It's coincidental but serendipitous for us that the Tampa Museum of Art's recently opened "American Impressionists in the Garden" is running at the same time as an impressionist-heavy show at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. There are well-known American artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in both, but, of more interest, we get a sense of the broad currents in which most artists of the time, famous or not today, moved.
The Tampa Museum's exhibition is just the right size — about 40 paintings and four small bronze sculptures — for its focus. The main idea is the domestication of Americans' artistic vision, changing from the grand vistas immortalized by the Hudson River School to the more intimate beauty of cultivated gardens. You could say truthfully that gardens are artificial constructs, an attempt to organize, edit and rearrange nature. So are paintings. Even the great natural scenes depicted by an earlier generation took some liberties with what they saw in front of them. You could call it, also truthfully, creativity.
The inspiration for the artists here — and the show itself — begins in France, where impressionism was born in the mid 19th century as a reaction to the highly controlled and codified style of academic painting. It decreed that the worthiest subjects for art were historical and religious. Technical prowess was defined by the use of carefully applied coats of thinned oil paint that produced a translucence without evidence of brush strokes on the canvas.
Younger artists rebelled and began painting more spontaneously, leaving the studio to paint out of doors and recording the play of natural light on a scene using small, thick paint strokes and unmixed colors that created the illusion of blended color.
By the latter part of the 19th century, the horrific effects of the American Civil War (which ended in 1865) were easing and Americans began traveling to Europe again. American painters made their way to Paris, the epicenter of the art world, and were exposed to the impressionist movement, which many embraced with fervor.
The embrace in most instances was a direct American smooch on the mouth rather than the more subtle Francophile double air-kiss on each cheek.
We are greeted at the galleries' entrance by Louis Ritman's Flower Garden (ca. 1913), a work created long after the freshness of impressionism's first bloom had passed but still a vibrant salute to its principles. The garden is a sea of colorful brush strokes that covers the canvas, suggesting rather than portraying flowers and trees. Near the center, though, the clearly delineated head and torso of a woman is almost submerged in the bounty. The composition seems like a metaphor for the push-pull Americans had with impressionism and realism and the way many of them reconciled their love of both styles: Just when emotive brush strokes threaten to flood the canvas, the human form pops up to intervene.
Lillian Mathilde Genth's Summer Afternoon (ca. 1910) is an academic approach to its subject that appropriates impressionist techniques to advantage. It's also one of the loveliest and most evocative works in the show. In it a young woman, book in hand, pauses before a vase of flowers on a shady porch. Like many impressionist paintings, a sense of movement is conveyed by energetic brush strokes, usually self-consciously so. Here, though, they are a subtle pattern of diagonals and horizontals that play across her gauzy dress, forming a floral pattern and subliminally suggesting a slight breeze stirring the fabric.
Robert Vonnoh was especially reluctant to surrender his hard-won academic training to impressionism. We can be grateful he had that struggle. Peasant Woman's Garden (1924) is the most painterly work in the show with an exquisite harmony of color values draftsmanship. Compare the figures in this painting with those in Will Hicok Low's Jardin de MacMonnies (1901), which are rigidly academic — formal and idealized though realistic — in their beaux arts treatment, and you will notice how artificial the latter women, draped in Grecian robes, are in their garden, while Vonnoh's mother and child get the Old Master flourishes in softer edges that complement rather than distract from the surroundings.
Low painted that scene at the home of Mary Fairchild MacMonnies and her husband, Frederick. She was a painter and he a successful sculptor who bought a home in Giverny next to Claude Monet's. Some gossip here: The MacMonnieses' marriage was beginning to fray by 1901. He traveled frequently for commissions and had a long-running affair; Low was smitten with Mary. The MacMonnieses divorced in 1909; Low's wife died and he and Mary married that same year.
Anyway, that explains why Low painted the MacMonnieses' garden: He liked hanging around the place. So did a lot of other, less personally involved artists. The Pan fountain Low immortalized at Giverny is the centerpiece of Stepping in the Fountain (1916) by William Dodge, created at his Long Island home. Seems he loved the fountain with the statue of Pan, god of merriment, so the MacMonnieses had a copy made for Dodge and his American garden.
Pan and the fountain reappear in a 1901 painting by Mary herself. The garden, by all accounts spectacular, is in fall colors in her Garden in Giverny. It's a dreadful work. I recall seeing it in a different exhibition in 2007 at the Naples Museum of Art. I called it dreadful then, too, "a screeching affront to color." The sorrow of its reappearance is that she painted much better than that most of the time. Fortunately, Blossoming Time in Normandy, also a scene from her garden in 1901, is much better robed in spring hues.
The names of some of these artists may be unfamiliar, and that's the irony of history. Like the Project Runway designers, one day you're in, the next you're out. So it is with painters such as Genth, for example, considered a first-rate interpreter of the female nude in her time.
There are names more recognizable today — Childe Hassam and John Singer Sargent, for instance. Both are represented by lesser works, but you still see the magic and unique sensibility that gained them fame. Peer through the shadows of the unimpressively worked cypress trees of Sargent's Falconieri Gardens, Frascati (1907) to a fountain. The spurt of water from it is genius in a single stroke.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.