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Reynolda House’s American Impression

by Keith Barber

An exhibit that showcases the impact of French Impressionism on American painters will be on display for just a few more weeks at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art. Allison Perkins, the museum’s executive director, said putting together the exhibit American Impressions: Selections from the National Academy Museum, represented something of a coup for Reynolda House. The Winston-Salem museum is the first venue outside New York City to display works from the National Academy. The exhibit includes the works of such renowned American impressionists as George Bellows, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Lilian Westcott Hale, Childe Hassam, John La Farge, John Singer Sargent and Henry Ossawa Tanner. The American impressionists of the early 20th century featured in the exhibit are really no different from the artists of today, and their work is a window on the world at that time, Perkins said. “They are influenced by the world around them — they take in scenes of life around them,” she said. “They’re no different from artists of a hundred years ago. These artists were depicting the life of their own time.” Gifford Beal’s 1913 work, “The Mall — Central Park,” depicts one of the favorite subjects of American impressionists of that era: everyday folk enjoying leisure activities in public places.

“It was like a spectator sport — to see others and to be seen,” Perkins said. “Artists like to capture those moments, especially in that fresh painterly style. Artists liked to paint outside capturing people doing what they do in their every day lives.” John White Alexander’s portrait entitled “Young Girl” captures the essence of the National Academy collection, Perkins said. The painting depicts a female model in profile dressed in the popular garb of the day. Alexander was known for his work as a portrait artist, but it’s clear that he’s working through his technique in the painting, so it’s likely it was not a commissioned work, said Perkins. “Young Girl” underscores the fact that the paintings on display at the National Academy are the submissions of artists as part of their academy application process. Artists would normally submit paintings that best represented their talents, so “Young Girl” is a good reflection of Alexander’s mastery of portraiture, Perkins said. The story behind Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Miraculous Haul of Fishes” [1913] helps illuminate how French Impressionists influenced American artists. Tanner, the son of an African-American minister, spent most of his artistic life in France due in large part to the greater tolerance afforded him in Western Europe at the turn of the 20 th century, Perkins said. Tanner was not the only American artist to travel abroad to paint alongside Impressionist masters like Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Many of his fellow American artists who lived in France for years developing their own version of impressionism are featured in the Reynolda House exhibit. Tanner was fond of painting biblical subjects but he also painted scenes of everyday life, Perkins said. In “Miraculous Haul of Fishes,” Tanner is depicting the reward of the haul of fishes for Christ’s disciples. Perkins noted Tanner’s use of thick brushwork to represent the impression of light reflecting off the water in the center of the painting to grab the viewer’s attention. “That’s what French artists inspired American artists to do,” Perkins said. “Tanner’s work creates a very immediate impact on the viewer and this is what these artists were trying to achieve.” American Impressions also features three works by William Merritt Chase. Some of the influential artist’s works are on loan from a private collector while some are from Reynolda House’s own collection. There are a total of 36 paintings in the exhibit with 32 of the works coming from the National Academy. Chase’s portrait “In the Studio” is representative of the way American artists working in the late 19 th and early 20 th century adopted impressionist techniques but added an American flair. The American impressionists paved the way for the American realist movement as seen in the work of George Bellows, Perkins said. “They were artists who tried to paint depictions of every day life — street life, life in the country — but you see the emergence of American industrialism on the horizon,” she said. Reynolda House Museum of American Art will host American Impressions through June 28.

HenryOssawa Tanner’s “The Miraculous Haul of Fishes” (1913) reflects theinfluence of the French Impressionists on American artists. The work iscurrently on display as part of Reynolda House Museum’s AmericanImpressions exhibit, which runs through June

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