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.”


  1. I was a student of Ives Gammell in 1967 1969. Samuel Rose let me share his studio. Membership to the Boston Athenaeum Library and complimentary tickets to Opera and Ballet were provided. it was a marvellous time.

    1. That sounds wonderful, Robert. I like how Mr. Gammell wanted to help his students fill up on culture and the fine things in life - as Mr. Joshua Reynolds advised in his lectures.