Museum  January 3, 2022  Colleen Smith

DAM’s "Whistler to Cassatt” Coins New Term in Impressionist Show

Drs. Tobia and Morton Mower.

Mary Cassatt, Sara and Her Mother with the Baby (No. 3), 1901. Pastel on paper; 28 3/8 x 36 1/4 in.

For the exhibition titled Whistler to Cassatt: American Painters in France, galleries at Denver Art Museum are densely adorned with dozens of luminous paintings by some of America’s most revered artists.

The director of the Denver Art Museum (DAM), Christoph Heinrich tells Art & Object in an email interview, “One of my favorite sections is the big salon wall where you see masterworks by John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, Henry Ossawa Tanner and many more flexing their muscles, as they would have done in the very competitive environment of the annual Paris Salon—the Miami Art Fair 150 years ago.”

And, as if it weren’t enough simply to be in the presence of masterworks in gilded frames gleaming against walls painted vivid coral or orchid or with bold stripes of midnight blue and black, the exhibit also illustrates a dramatic transcontinental chapter of American art history.

Image by Colleen Smith

Installation View of Whistler to Cassatt: American Painters in France.

“The history of American painting is the history of French painting,” says the DAM’s curator emeritus, Timothy Standring, in our telephone interview. “If I sent people in without any labels, they would assume these are French paintings.”

Standring initially imagined the American Painters in France exhibit about ten years ago. With 113 works from 42 lenders, the exhibition shows at the DAM through March 13, 2022, then at Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond from April 16 to July 21.

Heinrich says, “The Americans went to France to learn from their peers, the Academic painters as well as the Impressionist rulebreakers.” Thus, American artists of the era found in France a supportive arts culture not yet developed in the U.S.

“France had the infrastructure because of state support and an almost national pride of the French who equated art with the national reputation. In 1866, 11 to 14 million people went to the salon,” Standring explains. “The salon was like the Olympics for painting in the 19th century, the Super Bowl! To be juried in was a badge of honor.”

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond: James W. and Frances Gibson McGlothlin Collection. Photo by Travis Fullerton. © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

John Singer Sargent, A Gust of Wind (Judith Gautier), c. 1883-85. Oil paint on canvas; 24 3/4 × 15 in.

Standring divulges that, as the exhibit came together, people at the DAM referred to it as “Timothy’s American Impressionism show.”

“I said, ‘Please don’t call it that.’ The more I researched, it occurred to me that many institutions called this period American Impressionism,” Standring adds, “but to my thinking this is the Lost Generation of American artists.” Or at least the mislabeled generation of American painters.

“I wanted to put together an avant-garde to rear guard [sic] show of artists who dabbled with Impressionism, but at the same time trained and had espoused academic beaux-arts elements,” he explains.

“All the components together without the term ‘impressionism’ in the title is significant. We’re recognizing American art history for its complexity and richness.”

Standring coined a descriptor for this era of American painting: “American Hybridity.” He says, “They didn’t abandon or transcend continental painting, especially the three great artists: Whistler, Sargent, and Cassatt. They were neither European nor American, but just brilliant international artists.”

Paris, musée d'Orsay, dépôt au musée déparetmental breton, Quimper. © Breton Departmental Museum/SergeGoa rin.

Henry Mosler, Le Retour (The Return of the Prodigal Son), 1879. Oil paint on canvas; 46 3/4 x 39n3/4 in.

Heinrich says, “They didn’t become a homogenous ‘school.’ Instead, they demonstrated a broad variety of fresh and personal approaches to the medium of painting, combining elements of academic tradition with approaches of the avant-garde. A powerful demonstration of American individualism!”

The exhibition closes with the opening of a new chapter in American art history.

Whistler to Cassatt shows the foundation on which American art of the 20th century is built,” adds Heinrich, “and it’s not an accident that one of Edward Hopper’s very few paintings from Paris concludes the show and marks the beginning of a century in which the center of modern and contemporary art moved from Paris to New York.”

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Meredith J. Long, 2001.471.

Mary Cassatt, Children in a Garden (The Nurse), 1878. Oil paint on canvas; 33 1/8 × 39 3/8 × 3 in.

At Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Susan Rawles, Ph. D., serves as associate curator of American Decorative Arts. In an email interview, she wrote that what inspires her about the exhibit is “the opportunity to examine the French influence on American painters and to consider its implications for ‘American’ art during an era fraught with issues of national identity.” The exhibit includes not only female subject matter but also female painters, including a gallery devoted to Mary Cassatt.

Rawles underscored the importance of realizing the sexism faced by female painters, segregated at the time.

Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. Photo: Agence Bulloz. © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY.

Mary Cassatt, Autumn, Portrait of Lydia Cassatt, 1880. Oil paint on canvas; 36 5/8 x 25-5/8 in.

“Women were challenged to become professionals in any field during this period,” Rawles explains. “American women artists in France could not enter the famous French academy, the École des Beaux-Arts, until 1897 because it was deemed unsuitable for them to study from the male nude—a key element of academic training." Rawles adds, “Nor were there female mentors who could guide their development. The women artists featured in this exhibition skirted that issue by entering private studios and academies. And since it was unacceptable for them to join in café society, they met up with their peers while doing copy work at the Louvre."

“However, the women who were determined to become professional painters usually made the journey alone, sacrificing the prospects of marriage and family to avoid conventional domestic responsibilities,” says Rawles, “The success of Elizabeth Nourse, Mary Cassatt, and Cecilia Beaux depended, in large part, on this independence.”

Rawles also emphasizes what she described as “the radicalism of different art movements that were percolating in France in the late 19th century.”

She says, “We have become so accustomed to the style of Impressionism, for example, as to consider it traditional, but at the time it was wickedly avant-garde.”

About the Author

Colleen Smith

Colleen Smith is a longtime Denver arts writer and the curator of Art & Object’s Denver Art Showcase.

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