Emergence of Impressionism
Late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century

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Impressionism in America

It took approximately fifteen years after the French exhibition of 1874 for Impressionism to become known on the East coast of the United States. At that time, most established American artists had been English trained in the landscape tradition. Thus, it is not surprising that the predominant style of American art was landscape painting. Landscape painting fulfilled an important role in a young country, i.e. to advertise and record the amazing beauty and majesty of a new frontier.

At the turn of the century, there was a paucity of quality art schools in America. Studying abroad was not only necessary for the serious art student, but quite appealing in many ways. It was much cheaper to live abroad and the lifestyle was much more liberating. Of greater importance, it offered the student a certain prestige and provided opportunities to make valuable connections. After the Civil War (1863), many American art students were studying in Paris and exposed to French Impressionism.

Around 1886, Impressionist paintings primarily by French artists first appeared in exhibitions in New York and Boston. The style of painting was not immediately embraced. By 1890, however, the appreciation for this style of painting had substantially elevated. Americans were beginning to collect Impressionist paintings with free abandon -- at least on the East coast.

Impressionism in the West

While Impressionism was gaining in popularity on the East Coast, the predominant style of painting on the West Coast remained quite different. The dominant style was similar to the earlier Eastern landscape painting. It was not until the West experienced a substantial increase in immigration and fifteen years had passed before Impressionism was to gain any recognition. The gold rush and dramatically improved transportation (i.e. the building of the transcontinental railroad lines) fueled the growth of a population substantial enough to support art communities throughout California.

Suprisingly, Impressionism never did dominate in San Francisco. The primary reason may have been that the then head of the California School of Design, Matthews, who wielded substantial influence, did not embrace the Impressionist style of painting. Matthew's presence possibly retarded the full development of Impressionism in San Francisco.

In fact, after the San Francisco earthquake, many artists moved to the Monterey penisula, where the first important art colony in California was established. Artists continued their migration southward to central and southern California, attracted by the appealing climate, beautiful landscape, and economic opportunity. Many artists found themselves drawn to Impressionism. It was a style perfectly adept at capturing and translating the essence of the light, color, and atmosphere of the beautiful landscape. Impressionism seemed to fit the spirit of California. Unlike San Francisco, there was no entrenched artistic tradition to prohibit the use of the Impressionist style. Other important art centers sprung up including Pasadena, Laguana Beach, and San Diego.

The year 1915 is thought to be the pinnacle for the American Impressionist painting style. The Panama-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco was the most complete showing of American Impressionist painting. San Diego also held an exhibition commemorating the opening of the canal and included a very large representation of Impressionist style paintings.

Although this style of painting continued to be practiced in California, its popularity declined in the 1940's with the advent of modernism. The representational period was left behind as the popularity of modern art increased.

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