Skip to Main Content

American Impressionists of the Late 1800s and Early 1900s

We look slightly down onto a woman dressed in golden yellows, sitting in a pale green chair, with a nude child sitting in her lap as they both gaze into a mirror in this vertical portrait painting. Both the people have pale, peachy skin. The chair is angled to our left so the woman’s knees and child cant down toward the lower left corner of the composition, and the woman leans onto the arm closer to us. The chair is painted mint green and the rose-pink upholstery is visible on the seat and a corner behind the woman’s shoulder. To our right, the woman’s vibrant, copper-colored hair is pulled loosely to the back of her head. She has a rounded nose, flushed cheeks, and her full, coral-pink lips are closed. Her long dress has a low, U-shaped neckline. The fabric shimmers from pale, cucumber green to light sunshine yellow. The sleeves of the dress split over the shoulder and a second long, goldenrod-yellow sleeve falls from her elbow off the bottom edge of the canvas. An oversized sunflower, larger than the woman’s face, is affixed to her dress near her left shoulder, closer to us. She looks with dark eyes down toward the small, gold-rimmed mirror she holds in her right hand, farther from us. The child also holds the handle of the mirror with both hands, and in the reflection, the child looks back at us with dark eyes, a button nose, and pink lips. The child’s hair in the reflection is the same copper color as the woman’s, but the child on her lap has blond, shoulder-length hair. The woman rests one hand on the child’s left shoulder, closer to us. The child has a rounded belly and smooth, rosy limbs. The woman and child are reflected in a second mirror hanging on the wall alongside them, opposite us. Their reflections are very loosely painted. The wall behind the pair is sage green across the top and it shifts to fawn brown across the bottom. Brushstrokes are visible throughout, especially in the woman’s dress and hair, and are more blended in the bodies and faces. The artist signed the painting in the lower right corner, “Mary Cassatt.”


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.

Mary Cassatt, American, 1844 - 1926, Mother and Child, c. 1905, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.98

1 of 8
A pale-skinned woman wearing a long dress sits on a golden-brown grassy hillside in this vertical portrait painting. The scene is loosely painted with visible brushstrokes throughout. The hill creates a steep diagonal angling down from near the top left corner to the right edge, just over the lower corner there. The woman sits with her knees facing us as she looks up and off to our left in profile. She is lit from our right so her face is in shadow, but she has delicate features. The light warms her copper-red hair, which is tied with a bow at the back of her neck. Her ice-blue dress has a high collar, long sleeves, and a full skirt that puddles in the grass. She rests her left arm, to our right, across her midsection, and holds her other hand just over the grass. White flowers dot the hillside, which slopes down a single tree in the near distance along the right edge of the canvas. Ultramarine-blue water beyond ripples back to a flat-topped, smoky-mauve outcropping. A sliver of oyster-white sky lines the horizon, which comes almost to the top of this composition. The artist signed the painting in the lower left corner, “F.W. Benson.”

An instructor at the Boston Museum school, Frank Benson created lovely daydreams of women and children frolicking outdoors. One of his daughters recalled their family vacations in North Haven, Maine: "Papa would often have us put on our best white dresses and then ask us to sit in the grass or play in the woods. We thought it was so silly and the maids made such a fuss when they saw the clothes afterwards."

These modeling sessions resulted in such idyllic works as Summer of 1909, now in the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence. In that breezy grouping, Margaret Strong, a seventeen-year-old neighbor, looks uphill toward three other girls who, in turn, converse with her or peer out to sea. Delighted with Benson's portrayal of their daughter and also anticipating her forthcoming marriage, Margaret's parents asked him to paint her individually just as she had posed in Summer.

In a very daring maneuver for a commissioned portrait, Benson left Margaret's face still turned away from the sun. He did modify the design by raising the beach line of the distant cape so that, here, it would not cut across her profile. Her striking, coppery red hair frames her head, keys into the warm tan grass, and complements the blue Atlantic and the cool, iridescent shadows. Above all, the dazzling virtuosity of Benson's rapid brushwork captures attention.

