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Sunday, 23 August 2009

Willard Leroy Metcalf (1858-1925)

Giverny, 1887
Willard Metcalf, a founding member of the “Ten American Painters,” worked in an Impressionist style tempered by atmospheric poetry

By Alexandra A Jopp

Willard Metcalf, a contemporary of Childe Hassam, Mary Cassatt, and John Twachtman, was a well-regarded Impressionist painterartist, teacher and illustrator who became known as a classic painter of the landscapes of his native New England. One of the “Ten American Painters” (also known as “The Ten”), a group whose members resigned from the Society of American Artists to form their own (small) association, Metcalf influenced many painters while teaching at Cooper Union and the Art Students League in New York. He achieved great fame in his lifetime, winning a Webb Prize in 1896 for his painting Gloucester Harbor (1895), being elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and having his work exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

The Ten-Cent Breakfast, 1887. 
Summer at Hadlyme, 1914. 

Willard Metcalf sitting at front of dining tables on side porch of Griswold House, c. 1905.

Willard Leroy Metcalf, known to his friends as “Metty,” was born July 1, 1858, in Lowell, Mass., to Greenleaf Willard, a violinist with the Boston Orchestra and Margaret Jan Gallop. He spent much of his childhood in Maine before the family moved to Cambridge, Mass., in 1871. His early artistic gifts were celebrated by his parents, and Metcalf started working in a Boston wood engraving shop while attending classes at the Massachusetts Normal Art School (now the Massachusetts College of Art.) At age 16, he was apprenticed to the painter George Loring Brown, and two years later, he was admitted to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School, where he received one of the school’s first scholarships and studied under William Rimmer.

In 1883, Metcalf went to Europe for the first time, and while there, he traveled broadly, painting in England, Italy, North Africa and several French locations. In 1885, near Fontainebleau, he completed Sunset at Grez (1885), a stunning success from his early art career. He studied in Paris at the prestigious Academie Académie Julian and painted landscapes at Grez near Barbizon, Pont-Aven, Brittany and Giverny, in the company of some of the best painters of his generation. Drawn by French Impressionist Claude Monet’s reputation, he may have been the first American artist to arrive to Giverny in 1886 before the area became a veritable colony of American Impressionists. While Metcalf’s landscapes of the late 1880s reveal increasing skill in brushwork and the use of light, the artist remained partial to the atmospheric poetry of Tonalism and the Barbizon tradition of painting outdoors. He did not copy the technique of Monet, whose children he tutored in the study of flowers and birds. Rather than adopting a consistent style, in fact, Metcalf allowed his subjects to establish determine his technique.

Poppy Garden, 1905.

In 1888, Metcalf returned to the Boston area, where he held a one-man exhibition at the St. Botolph Club and taught at the Women’s Art School at Copper Cooper Union and the Art Students League. Two years later, in search of portrait commissions, he moved to New York City. His prolific year of 1895 was especially notable formarked by bright, sun-lit outdoor scenes inspired by his summers in Gloucester, Mass.

Metcalf was a sociable man who enjoyed gathering with companions for long evenings of dining and drinking, but however he had unhappy and tawdry relationships with women, marrying twice and divorcing twice. His first wife, Marguerite Beaufort Hailé, was a stage performer from New Orleans who was 20 years younger than he washis junior and served as his model for murals he painted for a New York courthouse. They began living together in 1899 and were married in 1903. The marriage was brief and ended when Marguerite ran away with painter Robert Nisbet, a former student of Metcalf’s.

In 1909, the artist, attracted by the area’s winter scenes, moved to Cornish, N.H. According to Deborah Van Buren, “there are probably more known paintings of the Cornish landscape by Metcalf than by any other colony members.”1 Writer Catherine Beach Ely said that “he gives us the mood of snow-filled air and the frost feeling of Winter among lonely hills and trees; [he] gives us also the first disintegrated breach of Spring on deep New England snows.”2

Winter Harmony.

Spring came again to the artist’s life in 1911 when he married Henriette Alice McCrea, with whom he had two children. This marriage also failed, however.

Metcalf had a gift for drawing and a fortune for travel, and from 1920 to 1924, he painted all over New England. He continued to produce compelling scenes of nature in its seasonal phases almost until his death at his home in New York in 1925.

Mountain Lakes, Olden, Norway, 1913. 
Cornish Hills.

1: Shipp, Steve. American Art Colonies, 1850-1930: A Historical Guide to America’s Original Art Colonies and Their Artists (Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 1996), 15.

2: Shipp, Steve. American Art Colonies, 1850-1930: A Historical Guide to America’s Original Art Colonies and Their Artists (Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 1996), 15.


  1. Willard Leroy Metcalf (1858-1925)
    November Mosaic, 1922

    Massachusetts native Willard L. Metcalf, founding member of Ten American Painters, is best known for his Impressionist landscapes. During his lifetime he was recognized as the artistic equivalent to the poet Robert Frost as an interpreter of the New England landscape.

    Beginning in 1875, Metcalf studied at the Massachusetts Normal Art School, the Lowell Institute, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Académie Julian in Paris. While in Europe in the 1880s, he was part of a cosmopolitan community of artists and writers which included John Twachtman and Theodore Robinson, who were central to the emergence of American Impressionism. From his travels, Metcalf developed an appreciation for plein-air painting, natural light, and high-keyed color that later informed his New England landscapes. In 1897, Metcalf and nine others formed Ten American Painters, a group devoted mostly to Impressionism.

