In the years following the Civil War, American art underwent a fundamental shift. The traditional Romantic style of painting, which focused on portraying majestic scenes in stark, vivid lines and shapes, gave way to a new concern for light and atmosphere. It was the age of Impressionism.
Impressionism was not indigenous to America. In fact, its origins lay in France, which had long been at the fore of artistic innovation. The French Impressionists threw off the shackles of traditional painting in favor of an airier, lighter style. The purpose of Impressionism was to convey the impression of an object by capturing the patterns of light and color on and surrounding it. There were no sharp outlines or definite edges; everything was very ephemeral, almost illusory.
But what factors were responsible for this movement? Why did it become popular in America so much more so than in any other country? Wherein lay the Impressionist appeal? These are important questions. For some time during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, American artists had scoffed at European art as too stuffy and urbane. The Americans drew inspiration from the beauty of their native landscape, turning to naturalist and romantic styles to portray the land they loved. The Literary World wrote, What comparison is there between the garden landscapes of England or France and the noble scenery of the Hudson, or the wild witchery of some of our unpolluted lakes and streams? One is mans nature, the other, Gods.
However, after the horrific Civil War, this proud view of a New Eden was shattered. Soon Americans were turning elsewhere for inspiration. It is interesting to note that while dozens of Americans were studying in Paris in the mid-1800s, thousands came there in the post-war years. It was in this time that the Impressionist movement began in France. Thus, many Americans were about to discover the new style in their studies at Paris, Munich, London, etc.
Also, we see the seeds for Impressionism already taking root in America before the war. Luminism, a primarily American movement of this era, was a sort of precursor to Impressionism. Luminism was concerned with portraying atmosphere as colored light, and the effects of this light on solids. In addition, the glare aesthetic was a movement concerned with defining planar objects with vivid reflected light. This new focus on the properties and effects of light paved the way for Impressionist art, and in fact, many prominent Luminists and glare painters work sometimes resembled Impressionist art.
The artistic development of this period was further encouraged by the photograph. During and immediately after the Civil War, photography became ever increasingly prevalent. This technology filled the former niche of painters, especially portraitists, who were used to depicting the world as they saw it. Now, however, photography offered a much simpler and quicker way to depict the world, often with greater accuracy. Therefore, painters found themselves free of any obligation to objective reality, and began experimenting with the subjective. Impressionism was the first manifestation of this freedom; later came Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism. All owed their creation to the creative freedom left by the invention of the photograph.
The early American Impressionists, like Mary Cassat and Willard Metcalf, were first exposed to the art while studying in Europe. Later artists would encounter the art at home, but virtually all traveled to France and Germany to study with the masters. Paris, of course, was a major center for the emerging art, as became Giverny, home of Claude Monet. A whole school of Impressionists, many of them Americans, studied with Monet and came to be called Givernois.
By the turn of the century, Impressionism could be further classified into French and American schools. A shining example of the American Impressionists was Childe Hassam. A contemporary art critic, Charles Gallatin, described Hassam as being beyond any doubt the greatest exponent of Impressionism in America. He continued, Momentary effects produced by sunlight is usually his theme, it is true, and equally true it is that he paints by placing his colors in juxtaposition, in order to create effects to be seen at a distance. Hassam tended to paint scenes of everyday life in America. A typical Hassam depicts a small group of people, doing nothing extraordinary, but engaged in their own business. In his own words, Hassam says, I believe the man who will go down to posterity is the man who paints his own time and the scenes of everyday life around him. There is nothing so interesting to me as people.
So we see that many factors contributed to the fundamental shift in American art of the late nineteenth century. It is important to understand that, while nearly all of the great American Impressionists studied in Europe, they generally put their own unique American spin on the art. Very few can be said to have copied the European masters. It is also important to note that Luminism, in many ways a precursor to Impressionism, had its heyday before the explosion of European influence in American art. Finally, it was the effective use of photography which freed artists to explore their own creative styles and escape the restrictions of objective reality. These factors led to the creation of something great and beautiful, at once a part of a larger movement, but at the same time very definitely American. It was the age of American Impressionism.