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American Impressionism story told at Monet gardens
GIVERNY, France (AP) — Mottled brushstrokes capture the sunset on a haystack, vivid hues fragment forest grass, while hazy edges give life to Normandy trees as they dance in the breeze.
These are typical scenes of the renowned 19th century French art movement Impressionism. But there is one major difference: they're all painted by Americans.
A new exhibit at Normandy's Impressionism Museum tells for the first time the little-known story of American Impressionism from where it all began — at the picturesque water lily-filled Giverny gardens where master Claude Monet painted his best-loved works.
"From the very beginning of this movement which began here in Giverny, there were Americans here at the forefront. The French don't always like to admit it," said museum director Diego Candil.
The collection of 80 paintings, loaned from top galleries in the United States and Britain, shows not only how Americans exported Impressionism to the U.S., but how they in turn developed their own Americanized version.
The first American artists to experiment with Impressionism were John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt, who both worked closely with Monet. Cassatt was the only American to exhibit with the Impressionists in their shows in the 1870s and 1880s. She struck up friendships with painters Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro, whose work she introduced to hungry American collectors.
As the Impressionist style fired the imaginations of Americans in Boston, Philadelphia and New York, American artists not only flocked to and colonized Giverny to learn the techniques of outdoors painting, light and color, but went back home with their own brand of the movement tailored for the audience at home. An American colony existed in varying size in this sleepy French village for some 30 years.
"The Americans stayed then went back home with the Impressionism they learned at Giverny. But because it's the gilded age in America — they were much more interested in preserving a kind of bourgeois beauty in art and in life. No signs of industry or factories. And more sentimental," said Katherine Bourguignon, exhibit curator.
American Impressionism often straddled two continents. Some paintings in the exhibit had the mottled scenes of French landscape painted in Giverny, and were transported to the U.S. to have American figures painted on later.
The other big difference between the U.S. and French versions was that Americans often refused to blur out the faces in order to show off their recently-acquired academic techniques.
"They are very proud of their training, and they will not dissolve the figure completely. They will not do speckled brushstrokes all over a woman's face. Because there is more of a desire to do something pretty, pleasing," said Bourguignon.
But the exhibit also suggests that Americans didn't just contribute to a movement which produced some of the world's most famous paintings — including "Water-Lily Pond" and "Poppies at Argenteuil" by Monet. It hints that an American, James McNeill Whistler, might well have been Impressionism's actual starting point.
Whistler's 1866 seascape painting "Nocturne," which captures dark, moody light almost in monochrome, was seen by Monet and was thought to have profoundly influenced him years before Impressionism was even a word.
"Impressionism and Americans" runs until June 29.
Thomas Adamson can be followed at Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP