Monday, July 7, 2008

Book Report/Impressionism Transformed

Impressionism Transformed
The Paintings of Edmund C. Tarbell
organized by Susan Strickler
nonfiction, 2001
finished, 7/2/08

Over the years, I've bought books at places I've visited, filled with my enthusiasm about what I've seen while there. Yet those books languish on my shelves. I pick them up occasionally but don't sit down and really read them. Now I'm changing that pattern. I visited The Currier Museum in April, and was so taken with Edmund C. Tarbell's work that I bought this book. As I began reading it, really reading it, not just turning pages looking at the paintings, I realized why I like this artist so much: he focuses on family and domestic scenes, as does another painter whose work I adore, Carl Larsson. I'm no scholar when it comes to art, but I like what I like, and that's what I'm drawn to. I like family life, rural life, and work that really looks like what it is representing. Of all the visual arts, I like photography the best; as long as it isn't messed with. I like the real thing, the true view, just as I do in painting. A few excerpts from the book describe what his work is all about.

Tarbell guided Boston artists away from a generic, Americanized Impressionism toward a new manner of painting easily recognized by its serious exploration of subtle light effects, by the sober elegance of its motifs, and by the care and craftsmanship with which it was made. Painters of the school were interested in realism, but not in the social realism preferred by contemporary New York artists ... They sought instead to "make it like," a credo repeated over and over again among the group.

Tarbell's boldest stylistic experiments took place in the realm of plein-air [in the manner of a 19th-century style of painting outdoors, or with a strong sense of the open air] painting. Taking his family as his subject, he represented the world of personal experience in vivid colors and lively brushwork.

The Boston painter further distinguished himself from his radical European predecessors in his focus on the healthful versus degenerate aspects of society. Collectors and critics alike embraced Tarbell's plein-air figure painting, which seemed to exemplify the best aspects of modern American life.

William Howe Downes, Boston's most esteemed critic in 1892, "specifically admired Tarbell's comprehension of a distinctively national subject, the American girl."

Though Tarbell lived and worked in the Boston area, and other places, the heart of the family's life was in New Castle, New Hampshire, where they had a wonderful summer home on the seacoast, which, I believe, is still owned by the family.

You may have noticed in the past weeks a painting of his on my sidebar, which is also the cover of this book. It is his daughter, Mercie.

I took a few photos of paintings in the book to give you an idea of his art.

My Wife, Emeline, in a Garden. 1890

Three Sisters, Study in June Sunlight, 1890

Breakfast on the Piazza, 1902

The book does an excellent job of telling the reader about Tarbell, his family, and the art community during his lifetime. It offers many, many paintings from all the years he painted. Works by other artists of the time are shown to compare and contrast with Tarbell, and help explain his style. He seems to have been a truly happy man and that joy comes through in his work.

If you would like to buy the book, it is available through the Currier's online store. I loved it.


  1. I adore the picture "The Three Sisters"! I am one of three girls, and aways wanted a print of that painting. Tarbell, Casatte, Larsson, those are all favorites of mine, too. I will have to find this book!

  2. I think the Currier store is your best bet for a new copy. I am now reading a book on Mary Cassatt I've owned for years. I hope to have a book report on it soon. I love her the pictures of children and mothers. There's an exhibit in Vermont this summer we hope to go visit.

  3. We saw the exhibition for which that book was created. The extensive display of Tarbell paintings--the ones in the Currier collection and those on loan from family members and other galleries--was knee-weakening. I had so very many favourites. There was a wonderful brief film that was running and we sat through it twice. Not long afterwards we hopped in the car and drove out to New Castle for a look at the Tarbell house.

  4. Nan, thank you so much for this post. Even though I studied art history as an undergraduate, the periods on which we focused - the Renaissance and England's industrial revolution - meant that the emphasis was on English and European art. Tarbell 's work is entirely new to me but I'd been admiring that painting on your sidebar. Have found a new copy of the book here in the UK for the equivalent of 16$ and it's now ordered! No deferred gratification for me, I'm afraid. Well, not when it comes to a combination of art and books.

    I also love Carl Larsson's work and Mary Cassatt's, as did my late mother (who bought me my much-cherished copy of Griselda Pollock's excellent book on Cassatt). And how I wish could be in Vermont for that exhibition! I do hope you enjoy it.

  5. I also love the work of Karl Larsson and have a lovely book about him, CARL AND KARIN LARSSON, CREATORS OF THE SWEDISH STYLE Edited by Michael Snodin and Elisabeth Staverenow-Hidemark. I shall now put the Tarbell book on my Wants list! Thank you for introducing me to this painter!
    Margaret Powling

  6. His paintings that you included in this post are lovely! I'm going to order the book ... thanks so much for the link to the Currier store!

  7. What a lovely book. I love Impressionism and my favorite of the pictures you shared is The Three Sisters. Reminds me of me and my girlfriends. :)


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