Frank Weston Benson, American, 1862 - 1951, Margaret ("Gretchen") Strong, c. 1909, oil on canvas, Gift of Elizabeth Clarke Hayes, 1992.66.1

2 of 8
Two pale-skinned women sit facing each other on a long sofa centered on the wall across from us in a room warmly lit from the right in this horizontal painting. The scene is loosely painted so some details are indistinct. The woman on our left wears a white, full-length dress belted at the waist and trimmed with a ruffled hem. The puffy sleeves narrow below the elbow and are tucked into long, fawn-brown gloves. She wears a brimmed hat topped with dabs of white and lapis-blue paint, presumably flowers, with a sheer veil covering her face and chin. Glints of gold at her wrists might be bracelets. Her lower body faces us but her head and torso turn to her left, our right, to face her companion. She leans forward, with her left hand slightly extended, and she rests her fingertips on the cushion between them. Her other hand, closest to us, holds the curving handle of a closed, shell-pink parasol trimmed with white. To our right, the second woman sits with her knees angled to our left as she turns her head in profile, looking at her companion. She wears a floor-length, butter-yellow dress with white, vertical stripes. The dress has a high black collar, and a black ribbon wraps around her waist and falls down the front of the dress. Her sleeves billow at the shoulder and narrow below the elbow. Her dark brown hair is gathered at the top of her head. She holds a flat object in the same butter yellow in her lap that may be a matching hat. The sofa spans almost the entire width of the center of the painting. Its seat is draped in spruce-green fabric, and emerald-green, mauve, rose-pink, black, and gold throw pillows are scattered along its length. The lower half of the wall behind the women is tawny brown while the upper half is divided into four sections. A coral-red and off-white wall hanging fills the wall to our left of the woman in white. A framed artwork and mustard-yellow fabric with daubs of white, ash gray, and black hang on it. Moving right, a column of three framed artworks hang on the wall between the women. Next is a large mirror with a gold frame that hangs behind the woman in yellow. At the far right is another column of three framed artworks. The room behind us is reflected in the large mirror, showing an amber-colored wall with large windows and more framed artworks. Steps leading up to another sunlit room are also visible. A wicker chair with a pink and white pillow sits in the lower right, facing the women at an angle. The floor in front of them fills the lower third of the composition and is covered with a vanilla-yellow carpet streaked with areas of smoke gray and brick red. Two small throw pillows with tassels lie at the feet of the woman in white. The tip of the parasol points to a small sage-green pillow with tomato-red tassels lying on the floor between the women. To our left of the woman in white is a cream-white pillow with marigold-orange tassels. The artist signed and dated the painting in the lower left, “Wm. M. Chase. Copyright 1895.”

A Friendly Call takes place in William Merritt Chase's own studio at his summer home near Shinnecock, Long Island. A new vogue for Oriental aesthetics accounts for the bamboo chair, reed floor mats, and silk wall hangings. Such elegance transforms a functional workroom into a private exhibition gallery. This recent rise in the social status of painters had been brought about by the "art for art's sake" movement.

The painter's wife, Alice Gerson Chase, greets an unidentified caller. According to the rigid social etiquette of the 1890s, the hostess has not yet asked—or may never permit—her guest to relax, put down her parasol, and remove her gloves, hat, and veil.

The ladies lean symmetrically toward each other and the center of the geometric composition with its long, low banquette and carefully arranged cushions and framed pictures. As an impressionist, Chase used the large mirror to capture a soft-focus reflection of the sunlit hallway and stair leading to his airy studio.

In his early twenties, Chase had left Indiana to study abroad, rejoicing, "My God, I'd rather go to Europe than go to heaven!" Later, this easygoing man encouraged so many students in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and at this Long Island summer studio that he boasted, "I believe I am the father of more art children than any other teacher."

