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American Impressionists Seen by French Critics

Claude Monet's Home and Garden in Giverny in Spring. Photo by Ariane Cauderlier

Frederick Carl Frieseke, Richard E.Miller and Louis Ritman, whose paintings you can admire in the American Impressionist Gallery of the IMA, lived in France in the early twentieth century. They settled in the Normandy countryside town of Giverny, which had become a colony of artists attracted by the quiet living and beautiful landscapes revealed twenty years before in Claude Monet’s paintings.

 In France, these painters would participate in local exhibitions and develop a network of friends and buyers. They were part of the “Société internationale de peinture et sculpture”and of the “Groupe des peintres et sculpteurs américains de Paris,” which exhibited in Parisian galleries such as the Galerie Georges Petit, Galerie Knoedler, or Galerie Dewambez. Foreign artists were also promoting themselves in societies such as the American Art Association of Paris and the Société Artistique de Picardie. And they frequently exhibited at the Salon, which was the best exposure an artist could dream about in the early twentieth century. Louis Ritman and Frederick Frieseke even became members of the prestigious Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.

In addition to their commercial success, they also received official honors from the French state: Miller and Frieseke were made Knights of the Legion d’Honneur, Miller received a gold medal at the 1900 Salon de la Société des Artistes Français, and paintings by these two artists were bought by the French state and are still part of the French national collection. Although a lot of their works were shipped to the U.S. where dealers such as Macbeth galleries would sell them, these artists found in France a real exposure and official recognition for their art.

Obviously, showing their works exposed them to critics. French art journalists would often praise the lightness, femininity and the bright colors of their works, focusing on the delicacy of their color harmonies. For example, one reviewer [1] highlighted the “light variations of a muffled daylight” [2], and the “subtle richness of the tones set” [3] in Frieseke’s paintings.

This sense of tonal harmonies is obvious in works like Early Morning Sunshine by Louis Ritman, or Afternoon – Yellow Room by Frieseke. In this work, he created a subtle pastel harmony of green, pink and white that envelopes the woman’s calm meditation. The model’s dress, so close to the fabric of the armchair, shows the painter’s ability to paint a subtle variety of whites, that led a journalist to call Frieseke ”the virtuoso of white.” [4]

Frederick Carl Frieseke, "Afternoon-Yellow Room," 1910. James E. Roberts Fund. 29.71.

It is interesting to read all of these comments about subtle color harmonies and pastel hues, knowing that Fauvist paintings were exhibited in Paris for almost a decade by then.  There’s a clear contrast in the vocabulary critics employ to describe the shocking colors used by Henri Matisse, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, perceived as wild and aggressive, compared to Miller, Frieseke and Ritman’s soft tonalities.

This taste for beautiful colors depicting pretty women in rich sunlit interiors is what American Impressionists were most appreciated and reproached for at the same time. In an article from 1910, the reviewer for L’Art et les Artistes comments on the frivolity and lack of meaning in a Richard Miller painting, writing it is “one more occasion for this clever artist to arrange pretty things, to paint a pretty dress…” [5]

Indeed, if American artists adopted the high key palette of Monet and Pissarro, American Impressionism isn’t similar to French Impressionism. Without being political, French Impressionism shows the society in its modernity: the urban life, the train stations, the smoking chimneys of the factories. This depiction of the modern world is totally absent from the images of women having tea, reading or looking at their mirror reflection painted by Frederick Frieseke, Louis Ritman and Richard Miller in Giverny.

Louis Ritman, "Early Morning Sunshine," about 1913. Partial and Promised Gift of Jane and Andrew Paine. 1997.5.

A journalist for La Gazette des Beaux-Arts summarizes that idea when writing about Louis Ritman’s work: “colors are solid and souls untroubled.” [6] Commenting on the serenity of the figures, he also expresses the lack of depth in the American Impressionist subject matters. Only interested in the color arrangements and the formal aspect of their works, the artists of the Giverny Group never minded with the psychology of their figures or with social concerns. By doing so, they were promoting both a vision of society and a way of painting that reassured conservative critics and Salon jury, along with the bourgeois clientele.

[1] Art et Décoration, Tome 17, January 1905, Supplément, François Monod, « L’Exposition de la Société Internationale de Peinture et de Sculpture » p.1.

[2] (“fines modulations d’un jour assourdi”)

[3] (« discrète préciosité dans l’assortiment des tons”)

[4] (« le virtuose du blanc ») Art et Décoration, Tome 36, May 1914, « La Peinture au Grand Palais, La Triennale », Roger de Felice, p.75.

[5] (« La Statuette chinoise de M. Richard Miller est pour cet ingénieux artiste une occasion de plus d’arranger de jolies choses, de peindre une jolie robe…”) L’Art et les Artistes, Tome 11, 1910, François Monod, « Le Mois Artistique, le Salon de la Société des Artistes Français », pp. 179-184, p.181.

[6] (“les couleurs sont solides et les âmes inagitées”) La Gazette des Beaux-Arts, May 1920, no 705, Etienne Bricon, « Les Salons de 1920, Premier article, Le salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts», pp 319-350, p336.

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