“Performing Openness: Open-air Painting and Conceptions of Openness in the Late Nineteenth-Century United States,” by Noam Gonnen

The painting The Sportsman’s Season (Hunter with a Pointer), hanging in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, depicts a vast, open, semi-dried meadow, with a slightly slanted horizon line (Fig. 1). A wide pathway provides an easy and inviting entrance into the illusionary pictorial space; its linear perspective induces the eye to follow the path up to the vanishing point where the small figure of a man – the hunter – appears, heading toward the viewer. The eye then moves back to the foreground and rightward to the hound trotting ahead of its master, and, with the animal’s rapid movement, the viewer is led out of the composition. This work, by William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), was painted on the sandy Shinnecock Hills in Long Island while the artist was the director of the tremendously successful Shinnecock Hills Summer School. It manifests a firm belief in the relevance of its ingredients: open-air, vast horizon, and artistic style. The path that the eye follows through the composition is not arbitrary, but rather derived from a clear agenda, which illustrates Chase’s advice to his students: “It is never well to keep your work too much inside the frame […] carry it well out to the edge.” On another occasion, he commented: “Let the edges of your picture lose themselves.”1 Far from exclusive to Chase, many artists were searching for a certain mode of openness both to work within and to reflect (an idea that was embraced by their audience as well). This paper examines American landscape painting in the last decades of the nineteenth century as marked by either a desire to enhance the pictorial frame or by a push towards the dissolution of that frame; significantly, both tendencies were invested and manifested in the practice of open-air painting and in the representations of open-air scenery. 


Fig. 1.William Merritt Chase, The Sportsman’s Season (Hunter with a Pointer), 1895, oil on canvas, 65.72 x 90.17 cm. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. James W. and Frances Gibson McGlothlin Collection, L2015.13.16.  Photo: Travis Fullerton. © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

By the end of the nineteenth century, open-air painting was perceived in the United States as a signifier of truth, health, innovation, progress, spatial movement and removal of barriers while also maintaining an aura of the bucolic, virgin charms of an ‘old’ America in the face of increasing urbanization and industrialization. It became particularly prevalent in the densely populated northeast where Long Island and New England were the preferred destinations for many painters.2 This trend was reflected in the proliferation of artists’ colonies, summer resorts, and outdoor painting schools, as well as the plethora of small impressions on panel, canvas, and paper available in the art market. The attribution of open-air painting to contradicting values such as progress and romanticized simplicity validated, for example, the use of the image of Thomas Moran (1837–1926) sketching outdoors to advertise the Santa Fe Railroad in the first decade of the twentieth century (Fig. 2). Rather than focusing on an image of a steam-breathing locomotive, or of relaxed passengers seated in a comfortable railroad car, or even a painting or photograph of the Grand Canyon itself, the main subject was the noble figure of the excursionist-painter and his artistic practice of working outdoors. What was the cultural and historical backdrop against which open-air painting flourished in the United States? How did various artists work under this condition to consolidate and advocate their own artistic worldview?


Fig. 2.Thomas Moran sketching in the Grand Canyon. Unknown illustrator, Santa Fe Railroad advertisement in Fine Arts Journal, 1909, photomechanical reproduction on white wove paper, 26.5 x 19.1 cm. Digital Collections, New York Public Library, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/943e4712-c1c7-f8e3-e040-e00a18063caa

Of course, painting outdoors with oil paints was not in and of itself a new method. The practice’s European origins date back to the eighteenth century or even earlier, and it became extremely popular by the mid-nineteenth century in France, Italy, and England, reaching its apogee with 1870s Impressionism.3 In the United States, oil sketching in the open-air was common among the so-called Hudson River School painters and it even had its own market.4 However, in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the practice of outdoor painting appeared to be garnering new and considerable attention from artists, amateurs, and the masses.

