Bowdoin College Museum of Art

Learning to Paint: American Artists and European Art 1876 to 1893


After the American Civil War, aspiring artists crossed the Atlantic to learn the "language" of painting. Some sought formal instruction in academies and studios, while others enjoyed their newfound access to museum masterpieces. This exhibition addresses the struggle faced by American artists to define their individual and national expression in the face of Eurocentric standards for technical accomplishment.

Some highlights from the exhibition:

The Munich School
The first American painters to profit from European training were based in Munich, Germany, where the curriculum stressed a realist approach to painting. At the Royal Academy there, students like William Merritt Chase were encouraged to imitate the paintings of seventeenth-century Dutch masters, notably Rembrandt and Frans Hals. This influence is evident in the low-toned palette, striking contrasts, and rugged brushwork of Portrait of the Art Dealer Otto Fleischman. While American critics saw no beauty in Chase's early work, they praised his swiftness of execution for imparting "élan." They complained repeatedly, however, that the artist's technical bravura obviated feeling for his subjects. Compared to the anatomically grounded work of Paris students, this emphasis on brushwork led to repeated charges of superficiality.

William Merritt Chase
Portrait of the Art Dealer Otto Fleischman, ca. 1870 - 1879
Oil on canvas
26 1/2 in. x 21 1/2 in.
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, Gift of Dr. Max Hirshler, 1953.41

William Merritt Chase
A Cosmopolitan Style
American artists who followed in the footsteps of William Merritt Chase and Thomas Eakins increasingly studied outside of government-run academies when they went abroad. Among these was expatriate John Singer Sargent. He received his artistic training in Paris in the private studio of Carolus-Duran, a painter whose teaching method encouraged working directly from the model, without preliminary studies. This approach suited Sargent perfectly, and he soon won fame, fortune, and some notoriety for portraits of international high society. This bust-length image, painted in Boston during Sargent's first working tour of America in 1887-8, manifests his distinctive synthesis of delicacy and boldness.

John Singer Sargent, American, 1856-1925
Portrait of Elizabeth Nelson Fairchild, 1887
Oil on canvas
19 9/16 in. x 18 1/4 in.
Museum Purchase, George Otis Hamlin Fund and Friends of the College Fund, 1985.40

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Elizabeth Nelson Fairchild

Mary Cassatt, American, 1844 - 1926
The Barefoot Child, 1897
28 1/4 in. x 21 1/8 in.
Gift of Mrs. Murray S. Danforth, in memory of her husband, Dr. Murray S. Danforth, Class of 1901, 1953.42

Mary Cassatt, The Barefoot Child
“Painter of Modern Women”
Of the many American women who studied art in Paris, Mary Cassatt is perhaps most deserving of the epithet "modern." Trained at the Pennsylvania Academy and then with French academician Jean-Léon Gérôme, Cassatt devoted much time to copying works of art in the Louvre. In 1875, however, she changed direction after seeing a group of pastels by Edgar Degas. While Cassatt's academic training is evident in the structural underpinnings of The Barefoot Child, broken lines, bright colors, anatomical distortion, and vigorous application of the medium create a dialogue between subject and surface, between the tender meeting of the mother and baby's hands and the handwork of the artist herself.

Winslow Homer
The Fountains at Night, World's Columbian Exposition, 1893
Oil on canvas
16 3/8 in. x 25 1/8 in.
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bequest of Mrs. Charles Savage Homer, Jr., 1938.2

Winslow Homer, The Fountains at Night, World's Columbian Exposition
A Pupil of “Nature’s School”

Among figure painters, the outstanding exemplar of Americanness in the 1880s was Winslow Homer, an artist whose technical method eluded categorization. Homer was essentially a self-taught artist; his formal education consisted of an apprenticeship with a Boston lithographer and a few lessons in drawing and painting. Although he made two trips to Europe, one to France in 1867, and a second to England in 1881, he did not enroll in academic courses, but chose instead to learn through observation.

This unusual oil painting by Winslow Homer constitutes his visual response to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, the Chicago fair at which the United States laid claim to having culturally come of age. At the apex of the grand basin, sculptor Frederick MacMonnies' Columbian Fountain trumpeted the nation's progress in art, science, and industry. Homer depicts a corner of this monumental allegorical project, as illuminated by electric light, in a decidedly unclassical manner.

George Inness, American, 1825 - 1894
The Valley on a Gloomy Day, 1892
Oil on canvas
29 7/8 x 45 1/4 in.
Colby College Museum of Art, Gift of Thomas J. Watson Jr., 1953.42

William Merritt Chase
Landscape: A Field of Distinction
Among those artists most celebrated at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition was George Inness. Led by Inness, American landscape painters had begun to abandon the meticulous Hudson River School aesthetic for a suggestive tonalist idiom. As a follower of the mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg, Inness believed that the material world constituted a gateway to a deeper spiritual truth. In The Valley on a Gloomy Day, ethereal paint handling suggests the artist's quest to penetrate nature's surface. Inness, like Homer, was an essentially self-taught painter whose technique elicited both criticism and praise. If art-writers sometimes perceived weakness in drawing and composition, they nevertheless heralded Inness for the originality of his expression, a quality that would make him a touchstone for later modernist artists.