much changed, but then it was in a time warp. Only couple of blocks towards Back Bay from Bostons famous Fenway Park.

Fenway Studios

I opened the massive wooden doors with their black iron strap hinges and entered the balconied two story lobby area. It smelled of paint and varnish. Oliver Brothers, the restorers were the closest tenant to the lobby and in those days they did hot wax relining , that and the varnish combined into the most fabulous and evocative smell. It smelled like art history... be continued

Monday, May 16, 2011

RH Ives Gammell

RH Ives Gammell

We have listened to RH Ives Gammell tell us about his teachers and fellow artists from the Boston School of painting, and one might wonder, "What of Mr. Gammell himself?"

Robert Hale Ives Gammell has a significant place in the history of American art. Much more than the fact that he was a fine artist, he became a bridge. He spanned the chasm of modern art allowing the accumulated knowledge of classical art to pass over to the current generation.

"Born in 1893, the youngest son of a prominent Rhode Island family, Ives was reared in the patrician New England society which [often commissioned portraits from the Boston painters at the turn of the century]. That small group of artists, thoroughly trained in their profession, staunchly maintained the old standards of craftsmanship, at a time when the avant-garde forming in New York and Philadelphia had begun to reject such standards.

Gammell received his most important training from the Boston painters. His principal mentor, William McGregor Paxton, had studied with the eminent French academic painter Gérôme, whose teacher, in turn, had been a pupil of the great Jacques Louis David.

The Seamstress by RH Ives Gammell

Mr. Gammell became adept in the Boston style of painting, but his real passion was for imaginative painting--the creation of complex allegorical, historical, or literary scenes, composed of dramatic figural groups in elaborate costume and architectural settings. The choice of this most demanding of all painting genres was an extraordinarily challenging one for Gammell, since he was by his own admission a painter of only average talent (taking as his standard the great works of Western art), and his teachers could offer little specific guidance on this approach to picturemaking.

Gammell spared no effort toward the creation of an ambitious body of imaginative paintings. He traveled extensively in Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, visiting museums to study the Old Masters, and tirelessly recording exotic details of costume, ornament, and architecture that he observed in various locales. More remarkable, when he was past thirty and had been painting professionally with a fair degree of success for a decade, he interrupted his career to spend two years relearning drawing under Paxton.

Finally, in the early 1930s, he began work on his allegorical paintings. They are often stunning images, brilliantly composed, with complex groups of carefully drawn figures and a vivid sense of color.

Dream of the Shulamite Woman
RH Ives Gammell

That work may well have taken its toll on Gammell. By the end of the decade, he was exhausted, overcome by a growing sense of despair and isolation. By that time

  • the First World War and the Depression had transformed American society and culture
  • the other painters of the "old school" were dying off, and their elegant, well-crafted pictures were being relegated to museum storerooms, along with the work of the nineteenth-century French academic artists, reviled by the modernists
  • not only was there little likelihood of a wide audience for his own [type of] work, it seemed that the entire Western painting tradition was in jeopardy
  • moreover, a second great war threatened to annihilate civilization itself.
Gammell sank into a profound depression. When he emerged from that dark period, however, it was with renewed purpose and a significant shift of focus. Seeing himself as the guardian of a priceless cultural tradition on the brink of extinction, he began to write and, eventually, to teach--as well as continuing to paint.

His first book was Twilight of Painting. Written in the early years of World War II, it was first published in 1946. It was, the author said, "a painter's book about painting," addressed to the general public and to the future artists who might someday undertake to revive the "all-but-lost art of picturemaking."*

(It was this book that attracted many of his best students to his school which had been founded in 1951 in Boston. His students were young men looking to acquire the knowledge of past great artists; in turn, they are dedicated to passing this valuable body of information on to others.}

Following Twilight of Painting, Gammell wrote a monograph on one of the finest of the late-nineteenth-century Boston painters, Dennis Miller Bunker; compiled and edited Shop Talk of Edgar Degas; and wrote a collection of essays posthumously published as The Boston Painters, 1900-1930--apart from much still unpublished material. Evident in his writing are some of the qualities that must have contributed to his effectiveness as a teacher of a painting: breadth of vision, clarity of thought and expression, erudition without pomposity, and above all a passionate dedication to the art of picturemaking--a dedication informed by a virtually encyclopedic knowledge of the history and methodology of Western painting.

By all accounts, Gammell was a strict, often crusty, teacher, but he was also extraordinarily generous. He took no fees from his students, and frequently defrayed their studio expenses as well as their room and board, in addition to ensuring that they were exposed to a broad cultural program (also at his expense), which he considered essential to the development of an artist.

Undoubtedly, it was as a teacher and a critic and commentator, rather than as a painter, that he made his most significant contribution. Indeed, if the great painting tradition that is one of the glories of Western civilization survives and flourishes into the twenty-first century, it will be due in no small measure to RH Ives Gammell's teaching and writing on this art. It was a mission that he loved and to which he dedicated his life till his death in 1981.

There are many interesting stories from those who studied with him, and we shall hear first-hand from some of them beginning in our next blog.

