"Approach the study of art only on your knees." -Ingres

Boston, "geographically and spiritually ... is a little apart." So noted the January 1916 issue of New York-based Harper's Monthly Magazine.[1] And for its part, throughout most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Boston rather openly disapproved of New York.

As far as art was concerned, Boston was never very interested in the dominant landscapes of the Hudson River School or the progressive genre paintings of artists such as William Sidney Mount. So, early in the nineteenth century, Boston surrendered the title of the nation's leading art center to New York where, arguably, it has remained ever since, with the significant exception of several decades at the crossroads of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was during this time that Boston opened the floodgates of Impressionism and spurred a powerful vogue of Parisian study as well as widespread emulation and collecting of French art.

Turn-of-the-century Boston was home not only to the nation's most avid collectors of Barbizon and Impressionist art but also to a younger generation of high-minded and influential American artists who eagerly embraced, adapted, and popularized the art's stylistic innovations in the United States.

Without attempting an exhaustive study, this exhibition groups landscape and still life paintings by historical "Boston School" masters (who often worked outside their signature portrait-interiors) with works by the next generation (1913-1930) of artists who studied under them. Finally, the exhibition suggests a third link in the chain:

contemporary painters who profess to carry on the original group's vision and technique.

The original Boston School artists were genteel rebel-idealists who turned their backs on the prevailing trends in American art and made of their paintings a quest for timeless principles and classical beauty that they found neither in the romantic-pastoral landscapes of the Hudson River School nor the commonplace subject matter of the Victorian vignette and genre painters.

They embraced the new, and, paradoxically, found themselves at the feet of the great masters of Neoclassical Realism, for their work synthesized classical European ideals with adaptations of French avant-garde stylistic trends. These same men later occupied influential positions as teachers and thought-leaders in the cultural and artistic milieu of their time.

The net result is a unique moment in the history of American art -- a legacy handed down from master to pupil that is without parallel in the American art world. Boston's brief prominence at the leading-edge of late nineteenth-century American art lasted just long enough for the school's artists to forge enduring links not only to Barbizon and the Impressionists but to the Old Dutch Masters (especially Vermeer), as well as, by association, to the masters of French eighteenth-century classical realism.

Contemporary painters working in the Boston School tradition today can point to a chain linking master to pupil stretching back from twentieth-century Boston artist and teacher R.H. Ives Gammell (1893-1981) to prominent nineteenth-century Boston painters such as William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941) and Dennis Miller Bunker (1861-1890) and, through them, to the French artists who taught at the Academie Julian and Ecole des Beaux-Arts such as Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904) and his teacher, Paul Delaroche (1797-1856), and so on through Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) to French Neo-Classical master Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). No other distinct group of contemporary American painters can trace their lineage to so formidable a roster of European masters.

The Boston School aesthetic blended sophistication, exacting skill, and draftsmanship with mastery of light and dedication to representing the "truth" of the visible world; it was driven by an earnest faith in the ideal of beauty and in the act of painting as an essentially good and worthy contribution to humanity.[2] At the same time, the Boston artists' embrace of loose, spontaneous methods appalled traditional academics, ignited a whirl of exhibitions and acquisitions, and best of all, disgusted New York, at least at first.

The Drop-Out Connoisseur

Boston's early love affair with modern French art began roughly mid-century with the rapt enthusiasm of a wayward Yankee. While studying painting in Paris in 1853, a Vermont congressman's-son-turned-Bohemian (he'd been expelled from Harvard University for practical joking) bought Jean-Francois Millet's masterpiece, The Sower, for today's equivalent of sixty dollars.[3] A kind of warning shot had been fired. William Morris Hunt (1824-1879) eventually displayed his painting (now one of the treasures of the Museum of Fine Arts) at the Allston Club, a short-lived artists' association that he'd founded in 1866 primarily to raise money to buy the country's first work by French realist

and sometime Barbizon School painter Gustave Courbet, whose disdain of ornamentation as well as his spontaneous, often rough handling of paint were as opposed to the calculation and finesse of the Hudson River trend in New York as to the refinements of the French Academy.

