National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: American Impressionists of the Late 1800s and Early 1900s

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Since the development of the oil technique during the early 1400s, the equipment and chemicals necessary for painting were simply too cumbersome to remove them easily from artists' studios. By the late 1700s, some painters did venture outdoors to sketch in oils, but their refreshing, small-scale works were normally considered mere training exercises. The ability to create finished canvases away from the studio hinged on a British patent granted to John Rand, an American artist-scientist.

In 1841, Rand invented collapsible tin tubes to hold premixed oil paints. Prior to Rand's paint tubes, artists who desired to work on-the-spot in oils had relied either on glass vials, which break, or animal bladders, which leak. Now, with their supplies packed in portable cases, painters were free to capture visual impressions on site, whether indoors or out.

By the late 1860s, a few French artists discovered that natural appearances differ greatly from the controlled light, careful detail, and balanced arrangement of works conceived in the studio. Their innovations of complex color brilliances, optical focus, and seemingly random compositions reached the United States by the mid-1880s.

The French impressionists dealt candidly with the working and middle classes, whereas American impressionists favored portrayals of well-dressed, well-mannered high society. While the United States emerged as a world power at the turn of the twentieth century, many American painters and patrons sought sophistication by choosing such genteel subjects. Even in landscapes, American artists often selected picturesque views, such as gardens at moonrise or holiday promenades.

Most major impressionists in the United States belonged to The Ten American Painters, a select group who presented annual shows in New York City from 1898 to 1906. America's leading impressionist, however, was the expatriate Mary Cassatt. She also used her social standing as the daughter of a Pennsylvania banker to persuade other wealthy Americans to purchase avant-garde art, thereby helping introduce French impressionism to the United States. Since she lived abroad and, from 1879 to 1886, participated in four exhibitions that the impressionists held in Paris, the National Gallery of Art displays Mary Cassatt's paintings in its French rooms.

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