William Merritt Chase, American, 1849 - 1916, A Friendly Call, 1895, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1943.1.2

3 of 8
We look beyond a cluster of flags hanging from the side of one tall building onto a wide street at a row of buildings across from us in this vertical painting. The scene is loosely painted with visible brushstrokes, so some details are difficult to make out. We seem to lean out a window to look along the street, so the building to our right only skims the edge of the composition and continues off the top. The three flags closest to us fly from nearly horizontal flagstaffs along the bottom edge of the painting. All the flags are in shades of scarlet red, white, and royal blue. The flag closest to us is red with the red, white, and blue Union Jack in the upper corner. Beyond it is an American flag with 49 stars, and then the French flag with the vertical bands of blue, white, and red. Those three flags are repeated about a dozen times along the building that stretches away from us, along the right edge of the painting. More of those flags are hung from the cream-white and tan buildings across the street, to our left. Some of those buildings reach off the top edge of the canvas and others come close. The shadows along moldings and the windows are painted with pale and lapis blue. Through narrow gaps left between the fluttering flags, vertical strokes of navy blue and violet purple suggest crowds of people in the street below. The sky between the buildings is ice blue. The artist signed and dated the painting in the center left, “Childe Hassam May 17 1917.”

Allies Day, May 1917 is one of about thirty oil paintings that Childe Hassam made of New York City's flag-decked streets during World War I. On 9 and 11 May 1917 the British and French war commissioners paraded down Fifth Avenue, temporarily proclaimed "the Avenue of the Allies," to celebrate the United States' entry into the war. The slogan "Show your colors" brought forth a patriotic flurry of Union Jacks, Tricolors, and Stars and Stripes.

With his easel on a balcony at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-second Street, Hassam looked northward past Saint Thomas Episcopal Church, the University Club, and the Gotham Hotel toward the yellow-green spring foliage in Central Park. The bold designs of the flags and the strong lines of the architecture well complement each other. So that the sky could compete with these vigorous shapes and assertive colors, Hassam applied vivid aqua blue in upright streaks that march across the air, much like the pedestrians who stroll in the street below.

On his second trip to Europe in 1886­1887, Hassam had been among the first Americans to embrace French impressionism. With his New Englander's worship of order, however, he consistently subjected his compositions and brushstrokes to a geometric rigor. Hassam even claimed, somewhat dubiously, "I have to de-bunk the idea that I use dots of color, so called, or what is known as Impressionism."

Childe Hassam, American, 1859 - 1935, Allies Day, May 1917, 1917, oil on canvas, Gift of Ethelyn McKinney in memory of her brother, Glenn Ford McKinney, 1943.9.1

4 of 8

In the later 1880s, Willard "Willy" Metcalf visited and summered four times at Giverny, northwest of Paris. Giverny had been home to the famous impressionist Claude Monet since 1883. Although Metcalf knew the older French painter, it was the rustic village itself that drew the young American to the area. The calm structure of Giverny's plowed fields, stone-walled roads, and tile-roofed farmhouses fascinated many painters. Here, several building eaves and crop lines point toward the shimmering orb of a full moon rising through rosy clouds over the eastern horizon.

Sunset imparts a yellow warmth to the stuccoed walls, while the complementary color of violet marks the lengthening shadows of late afternoon. The deep blue-greens of the foreground bushes similarly balance and contrast with the red-oranges of the terracotta roofs.

Metcalf traveled incessantly, painting Italian villages in the Tuscan hills, Arab markets in Tunisia, and Zuni pueblos in New Mexico. Despite his restlessness, he kept returning to his native Massachusetts. His New England woodland and coastal scenes captured every season of the year and eventually earned his fame. Ironically, for an artist who could so beautifully convey the earth's placid serenity, Metcalf led a bohemian life obsessed with women, alcohol, and occult spiritualism.

Willard Leroy Metcalf, American, 1858 - 1925, Midsummer Twilight, c. 1890, oil on canvas, Gift of Admiral Neill Phillips in memory of Grace Hendrick Phillips, 1976.50.2

5 of 8

Maurice Prendergast's optimistic temperament lends Salem Cove a fairy-tale quality that belies its location at an industrial port near Boston. The work environment is avoided except for two distant schooners ferrying passengers and goods along the coast. Instead of shipyards, Prendergast concentrated on summer parasols and a park bench, children's games, and adult pleasure-seekers in a green rowboat.

