Finding Ourselves – American Impressionism

The Delaware in Winter, Fern Isabel Coppedge

Flipping through the Virginia Zoo Newsletter, I came across a great coupon offering free admission to an exhibit of American Impressionists at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center.  It caught my eye because we are studying the works of a French painter, Edouard Manet in our Charlotte’s Way Thursday group. Manet was a contemporary of Claude Monet, a leader in the Impressionist movement, and some of his works lean towards impressionism.  An exhibit of American works exploring the same ideas sounded interesting.

It has been a long year and more, of impatiently waiting for the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk to finish their renovations and re-open.  We’ve compensated by visiting the National Gallery of Art and the Sackler-Freer Galleries in Washington DC.   In the Summer we visited the Chrysler’s off-site collections at the Moses Myers House and the Willoughby Baylor HouseI am delighted to have another semi-close art gallery to visit.

We homeschool 6 weeks on, one week off, so we had a break penciled in for mid-February.  The Daughter and I agreed that one day that week we would drive to the Peninsula and see the exhibit. My plan was to take the tunnel and western expressway to Suffolk to purchase a Life of Fred Pre-Algebra book from a homeschool friend there, then take the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge Tunnel to Newport News where The Daughter and I would have lunch, and then visit the museum.   The weather was a bit cloudy and rainy, perfect weather for a museum trip!


The actual title of the exhibit is American Impressionism:  The Lure of the Artist Colony.  Do you know any famous American Impressionists?  Me either.  I would say Mary Cassatt, but she did most of her painting on the Continent (the European one).  John Singer Sargent – also of the ex-pat variety – never struck me as an Impressionist.   In any case, I did not know a single artist in this exhibit, yet  I found many wonderful paintings to study,  and savor.   The collection displays works of artists grouped according to the the school or colony in which they lived or studied,  mostly in the Northeast: Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts.   Paired with this traveling exhibit from Reading, PA was a smaller exhibit entitled Portraits from the Boston School, which is on loan from a local collector.

This expedition proved illuminating in ways beyond the paint on the canvas.  As we moved through the gallery, I noticed that The Daughter much prefers portraits to landscapes. She attentively surveyed the paintings of fields and forests, quaint villages and country roads, but she was drawn to every painting with a face. I didn’t really notice this at the NGA because we were in the 15th Century Italian gallery where the works are largely  icons,  portraits and Biblical scenes, so, lots of people.  On our other visits we were in a group, so she ebbed and flowed with her friends.  But, it makes sense that my gregarious, outgoing daughter would linger over portraits, faces, expressions; a character to slip on, a story to step into.

In revealing contrast, I stood pondering wide open fields, cloudy skies, the reflection of a harbor town on the river,  the shadows cast by tree branches, the color of autumn on a hillside.  Most of my favorite paintings were utterly devoid of humanity. Robert Simpson, one of the artists whose work is on display, is quoted, “A landscape without a building or a figure is a very lonely picture to me.”   Interesting perspective. I am most lonely in a room full of people; and least lonely in a field.  Thomas Merton says,  “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”  Yes.

I could only take a few pictures.  You should be able to tell who liked what!

As I was looking up the link for the Sackler-Freer Gallery, I discovered that the Sackler Gallery will hosting an exhibit of works by American Master James McNeill Whistler entitled An American in London:  Whistler and the Thames beginning May 3rd of this year.  I’m there!

Here is a fellow WordPress Blogger, Emsworth, with a top ten of American Impressionist painters.  I recognized a few of these names from the exhibit.  Another post by Emsworth discusses the Old Lyme Artist Colony.

This in-gallery video, American Impressionism, was put together to go along with this exhibit. It explains the development of American Impressionism and a bit about each of the Artist Colonies that flourished from the 1890’s through the early 20th century.

Another WordPress offering, Blog of an Art Admirer has several posts with lovely selections of American Impressionist paintings and artists.  Sidebars can be racy, preview this site before letting your young art students loose.

Landscape Paintings by American Impressionists

Winter Painting by Childe Hassam

Great ideas for Field Trips at
Great ideas for Field Trips at

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