Art/Museums logo

The Cos Cob Art Colony

Impressionists on the Connecticut Shore

The National Academy of Design Museum, New York

February 13 to May 13, 2001

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

June 17 to September 16, 2001

Denver Art Museum

October 27, 2001 to January 20, 2002

"Sailing in the Mist" by John H. Twachtman

"Sailing in the Mist," a 30 1/2-inch square oil on canvas painted by John H. Twachtman in 1895, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Joseph E. Temple Fund

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 camp.

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 continued.

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," Larkin observed.

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," she wrote.

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.

"The Children" by Childe Hassam

"The Children," by Childe Hassam, oil on board, 18 1/4 by 14 1/2 inches, 1897, Cincinnati Art Museum, Bequest of Ruth Harrison

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 about Japan."

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.

"Low Tide" by Theodore Robinson

"Low Tide," by Theodore Robinson, oil on canvas, 16 by 22 1/4 inches, Manoogian Collection, 1894

"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!

"Winter Harmony" by John H. Twachtman

"Winter Harmony," by John H. Twachtman, oil on canvas, 25 3/4 by 32 inches, National Gallery of Art, Gift of the Avalon Foundation.

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.

"Barnyard" by John H. Twachtman

"Barnyard," by John H. Twachtman, oil on canvas, 30 1/4 by 25 1/8 inches, The Fine Arts Collection of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company, Hartford, Conn.

The latter recalls a great painting of a rooftop chicken coop by Ernest Lawson. Larkin provides the following commentary on "Barnyard":

"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."

"The White Bridge" by John H. Twachtman

"The White Bridge," by John H. Twachtman, 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

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.

Click here to order the exhibition's fine catalogue from for $45


Home Page of The City Review