Between 1870 and 1890, the country’s population increased from 40 million to 63 million. The urban population grew much faster than rural areas and by the year 1890, the cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago all had populations exceeding one million.
Railroads crisscrossed the continent, not only making a national economy and mass market possible, but also introducing residents in highly populated areas to the possibility of commuting to work. But what most people saw as progress also brought problems. With the Industrial Revolution came crowds, noise, foul air, and, in some people’s minds, questionable morality to the city.
Reacting to these issues, many city dwellers embraced a back-to-nature movement which gained great strength at the end of the 19th century. Middle-class Americans turned to the country club, the dude ranch, and the summer retreat to escape the problems and pressures of the city.
En Plein Air Landscape Painting
There was already an American tradition of painting en plein-air (out-of-doors). The Hudson River School and Luminist painters of the 19th century had focused on scenes of grandeur and magnificence in the natural world.
Unlike American landscape painters of the previous generation who sought out the extraordinary, untamed and dramatic, the American Impressionists painted the familiar, cultivated landscapes located in their own backyards. Through their eyes, these ordinary domestic places became part of everyone’s sense of what was beautiful in the American landscape.Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919) was part of that movement. Born in West Point, New York, where his father taught drawing at the United States Military Academy, Weir studied painting in Europe and became a major figure in popularizing the style that became known as American Impressionism.
“Nature seems more rich than ever and full of charm, which one can only appreciate by being away from it. The city life, where one is imprisoned amongst walls, makes one’s faculties more appreciative.” ~ Julian Alden Weir
Rejecting the academics’ devotion to invented subjects and meticulous technique, Impressionist painters depicted landscapes and intimate scenes of everyday middle-class life using natural light, rapid brushwork, and a high-keyed palette. They used a technique characterized by laying pure unmixed color on the canvas with dabs and broken brushwork to create a sense—or impression—of intense flickering light.Pennsylvania-born Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), who moved to Paris in 1874 and lived much of her adult life in France, where she first befriended Edgar Degas and later exhibited among the Impressionists.
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), born in Florence to expatriate American parents and studying in Paris by 1874, was inspired to paint lively urban scenes by Claude Monet and his colleagues.With a series of brilliant images of New York’s new public parks, William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) became the first major American painter to create Impressionist canvases in the United States.
Feeling Inspired? American Landscapes Art Activity
Activity 1: Find a Painting Site
Have students find places in their community that they think would be good subjects for an impressionist painting. They might consider parks, scenic roads, streets where houses have deep front yards or gardens, or even a building with interesting shapes and surfaces.
Ask them to sketch or photograph their chosen place and then share their impressions with the class. Do they think Impressionist techniques would be better than realism in conveying the sense of what being in this place is like? Allow time for discussion about students’ choices.
Activity 2: The Impressionist Experience
Choose an interesting site at or around your home or school and ask each student to prepare a finished work using pastels, crayons, watercolors, chalk, or poster paints. Encourage the students to experiment with impressionistic techniques.
Have them paint outdoors, use bright colors, paint with dabs and small strokes, and include light and shadows at different times of the day or in different weather conditions.Have the students work side by side and encourage one another, just as the American Impressionists did. Then have students share their work and discuss the experience as a group.
Activity 3: Art in Your Community
American Impressionism was centered around the New England countryside and reflected the popular back-to-nature movement. Have the students conduct research to discover local artists who depict images of their region’s landscape.
Invite educators from local art museums, historical societies, galleries or libraries to the classroom to discuss and show slides of the different styles of art popular in the region. If possible, arrange a field trip to a gallery or museum.
Have students make short presentations about the artist or artists studied. Discuss what is artistically unique about your region and how the artists have been inspired by that uniqueness.
The Art of America Homeschool Unit Studies
This post is part of a 10-post series, providing an overview of the history of American art from Pre-Colonial times to today, including multiple art forms:
- wood carvings
- editorial cartoons
Moving chronologically through All American History curriculum, each post summarizes the art trends and movements popular during the period and features one or two artists from that time period. Plus I will provide a related art lesson or project that you can enjoy with your students.