Impressionism! Everyone’s favorite style of painting! Gorgeous, elegant women at play, sun-dappled seascapes, white fluffy clouds, exotic places and foreign people with nary a care in the world. “Frontiers of Impressionism” at the Worcester Art Museum is a delightful exploration of the reach of Impressionism beyond the core of French inventors of the style. Many American painters are included; Winslow Homer, Frank Benson, Thomas Cole, DeWitt Parshall, Edmund Charles Tarbell and others.
WAM’s curator, Claire C Whitner, searched through the museum’s holdings to find these gems. She broadened the definition of “Impressionism” to include artists who were not French but who painted outdoors in an immediate fresh manner, often using a lighter paint palette, brushy paint strokes and casual contemporary subjects. Thus, Winslow Homer’s 1892 masterpiece, “Coast in Winter,” is included alongside French impressionist giant Claude Monet’s 1908 “Waterlilies.” Monet’s soft light-blue vision of oval lily pads in calm pond water is Impressionism perfected. By contrast, Homer’s painting is one of his most bleak Maine seacoast visions. On one side a curling, snarling wave is about to crash over a dark slab of rock with not a sailing ship nor human in sight. Monet represents the peace and quiet of French Impressionism; Homer the threat of violence that conquering America’s land and seas required.
The Impressionist’s painterly process is depicted in a small, exquisite oil by little known artist Francisco Oller y Estero, born in Puerto Rico. “Paul Cezanne Painting Outdoors,” 1864, shows the famous painter sprawled out on the grass with his double canvas propped up in front of him. He holds his paint brush and palette in one hand. Over him a white umbrella shields him from the sun and provides shade for his canvas. What a marvelous immediate insight into Cezanne’s painting process. This small work actually tells us precisely how Impressionists accomplished their masterpieces.
A local American painter, Frank Weston Benson (1862-1951), who lived well into the 20th century and painted dreamy, lush visions of beautiful women, and children. “Girl Playing Solitaire,” 1909, depicts a stylish young woman with a “Gibson” hair do, dressed in a long, white gown surveying her hand of cards. Behind her the golden clouds of a Gilded Age Asian screen complete the composition’s curves. She is pensive, alone, available and seductive, all at once.
“Melting Snow,” 1918, painted by Worcester’s own Joseph Greenwood (1857-1927), is a quiet landscape of white birch trees, whose blue-violet shadows stretch out horizontally across the white snow. Curving in and out across the scene, the shallow meandering stream, free of ice, forms a brilliant blue contrast to the snowy banks. It is interesting to note that Greenwood was early to make use of black and white photography to capture the exact form and branch shape of the birches and hemlocks. Obviously, he could not have been so precise in the tree shapes if he were sitting in the cold snow for hours! Happily, WAM supported its local Impressionist and purchased this work in 1919. Another romantic Greenwood painting, “Apple Orchard,” 1903, depicts two aged apple trees in a grassy field with ice-cream soft clouds over head in a pale lavender sky.
Worcester is close to Boston and its surrounding suburbs, and the exhibit is well worth the drive from any New England town. The downtown area has a nice selection of restaurants with reasonable prices and great food. A day trip to Worcester should also include a visit to the restored 1911 Union Station train station and the Worcester Historical Museum.
(“Frontiers of Impressionism” continues through June 25 at the Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, Massachusetts. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m.-4 a.m. and will also be open on Patriots Day (Monday, April 17) and Juneteenth (Monday, June 19). For more information, call (508) 799-4406 or visit worcesterart.org.)