There’s been a great artistic asymmetry across the Atlantic Ocean. North American collectors bought plenty of European paintings, many of which now grace galleries throughout the USA and Canada. But, as a general rule, few European collectors or galleries have bought North American art, at least not until well into the twentieth century.
The end result is that great American and Canadian painters are almost unknown in Europe. Today and tomorrow I look at the life and work of one, Willard Leroy Metcalf (1858–1925), who, when he died was billed – perhaps a little anachronistically – as “the foremost American landscape painter” by the New York Times.
Metcalf was born in Lowell, MA, into a working class family. He started painting at the age of sixteen, and two years later had progressed sufficiently to open a studio in Boston. He then gained a scholarship to study at the school of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where he was a student for two years. He set his eyes on travelling to Europe to develop further, and held his first solo exhibition in 1882 in order to sell paintings to raise funds.
Metcalf lived, studied and painted in Europe for five years, from 1883-88. Like many American artists of the time, he studied at the Académie Julian in Paris, where he was taught by Gustave Boulanger and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, neither of whom was a landscape specialist, nor sufficiently progressive to be Impressionist.
He travelled in France, visited Britain, and spent some time painting in the artists’ colony in Pont-Aven in Brittany. Among the other American painters he met in France were John Twatchtman and Theodore Robinson. He spent periods in summers from 1886 onwards in Giverny, by then the home of Claude Monet, and fast becoming an artists’ colony too. Metcalf had also painted at Grez-sur-Loing, and his landscapes from there are reputedly in Barbizon style.
Metcalf must have visited the Paris Opera Ballet, which was famously frequented by Edgar Degas and other artists, and there painted the gently voyeuristic The Ballet Dancers or The Dressing Room (1885). This is delightfully mature and painterly.
Just a couple of years later, he painted an early masterpiece, The Ten Cent Breakfast (1887), which demonstrates his skill not only with a figurative composition, but in tackling the showpieces of glassware, metal and other reflective surfaces (detail below). This presumably shows a group of his friends in France, one reading Le Petit Journal, as they drink coffee and smoke over breakfast in their lodgings in Giverny during the winter.
That year, a group of these American artists including Metcalf travelled to Algeria and Tunisia, where he painted this wonderful Street Scene, Tangiers (1887).
He also appears to have painted some plein air oil sketches in the countryside near Giverny in the summer of 1888, including Sunlight and Shadow, which explores a classical issue in Impressionism, the colours of shadows.
Later in 1888, he returned to the East Coast of America. He had another solo exhibition at the private St. Botolph Club in Boston, lived for a while in Philadelphia, then in 1890 opened a studio in New York.
During the early 1890s, Metcalf spent a lot of his time painting landscapes on the East Coast, including Midsummer Twilight (c 1890), which shows countryside and old stone buildings more typical of France.
He also visited and painted Gloucester Harbour (1895). This is a view of Smith Cove in East Gloucester, looking towards its inner harbour, with the town itself on the opposite shore. It’s a superb set-piece of what had been a couple of decades earlier the busiest port in the USA. With the rapid decline of sail at the end of the nineteenth century, though, it was slowly returning to a quieter existence, with its supporting industries in steady decline. It had been popular with several major American artists, including Winslow Homer.
The late 1890s were less productive, though, as Metcalf led a more lavish lifestyle and drank heavily. In 1897, he was one of the Ten American Painters, alongside John Twachtman, Julian Alden Weir and Childe Hassam, who left the Society of American Artists to exhibit together as a group.
In the summer of 1900 (or thereabouts), Metcalf visited the historic village of Hadlyme in Connecticut, where he painted this brilliant interior in Summer at Hadlyme. If the date is accurate, this doesn’t show Metcalf’s wife and daughter, as he didn’t marry the actress Marguerite Beaufort Hallé (who was twenty years younger than him) until 1903, after she had modelled for murals which he painted for a New York courthouse.
In 1902, he visited Havana, Cuba, where his painting became significantly lighter.
He painted this aerial view of Manhattan’s Battery Park – Spring in 1902. This shows the marked change in lightness in his landscapes, and is one of his well-known works.