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“My God, I would rather go to Europe than go to Heaven,” American painter William Merritt Chase told the New York Times in 1872. Many of his compatriots agreed and they congregated, particularly at Giverny, where Monet, fearing both imitation and predatory intentions on his stepdaughters, refused to acknowledge most of them. Occasionally, he relented: John Singer Sargent became a friend (“Claude Monet painting by the Edge of a Wood” is a tribute), Theodore Butler eventually married Monet’s stepdaughter Suzanne, and another American, Theodore Robinson, recorded the event in the lovely, fresh “The Wedding March”, on show here.
Opening on Saturday, this exhibition is Edinburgh’s summer crowd-pleaser and its well-chosen works largely tell a classic 19th-century tale, of European experience shaping American innocence, with works by Degas, Manet and others hanging alongside Mary Cassatt’s bold experiments and flamboyant Sargents. Only with James McNeill Whistler is the story more complex: his London “Nocturnes” were key influences on Monet, while Whistler boasted that “as far as painting is concerned, there is only Degas and myself”.
Cassatt, Sargent and Whistler made careers in Europe; second-ranking American painters, by contrast, returned home to plant impressionism in native soil. Chase and Childe Hassam employed Degas’ and Caillebotte’s asymmetrical compositions and surprising aerial views in dramatic depictions of upper class urban leisure. Dappled figures in idyllic settings by Frank Benson (“Eleanor”, “Sunlight”) and Edmund Tarbell (“Three Sisters, a Study in Sunlight”) presented New World ideals of health, wealth, fashion. Thus impressionism, the dominant European import, became the aesthetic that defined America’s emerging independent self-image.
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