Sunday, January 2, 2011

John Henry Twachtman - Atmospheric Mastery

John H. Twachtman, Winter Harmony, 1890-1900

American painter John Henry Twachtman created this sumptuous composition of gauzy grays, pinks, blues, and rust-colored leaves on the 17-acre home he bought for his wife in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1890 after landing a commercial illustration gig with Scribner's and a teaching position at the Art Students League.

On display at Washington D.C.'s National Gallery of Art, this painting pulses with the muted polyphony of warm and cool colors enveloped in almost palpable atmosphere.

Twachtman is usually categorized as an American Impressionist and Tonalist painter. The publication of several catalogues and books on his life and work published during the 1990s built upon a 1966 retrospective that saved him from obscurity. Since 1987, a gallery owner and dealer of Tonalist and Barbizon paintings, Ira Spanierman, has been spearheading a catalogue raisonee listing his collected works. Spanierman has posted a nice bio of the painter and a random assortment of images online.

Twachtman's Winter Harmony employs a circular composition to keep the eye moving throughout. But that's not what earned this painting its more or less permanent place in history. The entire thing is a luminous riot of alternating currents - familiar scenery and an extraordinary scene, warm and cool colors, rounded horizontal and straight vertical lines, all playing counterpoint to each other within the larger, circular composition that keeps the eye moving and jumping all over the canvas until the naked lyrical miracle of the thing near knocks you out (!)

Detail, Winter Harmony, John H. Twachtman, 1890-1900

Twachtman isn't about classical finish. Just look at the way he's "roughed in" the colors and lines here! He's after freshness, energy, and spontaneity, and he gets it, but it's tempered by a straightforward lyricism that's largely the result of how he's "keyed" the painting (in terms of the predominance of relative lights and darks) by pulling the values closer to neutral and to each other throughout.

A painting of a wooded interior covered in snow and ice can be awfully cold, considering the tendency of the untrained eye to register such a setting's predominance of cool colors like blue, bluish-white, black, white, and gray. But Twachtman forestalls any of this with an infusion of hazy reds and russets in tones and proportions that indeed "harmonize" with the misty blue-grays and viridians.

At the center of everything, even the purple icy stream warms to a reddish ochre as it joins with the snow-lumped banks.

This is vibrant work. In person, it provoked an old feeling of mine that arises from time to time. It happens when I'm confronted by a work of art of such beauty that I can almost see it flickering between ideality and the real. Sorry if that sounds too mystical. It's a nameless, somehow simultaneously jubilant and melancholy feeling that has something to do with being in the presence of humanity's potential for understanding and achievement despite the brutal indifference of nature and the relentless force of time.


  1. I came across your work just prior to Christmas while visiting the Western Ave. Studios’ Holiday Opening here in Lowell, MA. Glad I did! As a novice aficionado of all that is art, I am very impressed with your paintings. All through my life and up until discovering your Art Blog, I have been a committed lover and observer of art but never much of a scholar. Thanks to this blog, I now have a convenient opportunity to enrich my understanding of just what lies behind all of that paint and canvas. Thank you, Christopher, for taking the time to share your vast knowledge of the world of these great painters and their work.

    This article of Twachtman and the previous of Crane depict subjects of snow covered landscapes. Snow depictions are some of my favorites. Have you ever incorporated snow into your works? If not, might you?

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Michael! I'm so glad that what I write here has helped to provide some additional context for understanding and appreciation.

    As for my own forays into snow, I've never attempted anything like Twatchtman! (Although really, why not? Even failing to achieve anything with the complexity and grace of "Winter Harmony" would end up being a tremendously beneficial lesson, I'm sure). But since you asked, I'm happy share a few of my own snow paintings here:

    and here:

  3. I really enjoy your blog - are you going to post a new article soon?

  4. Hi Sharron -
    Yes! Thanks so much for the encouragement. I hate falling behind in my postings, and I promise a new one very soon!

  5. Hi Christopher,
    I loved your blog and the way you talk about each work.
    Please don't stop.
    I will copy some of your words at my blog, with credits of course.
    Thank you very much.