Canton Museum exhibit explores American Impressionism

Most people who walk into an art museum don’t realize the amount of planning, time, and effort it takes to put together the exhibit they’re going to see.

For major exhibitions, it usually takes several years of planning, and these types of exhibitions are often rooted in the mission of the cultural institution hosting the exhibition.

This is absolutely the case with the carefully curated and stimulating exhibition at the Canton Museum of Art, “Dancing in the Light: Masterworks from the Age of American Impressionism (1878 – c. 1930)”, which emphasizes the ” “American only” watercolor medium.

American Impressionism is representative of a robust and innovative era in American art history. It comes from a time just after the Civil War, when the country had growing wealth and valued “trade, progress and education.”

As a result of this national “vibe”, a growing interest in the arts began and several art clubs, schools and museums were established on the basis of the widely held belief that educated citizens are essential for economic development.

It should be noted that many museums that started around this time have works on loan for this exhibition. Importantly, Ohio was the third most populous state in the 1870s and 80s. Due to the state’s extreme wealth, this helped lay the groundwork for how the country would approach the creation of places. like museums and educational institutions. This is a national leadership role that Ohio still holds, even though our population density has changed.

Artists from this period began to travel abroad to expand their knowledge and abilities and in particular they visited Paris, France. There they went to work and study with different artists and styles and most importantly, one group in particular – the Impressionists – held their first group exhibition in Paris in 1874.

The Impressionists sought to be “painters of modern life” and used the then innovative techniques of quick working and applying paint with quick broken brushstrokes that brought out the painting process.

They chose to move away from neutral color tones and instead adopted a vibrant color palette. They felt that the intensity of the color they used and the speed of execution made their approach more “modern”.

Admittedly, the subject that the artists chose to represent was also more “modern”, in that they chose scenes from everyday life as well as compositions in response to the natural world. These subjects correspond to the Impressionist style because by working outdoors the artist worked faster and more deliberately.

This type of approach where the painter uses color and the brushstroke to quickly illuminate the composition could only lead to a more vibrant and eventful painting.

This exhibition features paintings and works on paper from private collections, museum collections, and the Canton Museum of Art’s own collection, and has taken years to put together.

Several works presented are from major artists who are part of private collections and have rarely been seen in public.

One of the more dynamic examples of these is “Drifting With the Tide”, an 1884 oil on canvas by Ralph Wormeley Curtis (1854-1922). This piece is not a pure example of impressionism

The work represents a couple floating in a gondola. The woman’s face and body are defined by clear outlines, and the boat is painted in linear perspective. However, other areas of the painting are done with loose, broken brushstrokes that are quickly applied.

This work is an example of a fusion of techniques that is part of what defines International Impressionism and shows how American artists interpreted what they saw and searched for while living and working in Europe.

“Holiday Evening, Palm Beach” is a 1918 oil on canvas by artist Jane Peterson. Peterson, who was born in Elgin, Illinois, was a famous American Impressionist who traveled widely and documented her experience through painting.

Her work, along with the works of five other female artists also included in the exhibition – Alice Schille, Elizabeth Nourse, Lilian Westcott Hale, Martha Walter, and Helen McCarthy – helps highlight the important contribution of women to American Impressionism.

In “Holiday Evening, Palm Beach,” Peterson creates a festive dinner with people wearing big hats and fancy costumes through a depiction of a seated crowd of people who have been painted with just enough information so that you know what’s going on and can probably guess what things might look like in detail, without really knowing what that detail really is.

The evening sky is painted a light blue that can be seen through the thin leaves of the trees and above the whole crowd are glowing lights that display in a vibrant orange / red. It’s a fascinating work that helps bring out the strongest part of this exhibition, which is the rare opportunity to see individual paintings by historically significant artists in an intimate setting and up close.

Part of the Canton Museum of Arts’ curatorial mission is to collect American watercolors. This exhibition highlights works that present this stimulating medium and helps shed light on an important part of what the museum’s collection does.

“On the Terrace”, a 1908-1910 watercolor on paper by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), is a prime example of this type of work. For the painting, Sargent uses a limited but intense palette to depict potted plants and bushes on a stone and brick patio.

If you look at the work, you can see the swift and loose signature of Impressionism. The color and the markings are made to inform your eye so that you have a larger idea of ​​what is made up.

It is a revealing work and which gives you an idea of ​​the temperature and possible scents of the terrace as well as of the expressive pictorial techniques.

Exhibits like this highlight the importance of institutions like the Canton Museum of Art. Here’s an opportunity where you can take a close look at a historically significant part of American art history.

This exhibition also allows us to reflect on how our country is now, its values, hopes and dreams and provides a moment for a deeper contemplation of the place we live in through the awe-inspiring power of the visual arts.


What: “Dancing in the Light: Masterpieces of the Era of American Impressionism”

When: until March 7

Where: Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave North

"Ferry disembarkation,"  circa 1915-20, by Edward Potthast.  From the private collection of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Atwood.
"Drifting with the tide." 1884, by Ralph Wormeley Curtis.  From a private collection courtesy of Keny Galleries.