National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS
American Impressionism and Realism

Portrait of John Leslie Breck
J. Carroll Beckwith, 1852 - 1917
1891, oil on canvas, 13 1/4 x 17 1/4 (33.7 x 43.8), Collection of Margaret and Raymond Horowitz

The mural painter and portraitist J. Carroll Beckwith spent the summer of 1891 in France, a visit that included a month or so in Giverny. His particular friend there was the American painter John Leslie Breck, and on September 2, as Beckwith recorded in his diary, he "began a little head of Breck."1 It is a strikingly warm and sympathetic painting, and a token in those respects of their close friendship; it is also a very faithful likeness, as a more formal portrait photograph of Breck shows.

Beckwith's month in Giverny was idyllic -- a time of art, music, and tennis 2 -- but it was also one that challenged him artistically. Earlier in the summer, before going to Giverny, Beckwith had seen impressionist landscapes at the Paris Salon; they were, he said, painted by "extremists" who "produce things bright but with no drawing and devoid of style."3 In Giverny, however, he tried his own hand at landscape, though he quickly gave it up as "a bad job."4 And when Theodore Robinson took him to Monet's studio he was capable of admiring Monet's poplar series, his newest and most radically impressionist paintings: "his last things of the poplars following the Epte [River] are remarkable and profoundly interesting."5

In France, Beckwith's own style underwent a change. Though he normally painted with a certain timid breadth, his portrait of Breck is executed with considerable dash and vigor, both of brushwork and of color, as though, in response to the painterly milieu of Giverny (of which, of course, Breck's art was a part), he was bringing his style to the level of impressionism that he had once considered extreme. This was a matter not only of color and brushing, but of pictorial arrangement as well. By placing his friend's figure far to one side of the horizontal composition, Beckwith rejected the conventional central placement of the subject, perhaps to better express a sense of intimacy.

Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr.
Senior curator of American and British paintings

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1. J. Carroll Beckwith, Diary. National Academy of Design, New York.

2. Diary, 8 August 1891.

3. Diary, 27 June 1891.

4. Diary, 19 August 1891. "Pure landscape is too hard for me. I know too well how it should look to be satisfied with what I do."

5. Diary, 4 September 1891.