This paper seeks to delineate the connection between open-air painting as an accepted and very popular artistic practice in the 1880s and 1890s and notions of openness, whether visual, socio-cultural, or psychological-philosophical, consistent with the beliefs and paradigms of late nineteenth-century middle- and upper-class Americans. It will be argued that this new (or renewed) platform enabled prominent painters of the era to ‘perform’ open-air painting, revealing and disclosing its unique mode and values, while taking their role as important agents of cultural, perceptual, and epistemological shifts. The historical and social conditions that enabled the development of the American ‘plein air painting rush’ will be illuminated, beginning with a wider angle that scrutinizes the relationship of open-air to health, leisure, and movement in late nineteenth-century United States and proceeding to examine the organized journeys of the quasi-social artistic group entitled the Tile Club, as a case study. A further contextual discussion of open-air paintings as well as written accounts regarding open-air painting, made by four influential American painters – William Merritt Chase, John Henry Twachtman (1853–1902), Winslow Homer (1836–1910), and Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847–1917) – will delve into both how open-air paintings were conceived and executed by these artists and their reception by contemporary viewers which resonated various ideas concerning ‘openness’. For some of these artists, open-air painting was their primary method of painting, while, for others, it was a way to study, train, contemplate, or otherwise engage with their subject. However, in all cases, it served as a groundbreaking approach that allowed the artists studied here to explore artistic limits and reach for new horizons, achievements to which contemporary criticism responded with interest.

To date, scholars have generally described open-air painting as a method, or practice, within the genre of landscape painting, thus it rarely receives attention as a stand-alone subject. Despite relatively recent discussions about the ‘material turn’ in art history, American landscape painting is still frequently read in the national and socio-political context.5 By focusing and isolating open-air painting from the more-general landscape painting, it is possible to trace the evident affinity between the practice and the meaning derived therefrom and how both of these encounter a set of contemporary ideas and conceptions in order to form an episteme. Moreover, by deliberately avoiding the tendency to correlate the painters at the center of the discussion with French Impressionism (as in many cases most of them are branded “American Impressionists”), the paper seeks to look beyond that rather facile attribute which narrows the scope of reference mostly to stylistic issues and leads to an automatic and uncritical approval of Modernist narratives.6 Indeed, despite the undeniable influence of French and European painting, including Impressionism, it is also important to acknowledge that for late nineteenth-century Americans, and those educated in Europe are no exception, the terms ‘landscape’ and ‘nature’ would have borne an entirely different meaning and set of values than for their European contemporaries.7 Ideas such as self-reliance, self-culture, directness, freedom of will, entrepreneurship, adventurousness, expansion (and the role played by the rail network in that context), fused in this context with open-air painting, all bore their own genuine meaning for turn-of-the-century American artists and their audiences, as the building-blocks of identity.8

Openness as Spaciousness: Health, Freedom, and Movement

In the late nineteenth-century United States, the term ‘open-air’ certainly did not bear exclusively artistic connotations. The positive effects of fresh air, oxygen, open space, and sunlight were frequently promoted for their health benefits, particularly as an anti-thesis to the noisy, polluted, and overpopulated industrial cities. A new disease named neurasthenia, or nervous exhaustion, had been a major concern for the American medical community and the general public alike since the 1880s. Awarded the dubious honor of being crowned America’s national disease, neurasthenia struck men as well as women and was strongly linked with the pace of industrialized urban life; its main victims were the “indoor-living and brain-working classes”, namely people of the middle- and upper-classes.9 The customary treatment included rest cures in calm and quiet resorts, preferably with natural surroundings, away from the noisy metropolis and the stressful “brain-work” environment, in order to regenerate strength to the body and nerves.10 

In addition to its healing properties, open-air was also associated with leisure. A new “enthusiasm for the tonic freshness and openness of nature”, as the historian John Higham has noted, was taking hold of American society near the turn of the century.11 This urge for spaciousness signified an “imaginative release” from the restraints which characterized the Reconstruction Era.12 This was reflected by a tremendous growth in outdoor sports, camping, and trekking, as well as the promotion of an intrepid, masculine culture. As the national rail network developed, and with it the convenience of travel, the countryside became accessible to greater numbers of middle-class Americans, affording them an escape from the metropolis whether as patients, vacationers, or even permanent settlers where they could afford it. Various changes occurred involving new spatial-cultural experience: American national tourism grew, resorts and farmhouses offered accommodation, books, newspapers and magazines published personal accounts of picturesque voyages around the continent, and basic tourist-guide information became readily available.13 Importantly, the nature preservation movement also gained in influence and popularity at this time, resulting in the foundation of the great national parks such as Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant National Parks in 1890.

