A Landscapist Who Made Impressionism American
By Grace Glueck
No one considers the landscape painter Willard Metcalf (1858-1925) a breakthrough artist. Yet as one of the first Americans to pick up on French Impressionism, he became a significant and highly successful translator of it to the American scene.
For some 50 years after his death his reputation was buried by the avalanche of modernist art that he dismissed in life. The first retrospective of his work, in 1976, when interest in earlier American schools was reviving, could still raise the question, "Willard who?"
Today he is recognized as a bona fide American Impressionist, particularly noted for his skill at depicting the changing New England seasons. His work, admired for its American sense of place, has also been said to uphold the Anglo-Saxon values that drove the spirit of New England. Metcalf himself once described his painting of a Maine church under moonlight as "my protest against Bolshevism in art."
The current Metcalf show at the Spanierman Gallery offers his work to a possibly more receptive generation of viewers. A book celebrating his life and work, by Elizabeth de Veer and Richard J. Boyle (who contributed an essay to the show's catalog), was published in 1987; a catalogue raisonné is under way and is to be published by Spanierman.
Among the best paintings in the show are snowy New England scenes like "The Hush of Winter" (1911), painted in Cornish, N.H., on his honeymoon with his second wife, Henriette. More precise than Impressionist, it depicts a rich, light-soaked layer of pristine white spread over a quiet rural landscape, punctuated by the green of fat firs and skinny birches, and overhung by a crisp, clear light-blue sky. (Unfortunately, this exhibition lacks one of his greatest winter scenes, "White Veil" (1909), a view through falling snow that is much more Impressionistic.)
Born and raised in Lowell, Mass., Metcalf studied with the important traditional landscapist George Loring Brown and at the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In 1880 he set up a studio in Boston, sold a few landscapes and found work as an illustrator, a means of support he abandoned only in 1902.
But his goal was Paris, and in 1883 he enrolled at the famous Académie Julian, a mecca for many ambitious American artists. Beyond his formal studies, he visited and worked in some of the painters' colonies in the French countryside, particularly one at Grez-sur-Loing.
In 1885 he ventured to Giverny, supposedly to try to meet Monet, who had settled there two years earlier. Whether Metcalf actually visited the French master is in question, but he was apparently one of the first Americans to make his way to the rural village. Smitten by the countryside, he helped set up an American colony and returned there to paint in 1886 and 1887.
One of his canvases, "The Poplars" (1887), portrays a long march of thin trees in a diagonal, rising from a lush, dreamy green landscape that is almost abstract. Another, "Oat Field, Giverny" (1888), shows a broad expanse of hazy green stubble dotted here and there with red flowers, backed by farmhouses and a low hill with a checkerboard of plantings. Both scenes are notable for their bright, strong light.
The Giverny experience presumably helped to lighten and brighten his palette, an achievement enhanced by a trip to North Africa in 1886-7. The hot desert light there was reminiscent of the American Southwest, where Metcalf had spent time sketching the Zuni Indians.
Back in the United States by 1889, Metcalf set up in New York, where he taught, made portraits and continued his illustration work. A New York scene, "Battery Park — Spring" (1902), gives a decidedly Impressionist view of the park, with trees breaking out in a feathery green that all but conceals a train chugging down a track at the left releasing plumes of smoke. Behind is a wide sunlit expanse of water.
In 1903-4, Metcalf stayed with his parents in Clark's Cove, Me., on the Damariscotta River, where he began what he called a "partial Renaissance." After years of learning his trade, his talent came to full flower in the New England of his birth. He quit drinking and began to respond to a landscape he loved. In 1905, at the age of 47, he had his first one-man show, at the Fisher, Adler & Schwartz Gallery in New York.
A clear change was apparent in his paintings, one that gave a sense of identity with the land. As the show's catalog notes, this work called forth adjectives from critics like "brilliant and full of sunlight," "vitality" and "spontaneous freshness." He sold only four paintings, but the show's critical reception was enough to commit him to a firm concentration on landscape.
In 1898 the commitment became clearer when his work appeared in the first show of the Ten, a group of artists who broke away from the increasingly conservative Society of American Artists. Although the group — which at various times also included Childe Hassam, J. Alden Weir, John Twachtman, Edmund Tarbell, Thomas Dewing and others — did not have a manifesto, it had strong Impressionist tendencies.
Some members (among them Metcalf and Hassam) hung out at an art colony in Old Lyme, Conn., where Florence Griswold made her capacious home a boarding house for the often impecunious artists. There Metcalf worked on various landscape themes, including the hazy, summery "Red Maple (No. 2)" (circa 1906), a spit of land jutting into water, seen from a bank adorned with a dusky red maple.
But a real departure were his nocturnes: nightscapes indirectly lighted by moon and stars. One of the most important (though not in this show) is "May Night" (1906), an idealized view of the white-columned Griswold house in its lush setting, with the ghostly figure of a woman on the lawn. This poetic painting, much acclaimed by critics and the public, was an important achievement for his career, influencing his own work and that of other artists.
From then on, according to the American art historian William Gerdts in his 1984 book "American Impressionism," Metcalf was "an acclaimed master of the Impressionist landscape," although in the last decade of his life, some of his work became formulaic.
Despite the lack of some important paintings, the show, assembled by Ralph Sessions, director of the gallery's drawings department, is a bountiful enough introduction to Metcalf's work. The work may not be the most exciting in the great history of American landscape, but its re-emergence is certainly deserved.