By Carter B. Horsley
This splendid exhibition presents a fine overview
of the work of several of America's foremost Impressionist painters,
who flourished in the Cos Cob section of Greenwich, Conn., at
the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth century.
There were several art colonies that sprang
up in the late 19th Century that were more famous such as Shinnecock,
New York, Cornish, New Hampshire, Monhegan Island, Maine, Gloucester
and Provincetown, Mass., Old Lyme, Conn., and the Byrdcliffe colony
in Woodstock, New York. While relatively small in terms of the
numbers of active artists, Cos Cob is distinguished by the stature
of its artists, Childe Hassam, John H. Twachtman, Theodore Robinson
and Julian Alden Weir.
This show and its superb, accompanying, 246-page
catalogue written by Susan G. Larkin give a long-overdue, major
exposure to some of the best work by John Twachtman, who is perhaps
America's most poetic and abstract Impressionist painter. Although
his oeuvre is a bit uneven, this exhibition includes several of
his masterpieces including "Sailing in the Mist," a
30 1/2-inch square oil on canvas painted by Twachtman in 1895
and is now in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the
Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Joseph E. Temple Fund, shown above,
perhaps the finest American Impressionist painting and perhaps
also one of the finest American abstract paintings.
Along with William Merritt Chase (see The City
Review article), who lead his own art colony at Shinnecock, New
York, Hassam, Twachtman and Weir are widely regarded as the most
important American Impressionists. There are, of course, numerous
other American Impressionist painters such as Edmund Tarbell,
Robert Reid, Frank Benson, Richard Miller and Frederick Frieseke,
who became, and remain, very popular but should be regarded as
the second generation. Chase, Twachtman and Weir, in fact, were
not the first American Impressionists as Berthe Morisot, Mary
Cassatt and Theodore Robinson predate them, but have their roots
much more in France than America. Many of the works of Winslow
Homer, America's finest painter, furthermore, should be considered
Impressionist and his roots are solidly American, but most surveys
have inexplicably and wrongly not included him in the Impressionist
In her catalogue introduction, Ms. Larkin notes
that Chase's famous summer school at Shinnecock on Long Island
should not really be construed as an art colony "because
it included only one professional artist." "Because
artists tend to congregate in cities to pursue teaching careers
and exhibition opportunities, an urban neighborhood, regardless
of how many artists live there, does not involve the deliberate
withdrawal implicit in the concept of an art colony," she
In Cos Cob, she noted, the Holley House "provided
an inspiring and affordable gathering place, allowing innovative,
cosmopolitian artists to work within a traditional waterfront
village…[that] was surrounded by a prosperous farm town undergoing
rapid suburbanization." "The artists," she continued,
"adopted a bohemian stance that differentiated them from
the prosperous suburbanites. Eventually, however, they shed their
aloofness when they recognized the new residents as potential
patrons. Their efforts to cultivate that market resulted in the
establishment of an exhibition society and the development of
a museum, both of which thrive to this day."
"In large part, the Cos Cob art colony
was shaped by compelling personalities. The individual who, more
than any other, set the group's experimental tone was Twachtman.
Lincoln Steffens, an investigative journalist affiliated with
the art colony, remarked of him, 'I'm not so interested in his
pictures, I'm interested in his temperament.' Twachtman's temperament
- by turns gregarious and introspective, restless and serene -
was a major factor in preventing the Cos Cob art colony from becoming
a backwater of nostalgic complacency. Ironically, his lack of
commercial success contributed to his artistic independence, freeing
him from the temptation of producing salable pictures according
to a proven formula. His art, conversation, and teaching fueled
the creative fires of his friends and students in Cos Cob,"
Other members of the colony included painters
Birge Harrison, Leonard Ochtman, and D. Putnam Brinley, McClure's
fiction editor Viola Roseboro, playwright Kate Jordan, illustrator
Rose O'Neill, who originated the Kewpie doll, and novelists Willa
Cather and Irving Bacheller. The colony flourished from about
1890 to 1920 and a second generation, Larkin maintained, made
a shift to "a new Post-Impressionist idiom," and "several
members…, notably Elmer MacRae and Henry Fitch Taylor (one
of the colony's founders), were among the principal organizers
of the Armory Show, the landmark exhibition that in 1913 introduced
modernist European art to a vast American audience."