Under these conditions, it is not surprising that open-air painting was embraced as enthusiastically as it was. Painters were eager to reflect this mode of openness and found the market for such images receptive and profitable.14 In 1885, The Century Magazine published an article by American author and travel writer Elizabeth W. Champney (1850–1922) about the summer resorts of American artists in which she mentions a number of sites along Long Island and the New England coast. Champney’s recorded impression, that “one can now scarcely make a summer excursion in any picturesque locality without encountering the white umbrellas and light portable easels of the nomad artist”, goes some way to indicating the tremendous popularity of open-air painting in the mid-1880s.15 During the 1890s and into the beginning of the twentieth century, the phenomenon continued to establish itself, leading to the foundation of multiple artists’ colonies in small villages such as East Hampton, Old Lyme, Cornish, Cos Cob, and Provincetown where open-air painting was a common practice.16 In 1891, the Shinnecock Hills summer school was launched, a landmark in the institutional development of the practice. William Merritt Chase was invited to be the school’s director and chief instructor, giving open-air painting classes each summer during the school’s successful ten-year existence.17

Therefore, depictions of the countryside executed in the open-air which conveyed spaciousness, and freshness, and evoked familiar scenes did have a particular appeal. Yet, beneath the appealing subject matter, artists were searching for intellectual prestige, dealing in symbolic cultural capital no less than looking for material profit. Open-air painting was thus situated and cultivated within a broader field of meaning: it was an episteme, a concept, a stance, forged within the convictions of artistic identity which served both the artists themselves and the middle- and upper-class circles in which they acted.


Fig. 3.William Merritt Chase, A Subtle Device, 1881, oil on canvas, 29.25 × 38.74 cm.  The Heckscher Museum of Art; Gift of the Baker/Pisano Collection. 2201.9.53

Tiling the Way to Open-Air Painting

A striking example of such an identity construction that served both ends was the Tile Club’s expeditions for outdoor sketching and painting, covered and encouraged by the popular Scribner’s Monthly illustrated magazine (which few years later, in 1881, was reborn as The Century). One of the more animated artists’ groups of the time, the Tile Club was a semi-professional and semi-social organization of artists, all of them men, initially formed around the idea of producing hand-painted ceramic tiles in the spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement. Among the more famous Tile Club members were prominent figures such as William M. Chase, Winslow Homer, Edwin Austin Abbey (1852–1911), Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907), John Twachtman, Julian Alden Weir (1852–1919), Earl Shinn (1838–1886), and the architect Stanford White (1853–1906), many of them at the very beginning of their careers when the club was established in 1877. In order to experiment with current modes of artistic creation and their socializing benefits, the Tile Club ran open-air excursions for its members. Three such journeys took place in 1878, 1879, and 1881 respectively, sponsored by Scribner’s Monthly and the Long Island Railroad Company. The purposes of each journey were commercial as well as artistic; beyond providing social opportunities for the Tile Club members and furnishing Scribner’s Monthly with an agreeable and unusual subject for its readers (who could find an illustrated travel diary of each excursion), it was also intended to promote the railroad tourist trade.18 In a way that resembles the juxtaposition of Thomas Moran with the Santa Fe railroad, it seems that here, also, artistic creative processes in the open-air were perceived and conceived as emblematic of new modes of transportation in a rapidly growing consumerist culture. 

In 1879, the second Tile Club journey, “The Tile Club Afloat” (as it was titled in Scribner’s Monthly), took the artists up the Hudson River in a barge replete with exotic artifacts and garments from Chase’s Tenth Street studio. Chase’s renowned habit of collecting objects from various cultural origins to exhibit them in his studio and reproduce them in his paintings reflects a cosmopolitan aspiration to transcend the boundaries of time and place.19 While the Tilers’ barge was anchored at various sites during its journey, locals were invited to come aboard to get a glimpse of the resplendent voyagers and their appurtenances and even to dress up in various exotic costumes. This kind of cultural display was part of a wider set of associations between open-air painting and the ‘open’ identity of cultural cosmopolitanism, as well as the romantic allure of travel.20 


Fig. 4.Jules Gagniet (drawing), J. Quartley (woodcut), Chambre Noire Portative pour Dessin (Portable Dark Room for Drawing), from : Adolphe Ganot, Cours de physique purement expérimentale et sans mathématiques, forth edition (Paris : Chez L’auteur-éditeur, 1868).

