I admit it: I had a prejudice against art historians. I would prefer to look for myself rather than listen to someone else talking about it. My stupid shortsightedness! Last Friday I attended the conference “American Impressionism”, organized by and at the Thyssen Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. I enjoyed tremendously the lectures and the expertise of the lecturers! The starting point of the conference was the influence of the French impressionism on the American art of the late 19th century.
The focus was the relationship of Claude Monet with several American painters who visited him in the French village of Giverny. In addition we were given an explanation of the role of Mary Cassatt, as a defender of the new style of painting in the United States.
Monet – Giverny – American Impressionists
By chance Claude Monet settled in Giverny, looking for a quiet place to work and to start a new life in anonymity with his new lady friend. From 1887 onwards a colony of foreign painters, mainly Americans, established themselves in Giverny. But this seems to have been more because of the charm of the place rather than Monet’s presence. The painters: Sargent, Metcalf, Ritter, Taylor, Wendel, Robinson, Bruce and Breck were the first to arrive. In particular, Robinson became good friends with Monet and was fascinated by Monet´s loose style of painting. Once back in the US, he wanted to try to replace the impressionist´s palette with lots of purples and violets and not aiming to paint “America through French spectacles”. (An odious American commentary speaks of unlearning the Giverny trick.)
Mary Cassatt began studying painting in Philadelphia at the early age of 15 but moved to Paris in 1866. She first befriended Edgar Degas and later exhibited among the Impressionists. This independent woman, with a polished American education, took her own place in the circle of Degas, Renoir and Manet. Cassatt augmented her artistic training with daily copying in the Louvre. The museum also served as a social meeting place for Frenchmen and American female students who, like Cassatt, were not allowed to attend cafes where the avant-garde socialized. She was considered as one of “les trois grandes dames” of Impressionism alongside Marie Bracquemond and Berthe Morisot
The conference also highlighted John Singer Sargent who, although included in the Parisian circle of painters, remained faithful to his own idiom. He is not really American and in fact he hardly can be called an impressionist. However, he has had a lasting influence on the development of American art at the end of the 19th century.
The lecture took up the whole day and it is impossible to report everything. I thoroughly enjoyed it and the long, long trip to Madrid and back was well worthwhile.