Saturday, May 19, 2012

John Henry Twachtman, Reckless Visionary

John Henry Twachtman, Gloucester Harbor Scene, c. 1901
Twachtman's sense of design is utterly masterful. On a recent trip to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, I sat for a while in front of the above painting and sketched it as a way of plumbing its mysteries. Deceptively simple, the interlocking geometric shapes, the subtle, asymmetrical arrangement of values, the vibrating colors - as with a lot of paintings I respond to, I experienced the whole thing gathering itself into a marvelous representation then threatening to collapse into random marks of colored paint only to gather itself once again into a representation on the verge of disintegration. 

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
Few 19th century landscape artists were as willing or able to disregard convention and devote themselves to such a personal brand of Impressionism, not to mention such beautiful and radically simplified renderings of spontaneous experience. Look at the rich, boldly abstract color pattern in that Emerald Pool above! 

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
Here is Arques-la-Bataille, which some consider one of his greatest masterpieces. 

John Henry Twachtman, Arques-la-Bataille, 1885
As Linda Crank points out, there's a quiet circular composition underlying the whole: 

"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


  1. Great post! Twachtman has always been one of my all time favorite painters!

  2. Great post Chris! Personally, I always think of Twatchman as more of a Tonalist than an Impressionist. But, he really defies a label which is what makes him so interesting!

  3. Thanks guys- Deb, I know, I think of him as a Tonalist also, but the more I think about him, the more I realize, as you suggest, that it's something essential in HIM and not in this or that style that I respond to in his art.

  4. So beautiful! Thank you for sharing this, and his work. I think I have only seen one of his pieces in person. I'd love to see a whole exhibit!

  5. Wow Cobalt me too. Someone needs to get on that! Thanks for your good words.

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