Life and Art:
The Greenwich Paintings of John Henry Twachtman
October 6, 2021 – January 9, 2022
The Cincinnati-born artist John Twachtman (1853–1902) reached artistic maturity 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. The exhibition, Life and Art: The Greenwich Paintings of John Henry Twachtman, to be held at the Greenwich Historical Society from October 6, 2021 to January 9, 2022, takes a unique holistic approach to Twachtman’s Greenwich oeuvre, considering it in a unified context, as one encompassing both the aesthetic modifications the artist made with land and architecture as his mediums and the images he derived from this subject matter.
From the beginning of his career, Twachtman was committed to creating landscape paintings in the realist tradition, seeking inspiration from his immediate observations, at home in America and on trips to Europe. However, he struggled with the realization that nature did not provide a sense of completeness he believed to be essential to art. In Greenwich he satisfied his desire for completeness by depicting a setting he was able to shape himself.
This exhibition reveals the developments that occurred concurrently as Twachtman met this aim. Whereas at first he sought to establish a harmonious relationship between his home and the existing landscape, gradually he took more control of his environment, turning his home ground into a work of art in its own right. In the process, he became less beholden to nature, imposing aesthetic control over his surroundings. His paintings parallel this progression, demonstrating the way that life and art came together for Twachtman in Greenwich, making his Greenwich art a form of autobiography. 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.”
Life and Art is curated by Lisa N. Peters. Ph.D., an independent scholar and the author of John Henry Twachtman: An American Impressionist (High Museum of Art, 1999), among other publications on Twachtman and American art.
The exhibition has been generously sponsored by the Henry Luce Foundation’s American Art Program, the Jane Henson Foundation and First Republic Bank. The accompanying illustrated catalogue with essay by Lisa N. Peters was partly funded by the Wyeth Foundation for American Art.
An Artist’s Home
An important aim of this exhibition has been to establish a clear chronology of the changes Twachtman made to his home during his Greenwich years. This was achieved through a close examination of the house itself (privately owned today), a careful study of Twachtman’s works (which he did not date after 1883), and consultation of historical sources. By exhibiting varied images of Twachtman’s home, this show provides an opportunity not only to see the way the dwelling evolved (look for the changing number of chimneys on the home) but also to enter into Twachtman’s world, as he reconciled the needs of his family with his desire to match his artistic ideals to the reality of his environment.
In his paintings, Twachtman both chronicled the changes he made to his home and expressed his personal responses to this subject matter. Capturing his home from many perspectives over the years provided him with a means of self-reflection. His images ask us to consider the ways we have shaped our own homes and how they are part of who we are.
An Artist’s Land
In his Greenwich paintings, Twachtman depicted his home in relation to the land, but he also portrayed aspects of his property to which he had contributed in both subtle and overt ways. Through intimate vantage points, he conveyed his presence in views of the Hemlock Pool, a calm, rock-edged body of water to the west of his home. He created images of the Japanese-inspired white bridges crossing over Horseneck Brook that he built to add a sense of artistic refinement to the landscape rather than to serve a practical purpose. He returned repeatedly to Horseneck Falls, the steepest cascade on the brook, creating close-ups of the water falling over rocks, creating images that are almost fully abstract in reductive designs and dynamic painterly surfaces. In the arrested movement in his waterfalls, he summed up the simultaneous vitality and stability of his Greenwich life.
John Henry Twachtman in Brief
Born on August 4, 1853 in Cincinnati, Ohio, to parents who were German immigrants, Twachtman received art instruction locally in his teens. From the mid-1870s through the mid-1880s, he traveled to Europe four times, studying in Munich from 1875 to 1877 and in Paris from 1883 to 1885. During the years that he traveled back and forth to Europe, he achieved prominence in the New York art world, becoming a leading figure among a new generation of artists who had broken from the tight realism and grandiosity of the Hudson River School to develop more individualistic modes of expression. However, until 1887, Twachtman’s base remained Cincinnati, where in 1881 he married Martha Scudder, a fellow artist. Seeking to leave a city where he felt art was unappreciated, he moved east in 1888. His family soon joined him, consisting at the time of three children. (Of the artist’s seven children, five would survive to adulthood).
On February 18, 1890, after at first renting a cottage in Greenwich, Twachtman purchased three acres of land two miles north of the main section of the town, between Round Hill Road and Horseneck Brook. His property was located in Hangroot, an area of undulating hills named probably for the tangled roots of trees that hung around its great rock formations. At the time, its residents consisted of a few African American families, whose ancestors had been enslaved in the homes of colonial settlers in Greenwich. On December 1, 1891, Twachtman acquired an additional thirteen acres that encompassed the brook. During the 1890s, he was often viewed as the American artist whose work was closest to that of the French Impressionist Claude Monet. When the two were included in a four-artist exhibition in New York in 1893, a critic stated that Twachtman had “come nearer than any other New York artist to solving some of the problems of plein aire that Monet [had] set down.” The two artists also can be compared for the distinctive ways that each used Impressionist means to capture nuances in familiar landscapes rendered in series. After leaving his Greenwich home, Twachtman lived partly at the Players Club in New York City and at the Holley House, while spending his summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he died on August 8, 1902, four days after his 49th birthday.
While living in Greenwich, Twachtman taught a summer art school in nearby Cos Cob, based at the Holley family’s boarding house (now known as the Bush-Holley House, an historic house museum operated by the Greenwich Historical Society). He was a founding member in 1898 of the Ten American Painters, the group of artists who broke from the Society of American Artists to hold exhibitions exclusively of their own work, in the mode of the independent exhibitions of the French Impressionists. A “painter’s painter,” Twachtman was revered by fellow artists but unsuccessful at marketing and selling his work. During his lifetime, he was viewed as a modern artist, whose work—too advanced for his own time—would only receive its due recognition in the future.