Hunt became a major tastemaker in Boston, having married into one of the more influential families in a city famous for them. Hunt was a successful and well-liked teacher and painter in the 1860s and '70s. He encouraged prominent figures in Boston's social scene such as Martin Brimmer, later president of the Museum of Fine Arts, to defy conventional wisdom and invest heavily in French art, which is a major reason that the museum's holdings by French masters like Millet, Monet, and Renoir are as strong as they are.[4]

In 1871, Boston Brahmin Quincy Adams Shaw visited and commissioned a painting from Millet; less than a decade later, his collection of paintings by Millet exceeded fifty works.[5] By 1892, Boston collectors held more than 40 paintings by Monet, so it is no surprise that, in 1911, the Museum of Fine Arts mounted Monet's first American museum exhibition.[6]

Hunt was on the original advisory board of the Museum of Fine Arts, founded in 1870 in part "to afford instruction in the fine arts" through both example and education. [7] In 1877, the first students attended classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in the same building. In a notice at the time, the influential Atlantic Monthly applauded the application of "rigorous European training" to achieve a "systematic cooperation of sentiment and skill" to yield an art infused with "thoroughness and sincerity."[8] The formula is quite close to that applied by the painters who would later be called the Boston School. The most conspicuous member of the group, then and now, was Edmund C. Tarbell (1862-1938) -- so much so that American critic Sadakichi Hartman, in an 1897 Art News article under that title (Art News I, March 1897, pp 3-4), dubbed them the "Tarbellites."

The Tarbellites Ascendant

The original Boston School artists represented in this exhibition, Paxton, Benson and Tarbell, all of whom were on the faculty of the Museum School, trained in Paris at the Academie Julian under Gerome, Lefebvre, and Boulanger.

As a young man, Tarbell enrolled in the Museum School in 1879, two years after it opened. He traveled to Paris with Dennis Bunker and then to Rome between 1883 and 1885. Four years later, he was appointed to teach the painting class he'd formerly attended at the School, a post he held until resigning 1912 in protest of changing administrative policies.

The Tarbellites specialized in bright, Impressionistic open-air landscapes, often decorated with "wholesome girls in white dresses."[9] A second tendency retreated indoors with what seemed at the time a very modern focus on non-narrative, sparsely populated (and very Bostonian) bourgeois interiors. These paintings, as Homer Saint-Gaudens (1880-

1958) noted, recall "the Dutch indoor scenes of women about their household duties"[10],

and the best evoke the spellbound vignettes of Vermeer.

These restrained plein-air figural groups and domestic interiors occupied by idealized feminine models constitute the Boston School's most representative works. However, the Boston artists painted numerous distinctive Impressionistic and Barbizon-influenced landscapes and figural works as well. Carefully nuanced still life compositions were also a frequent subject, often combining flower arrangements with ceramics and other visually appealing (and often emblematically "cultured") objects.[11]

The founders of the Boston School explicitly rejected modernism. The famous Armory Show of 1913, which introduced European modernism to America with the force of an explosion in New York and Chicago, in Boston elicited little more than a shrug.[12] Tarbell was by then a recognized leader of the Boston School and a prominent member of the "Ten American Painters" who had seceded from the official painting establishments to stage their own annual exhibitions in Boston and New York. In 1914, Tarbell was named the first president of the newly formed Guild of Boston Artists. Established in the months following the Armory Show, the Guild, which is still active today, provided the members of the Boston School with an independent stronghold for their beliefs in professional standards of workmanship and a sanctuary for their faith in the power of art and the importance of beauty. [13]

The Sentiment of the Intangible
For the Boston School, as for the French Impressionists whose ideas and techniques the Boston School painters translated into an American idiom, close observation and the study of light were of paramount concern. A typically New England moral sense of the goodness, wholesomeness, and at times even the “holiness” of light pervades much of the discourse surrounding the School. [14] What Homer Saint-Gaudens wrote of Tarbell in 1906 is still true in varying degrees of the twenty-first century’s artistic inheritors of the legacy of Tarbell and the other painters connected with the Boston School.