The boardinghouse at Holly Farm on Stanwich
Road in Greenwich was a 20-bedroom, Second Empire-style house
that was erected by Edward Payson Holley, who was descended from
one of the original English settlers of Stamford, Conn., in 1873
and had two dining rooms with a combined capacity of 54 persons.
It was demolished in the 1950s. Holley's wife, Josephine Lyon
Holley had ancestors who settled in New England in 1632 and her
brother, Hartford physician Irving W. Lyon was, according to Ms.
Larkin, "an avid antiquarian who pioneered the documentation
of American furniture." Robert W. Weir, the Hudson River
School painter who taught at West Point stayed at the boarding
house in the 1870s and was joined occasionally by his youngest
son, J. Alden Weir, whose friend, Twachtman, also boarded with
him there in 1878 and 1879. Young Weir and Twachtman may have
met at the first exhibition of the Society of American Artists
in new York in March, 1878, Larkin suggests, and their "friendship
deepened when both had studios in the University Building in New
York, probably beginning that autumn."
The Holleys went bankrupt in 1877, and had
to pay rent to continue to live and operate the boardinghouse
and by 1882, they "rented an old house on about three-quarters
of an acre overlooking Cos Cob's small harbor" with only
14 rooms, of which about nine were used as bedrooms, according
to Ms. Larkin. This building, about a three-minute walk from the
train station and about four hundred yards away from Long Island
Sound, is now called the Bush-Holley House and is the museum of
the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich. The house dated
to 1732 and the Holleys decorated it in the "Colonial Revival
aesthetic" and with photographs of old master paintings and
antique silver and mahogany furniture.
"The Holley House, redolent of tradition,
became a bohemian enclave of avant-garde art, progressive politics,
and a degree of sexual freedom," Ms. Larkin wrote, adding
that some of "the letters Twachtman wrote to Josephine during
the years his wife was living apart from him in France suggest
a deep emotional attachment between the painter and his hostess."
Young Weir would soon buy his own property
in Branchville, Conn., and in the Adirondacks. In 1888, Twachtman
boarded near Weir's Branchville Farm and the Cos Cob colony "emerged
when Twachtman settled with his wife and children on Round Hill
Road in central Greenwich, about three miles from the Holly House
and twenty-five miles southwest of Branchville.
Twachtman, Larkin wrote, "was a painter's
painter, never successful in the marketplace but respected by
his colleagues for his highly original work." "For one
pivotal decade, from 1889 to 1899, Twachtman found the subjects
for most of his canvases on his home ground in Greenwich. Painting
his house, barn, and garden the brook that rippled past them,
he expressed his intense emotional response to the place. Stylistically,
he borrowed from various sources, freely adapting the light palette
of Impressionism, the contemplative mood of Tonalism, and the
economy of means, austere poetry and thin paint application of
Chinese screen paintings. The results sometimes bewildered collectors
- Twachtman may have been the first American painter to have a
canvas hung upside down - but they won the admiration of his peers,"
Theodore Robinson, who was one of the first
American artists to visit Monet at his Giverny home in France
in 1887, only painted for about three years in Connecticut before
his death in 1896 but Larkin maintains that "those campaigns
resulted in some of his finest works" and indeed five of
the loveliest paintings in the show are four slightly different
versions of low tide at the Riverside Yacht Club near Cos Cob,
and a painting by Robinson of two of Twachtman's daughters, a
work entitled "Stepping Stones" that is in the collection
of Senator and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller IV.
Twachtman's children are also the subject of
the best work by Hassam in the exhibition, "The Children,"
an oil on board, 18 1/4 by 14 1/2 inches, 1897, shown above.
Twachtman, who taught both at Cos Cob and at
the Art Students League in New York, encouraged his students,
according to Ms. Larkin, "to alternate oils with watercolors
and pastels, which he believed would encourage 'a suggestiveness
and charm even if you fail in literal truth, and after all it
is nature interpreted, not copied, that we want.'" "He
urged his pupils to simplify their compositions by eliminating
details, using a limited palette, and working on a large scale,
but he was less concerned with technique than with the development
of a personal vision," she continued, adding that Ernest
Lawson would become "the most famous of Twachtman's and Weir's
students." Another well-known student was Genjiro Yeto, a
Japanese artist, and Ms. Larkin notes that Japanese art was a
not unimportant influence on the colony and that the "colonists
enjoyed dressing up in kimonos and acting out their fantasies
Twachtman, Hassam and Weir resigned from the
Society of American Artists in 1898 to form with seven of their
friends the Ten American Paintings group and William Merritt Chase
became a member when Twachtman died in 1902.