On the third and last Tile Club outing, the artists explored the South Shore of Long Island. When the picturesque location turned out to be swarming with mosquitoes, it was Chase who managed to construct an improvised mosquito net or, as he called it, A Subtle Device (Fig. 3). Although not concealing its ironic character, this self-portrait painting also discloses a new episteme: a modern, innovative studio, set fully in the landscape. This depiction of an artist ensconced in a small, provisional space created for his professional needs might evoke the camera obscura. The Portable Darkroom for Drawing illustrated in a nineteenth-century French book about physics shows a striking resemblance (Fig. 4). Chase probably had the camera obscura in mind, hence his use of the term “device” in his description of it. However, in the Subtle Device, the artist is afforded a 360-degree view of the landscape and no artificial lenses mediate between him and nature; he is simultaneously outside and inside. Yet, it serves another purpose: by endowing the artist with the aura of some sort of pioneer, the self-portrait emphasizes vulnerability and exposure as constituent parts of the uncompromising quest to portray nature ‘truly’.

“Right Under the Sky”: Spatial Openness Translated into Paint

For many North American painters (and critics) in the late nineteenth-century, a painting executed outdoors and in natural light was believed to bear the mark of authenticity, directness, and decency. In an 1891 interview with the magazine Art Amateur, Chase couched his appreciation for painting outdoors in terms of truthfulness, while also presenting the necessity to free oneself from conventions and restrictive schemas through open-air painting:

 […] I never use an umbrella. I want all the light I can get. When I have found the spot I like, I set up my easel, and paint the picture on the spot. I think that is the only way rightly to interpret nature. I don’t believe in making pencil sketches and then painting your landscape in your studio. You must be right under the sky. […] You must study the effects of light and shade on nature’s own hues and tints. You must not ask me what color I should use for such an object or in such a place; I do not know until I have tried it and noted its relation to some other tint.21

Beyond advocating for the practice’s fidelity to nature, especially where light and color are concerned, Chase’s account reveals his freedom of spirit and will: striding through the landscape, finding “the spot”, and executing the work of art therein.22 The passage also emphasizes an essential state of exposure, that is, forgoing an umbrella so as to be “right under the sky”. The umbrella, or parasol, was a symbol of European, especially French, open-air painting and Chase’s preference to go without one might be taken to betray a self-consciously American performance of openness and directness.23

Chase’s landscape paintings depict local features in a relatively naturalistic fashion, but a common feature is their sense of openness, generally achieved by means of the compositional arrangement. In particular, his Shinnecock paintings from the 1890s present mild, suspended, idle images of humans and nature, while making a visual equivalence to that physical and mental state. The eye is left to its own devices wandering freely through the elevated plain of dunes encountering only sporadic figures, often the artist’s wife and/or children, as depicted in Chase’s Gathering Autumn Flowers (Fig. 5. Note the fallen umbrella.). The figures serve as loose, relatively inconspicuous focal points; undetailed and executed with bravura brushstrokes, they tend to be absorbed in their strolling and so is the viewer’s eye. In this sense, the vastness of Shinnecock was ideal, characterized by shrubs and endless pastures, and, without the bar-like verticals of tall trees to block a view to the horizon, the open ocean is nearly always visible.24 


Fig. 5.William Merritt Chase, Gathering Autumn Flowers, 1894 or 1895, oil on canvas, 53 x 97 cm. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. 2012.89.1

Chase, it seems, was creating a spatial experience for the viewer’s eye, reproducing the dynamic, transient, and free manner with which a body might move through such open, natural settings. His epithet, “seeing machine”, coined by one of his contemporaries, the painter Kenyon Cox (1856–1919), may also corroborate this notion.25 Teaching his intensive summer painting classes outdoors in the Shinnecock Hills, Chase passed on his technical and conceptual understanding of openness in painting to many painters, amateurs, and professionals alike.26 For example, on depicting the sky in painting, Chase recommended one “try to paint the sky as if we could see through it, and not as if it were a flat surface”; and, in a similar vein, he advised, “keep your sky open, and when painting a tree, make it look as though birds could fly through it.”27 

Between a Thought and a Thing: Open-air Painting as a Suggestive Force

The sense of openness that outdoor painting sought to render is differently manifested in the work of John Henry Twachtman (1853–1902). A close friend of Chase, Twachtman was an enthusiastic open-air painter himself and in the 1890s taught outdoor painting classes in Cos Cob during summertime. Far less dandy and extroverted than his friend, Twachtman devoted himself to open-air painting by turning the natural, agrarian setting of his private property in Greenwich, Connecticut into practically his main subject in the 1890s, and, though he is most recognized for his snowscapes, he depicted nature throughout the year.28 In many of the paintings from the 1890s that comprise his oeuvre, the same locales are represented not only in differing weather conditions, but also with differing degrees of naturalism, often leaning towards abstraction, yet always more or less readable as taken from nature.

