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Americans in Florence: Sargent and the American Impressionists
February 18, 2012  | 

Americans in Florence.  Sargent and the American Impressionists on view at Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, from 3 March to 15 July 2012, sets out to illustrate the extremely fertile and multifaceted relationship that the painters of the New World established with Florence and other cities in Tuscany between the mid 19th century and the World War 1.  After the end of the American Civil War, there was a substantial increase in the number of American artists travelling to Europe, although, of course, the 18th century Grand Tour tradition had never really died.  The painters’ main destinations were Florence, Venice and Rome, cities which the artists idolised in their eagerness to explore their ancient monuments and to take their own measure against the art of the past. They were also attracted by the charm and variety of the landscape, so different from the countryside back home, by the light, by the evocative and atmospheric panoramic views, and by the picturesque charm of the local people.

The exhibition is divided into five sections with works by over thirty Americans artists who worked in Florence.  Some, like John Singer Sargent, are famous, while the work of other less well-known artists is being shown in Italy for the first time.  On returning home, they all became celebrated painters and authoritative masters who played a crucial role in forming the new generation of American painters and in forging the birth of a national school of painting.  Their paintings dialogue in the sections of the exhibition with those by Florentine and Tuscan painters including Telemaco Signorini, Vittorio Corcos and Michele Gordigiani, whose work came closest to the sophisticated manner, so rich in literary allusions, that was favoured and nurtured by the most exclusive circles in that cosmopolitan colony.

Section 1.  Room with a View
This section focuses on the places where the Americans’ daily life was played out in Florence.  Sargent’s The Hotel Room is typical of their first encounter with the city, involving an inevitable sojourn in a hotel in the centre to give them the time to explore and look for somewhere more appropriate to stay, far from the din, the poverty and the filth of the metropolis.  Henry James, an illustrious American writer of the same generation, describes Florence as lethargically overlooking its sluggish green river, as in Lorenzo Gelati’s painting View of Florence with Washing hanging out to dry, “basking” in its decadent beauty, brimming with that atmosphere of the past which James and other Americans were aware was so lacking in their own country. Similarly, the market place, as shown in Telemaco Signorini’s painting, was a discovery for the Americans, with its hubbub, colours, smells and dirt, not to mention the threat represented by beggars and pickpockets.  The aim of these painters and their intellectual friends was to take up residence just outside Florence, in a villa in the hills, such as the village of Batelli in View of Piagentina painted by Silvestro Lega, then in a country setting that has been totally swallowed up by the expanding city today.

Section 2.  Americans in Florence
The second section consists of a gallery of self-portraits and portraits of the exhibition’s leading players, the American artists who spent time in Florence, whose work forms the heart of the exhibitions’ subsequent themes.  These include Sargent, Frank Duveneck, William Merritt Chase, Cecilia Beaux, Edmund Charles Tarbell, Robert Vonnoh, Thomas Eakins and Frederick Childe Hassam, all of whom were ensnared in the engrossing experience of the Old World, and their search for a personal ‘room with a view’ capable of unveiling the aesthetic and literary mystery of a city to which some of them would later donate their self-portraits (now in the Uffizi).  Alongside these painters, the portraits of Vernon Lee and Henry James evoke the presence of the large Anglo-American colony of scholars, collectors, writers and art critics, who in a singular melding of personalities and proclivities, projected onto Florence and its surroundings the utopian ideal of a perennial Renaissance. 

Section 3. The Circle of Egisto Fabbri:  Scholars and Painters
This section not only reconstructs the environment in which the influential Italian-American collector Egisto Fabbri’s artistic education took place, beginning at the school of Julian Alden Weir in America and continuing in Paris in the shadow of Cézanne, Degas and Pissarro, it also reconstructs the American acquaintances of the young Fabbri who, when he finally returned to Florence, was to devote his energy to the cult of Cézanne and to a spirituality of Symbolist inspiration.  Alongside the work of William Morris Hunt and John La Farge, masters of the younger generation setting out for Europe, the section will also include paintings by Mabel Hooper La Farge (John’s daughter-in-law) and Mary Cassatt, both of whom were Fabbri’s friends; by James Abbot McNeill Whistler and by Sargent himself, who portrayed the leading players in the American society that Egisto frequented, its eccentric and cosmopolitan aspirations acted out against the splendid backdrop of the Florentine hills.

Section 4.  The Image of Florence and Tuscany
Here the visitor encounters views of the city and its surroundings painted in accordance with the literary standards introduced by the novels of Edward Morgan Foster and the literary transfigurations of Edith Wharton, Maurice Hewlett and Elisabeth Pennel, who were to ‘invent’ the Tuscan countryside we can still recognise today in certain unchanged vistas, and with which the American painters George Inness, Elihu Vedder, the Duvenecks, Hassam and Merritt Chase proved to be perfectly at ease, translating its variety into sun-drenched naturalistic snapshots or into views prompted by sudden moods or by dreams of a bygone era.  Selected watercolours that Sargent devoted to the serene elegance of villa life, alongside others inspired by the gardens of Florence and Lucca, by the Tuscan countryside and by the Carrara marble quarries, provide us with a significant anthology of the highest quality, illustrating this peculiarly American way of interpreting the Italian landscape.

