American Impressionism
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 man’s
nature, the other, God’s." 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-1800’s, 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.