Prendergast's avant-garde style, with its colorful patches of paint outlined in darker shades, has been compared to Byzantine mosaics and Gothic tapestries. These emphatic decorative patterns owe as much, or more, to the Art Nouveau posters and book illustrations he designed in his youth as a graphic artist. Although Prendergast has been called a naive or untutored artist, his background included six extended trips to Europe, where he studied in Paris and sketched at museums and landmarks throughout France, Britain, and Italy. Moreover, he was conversant about the most radical trends, from the "art for art's sake" theories of James McNeill Whistler to the postimpressionism of Paul Cézanne.

Born in Newfoundland, Canada, Maurice Prendergast had moved as a child to Boston. This shy artist, especially acclaimed for his technical experiments with monotype prints, worked in the studio of his younger brother, Charles Prendergast, a successful picture framer.

Maurice Brazil Prendergast, American, 1858 - 1924, Salem Cove, 1916, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, 1985.64.33

6 of 8

A feisty, aggressive man, Edmund Charles Tarbell had such control over a group of followers at the Boston Museum school that critics nicknamed them "the Tarbellite gang." Tarbell also commanded respect later in Washington, D.C., when he served as principal at the Corcoran Gallery's School of Art from 1918 to 1925. His insistence upon precise draftsmanship resulted from his teenaged apprenticeship to a lithographic company and his academic studies in Boston and Paris.

Unlike the bravura sketchiness and vivid colors preferred by his friend Frank Benson, Tarbell emphasized solid, three-dimensional forms. To challenge himself by painting interior and exterior light in the same composition, Tarbell often depicted the tall French windows at his summer home in New Castle, New Hampshire. In Mother and Mary, the rectangular shapes of these windows as well as of the picture frames and wall moldings are played against the curving lines of the Chippendale chairs, oval gate-leg table, and tranquil figures of the artist's youngest daughter Mary, pausing at her writing desk, and his wife Emeline, occupied by her sewing.

The Colonial Revival decor mixes furniture styles by using both antiques and reproductions. Criss-crossed over the polished floor, long brushstrokes imitate the luster of reflected sunlight and reveal the marks of hand buffing on the freshly waxed wood.

Edmund Charles Tarbell, American, 1862 - 1938, Mother and Mary, 1922, oil on canvas, Gift of the Belcher Collection, Stoughton, Massachusetts, 1967.1.1

7 of 8
A stream meanders back through snowbanks in this wooded landscape, which is created entirely with cool, pale tones of white, gray, blue, lilac, and golden beige in this nearly square painting. Steep banks sloping toward the stream are mounded with snow. Touches of tan and pale pink suggest traces of foliage in some of the tree branches above. The paint is loosely applied so some brushstrokes are visible, creating a soft, hazy view of this scene.

A native of Cincinnati who had studied in Munich and Venice, John Twachtman moved his family to a farm near Greenwich, Connecticut, within commuting distance of his teaching job in Manhattan. In two purchases of March 1890 and December 1891, he acquired more than sixteen acres, including the rocky bed of Horseneck Brook that opens into a quiet pond surrounded by a grove of hemlock trees. Shortly after signing the mortgage, he wrote to a fellow artist, "I can see now how necessary it is to live always in the country—at all seasons of the year. We must have snow and lots of it. Never is nature more lovely than when it is snowing. . . . That feeling of quiet and all nature is hushed to silence."

Winter Harmony is one of Twachtman's many studies of the pool on his property. The silver-gray tones and subdued blues and mauves evoke the evanescent transitions of light on an overcast day. The feathery touches of Twachtman's brush are very evident in the shimmering greens of the hemlock needles and the golden brown leaves that still cling to some branches. Unlike a French impressionist, who built up a scene with separate touches of color side by side, Twachtman adapted an old master technique of scumbling nearly dry paint into overlapping layers. He worked loosely so that the underlying tints and shades show through between the irregular, incomplete textures of covering strokes.

John Henry Twachtman, American, 1853 - 1902, Winter Harmony, c. 1890/1900, oil on canvas, Gift of the Avalon Foundation, 1964.22.1

8 of 8