Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on May 9, 2007 in Resource Library with permission of the author. The essay was excerpted from the illustrated catalogue titled A Legacy of Beauty: Paintings in the Boston School Tradition. Images accompanying the text in the exhibition catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the catalogue, please contact the author at cvolpe@chestercollege.edu


A Legacy of Beauty: Paintings in the Boston School Tradition

by Christopher Volpe



"Approach the study of art only on your knees."



Boston, "geographically and spiritually ... is a little apart." So noted the January 1916 issue of New York-based Harper's Monthly Magazine.[1] And for its part, throughout most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Boston rather openly disapproved of New York.

As far as art was concerned, Boston was never very interested in the dominant landscapes of the Hudson River School or the progressive genre paintings of artists such as William Sidney Mount. So, early in the nineteenth century, Boston surrendered the title of the nation's leading art center to New York where, arguably, it has remained ever since, with the significant exception of several decades at the crossroads of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was during this time that Boston opened the floodgates of Impressionism and spurred a powerful vogue of Parisian study as well as widespread emulation and collecting of French art.

Turn-of-the-century Boston was home not only to the nation's most avid collectors of Barbizon and Impressionist art but also to a younger generation of high-minded and influential American artists who eagerly embraced, adapted, and popularized the art's stylistic innovations in the United States.

Without attempting an exhaustive study, this exhibition groups landscape and still life paintings by historical "Boston School" masters (who often worked outside their signature portrait-interiors) with works by the next generation (1913-1930) of artists who studied under them. Finally, the exhibition suggests a third link in the chain: contemporary painters who profess to carry on the original group's vision and technique.

The original Boston School artists were genteel rebel-idealists who turned their backs on the prevailing trends in American painting and made of their art a quest for timeless principles and classical beauty that they found neither in the romantic-pastoral landscapes of the Hudson River School nor the commonplace subject matter of the genre painters.

They embraced the new, and, paradoxically, found themselves at the feet of the great masters of Neoclassical Realism, for their work synthesized classical European ideals with adaptations of French avant-garde stylistic trends. These same men later occupied influential positions as teachers and thought-leaders in the cultural and artistic milieu of the time.

The net result is a unique moment in the history of American art -- a legacy handed down from master to pupil that is without parallel in the American art world today. Boston's brief prominence at the leading-edge of late nineteenth-century American art lasted just long enough for the school's artists to forge enduring links not only to Barbizon and the Impressionists but, by association, to the masters of French eighteenth-century classical realism. Contemporary painters working in the Boston School tradition today can point to a chain linking master to pupil stretching back from twentieth-century Boston artist and teacher R.H. Ives Gammell (1893-1981) to prominent nineteenth-century Boston painters such as William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941) and Dennis Miller Bunker (1861-1890) and, through them, to the French artists who taught at the Academie Julian and Ecole des Beaux-Arts such as Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904) and his teacher, Paul Delaroche (1797-1856), and so on through Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) to French Neo-Classical master Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). No other distinct group of contemporary American painters can trace their lineage to so formidable a roster of European masters.

The Boston School aesthetic blended sophistication, exacting skill, and draftsmanship with mastery of light and dedication to representing the "truth" of the visible world; it was driven by an earnest faith in the ideal of beauty and in the act of painting as an essentially good and worthy contribution to humanity.[2] At the same time, the Boston artists' embrace of loose, spontaneous methods appalled traditional academics, ignited a whirl of exhibitions and acquisitions, and best of all, disgusted New York, at least at first.

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