Wednesday, April 30, 2008
As comfortable on a baseball diamond as he was in an art studio, Edmund Tarbell epitomized the spirit of the Ten American Painters group he helped found with Robert Henri and others. Born April 26, 1862, Tarbell’s Impressionist works such as In the Orchard (above, from 1891) seem out of place with the group later known as the Ashcan School. While William Glackens, John Sloan, and others depicted the grittier side of turn of the twentieth century America, Tarbell painted the more cultured circles he and his family inhabited, while still keeping his common touch. In the Orchard certainly gives an Impressionist feel, but it’s a feel felt second hand, perhaps through the works of Tarbell’s contemporary, John Singer Sargent, who knew several Impressionists personally and transmitted their style across the Atlantic when he came back to America in search of portrait commissions. Whereas French Impressionism distills a decidedly old tradition of landscape in a new mode, the Americanized Impressionism of Tarbell reflects the new American vocabulary of vigorous living, including the “New Woman,” whose freedom and vivacity are epitomized here in the person of Tarbell’s wife holding court at the center of the painting.
I find Tarbell interesting because of the way he could incorporate so many different elements into his art. Henri’s philosophy of painting what you know and love in the here and now certainly informs all of Tarbell’s painting, but the style in which he depicted that reality borrowed from many sources. Tarbell’s Impressionist works appeal to many, but he was versatile and talented enough to paint more photographically as well. New England Interior (above, from 1906) shows Tarbell’s love of Vermeer. You could almost mistake it for a Vermeer if not for the clothing and furniture. In Art of the Everyday: Dutch Painting and the Realist Novel (my review here), Ruth Bernard Yeazell shows how the idea of Vermeer and Dutch painting as a specific type of realism influenced novelist in the nineteenth century. I would argue that Tarbell combines the realism extolled by Henri with that proposed by Vermeer and arrives at a fascinating synthesis that is both contemporary and traditional.
We associate the Ashcan School mainly with the boxing paintings of Glackens or the street scenes of Sloan, but Tarbell offers a different strata of society in Preparing for the Matinee (above, from 1907). As with New England Interior, this painting shows the influence of Vermeer, but it also gives us a slice of the life of leisure and entertainment the Ashcan artists examined as so wonderfully presented in the Detroit Institute of Arts’ exhibition Life’s Pleasures: The Ashcan Artists’ Brush with Leisure, 1895-1925 (my review here). As American society finally found time to have fun and enjoy the prosperity it had wrought, Tarbell and others captured not only the visuals of that transformation but the energy behind it. Tarbell’s Yankee ingenuity in bringing so many disparate elements of art to his personal vision of American life parallels the Yankee ingenuity that made his native New England and all of early twentieth-century America an exciting place to be.