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February 24-May 27, 2001 at the San Diego Museum of Art

by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.

While even the most casual museum visitor will be familiar with the names of French Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir, the names of their American counterparts and followers remain relatively unknown to the American public. A selection of thirty-nine outstanding examples of the American version of this most popular of genres, culled from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art's superb collection for this touring exhibition, will help redress this irony.

Painting, when taken seriously, is a sacred ritual practiced by the artist/priest. The combination of patience, years of training and practice, skill with manipulating the medium, and some luck can combine on rare occasions to create unforgettable images. It is a process that involves both the past and present, as artists enter into a dialogue with those masters that have passed before, and as they try to shape their own artistic destiny looking towards the future. Great paintings, such as some of those on view here, remind us of this challenging legacy and responsibility.

Anyone expecting to see a series of clever copies of the French masters will be enlightened otherwise. What you will see are superb examples by American masters who have adapted this unique French style to their homeland and personal styles. Even though many of the painters represented in the exhibition studied in France and some knew, respected, and even painted with Monet, they were out to create their own version of Impressionism.

While the exhibition is relatively--refreshingly--small, the quality is outstanding and a number of images scream for your attention. John Singer Sargent's Reapers Resting in a Wheat Field (1885) is about as good as painting gets. A group of farmers rest under a brilliant sky. They are almost lost in front of the mountains of hay they have harvested and the trees that sway in the wind in the background. Their scythes are stuck in the ground, as the men rest from the burden of their work. The warm golden glow of the field seems to engulf the men at rest. They are seen as a harmonious part of the natural landscape, which recalls the paintings of the earlier French realist painter, Jean-Francois Millet. It is a majestic image and by itself worth the visit.

John Singer Sargent, “Alpine
Pool”, o/c, 27 1/2 x 38", 1907.

Mary Cassat, "Spring: Margot
Standing in a Garden", o/c,
26 3/4 x 22 3/4", 1900.

William Merritt Chase, "For the Little
One," o/c, 40 x 35 1/4", c. 1896.

While there are so many noteworthy paintings that could be mentioned, two others stand out. In Colin Campbell Cooper's Grand Central Station (1909) the smoky, atmospheric train yard quickly recalls earlier French studies at the Gare Saint-Lazare. Cooper's painting is a nostalgic reminder of the station, underground by the time this work was executed. The coal-eating, steam-driven trains, later replaced by electric trains, move slowly in the foreground framed by the warm glow of the city, the softened forms of the New York skyline, and the golden sky. It is a tour de force.

The second is Edmund Tarbell's Across the Room (1899), an homage to French master Edgar Degas. In the background is a woman relaxing on a couch placed in front of a beautiful Japanese screen. But the subject of the painting is the long expanse of wooden floor that leads to the lady. The subtle variations of light dancing on the floor leads us back towards the couch and the window that illuminates it. It is the reflection of light on the polished floor that is truly the subject of the painting, and this is what captures our attention.

American Impressionists Abroad and at Home also includes top quality works by many other noted artists including Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, Maurice Prendergast, and Childe Hassam. Take a day and explore the wonders of this American version of Impressionism--don't forget to look for Sargent's Alpine Pool (1907) or Arthur Frank Mathew's Afternoon Among the Cypress (1905).