The 1894 painting Hemlock Pool – Autumn demonstrates this more pronounced abstraction (Fig. 6). A close examination reveals a brook surrounded by tall, slender trees, a composition that bears a real resemblance to other paintings by Twachtman and presumably painted from the same spot, sur le motif. It is clear, though, that the artist is challenging the legibility of space, form, object, and landscape as all of these elements appear to be held by atmospheric effect alone, stripped back into bold patches of color and tone.


Fig. 6.John Henry Twachtman, Hemlock Pool – Autumn, ca. 1894, oil on canvas, 39.4 x 49.5 cm. Private collection.

As sketchy and experimental as it might appear, Hemlock Pool – Autumn was considered sufficiently finished by the artist to be submitted to the 1894 Temple Gold Medal competition at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, where it took the first prize.29 The event caused a minor scandal and the artwork was condemned by some critics as “hardly a picture” or one that “’may appeal to the soul of the artist,’ […] but it surely will to nobody else.”30 Yet, despite Twachtman’s daring abstraction was an affront to proponents of a more conservative style of painting and the polemic that ensued, it should be noted that by 1894, abstractive qualities, though not always embraced and far from being the norm, was not entirely unacceptable. In fact, both the public and critics in the United States had begun to accept, at least to some degree, this looser style of painting, which was often attributed to European influence on the young generation who studied abroad.

In Hemlock Pool – Autumn, Twatchman corroborates an existing discourse that equated painterly style to liveliness. At the beginning of the previous decade, art critic William C. Brownell (1851–1928) noted that what distinguished this generation of American painters (or “the new men,” as he referred to them) was their defiance of naturalism and their predilection for a more expressive and suggestive handling of paint to represent reality. This was taken to refer to an emphasis on style, the elimination of details, and a lack of pristine finish.31 “[M]ost people,” Brownell argued, hinting at the popular taste for naturalism, “never thought of asking of a painting that it be ‘alive’ instead of only ‘life-like’. […] And this characterizes the work of the new men almost without exception. […] nature is to them a material rather than a model.”32 Surveying works by painters such as Chase, Weir, Ryder, and Frank Duveneck (1848–1919), Brownell paid particular attention to the loose style of painting notable in the “barely modeled” subject, the “rapid and hasty study”, the “conscious disregard of the conventions of painting”, and “leav[ing] off when [the] principal effect is secured”.33 These qualities, which a decade later became even more marked in many of these artists’ work, are therefore characteristic of, and perhaps even a precondition for, a style of painting that, after Brownell, one could call “alive”. For instance, in Twachtman’s painting The Torrent, it is obvious that the artist was more concerned with the overwhelming motion of flowing water than with representative issues such as depth, detailed rendition, translucency of watery surface; even light does not seem to play a central role (Fig. 7). The vital stream with its abstractive qualities—rushing from the upper right corner of the canvas toward its left and bottom edges where it suggests a “breaking“ of the frame of vision—is actually the main subject. 


Fig. 7.John Henry Twachtman, The Torrent, ca. 1900, oil on canvas, 64.1 x 76.5 cm., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of William T. Evans, 1909.7.66

While appreciation for the painterly qualities such as the ones mentioned by Brownell steadily grew, the detailed topographical depictions typical to former generations were falling out of favor in the eyes of many critics.34 Indeed, one might take this dual process to bear out Higham’s contention that a release from the “restraints and confinements” was being sought in the postbellum United States. The search for a less restrained way to depict nature engendered a new way of relating to art and gave rise to terms such as “style”, “temperament”, and “manner”. In his 1893 book Art for Art’s Sake, the American art historian and critic John Charles Van Dyke (1856–1932) noted that “[the artist’s] manner of seeing, his manner of thinking, his manner of telling, becomes an important factor in the picture of which we needs must take account.”35 Citing and contextualizing a remark made by Coleridge (1772–1834), Van Dyke claimed that “painting is of ‘a middle quality between a thought and a thing, the union of that which is nature with that which is exclusively human.’”36 The quotation from Coleridge relates to the “dual nature” of a painting, both a representation of reality and the artist’s mind and emotions. However, in the context of Van Dyke’s discussion of stylistic approaches and subject matters in American painting, the quotation can be interpreted as an allusion to formal abstraction. In other words, the unique state of being “between a thought and a thing” charges the medium of painting with new possibilities and new convictions regarding its reference to reality.37 

