American Impressionism, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh

“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.

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. Mary Cassatt’s bold experiments with flattened picture planes and cropped compositions – “Young Girl at a Window”, “Children Playing on a Beach” – hang alongside their inspirations, portraits by Degas and Manet. Sargent’s flamboyant sketchiness, broken brushwork and brightening palette – “Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight” from Minneapolis, “Landscape with Women in Foreground” from Philadelphia, the Metropolitan Museum’s “Reapers Resting in a Wheat Field” – are shown to evolve as he painted with Monet (“Prairie at Giverny”, “The Thaw at Vétheuil”). 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: “Commonwealth Avenue, Boston”, “Tompkins Park, Brooklyn”. Robinson and Dennis Miller Bunker attempted Impressionist versions of American rural landscapes. 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 and fashion. Thus Impressionism, the dominant European import, became the aesthetic that defined America’s emerging independent self-image.

To October 19,,

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