As the world celebrated the renowned Impressionist painters of Europe, such as Monet, Renoir and Degas, during the late 19th century, a group of artists who settled in Southeastern Pennsylvania adapted the style to capture the flavor of the region in which they studied and worked.
Pennsylvania Impressionists, like their European compatriots, were fascinated by the play of light, visible brush strokes and expressive color. Rejecting traditional painting styles that came before them, such as the Hudson River School, which recreated landscapes in realistic detail; Pennsylvania Impressionists built upon the movement from an American perspective. Finding inspiration in the rugged landscape of Bucks County and the Delaware River Valley, this group of artists carved a niche in Impressionism that is decidedly born of our Commonwealth.
The Susquehanna Art Museum has welcomed a most impressive collection of Pennsylvania Impressionists from the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill. “New Light: The Pennsylvania Impressionists” takes the viewer on a tour of early 20th century Southeastern Pennsylvania as captured by dozens of painters who studied, lived and worked in the Philadelphia area.
The hallmark of Impressionism is the intent of the artist to capture a specific moment in time. Often the painters worked “en plein air,” a French term meaning “open (in full) air” working outdoors in the landscape. Plein air artists are able to directly observe the effects of light on a scene and quickly capture it in their work.
While Pennsylvania Impressionists worked in a similar process, by no means are the results uniform, as evidenced by the works in the exhibition.
Raymond Theel’s “Autumn” is a large format oil painting of a snow covered hill, dotted with trees shedding their fiery fall leaves. Working in thick brush strokes, his bold approach of incorporating color in the subdued landscape creates depth, drawing the eye from the background to the foreground.
Bernard Badura’s “Raven Rock Quarry” has a decidedly different look. The house perched on a rugged cliff has vibrant colors awash with bright sunlight. The scene is reminiscent of a Cezanne with constructed geometric forms.
Yet another landscape interpretation can be seen from Edward Willis Redfield. His “Later Afternoon” depicts a group of homes and trees who lie at the foot of a far off mountain and are bordered by sparkling waters. His subtle use of many colors—blue, green, yellow, orange and purple—become more evident as the viewer moves closer and spends time with the piece.
All three paintings, while of the Pennsylvania Impressionism movement, are unique and exemplify the ability of the artist to render the scene they see before them.
The Impressionists may be best known for their depictions of the natural world, but the artists also created in their studio spaces. Working with the still life subjects allowed the artists to fine tune their observational skills. Paulette Van Roekens’ “Arrangement with Citron” is a fine example of a controlled composition capturing light and shadow in the same ways as the classic Impressionist landscapes.
A significant number of the Pennsylvania Impressionists were women. With the emergence of art schools that admitted women, the changing roles of women in society, as well as the very nature of the Impressionist style of working, allowed for women to have a prominent place within the movement.
Constance Cochrane’s “Drama of the Fall” employs some of the richest and deepest tones for the rural countryside as the light spills from the clouds in the sky above in a most dramatic fashion. She is able to beautifully balance the extremes of light into dark as it shines across the countryside.
The city of Philadelphia and its surrounding communities played an integral role for the Pennsylvania Impressionists. The depictions of the city as an industrial center of manufacturing and construction became a common theme among many of the artists. The landscapes now become populated with smokestacks, shipping yards and railroad bridges.
While still painting en plein air, artists such as Giovanni Martino, whose “Winter in Manayunk” is displayed, toted his canvas to overlook the evolving urban metropolis. Much like the artists who focused upon the changing seasons in the rural communities, Martino sought to bring a similar focus to the city.
Harry Leith Ross’ “The Fair” is a fine summation of the exhibition in its fleeting view of a nighttime county fair. The lights, amusement rides and the parking lot filled with cars illustrate the American vernacular that the Impressionists sought to convey. By capturing such iconic imagery so closely tied to an American time period, they have truly frozen a moment in time.
The Pennsylvania Impressionists did not seek to replicate nor redefine Impressionism, but honor its techniques as they were inspired by their picturesque surroundings as well as the changing landscapes. From the rural countryside to the emerging industrial centers, the Pennsylvania Impressionists served not only to honor the land and its beauty but also document the evolution occurring around them.
“New Light: The Pennsylvania Impressionists” will enlighten one not only on Impressionism but also the natural resources and history of our own Commonwealth.
“New Light: The Pennsylvania Impressionists – Highlights from the Woodmere Art Museum Collection” is on display until May 22 at the Susquehanna Art Museum. The museum is located at 1401 N. Third St., Harrisburg. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. General admission is $8; $5 for teachers, seniors and veterans; and free for children younger than 12. Free parking is available at the rear of the building. For more information on the museum and exhibitions, visit the museum’s website at www.sqart.org.