American Impressionism

Showing at the National Gallery of Modern Art is an exhibition on American Impressionism. The collection gives an insight into the great influence that the corresponding French movement had on those across the Atlantic and is arranged around some of the more prominent artists of the movement such as Mary Cassat, John Singer Sargeant and James McNeil Whistler. In the late nineteenth century, artists from America were studying and practising in France, whether in the capital, in the company of Degas, or Giverny, where Monet settled. They would have been swathed in the Impressionistic style and mindset, painting en plein air and obsessively focusing on the fall of light. The pastel colours and painted dabs of Impressionism are immediately recognisable on walking into the first room. What also comes across is a sense of twee sentimentality, demonstrated by the paintings of mothers and children by Mary Cassatt. It is noted that Cassat did not paint true mothers and their children, but instead nannies or maids, in a futile attempt to avoid sentimentality. Thus the first room becomes a slight disappointment when the only memorable work is ‘The Cheval-Glass’, depicting a girl wistfully gazing into the mirror, painted by French artist Berthe Morisot. This becomes a recurring theme, when the artwork to draw the most attention is in fact a French counterpart to the American movement.

There is an advantage to the inclusion of French Impressionist paintings, as one of Monet’s ‘Haystack’ series provides excellent context next to John Leslie Breck ‘Studies of an Autumn Day’ in the same vain. However, it does in some way steal some of the limelight and it is not the aim of the visit – although a happy surprise.

The collection’s numerous Singer Sargent paintings enhance the exhibition profusely, so too does the ‘Nocturne’ of Whistler – if only there were more! The overwhelming feeling is one lacking in spirit and dynamism. The exhibition is something of a pleasant vision, punctuated by bursts of exactly what you’re looking for.

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