Twachtman’s landscapes, with their suggestive quality occasionally verging on disintegration or de-materialization, would appear to occupy that position “between a thought and a thing”.38 Criticized by some of his contemporaries of being overtly subjective or reductive (“representing nothing” as one phrased it), the landscapes of Twachtman were at the same time praised by others precisely for their spatial ambiguity that evoked a peculiar state of openness.39 The following response to one of Twachtman’s landscapes is an evident example for such an acknowledgement:

Here the painter leads you to some quiet spot. […] you feel that the air is laden with moisture – it is one of those gray, damp days. You are not restricted to the narrow limits of the canvas, you feel as though you could follow the brook’s course farther down, and see way into the distance. This is the charm about these pictures – they are not placed before you as facts; they are awakeners of certain trains of thought; you feel even more than you see.40


Fig. 8.John Henry Twachtman, End of Winter, after 1889, oil on canvas, 55.8 x 76.3 cm. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of William T. Evans. 1909.7.65

Such pictorial strategy of ambiguous space that tends to melt distinctive boundaries might be found in End of Winter (Fig. 8).41 In the text, the critic relates to the painter’s capability to “lead” the viewer to where he was standing, dissolving the barrier between the artist’s reality and the viewer’s reality. The viewer is then induced to break free from the “narrow limits of the canvas” and to wander freely not only in the painted space but, rather, inside his or her own consciousness therefore dissolving a second barrier. Finally, the writer concludes that the uniqueness of the painting is its capability to make one feel it rather than see it, a comment that is quite perplexing when applied to an object that is primarily visual. Given the absence of solid, objective, optical information, the space is rendered as a suggestive, immanent, mental domain; the absence of facts does not make the scene less real, since it is the ‘inner’ reality of one’s own self, that is revealed here. Yet still, this phenomenon is related to the artist’s ability to lead the viewer to that “quiet spot” in “real” nature. Landscape, more than any other pictorial subject, functions here as an entity that is open to individual and emotional interpretations, a vehicle for personal associations and reflections. Outdoor space is defined as the gate to the inner self.

Truthiness and Presence: The “Life Enhancing” Seascapes of Winslow Homer

Another painter whose landscape depictions were reviewed in the context of eliminating the barrier between painting and viewer was Winslow Homer. Homer’s famous compositions of the coast of Maine, in which enormous waves dash against the rocky shoreline, were particularly taken as disputing the experience of space and evoking a subjective psychophysiological response in their viewer. As one of Homer’s collectors remarked, relating to the painting titled On a Lee Shore which was hanging in his library, it was capable of giving him “the feeling that he might be washed out of his home at any moment” (Fig. 9).42 It is remarkable that while Twachtman’s paintings represented a tranquil, intrinsic, meditative mood in nature, Homer’s represented its powerful, vital, and precarious side. Also, while Twachtman’s work invites the viewer to step inside, Homer’s breaking waves appear, on the contrary, to burst out towards the viewer.43  


Fig. 9.Winslow Homer, On a Lee Shore, 1900, oil on canvas, 99.1 x 99.1 cm. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Jesse Metcalf Fund. 01.003

Homer’s large Prouts Neck paintings are the culmination of many hours of observation undertaken while living close to the sea from the mid-1880s, a period in which the artist had modeled “from a finite physical world an expansive cosmos of ideas and feeling”, as art historian John Wilmerding has described.44 But even much earlier in his career, Homer had considered the practice of outdoor painting to be tremendously significant, declaring in an 1880 interview with Art Journal:

