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Tuesday, 8 September 2009

John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902)

John Henry Twachtman was born in Cincinnati and was exposed first to the esthetic principles pf Munich and later of Paris when Whistler and Japanese prints were the rage. He dedicated himself exclusively to landscape painting. He slowly built up images that seem to accept impressionism but more likely imply that he sought the true spirit of nature. Reflecting a true individualism in painting, John Henry Twachtman’s style formed the core of a new American Impressionism.

By Alexandra A Jopp

John Henry Twachtman, a member of the successful exhibiting group known as the “Ten American Painters,” was best known for his impressionist seasonal landscapes. His style varied widely throughout his career, to the point that essayist M. Therese Southgate described him as “a man of many moods” who “especially liked the mysterious in nature: the full moon, clouds, fog, snow, the country, isolation.”1

John Henry Twachtman. Arques–la–Bataille, 1885.

John Henry Twachtman. Winter Landscape.
John Henry Twachtman. Winter Harmony, (c. 1890/1900).

This painting "Winter Harmony" catches the sensual essence of New England woods in winter. He wrote in 1891 to J. Alden Weir:

Tonight is a full moon, a cloudy sky to make it mysterious and a fog to increase its mystery...I feel more and more contented with the isolation of country life. To be isolated is a fine thing and we are nearer then to nature. I can see how necessary it is to live always in the country - at all seasons of the year. We must have snow and lots of it. Never is nature more lovely than when it is snowing. Everything is so quiet and the whole earth seems wrapped in a marble ... all nature is hushed to silence. (Twachtman, John Henry, letter to J. Alden Weir, December 16, 1891, Greenwich, Conn., from Dorothy Weir Young, Life and Letters of J. Alden Weir, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1960.)

Woodland Stream in a Winter Landscape. Private Collection.

Twachtman’s early style reflected the influence of Frank Duveneck (1848-1919), an American realist painter, and the Munich school. He studied in his birthplace of Cincinnati at the Ohio Mechanics Institute and the McMicken School of Design. He sailed for Munich in 1875 and Paris in the early 1880s. He traveled widely while illustrating for Scribner's (1888-93), and he painted in Yellowstone Park in 1895. Most of his works as an adult, though, were painted at his home in Greenwich.

John Henry Twachtman. Edge of the Emerald Pool, Yellowstone. 1895.

John Henry Twachtman’s parents, Frederick Twachtman and Sophia Droege left the economic depression and political instability of their native Germany to come to the United States in the late 1840s. They settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the neighborhood known as “Over-the-Rhine.” Twachtman’s father held several different jobs during his life, including policeman, carpenter, storekeeper and cabinetmaker. He was best known, however, as a decorator of window shades at the Breneman Brothers factory. John Henry joined him at the factory at the age of 14. Between working at the window shade factory and attending classes at the Ohio Mechanics Institute, Twachtman was able to convince his parents to let him study art more seriously. In 1871, he transferred to the McMicken School of Design, and in 1874, he met Frank Duveneck, who became his teacher and friend. In 1875, Duveneck took his talented student with him to Munich, a city of art and originality. That fall, Twachtman enrolled in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Here, he adopted the rich, painterly style often associated with Munich’s realism. In the spring of 1877, Twachtman went to Venice accompanied by Duveneck and William Merritt Chase (1849-1916). His Venetian works, painted en plein air, show a forceful realist manner that was more Munich than Venice. Applying heavy paste directly on canvas with virtuosity, Twachtman painted dramatic contrasts of light and dark, a method known as “dark impressionism.” Upon his return to the United States in the winter of 1878, Twachtman became engaged in the progressive art community, joining the Tile Club and participating in the first exhibition of the Society of American Artists in New York.

John Henry Twachtman. Mother and Child, c. 1897. Private Collection.

John Henry Twachtman. On The Terrace. ca. 1890-1900.
In 1880, Twachtman married Cincinnati native Martha Scudder (1858-1936), who was also an artist. Martha had studied at the School of Design and in Europe, and she had exhibited etchings before marrying. She abandoned her artistic career, though, to devote herself to her family. The couple had two children: a daughter, Marjorie, who was born in Paris, and a son, J. Alden Twachtman, who became a painter and architect.

From fall 1880 until December 1881, Twachtman traveled and worked in Europe, with extended stays in Holland and Italy. In 1883, he studied in Paris at the prestigious Académie Julian with Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre. He concentrated on landscapes, and his French-period style was the opposite of his Munich approach. The works of European contemporaries affected his painting, and his style began moving toward a lighter pallete, thinner layers and more thoughtfully organized compositions. He became less enamored of strong contrasts, depicting mildly lit scenes in which light green and silver gray dominated. He also began to work extensively in pastels.

John Henry Twachtman. View of Venice. 1877.

Twachtman returned to the United States for good in 1887. He became one of the first art instructors in Cos Cob, a tiny Connecticut fishing village suburb of Greenwich, establishing summer art classes there in 1890 that attracted dozens of promising artists to the small community. He commuted to New York regularly, spending much of his time there working and socializing with fellow artists J. Alden Weir and Theodore Robinson. Starting in 1889, Twachtman lived and worked at his farm in Greenwich, near the Old Lyme art colony, but he spent the last few summers of his life in Gloucester, Mass., where he adopted a more impulsive approach, incorporating a brighter impressionistic style. In 1902, Twachtman died in Gloucester at the age of 49. The following year, the American Art Gallery in New York City auctioned 98 of his estate paintings for $16,6102.

Pond in Spring, ca. early 1890s
Oil on wood board
John Henry Twachtman. Meadow Flowers (Golden Rod and Wild Aster). 1892.

John Henry Twachtman. Spring Stream, 1899. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, United States. 

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), 56.

2: Who Was Who in American Art 1564-1975 (Madison, Conn.: Sound View Press, 1999), p. 3356.

Twachtman, John Henry, letter to J. Alden Weir, December 16, 1891, Greenwich, Conn., from Dorothy Weir Young, Life and Letters of J. Alden Weir, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1960.