Feature: James Haddrell
IN 1999, the Royal Academy struck curatorial
gold with Monet in the 20th Century, an exhibition which attracted
over 800,000 visitors in just four months.
Six years later, you can’t blame them for going back for
more, but there is much more to Impressionism Abroad than
the hugely popular dappled canvases of France’s most renowned
In 1852, when Claude Monet was only 12-years-old, the Boston
painter, William Morris Hunt, established a friendship with the
prominent French painter and member of the Barbizon school, Jean-François
A group of artists working on the outskirts of the Forest of
Fontainebleu, the Barbizon School championed the representation
of real landscapes over idealised scenes from classical history
or mythology, with stories from the lives of the poor depicted
without romanticising sentimentality.
The first two paintings featured in Impressionism Abroad
testify to the closeness of Hunt’s interest in the
work of Millet and his contemporaries – a scene of rural
sheep-shearing by Millet hangs side-by-side with a painstaking
reproduction of the same image by Hunt.
The interest shown by painters like Hunt was mirrored by collectors
from Boston who quickly added both French originals and locally
produced rural landscapes by American artists to their collections.
A generation later, with Monet, Renoir, Degas and others struggling
against the disdain of the artistic establishment and the press
in France, painters mirroring the French style in Boston were
already in great demand.
Towards the end of the century, it was Monet who provided the
strongest influence for painters and collectors from Boston.
Lilli Cabot Perry, John Leslie Breck, Willard Metcalf, Theodore
Wendell and John Singer Sargent all spent periods of time with
him in Giverny, and in 1892 the first US gallery exhibition dedicated
to work by Monet was held in Boston with all 21 exhibits drawn
from local collections.
Impressionism Abroad combines Bostonian paintings displaying
marked French influence (not solely Impressionist in nature, as
the exhibition also features work from the Barbizon years) with
French paintings originally purchased by collectors in Boston.
However, if the opening pair of paintings implies a direct process
of imitation from France to America, what follows is a more complicated
The French Impressionists, with Monet at the forefront, strove
to move beyond the political representation of rural scenes pursued
by the Barbizon school, in order to focus entirely on the appearance
of natural light.
Whether painting people at leisure, urban railway scenes or a
series of haystacks, Monet’s primary drive was always to
capture the effect of light and colour upon his subject.
Even Renoir’s group scenes or Degas’ dancers were
often framed in a way that implied the narrative of the scene
was incidental, that the reproduction of a visual impression was
their primary aim.
The American painters included in Impression Abroad certainly
adopted the Barbizon interest in rural landscape, but as the years
went by they rarely matched the Impressionists in breaking down
the formal realism retained by the earlier school.
Judged by the paintings featured
in this exhibition, the Bostonians use of the Impressionists’
techniques was more about the practical process of painting than
the depiction of light.
In Dennis Miller Bunker’s The Pool, Medfield,
the long grass and the winding water are depicted with
strokes of paint reminiscent of Renoir’s feathery technique,
but the surface of the painting as a whole has a refined quality
not evident in the work of any of the Impressionists.
In Bunker’s case, the strokes of paint signify the movement
of the natural landscape more than the light.
Lilla Cabot Perry, who spent nine summers with Monet at Giverny,
is represented by The Old Farm, Giverny, and
whilst the trees in the foreground imitate Monet’s style,
the background again has a smooth finish absent from the work
of her French host.
Frederick Porter Vinton, who travelled to Europe in 1889 and
subsequently contributed an essay to the catalogue for the Durand
Ruel Gallery’s exhibition Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, is represented
by La Blanchisseuse.
The subject – a woman washing clothes in a river - is in
the spirit of the Barbizon School, a natural scene of rural life,
and whilst the lilies in the river may allude to his admiration
for Monet, the style remains closer to the earlier realism of
Of the American work on display, John Singer Sargent comes closest
to the rough, broken style of Impressionism with Fishing
For Oysters at Cancale, one of the finest works in the
exhibition, displaying the heavily textured, painterly quality
of a Monet or a Pissarro.
The hesitation manifested by Boston painters in fully adopting
the Impressionist style was matched by Boston collectors –
while Monet’s work was in demand, work produced by painters
from previous generations still commanded significantly higher
In 1890, Anna Perkins Rogers and Peter Chardon Brooks acquired
works by both Monet and the earlier realist painter, Jean Charles
Cazin, and paid more for one painting by Cazin than for three
However, while it is easy for us to criticise that perceived
lack of value now - hindsight is clearly a wonderful thing - it
is still thanks to those forward looking collectors that there
are enough French works in Impressionism Abroad to satisfy
die-hard fans of the style.
But this exhibition is not, as might be expected, a demonstration
of how painters from Boston learned to paint like Monet.
It is true that in Boston the French Impressionists found greater
favour with critics and collectors than in their native France,
and that the Boston painters experimented with this new style,
but on the basis of Impressionism Abroad, with the possible
exception of Sargent, the style that has been immortalised as
‘Impressionism’ ultimately remained unique to Monet
and his circle.
Impressionism Abroad: Boston and French Painting
Until September 11, 2005
Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J
020 7300 8000; www.royalacademy.org.uk
Open daily 10am-6pm; Friday 10am-10pm
Admission: £9.00; various concessions from £4
John Singer Sargent, Fishing For Oysters at Cancale, 1878
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Related work by James Haddrell: Cloud
& Vision - Museum of Garden History
Mountains and Water
Barbican Gallery: Colour