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The Greenwich Paintings of John Henry Twachtman

by Lisa N. Peters | American Art Review | Vol. XXXIV No. 3 2021

The Cincinnati-born artist John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902) reached artistic maturiry while living from 1890 to 1899 in Greenwich, Connecticut. There he created the paintings of his home and property for which he earned a reputation as the most original of the leading American Impressionists. Life and Art: The Greenwich Paintings of john Henry Twachtman rakes a new holistic approach to Twachtman’s Greenwich oeuvre, considering it as encompassing both his work and the aesthetic modifications he made on his property, with land and architecture as his media. The exhibition and its catalogue explore the interactive dynamic between art and place that occurred over time, as Twachtman’s involvement in his surroundings evolved. Demonstrating the coming together of life and art for Twachtman in Greenwich, the show suggests a paradigm for similar considerations of an artist’s relationship to home and work.

An aim of the exhibition was to determine the chronology of the changes Twachtman made to his home and its grounds during his Greenwich years and to use its findings as an aid in dating his work, which he did not date after 1883. This objective was addressed through historical sources and a close examination of the house itself (privately owned today), conducted by a team including John Nelson, its current owner; James Sexton, an architectural historian; Susan G. Larkin, an art historian who is the exhibition’s consultant; Davidde Strackbein, atrustee and former chairman of the Greenwich Historical Society, who is a specialist in Greenwich history; and Maggie Dimock, curator of exhibitions and collections, Greenwich Historical Society. (1)

Twachtman was happiest in his life and art during his Greenwich years. From the beginning of his career, he recorded plein air observations at home in America and on four trips to Europe between 1875 and 1885. The years 1885 to 1889 were a restless period, when he worked on cycloramas in Chicago and spent time in New York. In 1889 he came upon a piece of land, two miles north of central Greenwich in an area known as Hangroot. (2) There, on seeing Horseneck Brook winding through the hilly and rocky terrain, he knew immediately that it was the ideal place for his family and his art.

After his initial purchase of three acres, of land in 1890, he realized the small farm house on the property was insufficient for his growing family, and he wrote to the architect Stanford White detailing the changes he intended to make to his home, including a sketch of his proposed western addition. His goal was to create a harmonious relationship between his home and the existing landscape.

His next set of changes can be observed in the painting of his home by his close friend Theodore Robinson, dated January 17, 1892. It reveals that by then Twachtman had lowered the caves, erected an enclosed porch with chest-Height stone walls, designed a new central doorway with a small gable above it, and constructed a new chimney at the house’s northeast edge. Robinson’s image, in fact, documents a time when there were three chimneys on the house. Robinson positioned the monumentally, seemingly barricaded against the elements, with its chimneys resembling lookout towers.

In Snowbound Twachtman also painted his home in its new form after its middle chimney had been removed. He stood before the barn that faced the house, capturing the latter as a cozy cottage-like dwelling, its dark red chimneys bracketing the building protectively. The painting was related even in Twachtman’s era, to John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1866 poem, Snowbound, in which a heavy winter’s snow provides an occasion for a family to gather and tell stories.

Twachtman painted From the Upper Terrace in a bird’s eye view from the hill above his barn, which can be seen in its lower left corner. The work suggests his presence, standing back to admire his self created world. Crowned by trees, his redesigned house is the point from which all aspects of the scene emanate, including the serpentine lines of paths and Round Hill Road at the left. The cultivated garden behind the house spreads outward, blending into nature and conveying the unity between the home and its surroundings. Twachtman used the broken daubs typical of Impressionism to showcase his property, including the birdhouse at the work’s center, where the family could watch purple martins gathering, and the well house shielded by bushes at the side of the road.

From the Upper Terrace was included in the 1893 exhibition at the American Art Galleries in New York of works by four prominent artists-Twachtman, his close friend Julian Alden Weir, and two French painters, Claude Monet and Paul-Albert Besnard. A critic compared it with a painting by Monet of his home in Vetheuil, France, remarking that Twachtman had taken a hint from Monet in his “preference for commonplace subjects made beautiful by light” but had depicted a home more “picturesquely situated” than Monet’s.3

Twachtman created more views of the north side of his home-where the family spent time in the outdoors and where the garden flourished in the summer-than its south side. However, one of his most vibrant works is September Sunshine, representing the south facade after he had also lowered its eaves and constructed three dormers. From a northwest angle, he showed a partial view of his home in full sunlight. The glaring effect on walls painted a soft white makes the structure shimmer. By framing it between trees that arched over it, he showed that the dwelling was meant to be appreciated aesthetically as a work of art.

Early views of Twachtman’s home are self-reflective, suggesting that he was standing back to observe what he had created. Gradually he took more control of his environment, turning his home ground into a work of art in its own right. He became less beholden to nature, imposing aesthetic command over his surroundings. His paintings parallel this progression. In The Cabbage Patch he united the forms of the north facade and garden into a totality. Potted plants rest on the ledges of a small staircase, forming an altar-like arrangement in relationship to the house that can be seen from a closer vantage point in In the Garden.

