Major exhibition of American art from a transformative era comes to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Sunlight, 1909, Frank Weston Benson (American, 1862–1951), oil on canvas. Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, John Herron Fund, 11.1. © The Frank W. Benson Trust

the Virginia Art Museum (VMFA) will host the highly anticipated exhibition From Whistler to Cassatt: American Painters in France from April 16, 2022 to July 31, 2022. The exhibition, which debuted at the Denver Art Museum, focuses on a group of budding artists who, between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, left the United States to train overseas and then returned home to become one of the biggest influencers in shaping American art.

From Whistler to Cassatt: American Painters in France provides a vivid account of late 19th century France and the cutting-edge opportunities available to expatriate artists at that time,” said Alex Nyerges, Director and CEO of VMFA. “Visitors to the exhibit will see exquisite paintings by some of this country’s greatest artists, created during one of the most complex and transformative periods in American art history.”

Mary Cassatt, Girl at a Window, c. 1883–1884. Oil painting on canvas; 39-1/2 x 25-1/2 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC: Corcoran Collection, museum purchase, gallery holdings. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

This exhibition is organized by the Denver Museum of Art and curated for VMFA by Dr. Susan J. Rawles, Elizabeth Locke Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts. From Whistler to Cassatt will include more than 100 works by famous American artists, including James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Mary Cassatt, who traveled to France between 1855 and 1913 as part of the first wave of expatriate artists to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. The exhibition also features paintings by renowned artists Cecilia Beaux, Frank Weston Benson, William Merritt Chase, William J. Glackens, Childe Hassam, Robert Henri, Winslow Homer, Maurice Prendergast, Theodore Robinson, John Singer Sargent, Henry Ossawa Tanner and John Henry Twatchman. .

“The period between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries brought a kaleidoscope of social, economic, and political changes that expanded and complicated ideas about democracy, throwing America into a state of flux and challenging its quest for a national identity. It also prompted a question that has haunted historians since the birth of the United States: who and what constitutes the American in American art? said Dr. Rawles.

With its eminent academy, L’École des Beaux-Arts, 19th-century France became the mecca of the arts of the Western world, providing American artists with unprecedented opportunities to train and exhibit their work. From the urban studios of Paris to the rural artistic colonies of Normandy and Brittany, they traveled in communion with their contemporaries, exchanging ideas, exploring new techniques and adopting new styles and subjects.

Entering a dramatic gallery reminiscent of the historic “Salon”, the most important exhibition of works-competition held each year in Paris, visitors to the exhibition From Whistler to Cassatt: American Painters in France will relive the experience of late 19th century art lovers. Although the academy’s preference for classically styled depictions of historical and biblical subjects was championed by many, contemporary painters were not bound by its doctrine. Seeking artistic independence, many American artists began experimenting with technical and thematic conventions. The exhibition highlights this innovative spirit by presenting works in a myriad of styles, including naturalism, realism, tonalism and impressionism. It also highlights the aesthetic philosophies that go with them. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, for example, was guided by a credo of “art for art’s sake” that freed the paintings from moral purpose. His experiments with “tonalism” emphasize the sensory relationship between painting and music.

Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Young Sabot Maker, 1895. Oil on canvas, 47-3/8 x 35-3/8 in. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase: William Rockhill Nelson Trust through the George H. and Elizabeth O. Davis Fund and partial gift from an anonymous donor, 95-22. Photo: Jameson Miller.

“The exhibition testifies to the radicalism of the time. The various artistic movements that were percolating in France at the time responded not only to academic conservatism, but also to the reforming political, social and economic ideas circulating among progressive thinkers,” said Dr Rawles. “Although not all of the technical and ideological components were assimilated by American artists, selective elements of these movements and philosophies came together to inform the direction of American painting. We’ve become so used to styles like Impressionism that we forget how radically wicked it was, or that a handful of American expatriate painters became the country’s first modernists.

John Singer Sargent, A Gust of Wind (Judith Gautier), 1883-85. Oil painting on canvas; 24-3/4 × 15 in. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond: James W. and Frances Gibson McGlothlin Collection. Photo by Travis Fullerton. © Virginia Art Museum.

Also radical were the American women artists who went to France determined to become professional painters. Light is shed on the experiences of female artists – Cecilia Beaux, Mary Cassatt and Elizabeth Nourse – featured in From Whistler to Cassatt. Although women artists were not allowed to enter the École des Beaux-Arts until 1897, they could train in private studios and academies like the Académie Julian. In general, these fee-paying academies adopted the same practices as the École and, although separated by sex, allowed women to study from the figure of life, participate in weekly competitions and experiment with various techniques. While Elizabeth Gardner pursued a brilliant career as an academic painter, becoming the first American female artist to receive a medal at the Salon, Mary Cassatt explored more avant-garde practices, becoming the only American artist invited to exhibit with the Impressionists. In addition to this studio experience, the work of copying in the Louvre completes the training of an artist. It was also an opportunity to socialize, as women were excluded from café society.

Ultimately, most American expatriate artists returned to the United States where their work met with mixed reception. Sensitivity to national identity fueled resistance to French influences, and the paintings were often discredited as “un-American”. In response, many returning artists emphasized figurative and landscape subjects that celebrated the rising middle class and its burgeoning hobbies. Announcing this new direction, “The Ten American Painters” turned away from the conservative National Academy of Design and the Society of American Artists to pursue their shared preference for Impressionism. “The Eight” and their successors, the “Independents,” followed more progressive impulses, fueling the push toward modernism.

“In a time full of challenges,” said Dr Rawles, “Frank Benson’s painting, Sunlight, seems like an uplifting metaphor for America. A young woman stands high on the horizon in the bright light of a clear day. Looking across an ocean separating the old world from the new, she stands against the headwinds, but remains strong. For all the tension and discomfort that accompanied America’s growing pains — both physical and philosophical — her youth and spirit signal optimism.

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