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.

Bruce Crane, winter radiance

Bruce Crane stands out as one of the most sensitive and ethereal of the American Tonalist painters who saw themselves as carrying the torch of the American landscape tradition after the demise of the 19th century Hudson River School style. Crane helped found a colony of landscape painters at Lyme Connecticut. Most active as a community during the first decades of the 20th century, they blent Barbizon and Impressionist sensibilities toward a fresh, evocative re-visioning of the American landscape.

His landscapes are spare, poetic meditations steeped in atmosphere. Painting into the 1920s, he increasingly suffused his arrangements of natural elements with a golden radiance suggestive of a spiritual sensibility. His subject is usually common scenery - everyday scraps of nature: pastures gone to seed, tall, thin scraggly trees, collapsing rock walls, fences, and stumps. But he wonderfully half-dissolves his forms in the airy atmosphere he builds around them (for all their subjects' gauziness, these paintings's surfaces are quite thick with substantial layers of paint).

Like so many of the Tonalists who followed in George Inness's footsteps, Crane spent time in Europe where he was awed by the compositions and moods of Barbizon painting. Inness, it seems, had articulated a vision of nature very like Crane's some years before.

The above painting is by Crane. In mood, tone, and even somewhat in composition it recalls a well-known Inness depicting a lone figure making its way through scrappy snow on Christmas Eve (below).

Another Inness in which Crane could have found inspiration for his own work.

I'll return to Crane another day to really get into some of his most interesting later work.