Spanierman Gallery, LLC is pleased to announce the opening, on May 8, 2003, of Willard Metcalf (1858-1925): Yankee Impressionist, a retrospective exhibition and sale of paintings by this pre-eminent Impressionist interpreter of the American landscape. A member of the Ten American Painters, Metcalf was acclaimed as the “painter laureate of New England” for his intimate and sweeping Impressionist vistas of the rural countrysides that he knew so well.
The exhibition presents works from all phases of Metcalf’s career, including many that have long been held in family collections and exhibited infrequently and others that the artist sent to the important exhibitions of his day—notably those of the Ten. Its accompanying 152-page catalogue provides new perspectives, presenting a study by Richard J. Boyle of Metcalf’s early development, an extensive essay by Bruce W. Chambers of the artist’s life and art, as gleaned from letters and diaries, and a consideration by William H. Gerdts of Metcalf’s role as the leading chronicler of New England in the early twentieth century. With forty-four full-page color illustrations, the catalogue is available from the gallery for $85 postpaid.
Although best known as a painter of New England, Metcalf was a remarkably talented artist from the start, and his career lasted half a century. He was adept in several mediums; in addition to creating oils, he was a fine muralist and illustrator. His steady progress can be charted in this exhibition through tonal images he created along the New England coast in the late 1870s to those he rendered during his sojourn in the Southwest a few years later, including meticulously drafted grisaille gouaches. The paintings that he completed during his study and travel in Europe and North Africa in the 1880s confirm his increasing strength and self-confidence. Executed in the French artists’ colony of Grez-sur-Loing, Metcalf’s tranquil, Goose Girl (No. 2) (1886) reveals his new interest in plein-air naturalism, while Arab Encampment, Biskra (1887) and Snake Charmer (1887) capture the openness of space, the exquisite light, and exotic subject matter that the artist encountered in Algeria. Metcalf’s work from the 1890s and first few years of the twentieth century reveal the virtuosity and craftsmanship that culminated in his later success. Fish Wharves--Gloucester (1896), Havana Cathedral (1902), and Battery Park—Spring (1902)--all shown at exhibitions of the Ten--demonstrate Metcalf’s developing Impressionist manner, in which he explored innovative spatial orientations and lightened his palette, while retaining the emphasis on clarity and structure that had been honed during his many years of academic study.
In the early twentieth century, Metcalf worked frequently at popular artists’ colonies in Old Lyme, Connecticut, and Cornish, New Hampshire, as well as at other rural locales, such as Waterford, Connecticut; Woncalancet, New Hampshire; Casco Bay and the Damariscotta peninsula in Maine; and Chester, Lower Perkinsville, and Springfield, Vermont. With the dedication that he applied to his collections of bird’s eggs and butterflies, he studied the distinctive characteristics of his sites and expressed his appreciation of the curves and angles of New England’s pastures, hillsides, lakes, streams, and old homes. Merging a realist and an Impressionist approach, he captured seasonal nuances and conveyed the reassuring eternity of our land.
Rendered in Old Lyme, The Golden Hour (1907), a sparkling autumnal image of a hillside marked by the scattered boulders typical of the Connecticut countryside, reveals how the artist mediated through his work--as he did through personal negotiation--between the warring Tonalist and Impressionist camps of Old Lyme. Abandoning Old Lyme in 1907, Metcalf spent a few peripatetic years. His art flourished, and works such as his graciously structured Flying Shadows (No. 2), with its hilly undulations marked by the linear accents of trees were worthy of such comments as that by a New York Evening Post critic who remarked of the artist that year: “No one has painted so much American scenery with so sensitive an eye to its variety, with so faithful an idiom, and with such scrupulous suppression of personal romanticisms and pictorial irrelevancies.”
Metcalf’s remarriage in 1911 began a joyous phase his career, and his two-month honeymoon in Cornish resulted in six major paintings, which include several of his most famous works. Among these is The Hush of Winter (1911), portraying the frozen Blow-Me-Down brook blanketed in a fresh white snow cover. The cold, quietude of the scene is accentuated by Metcalf’s spare composition in which the purity of the snow is offset by the crisply delineated forms of trees and bushes, while two cloud wisps draw our attention to the clarity of the atmosphere. By 1915, Metcalf had two young children and was experiencing satisfaction and success in his personal life and in his career. Painted either in Waterford, Connecticut, or Deerfield, Massachusetts, October Morning (1915) typifies this period; allover Impressionist dabs of bright autumnal colors convey the vivacity of this scene of trees casting rustling reflections in a peaceful lake.
In the 1920s, when many of Metcalf’s colleagues were either deceased or painting with diminished capacities, Metcalf continued to work with full strength. One critic writing in 1925 of the last one-man show held in his lifetime noted that his power had “steadily grown, so that his big landscapes with their background of mountains and their vast expanses of rolling valley and winding river are pulled together into coherence by skillful handling of values and subtle placing of accents.” The artist’s personal independence at the end of his career is fully evidenced in his atmospheric Icebound Brook (1922), where the uptilted ground planes draws our eye across thinly layered snow fields, where brooks have begun to resurface, to homes glimpsed in the foothills. Drawing on such influences as the art of his early teacher George Loring Brown and the work of mentors among the artists of the Hudson River School, such as John Kensett, in November Morning (1924), Metcalf created a chromatically harmonious and classically resolved design that epitomizes the equipoise and luminosity of his last works.
Spanierman Gallery has long been involved in the revival of interest in Metcalf’s art. Following a show of Metcalf’s work held at the gallery in 1995, Willard Metcalf (1858-1925): Yankee Impressionist is a seminal contribution to scholarship on Metcalf and to establishing his place in the American Impressionist movement.