|John Henry Twachtman, Gloucester Harbor Scene, c. 1901|
John Henry Twachtman (1853 – 1902) was among a group of American Impressionists called The Ten who boycotted the commercial art market at the end of the 19th century. A restless experimenter, he pledged no allegiance to a single style. He was among the most original, modern, and poetic of his peers, either unwilling or unable to interest buyers in derivative or simply pretty images. His devotion to his personal vision brought him strong admiration from fellow artists, who deemed him a 'painter's painter' ahead of of his time.
|Twachtman, Edge of the Emerald Pool at Yellowstone|
In Along the Fence (below), Twachtman takes a similar minimalist approach to big ideas. Here the treatment of humble subject matter, ennobled by a perfect degree of detail and a dignified composition, expresses the profound significance of the simplest dusty corner of the inhabited word. Twachtman's eye has singled out an anonymous series of warped, nailed-up boards mired in muddy earth-tones that, soaked as they are in generations of human presence, tell a strangely rich tale of human history expressed in the simplest imaginable terms.
Thoreau said "a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone." By virtue of everything it leaves out, Along the Fence is an absolute treasure.
|Twachtman, Along the Fence|
|John Henry Twachtman, Arques-la-Bataille, 1885|
"First, the bold block of dark grass at center bottom commands the eye. Then the smaller clump to the middle left causes it to travel to the middle left. From there a variety of smaller shrubbery and grasses propel the vision around to the right in a circular motion. Strong horizontal lines emphasize the calmness of the foggy morning."
Many of Twachtman's works, including Arques-la-Bataille, turn their backs on the established canon of Western aesthetics. Instead, they can often exhibit the sort of subtlety one finds in a Japanese garden, where objects are arranged in such a way as to relate at once to the random quality of "design" in nature and to our human hunger for the sense of a harmonious whole. I love the fresh, un-cliched design of the darks and lights in this tonalist piece:
Although I admit to having made pilgrimages to Gloucester, Rockport and similar locales, in this case, for me there's little mystique to where Twachtman painted. It's his absolute sincerity, his depth of thought and feeling, and his faithfulness to his responses to the immediate subject that make him great.
Twachtman's great paintings balance representation and abstraction in a very poetic, and at once very modern and classically restrained manner. His later works such as the Gloucester Harbour pictures above and below anticipate a style of painting that wouldn' t become popular until long after European Modernism came to America in 1911. One could do worse than to spend a day at the feet of such a master.
|Twachtman, Goucester Harbor|