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.
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.
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
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.