Monday, 9 February 2009


“The Cos Cob Art Colony: Impressionists On The Connecticut Shore”
National Academy of Design, New York; Museum of Fine Arts,Houston; Denver Art Museum, 2001-2002
Catalogue by Susan Larkin, Yale University Press/National Academy of Design 2001, ISBN 0300088523, $35

NOTE: This article originally appeared, in only slightly different form, in The Spectator, during what happened to be the centenary of Twatchman's death.

Today, the village of Cos Cob is one of four commuter rail stops within Greenwich, the first and arguably toniest of the New York suburbs across the Connecticut state line. A century ago Greenwich was a farming town, the railroads just starting to encourage commuting,and Cos Cob was a sleepy fishing port, with its own packet boat still sailing daily to Manhattan.

In 1889, the painter John Twatchman settled in Greenwich and his New York colleagues soon began travelling by train from the city to visit and paint. The likes of Childe Hassam, Theodore Robinson, and J. Alden Weir gathered at the Holley family’s boarding house (now a museum) overlooking Cos Cob’s tiny harbour, joining Twatchman’s students to create an artist’s colony where the interplay of ideas helped them develop a new version of Impressionism, much as Monet, Renoir and Manet had influenced each other twenty years before. This eye-opening exhibition, organised by the National Academy of Design in New York, not only casts light on some under-valued artists, but reveals much about a very genteel sort of American bohemianism. The locals were occasionally shocked: the local paper reported one Halloween party at Holley House, shaking its figurative head in disbelief at the artists carving pumpkins into likenesses of each other.

A contemporary New York columnist described Connecticut as “the land of steady habits”. One senses these artists taking inordinate pleasure in their relative freedom, not just within the small town but also from the New York art world’s more rarefied subject matter,just as the railway liberated Parisian artists a generation before. Cos Cob became, in effect, an American Argenteuil.

The influence of the French Impressionists was particularly direct. Robinson, who died in 1896, aged 44, spent half of each year between 1888 and 1892 as Monet’s next-door neighbour in Giverny. Greenwich’s harbour provided him with an American equivalent for subject matter. His “Low Tide” (1894) is the most striking of a sequence portraying yachts at anchor with the tides at varying stages,with hazy sunshine illuminating the richness of the exposed Mianus River bottom.

Weir had first visited Cos Cob, where his father, a painting instructor to Army cadets at West Point, vacationed. His “Ice Cutters” reminds one of a wintry Caillebotte. But where Weir’s approach to colour and light seems restrained, Hassam’s is audacious. Hassam remains the best-known American Impressionist, and this exhibition reflects why, showing a talent which absorbs myriad influences and bends them to a personal technique that seems almost uncontrolled in its sheer exuberance. As John Updike wrote, “one of the secrets of Hassam’s continued vitality is his willingness to throw himself and his paints at nearly anything.”

One sees this in his “Bowl of Goldfish” (1912), which places a Whistler figure in front of a lush post-Impressionist background seen through an open door. Within the bowl, the fish provide a swirl of gold that beggars the distinctions between foreground and background. It’s hard for Hassam to be understated, but the exhibition includes both etchings and watercolours, which help us understand the way he works. His painting of “The Brush House” (1916), done in watercolour over charcoal is a marvel of building spectacular effects from a minimum of brush work.

For all Hassam’s vivacity it is Twatchman who is the centre of the show, as he was the central figure of the colony. Reflecting his personality, Cos Cob remained more informal than more prominent art colonies, for example, William Merrit Chase’s at Shinnecock, Long Island. Twatchman’s Cos Cob also attracted writers like the crusading journalist Lincoln Steffens and novelist Willa Cather, and,in its second generation of artists, Genjiro Yeto, a student of Twatchman’s at the Art Students League in New York who spent five summers in Connecticut. Yeto’s illustrations reflect the Impressionist inspiration from Japan, and made a huge impact on the work of his fellow students, particularly Ernest Lawson.

Lawson’s “River In Scene In Winter” also reflects Twatchman’s delight in reworking the effects of sunlight on snow. And it is Twatchman who here is revealed as American Impressionism’s major talent. He may be seen best as an American Pissaro, an artist’s artist whose work manifests considerable growth and integrity, and plumbs subtle depths of emotion which escape some of his more exuberant colleagues, but which sometimes lacks immediate appeal. Twatchman can look like Hassam, particularly in “Little Bridge”, a painting of a bridge he built himself. But compare his view of Brush House “Coming Home In Winter” with Hassam’s, Twatchman view works in shadings of just one colour, provided an effect of amazing depth. 'Hemlock Pool' (1900) was vibrant enough to be shown in 1913 at the Armory Show.

After Twatchman’s death in 1902,Hassam continued to summer in Cos Cob and keep the colony active until almost 1920. Hassam’s later etchings show a talent which continued to grow. But the abiding impression of the exhibtition was Twatchman’s “Sailing In The Mist”,where a lone sail, and its reflection, blend into the sea, cloud, and mist, isolating the boat, and its pilot. It was the picture the Spectator chose to illustrate the article, and it's an effect worthy of any in the Impressionist pantheon.