The artist, wrote Saint-Gaudens, “creates in his paintings a nucleus of objects and thoughts so fused that through the aspect of the visible the spectator comes to feel the sentiment of the intangible.” By means of “warm, modified lights,” “semi-opaque shadows,” and “reflected color,” the painter attempts to fuse the seen with the felt and to elevate the everyday to the poetic. [15]

Gammell lamented later in life the “singular chain of circumstances” in Boston art circles from about 1930 on that he felt “brought the centuries-old, gloriously fecund teaching tradition of western painting to a whimpering close at Boston” in the mid-twentieth century. [16] The artists of today’s Boston Guild of Artists, working in the same tradition, argue against such pessimism. For these artists, painting is still an exacting discipline, demanding the highest standards of observation, craftsmanship, drawing and composition, and beauty is still an abiding quality of the visual vocabulary.

 

Notes

1 Harper's Magazine, Vol. 132, Jan. 1916, p. 176.
2 R. H. Ives Gammell, The Boston Painters 1900-1930 (Marstons Mills, MA: Parnassus Imprints, 1986), p. 166.
3 Helen Knowlton, "William Morris Hunt," The New England Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 6, Aug. 1894, p. 685.
4 Carol Troyen, The Boston Tradition: American Paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston - An Exhibition, (New York: American Federation of Arts, 1980).
5 Gilian Shallcross, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, text for the online introduction to the exhibit Impressions of Light: The French Landscape from Corot to Monet, Boston, Sunday, December 15, 2002 - Sunday, April 13, 2003.
6 Gilian Shallcross, Impressions of Light ibid.
7 Trevor J. Fairbrother, The Bostonians: Painters of an Elegant Age, 1870-1930 (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1986), p. 31.
8 Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 38, 1876, p. 759.
9 Erica E. Hirshler, curatorial notes for the 2006 Museum of Fine Arts exhibition, Americans in Paris, 1860-1900. See also Susan Strickler, Linda J. Docherty, contrib., Erica E. Hirshler, contrib., Impressionism Transformed: The paintings of Edmund C. Tarbell, (Hanover, NH: Univesrsity Press of New England, 2001) and Patricia Job Pierce, Edmund C. Tarbell and the Boston School of Painting, (Hingham, MA: Pierce Galleries, 1980).
10 Homer Saint-Gaudens, "Edmund C. Tarbell," The Critic, Vol. 48, Jan-June 1906, p. 137.
11 Bernice Kramer Leader, The Boston lady as a work of art, (Dissertation: Thesis (Ph. D.) Columbia University, 1980).
12 Garnett McCoy, "The Post-Impressionist Bomb," Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1980, pp. 12-\ 13 Erica E. Hirshler, A Woman's Perspective: Founding and Early Women Members of the Guild of Boston Artists, 1914-1945, (Boston, MA: Guild of Boston Artists, 2001), p. 4.
14 Erica E. Hirschler, “’Good and Beautiful Work’: Edmund C. Tarbell and the Arts and Crafts Movement,” in Impressionism Transformed, The Paintings of Edmund C. Tarbell, University Press of New England, 2001, p. 75: Light – natural daylinght – was the most sacred object in Tarbell’s artistic religion.”
15 Homer Saint-Gaudens, "Edmund C. Tarbell," ibid.
16 R. H. Ives Gammell, The Boston Painters 1900-1930 (Marstons Mills, MA: Parnassus Imprints, 1986), p. 170.

About the Author

Christopher Volpe is an artist and art writer based in New Hampshire. He has taught art history and American literature at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, Chester College of New England, and Franklin Pierce University. In February 2007, he guest curated Chester College's "A Legacy of Beauty: Paintings in the Boston School Tradition," comprised of selected works from The Banks Gallery's "Boston School Legacy." In addition to professionally practicing and teaching oil painting, he occasionally delivers public lectures on various aspects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American painting.