Ella Sharp Museum
Sunlight & Shadow: American Impressionism, 1885-1945
Continuing through June 18, 2000, The Ella Sharp Museum is presenting an extraordinary exhibition of late 19th and early 20th century New England Impressionist art, "Sunlight & Shadow: American Impressionism 1885-1945." The exhibit, which was organized by the Fuller Museum of Art and is toured by Smith Kramer, Inc., features seventy-eight works rendered in oil, watercolor and pastel by a group of New England painters working in the Impressionist style.
While organized as a celebration of the New England landscape, the primary goal of Sunlight & Shadow is to cast new light on a host of eminent Impressionists who worked in New England during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but whose names are all but forgotten. Its focus is on quality Impressionist painting which continues to capture the viewer more than one hundred years after the style's introduction in America. In addition, the exhibition highlights a number of female Impressionists whose work was generally overlooked during their lifetime. (left: Philip Little (1857-1942), Kingston, Jamaica from the Hills, 1907, oil on canvas, 29 x 36 inches)
Most of the works in Sunlight & Shadow are landscapes produced en plein air, or out-of-doors. Impressionists were influenced by the realistic and poetic treatment of light first by the seventeenth-century masters, and a century later by the modern landscape painters in Great Britain. It was a combination of the desire to work spontaneously from nature, to "submit to the first impression" as advised by Barbizon school painter Camille Corot, and the development of both the railroad and portable tin tubes for oil paints that made it easier for the nineteenth-century Impressionists to work en plein air. (right: Adele Williams, Road to the Water, Hamilton Bermuds, n.d., oil on board, 18 x 15 3/4 inches)
The proliferation of railroad connections enabled painters to reach their favorite sites quickly. But the most important development was the invention of the portable tin tube in the 1840s which allowed oil paints with a new range of chemical pigments to be packaged "to go." Renoir's son, Jean, wrote "easily transportable paints in tubes... led us to paint directly from nature. Without tube paint there would have been no Cezanne, no Monet, no Sisley, no Pissarro, none of what the critic had to call Impressionism."
Armed with tubes of oil paint, lightweight materials, pads of paper or canvasses, a large sunshade, and food, nineteenth-century Impressionists set off to the country to capture nature spontaneously. These artists eliminated the costs of maintaining large studios and hiring models, but instead had to contend with unpredictable weather, the time it took to reach their location, and pests such as insects and onlookers. Some invented a way to bring the studio outdoors -- rigging everything from a horse-drawn "artist waggon" conceived by Long Island painter William Sidney Mount, to studio boats which were able to transport all needed supplies, but limited the artist to riverscape painting.
Another problem with painting en plein air was the changing conditions of the natural light. Some Impressionists were able to cut the costs of moving from one location to another, as well as combatting the difficulties of working with natural light, by working in one location over and over They would often work on many canvases at the same time, replacing one after the other on their easel as the light changed. Instead of beginning a given work and carrying it through to completion, they could begin several works together and those works would evolve on subsequent days so that little time was wasted waiting for certain light conditions to return. The artists could record the same instantaneous light effects day after day and thereby capture special quick-changing patterns of light. Others solved the problem associated with painting en plein air by planting gardens and trees around their homes so that they could paint landscapes without leaving home. Monet's garden at Giverny was created to allow him to paint endless landscapes without the need to travel.
The nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Impressionists of New England traveled to the shore, mountains, gardens and graveyards to paint nature spontaneously. Sunlight & Shadow, on exhibit until June 18, is an excellent example of those naturally inspired works.
Sunlight & Shadow is sponsored by TLC Eyecare of Michigan and made possible with the support of the Michigan Council for Arts and cultural Affairs, with additional funding from Jackson Convention and Tourist Bureau.
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For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
The Ella Sharp Museum is located at 3225 Fourth Street, Jackson, MI 49203. Please see the Museum's website for information on current admission fees and hours.
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