Last month, The Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey opened its multi-gallery exhibition “American Visions: 1870-1940, works from the Bank of America Collection,” which takes a broad look at American painting around the turn of the century. Showing artists such as Childe Hassam, John Sloane, George Bellows, George Innes, and Sanford Gifford, the exhibition tracks the progression of American painting from the Hudson River School through the dawn of American modernism. The title “American Visions” touches on two central themes. It refers to the national aspiration or ‘vision’ of American artists as they worked to develop an original artistic identity distinguishable from that of their European predecessors. “Visions,” is a doubly apt word, however, because it refers also to these artists’ collective reliance on observational experience as their chief source of inspiration.
Visitors to the Montclair Art Museum will notice the ubiquity of the “virginal American landscape” as a subject, and might compare these paintings to a few others that depict encroaching industrialism and urban life. But in this exhibition the landscape seems more important as an avenue to explore observational painting than as a symbolic entity or metaphor. Spanning an era that saw unflinching realism, romantic tonalism, chromatic impressionism, and modernism all assert themselves in various artistic colonies throughout the United States, the exhibition feels like an artistic battleground. Curator Gail Stavitsky often places somber realist paintings alongside the bright and sunny interpretations of American Impressionists. But these stylistic “jumps” actually create a narrative in their own right. Organized by these regional artists’ colonies, each of which developed a unique approach to painting, the exhibition tells the story of American art as it readied itself to enter the world stage.
This exhibit’s juxtaposition of various styles is refreshing and exciting. It conveys the great conviction artists must have felt towards their particular stances on painting by grouping disparate works together. In the Lehman gallery, the museum’s front lobby, two large paintings immediately sparked this type of reflection: Robert Spencer’s Afternoon Bathers (1920) and Gifford Beal’s Garden Beach (1925). Much like the rest of the exhibition, these paintings’ similarity in subject matter clarified their obvious differences more subtly than would be otherwise possible.
Typifying American Impressionism, Afternoon Bathers integrates the impressionistic “look” with techniques derived from realism. Afternoon Bathers exudes the impressionistic mark, but in a unified and retained way. Its composition, unity of mark, and strong sense of light is wholly conventional. The painting’s hazy atmosphere and discernible brushstrokes distinguish it from some of the Hudson River School paintings hanging nearby. But its pervasive brown ground, reliance on line, and nearly achromatic shadows hold Spencer’s work within the framework of traditional painting. Taken for what it is, the painting is quietly intelligent and successful in its goals.
On the same wall, a landscape of similar size and subject matter serves as an interesting counterpoint to Afternoon Bathers. In light of Spencer’s effort, Gifford Beal’s Garden Beach feels clumsy at first. Thick, disorderly blotches of paint awkwardly break the illusion of the scene, and a heavy-handed application of pure white gives the painting a chalkiness in some areas. The brushwork of the water feels juvenile, and most of the distant figures seem disconnected from the space that they would otherwise inhabit.
But in another light, one that only arises after a prolonged exposure to the painting, Garden Beach feels fresh and modern. For one, the colors are brighter. While chromatic subtlety is normally much more interesting than the aggressive overemployment of color typical of many unsophisticated painters, Beal’s attempt to shift his palette in the direction of his scene’s local color is admirable. Further, Beal’s awkward-seeming sense of space can be alternatively interpreted as a modernist assertion of the canvas’s flatness. Garden Beach recalls Bruegel’s composition Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (ca. 1590–1595), which takes mathematical liberties to enhance the drama of the scene. But Beal breaks the illusion of space not so much by subverting linear perspective as by refusing to suppress color to create atmospheric perspective. The bright orange and red specks of paint that depict umbrellas and clothed figures in the distance sit rather on top of the painting in a way that, when viewed up-close, seems dramatically abstract.
Another thing that struck me as I walked through the Montclair Art Museum’s exhibition were select instances of innovation in composition. It is relatively common for landscape painters to revert to hackneyed configurations that are effective in producing the illusion of depth but often uninteresting otherwise. So, in an exhibit full of landscape paintings, it was refreshing to see paintings that step outside the usual boundaries of that genre.
Hermann Herzog, for instance, adopts the portrait rather than landscape format for his painting Mountainous Landscape (ca. 1880), which is taller than it is wide. Whereas most landscape paintings are wide in order to exploit the human tendency towards peripheral vision, Herzog’s work emphasizes a downward line of sight because of this formatting, as well as its elevated horizon line. The vertical direction of the painting heightens the sublime ‘danger’ of the jagged and steep cliff over which the artist looks. The eagle, soaring through the air, exacerbates this danger with its associative flying or falling motif, and also expands the scale of the scene through its relative smallness.
Daniel Garber’s Green Mansions (1934) on the other hand, eschews the grandiose and instead focuses on a zoomed-in section of verdant foliage. With its narrow range of depth and square proportion, the painting (whose title refers to a 1904 exotic novel by William Henry Hudson) brings a realist’s eye to the compositional bent of abstract modernism. Glancing at only a digital or print reproduction of the work, one might mistake Green Mansions for a quick preparatory study. At almost five feet tall and wide, however, a view “in the flesh” will reveal weaving patterns and subtle passages of depth that allow for prolonged contemplation. This unique perspective on a tried-and-true motif was a welcome respite from some of the more traditional landscapes of the exhibition.
“American Visions” is definitely worth a visit for anyone interested in either turn-of-the-century art or perceptual painting more generally. The Bank of America collection contains many surprises and succeeds in its goal of “[providing] a thought-provoking historical context for American Impressionism,” which it certainly focuses on. But to my mind, the paintings are equally noteworthy for their scope in investigating the medium of paint as a tool to convey the excitement and challenge of direct observation.
“American Visions: 1870–1940” opened at the Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, NJ on February 7, and remains on view through June 19, 2016.