* from RH Ives Gammell by Michelle Marder Kamhi in Aristos, May 1990

Monday, May 2, 2011

Boston Goes Impressionistic

Eleanor . Frank Benson

When I consider the Boston painters, I think of
  1. excellence in drawing
  2. acute perception of relationships between colors, edges and values
  3. seeing the subject matter as a whole
  4. beautiful application of paint

But there is another aspect of their painting that has surprised me - they were Impressionists! I heard that from Ives Gammell himself. He carefully pointed that out over and over in his conversations about Tarbell, Paxton, Bunker, DeCamp, Hale and a few others in his book, The Boston Painters.

Certain works look very Impressionistic to me:

Portrait of My Daughters
Frank Benson
The Crimson Rambler
Philip Hale

Other works did not strike me as Impressionistic.

William MacGregor Paxton (1869-1941)

That's because - until I finished reading Mr. Gammell's book - I would have defined Impressionism as majoring on the capture of light and its effects, about small brushstrokes of intense, pure color, and about a certain looseness i.e. not too refined. From what Ives told me, however, it is time to modify of that definition.

To get down to the bare bones, to paint Impressionistically is to major on capturing the visual impression that your subject makes upon your eyes.

As Mr. Gammell expatiates:* "The overriding purpose of all impressionists is to give pictorial form to their own reactions before the spectacle proffered by nature. They are so deeply stirred by the splendor of what they see that they accept it as the paragon of attainable beauty whose interpretation constitutes the painter's supreme task. The type [of artist] which we designate as Impressionist, however, is by a temperament disposed to obey that motivation much more single-mindedly than his fellow painters.

The Impressionist intent was adhered to by a certain painters ranging from Velasquez to Monet with the most recent distinguished painters of this persuasion having been our Bostonians. For example, Frank Benson had two working tenets.

  • The first principle underscored the desirability of maintaining from the very start of a painting the relative degrees of definition which the various shapes comprised in a chosen field of vision, present to eyes which have been focused so as to embrace the entire area to be depicted in a single glance. For it is this over-all aspect which the Impressionist is bent on rendering since it alone conveys the "sense of beauty and mystery which enchants us when we look at nature," to use an unforgettable phrase of Frank Benson's.

    To transcribe this "impression instantanee," as Claude Monet called it, constitutes the gist of Impressionism.

  • Benson's second principle came as a corollary to the first. When the colors in the given prospect are observed simultaneously in a mutual relationship, instead of being examined separately, they appear entirely transformed. This esthetically important optical phenomenon eludes the beginner's eye even more stubbornly than its above mentioned fellow partner. Yet one need only juxtapose a landscape by any member of the Hudson River School, for instance, with one by Claude Monet, Sisley or Benson to measure the gap separating the two perceptions. The comprehensive, broadly focused look registers a superior visual truth whose splendor has overwhelmed most of us from time to time unawares as we gazed at nature in certain exceptionally receptive moods. The Impressionist painter's task is to carefully analyze this truth and transpose it permanently to canvas.

The Impressionist practice of painting outdoors also heightened their ability to see color. As Mr. Gammell continues: "Watching the Impressionist, we are immediately struck by the crucial role played by the color key which he establishes as he begins his painting. Until the mid-nineteenth century landscapes had ordinarily been painted in studios from drawings previously made on the spot. Luminosity was obtained by opposing values ranging from pure white to tones verging on black. Courbet was still using this gamut in 1875. The contrast was always one of value rather than one of color.

But as painters began to take their easels out of doors they soon realized that the lowest color notes observable under the open sky lies well within reach of the paints laid out on their palettes. They were surprised that in broad daylight, the very darkest objects assumed a value both much lighter and more colored than they had suspected. They settled the dark tones first matching their actual value exactly and giving them the maximum coloration detectable in nature. The available color range, then, lay between those darks and pure white at the top. And they further discovered that if the intermediate hues were given their precise relative color saturation and value the desired brilliance could be attained." This also changed their perception of color in their indoor work as well.

How did the Boston painters come to be influenced by Impressionism?

The artists that we have talked about in previous posts had at least some of their studies in Europe...primarily in Paris and in Munich. All of them would have been exposed to the Impressionistic work in the art galleries and to plein air painting. As some of them came into contact with Claude Monet, they “spread the Impressionistic word” to their fellow artists and art lovers.

The Brook at Medfield, 1889, Dennis Bunker

For example, Bostonian Lilla Cabot Perry, who had begun her study of painting at the age of 40 under Dennis Bunker, also went to Paris and met Claude Monet and Pisarro at Giverny in 1889. She subsequently took a house in the village, where she spent some summers as the neighbor and friend of the great Monet who often dropped in for tea and talked painting. She became one of the intermediaries who transmitted Monet's Impressionism to other painters upon her return home – just as she had done while present in Giverny (she introduced Cecilia Beaux to Monet).

All this made the leading Boston painters authentic transmitters of Claude Monet's concepts, pictorial approach and visual understanding. Those - like Ives Gammell - who belonged to their youngest batch of direct pupils benefited from the instruction of men who had worked for years in constant touch with Monet himself and whose overall grasp of the art of painting in its totality greatly exceeded that landscapist's scope and successfully passed their lore on to a number of talented pupils - who are currently passing it on to their students.

humongously excerpted and adjusted from RH Ives Gammell's book,
The Boston Painters (1900-1930)

*Mr. Gammell regularly worked on expanding his vocabulary. He particularly loved obscure or archaic words. He wrote them out on index cards, kept a stack of them available, and used his word of the day in conversation. “Expatiate” had to be one of those words. It means “to enlarge in discourse or writing; be copious in description or discussion: to expatiate upon a theme.”