Section 5.  America through the Lens of Painting and Literature 
The last section takes the visitor across the Atlantic, in the wake of the American artists who returned home brimming with enthusiasm and experience.  These paintings were almost all produced by artists who had painted Florence and Tuscany and whose careers benefited enormously from the experience in the Old World.  This was a very different decision from that made by Whistler, Cassatt and Sargent, who elected to stay in Europe, although they were inevitably somewhat nostalgic exiles.  Tarbell, Hassam, Weir, Benson, Chase, Cassatt and Beaux painted the American landscape and domestic interiors, and portrayed women or leading personalities in American politics and society.  Many, on returning from Europe, became the younger generations’ teachers and it was this new graft, nurtured also by the collections of European old masters and modern art being put together by America’s wealthiest families with advice from the artists themselves (Cassatt, Chase), that forged America’s first national school of painting.

Section 6.  America through the Lens of Painting and Literature
The last section takes the visitor across the Atlantic, following those American artists now brimming with enthusiasm and experience after their travels in Europe.  The paintings displayed were almost all produced by artists who had painted Florence and Tuscany and whose careers benefited from the experience in the Old World.  However, Whistler, Cassatt and Sargent, elected Europe as their new home although, as with certain characters in Henry James’s novels, they felt like lifelong exiles. Tarbell, Hassam, Weir, Benson, Chase, Cassatt and Beaux – whom contemporaries in America saw as something of a foil to Cassatt (an expatriate and thus a tad disloyal) – devoted their energies to painting the American landscape and domestic interiors, and portraying women or personalities in American politics and society.  Critics, and even the titles given to the paintings, crystalised certain painting genres as being typically American: Tarbell, who painted The breakfast room, was greatly admired for his various renditions of interiors with figures, as were Beaux, Chase and others. 

New subjects were invented, such as Costume Painting and Figure Painting, which were far more than mere portraits or views of interiors.  The interiors told a story of simple domestic intimacy, peopled with figures characterised in many different ways.  The favourite actors were wives and children, often portrayed with an intensity and spontaneity unknown in European painting.  The depiction of these sentiments found illustrious “narrators” in Mary Cassatt and Cecilia Beaux, who renounced both marriage and motherhood in order to pursue their careers.  Women caught up in the daily business of living are the main players in these scenes, such as Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s The gossip or in the worldly sophistication of Lilla Cabot Perry’s lady taking tea.  Bessie Potter’s small bronze female figures also reflect this taste for narrative.  The women are often dressed in white, as in Tarbell’s Portrait of a Woman in White or Benson’s daughters, painted first when they were children in The Sisters and then ten years later in Summer.  The standard set by Whistler with his refined and ethereal women in white is revisited with different motivations.  These young ladies, like John White Alexander’s Miss Helen Manice (later Mrs. Henry M. Alexander), are real people.  They are the painters’ fiancées, wives and daughters, not symbolic images detached from reality, while the white of their dresses takes on a new connotation, becoming a symbol of purity and youth, of the dynamism and optimism of the American middle class, and of America itself – a metaphor of the awareness that they belonged to a New World in which the modern ideal of the woman and her role, that permeates the work of Henry James and Edith Wharton, was taking shape.  Thus the exhibition displays the women whom the painters portrayed, alongside pictures by women painters who were seeking their own social and artistic independence.  Travelling to Europe was an effective way of gaining that independence, allowing them to build up experience thousands of miles from home in the company of women friends rather than of husbands or fathers, providing them with an opportunity to challenge the clichéd view of Italy, in particular, as an intriguing den of perdition fraught with every kind of danger.  Some of these women who lived in Florence left both disparaging and enthusiastic comments on life in the city.  Their number included Mabel Dodge, Gertrude Stein, Vernon Lee, Florence Blood, Princess Ghyka and Ernestine Fabbri.

Back in America, many painters continued to paint landscapes, particularly in summer, in small country or seaside localities or remote islands off the coast of New England.  Colonies were recreated along the lines of those that the painters had helped to establish in France and Italy.  They set up summer schools, and accompanied one another to paint the landscape or their cottage gardens, filling them with the figures of their near and dear ones, as in Joseph DeCamp’s The Hammock, Chase’s Morning at Breakwater, Shinnecock and An outdoor portrait of Miss Weir by Hassam.  As with the interiors, the painters borrow from photography, reflecting a style they learnt in Paris from such artists as Degas, or from the Japanese prints which numerous Americans, including painter John La Forge, had enthusiastically begun to collect.

Many of these artists became the younger generations’ teachers, and it was this new graft, nurtured also by the collections of European old masters and modern art that were being put together by America’s wealthiest families with advice from the artists themselves (Cassatt, Chase), that forged America’s first national school of painting.