I prefer every time […] a picture composed and painted out-doors. Very much of the work now done in the studios should be done in the open air. This making studies and then taking them home to use them is only half right. You get composition, but you lose freshness; you miss the subtle and, to the artist, the finer characteristics of the scene itself […]. Out-door […], in the blending and suffusing of […] several laminations, there is no such thing as a line to be seen anywhere.45

In his countless depictions of men, women, and children from the 1870s and 1880s playing, working, or resting out in the open, Homer made abundantly clear his commitment to painting portraits in outdoor light. His works reveal a close attention to the way light falls and plays on clothes and skin. His pronounced contempt for the paintings of William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), the leading character in French academic painting, was based on the latter’s method of painting figures depicted in nature, using models in the studio. This approach, in Homer’s opinion, resulted in a “false […] waxy and artificial” appearance, and made the French master’s paintings “extremely near [to] being frauds”.46 In Homer’s painting The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog, the ship-like silhouette of Homer’s studio looming above the sea, enshrouded in a mysterious haze, might indeed be a heroic representation of a personified artistic space, but of equal importance is the fact that the artist/observer positions himself outdoors, looking at the studio from the outside (Fig. 10).47


Fig. 10.Winslow Homer, The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog, 1894, oil on canvas, 60.9 x 76.8 cm. Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester: R. T. Miller Fund. 1941.32


Fig. 11.Winslow Homer, Artists Sketching in the White Mountains, 1868, oil on panel, 24.1 × 40.3 cm. Portland Museum of Art: https://www.portlandmuseum.org/ ; Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.4. Image courtesy of Meyersphoto.com. © Trustees of the Portland Museum of Art, Maine.

Homer’s open-air ideology was rooted in a professional ethic as well as a self-conscious modernity but was also tied to the notions of control, or perhaps, the relinquishing of control. “The great compositions of the old masters,” he claimed, “were almost all interiors. You can’t control the thing out-doors.”48 This idea of controllability is shown in Homer’s early Artists Sketching in the White Mountains, painted in 1868 (Fig. 11). Depicting middle-class men with straw hats and mustaches engaged in the making of “culture”, Homer posits such moderated, restrained activity in sharp contrast with the composition’s strong opposing diagonals emphasized in the slanted umbrella and the stormy skies.49 As a painting about the practice of painting, the work can be seen as a meditation in the manner of an ars-poetica in which open-air painting is represented as a dynamic, unmoderated, unpredictable, and adventurous practice, ever poised at the point where control can be lost and the task at hand ruined.

A sense of adventure and precariousness, one which undermines human control over the elements of nature, is apparent in Homer’s turbulent Prouts Neck seascapes of the 1890s. In most cases, the sea is depicted from a vantage point which places the artist, and, accordingly, the observer, in a perilous position, exposed to the wrath of the elements. The significance of ‘being there’ is underlined, and the viewer is allegedly present with the artist in the scene – a notion that was also expressed in critical accounts like the following one made in the New England Magazine in 1896: “Now we stand with [Homer] where tremendous breakers dash against the rocky shore, and the black, whirling, angry clouds roll in an awful tumult in the tempestuous sky.”50 The critic Charles Caffin (1854–1918) even went as far as denoting that these paintings “plunge one into contact with the crudeness of elemental force.”51 This was, however, perceived as stimulating rather than frightening, inviting sublime expansion on the part of the viewer as opposed to cowering vulnerability. To this effect, the critic William Howe Downes (1854–1941) made the following comments in an analysis of the strong impression made on him by Homer’s Weatherbeaten (Fig. 12):

It is […] “life-enhancing.” Reality is made more real; we are more acutely alive when brought into [the painting’s] presence. Our horizons expand. The immensity and youthfulness of our continent are brought home to our consciousness.52

Here again, the barrier between reality and representation is taken to verge on collapse, the consequences of which are a “life-enhancing” experience and “expanding horizons”, in a pictorial performance of North American “immensity”. Their effects are brought about by the very “presence” of Homer’s painting, which was itself made possible by the artist’s presence in the landscape and his direct, unmediated contact with the elements of nature in reality. ‘Presence’ in Homer therefore bears a double meaning: it relates to the artist’s direct presence in nature and to the physicality of his paintings as a sort of extension of the artist. This presence enabled the artworks, in the eyes of Homer’s contemporaries, to evoke experience and convey meaning. 


