Squares in Paris

By GREG COOK  |  June 21, 2006

THREE SISTERS: A STUDY IN JUNE SUNLIGHT: Edmund Tarbell’s 1890 canvas is incredibly uptight for all its Impressionist trappings.
But most American artists didn’t get Impressionism. Edmund Tarbell returned from studying in Paris to paint three women sitting in his sunny Dorchester garden, but the 1890 canvas is incredibly uptight for all its Impressionist trappings. The same goes for his Salem pal Frank W. Benson’s 1907 painting of his daughter Eleanor at his summer retreat in Maine. Dorchester native Childe Hassam summered in Maine seeking landscapes similar to Monet’s French coast. A 1917 canvas is his Impressionist take on a New York street festooned with flags to celebrate America’s entry into World War I. It could have been ordered up by the chamber of commerce — and it’s an outright knockoff of an 1870s Monet.

French Impressionists broke scenes down to their elements of color and light. They explored mood and optics as well as middle-class life. Americans just grafted the Impressionists’ pretty surfaces onto the sculptural solidity of the Academy. What’s lost is apparent if you venture through the gift shop at the end of the exhibit and into the MFA’s French Impressionist gallery, where the inventiveness on view makes the Americans seem primly Victorian.

It’s easy to say that the American Impressionists were reflecting a conservative American market, but Cassatt was busy developing an American clientele for French Impressionism. The æsthetic choices of Benson, Hassam, and Tarbell, on the other hand, reflect their empty-calories taste. And worse, Benson and Tarbell taught at Boston’s Museum School from 1889 to 1912, infecting a generation of students.

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