American dreamscape

We are brought up to think that when we have earned leisure and rest ... we may go forth and cross oceans and mountains and see on Italian soil the primal substance, the Platonic ‘idea’ of our consoling dreams and richest fancies.” Writing this in 1877, Henry James conjured the spell that Italy cast on his compatriots.

With the end of the civil war, the American dream could begin. Yet industrialis­ation was eating into the wilderness. Those of an artistic sensibility felt battered by what James described as “our crude and garish climate, our silent past, our deafening present”. Rooted in a classical past yet racing towards an avant-garde future, Europe beckoned like a promised land.

For would-be painters of modern life, Paris was the Mecca. The timeless, melancholy magic of Venice was also seductive. Yet the high drama of these cities discomfited too. When the US exiles longed for refuge, it was to Florence they turned, a city “without commerce, without other industry than the manufacture of mosaic paper-weights ... with nothing but the little unaugmented stock of her medieval memories, her tender-coloured mountains, her churches, palaces, pictures and statues”, according to James.

A band of artists, mainly from New England, took up residence in villas overlooking the city. With its flower-filled gardens and sunlit olive glades, the landscape, so much more civilised than the great American wilderness, was an idyllic spot in which to practice the en plein air style they had learnt from the impressionists. Supplementing their colony was an Anglo-American literary elite including Bernard Berenson, Edith Wharton and James.

This exhibition shines a spotlight on those who either lived or passed through the Tuscan capital in the decades before the first world war. But the sprinkling of household names – John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Frederick Childe Hassam, Thomas Eakins and James McNeill Whistler – were never permanent residents: Florence, as James noted, was a city where “by eight o’clock at night, apparently, everyone had gone to bed”. It lacked the cosmopolitan oomph to make it a cradle of the avant-garde and the paintings by those who did settle there, such as Frank Duveneck and his wife, Elizabeth Boott, lack the bold conviction and groundbreaking technique of works by their more famous peers.

Nevertheless, the show is a compelling snapshot of the moment when thoroughbred Boston drawing-rooms briefly elided with sensual Tuscan gardens. A broad approach allows the inclusion of terrific paintings that are only tangentially connected: Eakins’ intensely expressive “The Violinist” (1904) and Hassam’s “The East Window” (1913).

James’s evocations of this time and place, particularly in his travelogue Italian Hours, are vivid: his lyrical powers made him Sargent’s literary alter ego. Both men were “hotel children”: the offspring of cultivated parents who roamed the world. This show opens with Sargent’s “The Hotel Room” (1904-06), the place shuttered against afternoon sun in a citrus-cool medley of liquid greens, yellows and whites, an abstract tumble of open suitcases spilling their contents in the centre.

Their nomadic background made them perpetual outsiders. Sargent was actually born in Florence in 1856. James was born in New York. Both would settle in London yet spend their lives flitting in and out of the grand salons of Europe. There is no better example of their mutual genius for observation than Sargent’s own portrait of James on show here, emphasising narrowed eyes and pursed lips to summon up James as a merciless, oracular presence.

Sargent is the star of this show. Other masterly paintings include his own self-portrait and a marvellous rendition of Vernon Lee, the English writer who lived in Florence for most of her life. Showing her round, bespectacled eyes alight with startled curiosity, Sargent captures both her endearing plainness and her intellectual brilliance.

‘Henry James’ (1913), by John Singer Sargent

Sargent also prevails in the sections that chart the search by artists to capture the Tuscan landscape’s genius loci. In “Oxen Resting” (1910), the creamy beasts dissolving in the Italian afternoon light balanced by the geometry of pine trees and tiled roofs, his gift for tempering risky impressionist chiaroscuro with classical structure is seen to fine effect.

Most of his peers lacked the skill to follow suit. Duveneck, who ran a painting school from his Villa Castellani, serves up the Ponte Santa Trinita in bold burnt browns in “Bridges: Florence” (1880) but the scumbled blues, pinks and greys of sky and river lack bounce and gleam. Aiming to capture the same scene in winter, Hassam mystifyingly decks the Arno river in shades it doesn’t wear even in springtime: lemon-yellow, cold blue and lime-green.

More striking is a trio – “The Olive Grove,” “An Italian Garden” and “The Orangerie” (all 1909-1910) – by William Merritt Chase. Built up out of rapid daubs of acid-bright colours, these tightly cropped, shadow-splashed collations of blossoming shrubs, fruit trees in terracotta pots and silvery-leaved trees pulsate with an en plein air intimacy that recalls early Renoir.

Not all visitors were seduced. “Florence gives me the impression of the outskirts of a village – I get terribly bored,” complained Ferrara-born Giovanni Boldini, who touched down in the city in the 1860s before taking off for London and Paris to become one of the finest portraitists of his generation.

He cannot have been alone in feeling suffocated. A clutch of masterpieces in the final section, dedicated to US impressionists after they returned to their own land, are witnesses to an acutely American sense of freedom. In New York in 1913, Hassam created “The East Window” – a sublime, Bonnard-like image of a woman in front of a window through which just-glimpsed tenements are throwing gauzy turquoise reflections on to the mahogany table. In “Summer” (1909), Frank Wright Benson employs fractured, dazzling whites and ice-cold blues to bring to life a scene of white-frocked women gazing out to sea.

The techniques came from Paris; the ideas – though of liberty, equality and fraternity – were of the new world. James’s “treasure city” has left no trace.

‘Americans in Florence: Sargent and The American Impressionists’, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, until July 15

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