The linkage that occurs throughout Twachtman’s work is evident in the relationship

between these two works. In the latter, the composition’s geometry conveys Twachtman sense of having gained mastery over the terrain. As Charles Caffin aptly noted in his 1907 Story of American Painting, in Greenwich Twachtman “absorbed the facts of his surroundings so completely that their very spirit entered into him, and it was the spirit that he strove to render.”(4)

Greenwich Garden is signed by the artist’s son, Alden, who began studying at the Yale University School of Fine Arts in 1897. Stylistically the work is characteristic of Twachtman, suggesting that he wanted his son to feel part of the creative process even if his participation was minimal. Within a square composition, Twachtman integrated a section of the north facade with the garden’s flowers that radiate across the picture plane, achieving a flatness suggestive of his love for Japanese prints, while joining life and a.rt.

Barnyard is another work in which his son took part. Treating the age-old mother and child theme, Twachtman portrayed his wife standing in front of a chicken coop on the property and allowing their young daughter Violet the responsibility of caring for its chickens. Doves flutter and alight, as if to bless the scene’s maternal affection. In Pink Flowers and In the Greenhouse, Twachtman’s close vantage point and the vivacity of the flowers, along with their obvious tending, reveal his presence as the creator of the garden.

Twachtman also shaped his property at large. In a second purchase in 1891, he expanded his land to seventeen acres, crossing over Horscneck Brook. The brook and its Hemlock Pool-a calm, rock-edged body of water to the west of his home-were among his favorite subjects. Owning property on both sides of the brook must have enhanced his feeling of belonging to the land, which he expressed in Hemlock Pool. His intimate viewpoint in the vertical work draws the viewer into a close rapport with its quietude and die energetic rhythm of die Art-Nouveau-like curvilinear rim of snow that has yet co melt along its edges. The painting is among many by Twachtman that demand sustained attention, gradually revealing their subtleties and thus eliciting a meditative experience on the part of the viewer. Familiarity over time with his land enabled Twachtman to observe and record its nuances during each of die seasons with the versatility afforded by Impressionism.

In the late 1890s, Twachtman constructed a few versions of a white bridge over Horseneck Brook, using as his model die bridges in Japanese prints and Chinese ink washes. A view of the bridge shows it with a low span, while its delicate latticework and canopy indicate that Twachtman designed it as much for practical purposes as to enhance the land aesthetically. One of Twachtman’s bridges was also painted by his friend Robert Reid. In a tonal image, the bridge glows softly adding a note of refinement to the landscape. At the time Twachtman constructed and painted his white bridges, he could not have been aware of the Japanese bridge Monet built in his water garden in Giverny. The two artists independently perceived that bridges could beautify nantral settings by providing ways of physically entering into them and enjoying them visually.

Toward the end of his Greenwich years, Twachtman created a small group of closely cropped images of Horseneck Falls. In these, including Waterfall, Blue Brook, he limited the depth of his scenes and set his horizon lines high, bringing the enlarged forms of water and rocks close to the picture plane. The works exemplify his interest in seriality, which implies that a subject consists not of a solitary entity but of the multiple ways it is experienced. His late waterfalls are a summary of what his Greenwich life represented for him: vitality and stability, change and timelessness. Waterfall, Blue Brook was the only one of Twachtman’s oil paintings to enter a public collection in his lifetime, when it was purchased in 1900 by the Cincinnati Art Museum.

A “painter’s painter,” Twachtman was revered by fellow artists but unsuccessful at marketing and selling his work. To his friends-who mourned his sudden death in 1902-he was too modern to be appreciated in his own time, and they predicted his due recognition would only occur in the future. Indeed, Twachtman’s work increasingly received attention in the twentieth century, when it entered many museum collections, and its abstract aspects were an inspiration to modernist artists including Marsden Hartley and Milton Avery.

Twachtman shaped his Greenwich environment to achieve a sense of completeness that he sought in his art and life. Together, his home ground and his art produced a recursive pattern: he increased his appreciation of his property by representing it; in turn, his paintings enhanced his enjoyment of his surroundings. As noted by his student Eliot Clark, in these works

“there is a feeling of home … of a country well beloved. The painter has, as it were, become a part of the thing painted.”(5) By depicting what he created aesthetically, through architecture and the land itself, he turned his paintings into commentaries on his artistry, making the nature of art their true subject. In this his work forms an autobiographical record of what he felt and experienced during his Greenwich years.

(1) Susan G. Larkin, Ph.D. is the author of The Cos Cob Art Colony: Impressionists in the Connecticut Shore. cat. (New York: National Academy of Design in association with Yale University, 2001), and many other publications on Connecticut artists and American Impressionism.

(2) Beginning in 1867, Hangroot was the name used to refer to a neighborhood consisting of the homes of a few African American families, who were descendants of people enslaved by Greenwich’s colonial settlers.

(3) “French and American Impressionists,” Art Amateur 29 (June 1893), p. 4.

(4) Charles H. Caffin, The Story of American Painting: The Evolution of Painting in America from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, I 907), p. 231.

(5) Eliot Clark, John Twachtman (New York: privately printed, 1924 ), p. 42.