How Impressionism Came to America


And Changed the Way We Look at Art
By Victoria Chick, contemporary figurative artist and early 19th & 20th Century Print Collector

Kristin Lessard – Chief of Interpretation & Education Weir Farm National Historic Site, and contemporary figurative artist Victoria Chick, discuss how Impressionism Came to America, American Impressionist artist J. Alden Weir and ‘The Ten,’ and historic Weir Farm, a national park dedicated to American painting, on Big Blend Radio.

The term Impressionism is often used to describe any painting with loose, sketchy brushwork, thus the elements that constituted French Impressionism and, by extension, American Impressionism, need to be more clearly defined.

The main element is realism. Included under realism were changes from the hard-edged, smooth surfaced, studio paintings of Classical and Romantic styles that had been rigidly adhered to by the main schools of art in Paris for nearly two centuries. These changes included new ways of expressing light and movement, color, texture and the manipulation of paint on canvases, most often by painting outdoors. Just as important, was the change from formal allegorical, historical, and portrait painting to informal subjects of ordinary people doing ordinary things. It was this last change that so outraged the traditional French painters and forced the Realist artists to exhibit together in independent exhibitions after the rejection of their work to being included in the yearly official Salon Exhibitions. In the beginning, these artists did not call themselves Impressionists. That was a derogatory term coined by a critic during their first exhibition to describe what he considered to be sloppy and vulgar painting. But, the name stuck.

The movement toward French Impressionism began with realistic subject matter from the 1840s starting with the Realists Courbet and Corot, and developed stylistically through the Barbizon painters and, by the 1860s, to Claude Manet. There were differences to their work, but each artist or group of artists felt they were expressing truly what they saw. Realism was not widely accepted. American painters knew about Realism but were heavily influenced to reject it by the teaching of the well – established art schools they had traveled to France to attend. One of the most outspoken was a later American Impressionist artist, J. Alden Weir, when he encountered impressionism for the first time: “I never in my life saw more horrible things. It was worse than the Chamber of Horrors.” He complained about the Impressionists in a letter from April 15, 1877 to his parents saying, “They do not observe drawing nor form but give you an impression of what they call nature“. (Young, Dorothy Weir, The Life and Letters of J. Alden Weir, Yale University Press, pg.123)

Yet, within 10 years J. Alden Weir and other American artists had completely adopted the Impressionist style.  Their subject matter was the everyday things they observed,  although it differed from their French counterparts, in that their paintings depicted mostly family members and friends, reflecting upper class activity, rather than Parisian street life. However the loose brushwork, avoidance of hard edges, interweaving complimentary colors of paint on the canvas, and use of tints to emphasize the quality of light were techniques learned from studying the French Impressionists.

The Impressionists in France, as the realist painters now identified themselves, had eight exhibitions from 1874 to 1886 to protest the official annual Salon exhibitions. The American artist, Mary Cassatt, was invited to exhibit in the 4th exhibition.  Offshoots of Impressionism such as Pointillism, as well as more expressive painting styles that were also offensive to the official Salon, began to be included in Impressionist exhibitions until the stylistic cohesiveness that held Impressionist painters together began to unravel with the newer style introductions. By the eighth exhibition, Monet, Sisley, and Renoir refused to participate with the neo-impressionist and post-impressionist painters.  As the dictates of the official Salon were more and more ignored, it gradually lost its institutional power, even though the major art schools continued to operate and teach traditional painting and drawing.

  • Afternoon by the Pond by J. Alden Weir
    Afternoon by the Pond by J. Alden Weir

It was an ironic happening that, as the French Impressionist painters strove to exhibit despite being rebuffed by the official Salon, they began to object to exhibiting with painters whose work they considered unworthy. And ironic again, that so many  American painters who initially were repulsed by Realist/Impressionist work, came to proudly call themselves Impressionists once they were back in the United States. The highpoint of American Impressionism was from the last two decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century. The turning point for acceptance of French Impressionism by the American public came in 1886 when a Parisian art dealer staged the first large exhibition of Impressionist paintings at the National Academy of Design in New York.  It was fairly successful and several well-known American collectors made purchases. Not long after that, American Impressionist painters were exhibiting in New York and Boston as well. Collectively, a group of painters working outdoors in the Impressionist style developed an art colony at Old Lyme, Connecticut.  Another, at Cos Cob, Connecticut had more daring members that eventually split off, forming a group that called themselves “The Ten,” and exhibited together. They were Frank Benson, Joseph DeCamp, Thomas Dewing, Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, Robert Reid, Edward Simmons, Edmund Tarbell, Henry Twachtman, and J. Alden Weir. These artists were among the avant-garde of American painters.

In 1913, an exhibition of the latest art in Europe was held at the New York Armory and then taken to armories in Boston and Chicago. Art in Europe had changed so much since the Impressionists stood up to the stultifying French Academy that even the work of Vincent Van Gogh and Gauguin were not considered modern. It had been supplanted by Fauvism, Surrealism, and Cubism. The Armory Show was conceived by the founders of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors.

The origins of the show lie in the emergence of progressive groups and independent exhibitions in the early 20th century (with significant French precedents), which challenged the aesthetic ideals, exclusionary policies, and authority of the National Academy of Design, while expanding exhibition and sales opportunities, enhancing public knowledge, and enlarging audiences for contemporary art.” Berman, Avis (2000). As National as the National Biscuit Company; The Academy, the Critics, and the Armory Show, Rave Reviews American Art and Its Critics, 1826–1925. New York: National Academy of Design. p. 131.

It is to his credit that American Impressionist, J. Alden Weir, was one of those founders who understood, from personal experience, the value of free creative expression. Yet, the Armory Show was too radical for him to accept and he resigned from the AAPS sponsoring group.

Weir owned several farms, including one that had belonged to his second wife.  But It was the farm in Branchville, Connecticut, that he considered the most beautiful and spent much of his time painting there, inviting his artist friends to stay there and paint also. The artists that most often took advantage of his generous invitations to use the farm as a place to paint were the American Impressionists, Child Hassam, John Henry Twachtman, John Singer Sargent, along with a painter  friend whose style was totally his own, Albert Pinkham Ryder.  The peaceful setting and changing seasons made the farm a perfect place for outdoor painting in the Impressionist manner. Today, it is a National Historic Site.

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. Visit her website at


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