    Metcalf found his primary source of happiness outdoors; he was an avid naturalist and fisherman who combined those pleasures with painting in all seasons. He became known as a painter of seasonal landscapes, and was especially praised for his direct, honest approach to the New England landscape and for his sensitivity to the changing faces of nature, foliage color, and light quality. Winter was a favorite season; his snow-filled canvases were often compared to the works of his friend Twachtman, another winter specialist.

    According to his biographer, Elizabeth de Veer, Metcalf "could not conceive of a universe [that was] sublime or tawdry, awesome or merely ordinary." Rather, his universe was "an expression of agreeable and very beautiful differences within a safe framework of predictability." In a letter to his daughter Rosalind, penned shortly before his death in 1925, Metcalf wrote that his painting was:

    An endless effort of putting paint on a canvas with a miserable little brush—and endeavoring to make it express thoughts and dreams—that will perhaps reach out and say something to someone, something that will make wandering souls—stop—and look—perhaps awaken something in them that may make them think of beautiful things—and so perhaps happiness. —Oh! my dear—it's a long journey this painting game—and such hard and continued effort demanded, if one has an ideal, such as I have, and the desire for perfection.

    Metcalf's vision of "summerland"—a world of perpetual sunshine and perfect repose—was not just another pretty concept; instead, it epitomized his spiritualist concept of the afterlife. Despite his own troubled adulthood (which included two divorces and a history of alcoholic binges), Metcalf held to this ideal, which guided his career as America's foremost Impressionist landscape painter.

    November Mosaic embodies this idealism. Dating to the prime of Metcalf's career, when he produced some of his most beautiful autumn paintings, the canvas was executed in fall 1922, when he was staying in the little stone village in Chester, Vermont. The nearby Little Williams River often plays an important role in his compositions; here it is seen against the backdrop of the New England hills, covered in early autumn tones and dotted with houses. Metcalf selected a slow, deliberate painting speed which emphasized patchy brushstrokes of variegated colors, hence the apt reference in the title to a "mosaic." Using classic compositional devices, such as crossing diagonals and crisp contrasts of texture and value, Metcalf quite literally and painstakingly constructed a scene of consummate serenity and solitude, a mood that one of his reviewers described at the time as "lyric in a positive, masculine style."

    For further reading:

    Elizabeth G. de Veer and Richard Boyle, Sunlight and Shadow: The Life and Art of Willard L. Metcalf (New York: Abbeville Press, 1987).
    Ulrich W. Hiesinger, Impressionism in America: The Ten American Painters (Munich: Prestel, 1991)

  2. American Artist Willard Metcalf
    Massachusetts-born Impressionist Painter and Member of The Ten
    © Meg Nola

    Feb 26, 2008
    Known best for his beautiful landscapes and portraits of New England, Metcalf was part of the early 20th century American Impressionist group known as The Ten.

    Willard Leroy Metcalf was born in Lowell, Massachusetts on July 1, 1858. His early talents allowed him to receive one of the first scholarships from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and following his studies he was offered a magazine commission to illustrate articles on the Southwest American Indian Zuni tribe. Metcalf was so fascinated by the Zunis that he then accompanied an expedition led by anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing, working on additional portraits and sketches.

    Metcalf enjoyed traveling and taking in different sights, and from New Mexico he went to Europe in 1883. He studied painting at Paris’ Académie Julian, then left for the countryside of France, particularly the Giverny area which French Impressionist Claude Monet would depict so well. Metcalf even tutored Monet’s children, though he did not give them art lessons but instead taught them about the study of flowers and birds.

    Peaceful Scenes and A Restless Life
    Returning to the United States around 1888, Metcalf continued to do illustrations and won a medal for a painting at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. His personal life was sometimes troubled, however, and in 1904 he left New York and spent a year in the woods of Maine trying to overcome alcoholism and paint in a purer, deeper manner. Following this fresh start, which he would call his “Impressionist Renaissance,” Metcalf focused on painting New England landscapes and became a founding member of a group of American Impressionists known as The Ten.

    Metcalf worked closely with The Ten painters Childe Hassam and John Twachtman, spending time at the artists’ colony in Old Lyme, Connecticut and then at another collective in New Hampshire. Never one to avoid the elements, Metcalf enjoyed painting outdoors and he especially loved braving the icy New England winter temperatures. His works are noted for having a strong, almost masculine tone, thereby avoiding the overly pastoral look of certain other landscape portraits. Metcalf has also been described as the visual counterpart to fellow New Englander and poet Robert Frost.

    Metcalf’s paintings are wonderfully imaged and show fine effects with light, offering a tranquility that wasn’t always mirrored in Metcalf’s world beyond the easel. Though he had experienced his 1904 artistic renaissance, he did go through two divorces in the years following and occasionally relapsed into periods of heavy drinking. Metcalf was also curiously intrigued by spiritualism and the occult, and a continued restlessness within his own soul seemed to keep him from happily settling down.

    Read more:

  3. Hello
    I heard that Willard Leroy Metcalf painted Indians. Please write, do you have any information about these figures it?

  4. I recently discovered that I have a Metcalf oob titled "Early Fall". Can anyone out there give me any information on it?