In 1909, Robert M. Bruce, a textile merchant,
gave his home and $50,000 to the town of Greenwich for a museum
of art, history and natural history and members of the colony
would soon hold exhibitions of their art there.
"Unlike their French predecessors, Cos
Cob's artists linked the railroad not with the leisure activities
it fostered but with the traditional economy it destroyed. The
railroad bridge figures prominently in numerous paintings of the
traditional work boats, the shipyard where they were repaired,
and the Lower Landing where fish and freight were unloaded from
their holds," Larkin wrote.
Larkin notes that the bucolic nature of Cos
Cob was changing during the heyday of the colony and that the
artists sometimes took great pains to preserve a nostalgic, rural
feel to many of their works and that they also gave in to a "heroicizing
of the Yankee sailor." In "Oyster Sloop," a 1902
oil on canvas, 24 3/8 by 22 3/8 inches, by Childe Hassam, National
Gallery of Art, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection, the artist depicts
the fisherman standing his small boat sculling out of the harbor
since his boat does not have a motor.
"While occupational boating represented
the fast-fading past of coastal communities like Cos Cob, organized
leisure boating represented the future…As summer visitors
became year-round residents, leisure vessels proliferated. Leonard
Ochtman, who settled in Cos Cob partly to indulge his passion
for boating, captured the pleasure of having a sailboat anchored
just a few steps from home in his painting On the Mianus River….For
the artists and writers who gathered at the Holley House, modern
leisure was represented by the Riverside Yacht Club, situated
on the opposite bank of the Mianus near its confluence with Long
Island Sound….In the autumn of 1893, the clubhouse was expanded
with the addition of a circular tower that became a landmark for
sailors.," Larkin wrote. The tower is clearly visible in
four paintings in the exhibition by Robinson, of which "Low
Tide," an oil on canvas, 16 by 22 1/4 inches, 1894, Manoogian
Collection, shown above, is one of the best. This series of paintings
shows Robinson's work at its best and they are all very lovely
and fine compositions with a superb painterliness with a pastel-like
palette. In the paintings, Robinson depicts a factory that had
been empty for 24 years "with a spurious vitality by depicting
smoke emerging from its chimney," Larkin noted, and in one
of them, "Low Tide, Riverside Yacht Club," which is
in the Collection of Margaret and Raymond Horowitz, has the smoke
have the same form as the burgee flying atop the yacht club. "Robinson's
exploration of the changing effects of light reflects the influence
of Monet, who had begun his great series paintings during the
years that Robinson lived in Giverny," Larkin added.
They and the many magnificent Twachtman works
in the exhibition make this show a must for any serious lover
of American painting.
"Twachtman's Sailing in the Mist…is
modernist in its formal qualities: square canvas, expressive brushwork,
and near abstraction. The apparent modernity of its subject matter
- a female figure sailing a small boat - is misleading, however.
Instead of celebrating contemporary leisure as Robinson, and before
him, Monet had done, Twachtman used the boating theme to express
ideas and emotions, as did the Romantics and Symbolists. The ancient
metaphor of life as a voyage from birth to death had been employed
by the American painter Thomas Cole in The Voyage of Life….Unlike
Cole, Twachtman stripped the theme of religious connotations and
narrative elements. Distilling the subject to its essentials,
he retained only a solitary sailor moving into a mysterious void.
For Twachtman, Sailing in the Mist held profoundly personal
meaning; he called the work Elsie Sailing because he had
painted it after his eight-year-old daughter, Elsie, died of scarlet
fever in January 1895. Whereas Sailing in the Mist was
the artist's expression of grief, its emotional power transcends
the circumstances of its creation," Larkin wrote.
She might have added that it is perhaps the
finest painting created by an American artist. Nothing before
it prepares us for its boldness, its depth, its poetry and nothing
after it rivals it for its pulsating color and lyrical abstraction.
The hard-edge of reality gives way here to celestial, soft reverie
with a simple beauty that perhaps could best be appreciated by
Correggio and Tiepolo. Eat your heart out, Rothko!
Twachtman once wrote that he liked winter because
"things are grey, subdued, and refined" and "Winter
Harmony," shown above, an oil on canvas, 25 3/4 by 32 inches,
National Gallery of Art, Gift of the Avalon Foundation, may well
be the best of his many snow landscapes, many of which do not
rise to this high level.
Two of the most striking Twachtman landscapes
in the exhibition come from the Fine Arts collection of The Hartford
Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company, Hartford, Conn.:
"Horseneck Falls, Greenwich, Connecticut," circa 1980-1900,
oil on canvas, 25 1/4 inches square; and "Barnyard,"
oil on canvas, 30 1/4 by 25 1/8 inches.
The former is a particularly striking composition
highlighted by two trees and a babbling brook. The young trees
are painted with fabulous Impressionistic brushwork.
The latter recalls a great painting of a rooftop
chicken coop by Ernest Lawson. Larkin provides the following commentary
"In Twachtman's Barnyard, the mother
says in the background, allowing the child to exercise her emerging
autonomy. Scarcely taller than the roosters, the little girl learns
to assume responsibility for others, nurturing the poultry as
her mother nurtures her. The woman, whose brown dress links her
to the earth, is framed in the trellised gate like a saint in
a cathedral niche. The dove hovering above her head inevitably
suggests the Holy Spirit to anyone familiar with European art,
as was Twachtman. Light, the symbol of grace in religious paintings,
touches the woman, the hen house, and the wings of the doves,
with the strongest beam spotlighting the child, like the Infant
Jesus in Nativity scenes. Twachtman's use of religious imagery
is not overt. Instead, he drew on a body of artistic conventions
to give a rustic image of family life an aura of benediction."
Another great Twachtman painting in the exhibition
is "The White Bridge," an oil on canvas, 30 1/4 by 25
1/8 inches, circa 1900, Memorial Art Gallery of the University
of Rochester, Rochester, N.Y., Gift of Emily Sibley Watson, show
above. This painting is particularly strong and vibrant and another
softer version is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Hassam probably experimented with more different
styles than any other American painter over his long career and
is perhaps best known for his urban scenes, most notably a series
depicting flags on Fifth Avenue in New York. Many of his works
are boldly painted with strong palettes and some show the influence
of Maurice Prendergast and others Vuillard. His oeuvre is a bit
uneven, but quite impressive. The exhibition includes a series
by him of women in Cos Cob settings, the best of which is "Listening
to the Orchard Oriole," an oil on canvas, 32 by 26 inches,
Diplomatic Reception Rooms, United States Department of State,
Washington, D.C. The sun-dappled scene shows a woman dressed in
a kimono on the porch of Holley House and Hassam does not depict
the oriole and eliminated any trace of modern technology. Another
excellent work in this series is "Bowl of Goldfish,"
oil on canvas, 25 1/8 by 30 1/4 inches, 1912, Ball State University
Museum of Art, Muncie, Indiana, Frank C. Ball Collection, partial
gift and promised gift of the Ball Brothers Foundation.
Good and rather unusual Hassam compositions
in the exhibition include "Couch on the Porch," an oil
on canvas, 26 1/2 by 32 inches, 1914, in the collection of Oprah
Winfrey, "Summer at Cos Cob," a pastel on paper, 22
1/8 by 18 1/8 inches, 1902, Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, N.J.,
gift of William T. Evans, and "The Mill Pond, Cos Cob,"
oil on canvas, 26 1/4 by 18 1/4 inches, 1902, Bruce Museum, Greenwich,
Conn., anonymous gift.
Other standout works in the exhibition include
"In the Shade of a Tree," by J. Alden Weir, oil on canvas,
27 by 34 inches, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska-Lincolnm,
Nebraska Art Association collection, Nelle Cochrane Woods Memorial,
and "The Laundry, Branchville," by the same artist,
oil on canvas, 30 1/8 by 25 1/4 inches, circa 1894, Weir Farm
Trust, gift of Anna Weir Ely Smith and Gregory Smith, "The
Grey Trellis," also by Weir, oil on canvas, 26 by 21 1/2
inches, private collection, "The Peony Garden," by D.
Putnam Brinley, oil on canvas, 45 1/4 by 40 1/2 inches, circa
1912, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Va., The Adolph
D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund, and "Hollyhocks," by
Elmer MacRae, oil on canvas, 32 by 24 inches, 1914, Hirschhorn
Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, the Joseph
H. Hirschhorn Bequest.
Major support for the exhibition has been provided
by the Robert Lehman Foundation and the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation
and additional support was provided by the F. Donald Kenney Foundation
and Mr. and Mrs. Richard J. Schwartz.