Fig. 12.Winslow Homer, Weatherbeaten, 1894, oil on canvas, 72.3 x 122.9 cm. Portland Museum of Art: https://www.portlandmuseum.org/ ; Bequest of Charles Shipman Payson, 1988.55.1. Image courtesy of Luc Demers. © Trustees of the Portland Museum of Art, Maine.

The open seascapes of Homer and the artist‘s uncompromising adherence to the expressive forces of nature were taken as ethical performances, as emblems of the “pure and simple”, as one critic remarked.53 Yet their presence also invited a terminology of expansion: “It is the realism of stern fact – the awful hell of the seething waters, the mystery of a boundless deep, the might of blind force […] all unadorned, uncheapened, direct, truthful, grand.”54 Such grandness was not accredited solely to the artist’s turbulent seascapes: “Even his sunniest, most placid seascapes convey an adequate impression of that boundless desert of water […].”55 More than once, critics tied Homer’s ethics of directness and his preference for the ‘true’ over the ‘beautiful’ to an open-minded approach to method, arguing that the paintings’ crude appearance and “almost savage disregard of formula” derived from their fidelity to nature’s raw power.56 Homer’s direct engagement with open-air scenery heralded a new mode of controlling the uncontrollable and, in a way, un-controlling the controllable. In an era marked by the closure of the frontier, Homer was portraying the sea as an open, primeval nature, wild and untamed once more.57

Nature Springing into Life Upon a Dead Canvas: The Open-Ended Work of Art

In addition to defining new relationships between painter, painting, and viewer, open-air painting served artists in recognizing and acknowledging their own artistic processes. In comparison to the outworn conventions dominating the genre of landscape painting, depicting nature directly on relatively small formats was perceived as a rather personal interpretation free of rigid conventions evoking a sense of intimacy and was therefore linked with self-culture and self-reflective personality.58 For Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847–1917), painting en plein air was a springboard into a new phase of creativity. 

Although mostly recognized today by his imaginary paintings gravitating toward Symbolism, Ryder was, like many of his colleagues, experimenting extensively with open-air painting, particularly in the beginning of his career. His renowned tendency of simplified compositions with clearly articulated masses can be traced in his open-air works as well as in his later paintings, as exemplified in Weir’s Orchard, painted while Ryder was recuperating in the farm of his friend, J. Alden Weir (Fig. 13). However, Ryder regarded the practice of open-air painting as much more than a conventional source for landscape imagery. In an account published in Broadway magazine in 1905, “Paragraphs from the Studio of a Recluse”, Ryder described the enlightening experience that had seized him one day as he was painting outdoors. In Ryder’s first-person account, the relationship between the open-air experience and freedom from conventions is salient, while his narration of the event imbues it with a sense of ecstatic revelation:

Nature is a teacher who never deceives. When I grew weary with the futile struggle to imitate the canvases of the past, I went out into the fields, determined to serve nature as faithfully as I had served art. In my desire to be accurate I became lost in a maze of detail […]. The old scene presented itself one day before my eyes framed in an opening between two trees. It stood out like a painted canvas — […] Three solid masses of form and color — sky, foliage and earth — the whole bathed in an atmosphere of golden luminosity. I threw my brushes aside; they were too small for the work in hand. I squeezed out big chunks of pure, moist color and taking my palette knife, I laid on blue, green, white and brown in great sweeping strokes. As I worked I saw that it was good and clean and strong. I saw nature springing into life upon my dead canvas. It was better than nature, for it was vibrating with the thrill of a new creation. Exultantly I painted until the sun sank below the horizon, then I raced around the fields like a colt let loose, and literally bellowed for joy.59


Fig. 13.Albert Pinkham Ryder, Weir’s Orchard, c. 1885-90, oil on canvas, 43.5 x 53.3 cm, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1970.71.  Photo: Allen Phillips\Wadsworth Atheneum.

The direct, elementary—even primordial—essence of nature, consisting of “three solid masses of form and color”, might be identified in many of Ryder’s landscapes. One of them is the early painting entitled Landscape, now in the New Bedford Whaling Museum (Fig. 14). In his colorful literary account, Ryder is drawing a sharp distinction between the self-referential, academic method of “imitating the canvases of the past” and being a “student of nature”. In doing so, he first and foremost juxtaposes culture against nature. When he tries to copy nature using the same strategy that he employed while trying to imitate works by the Old Masters, he reaches a dead end. Only when he throws his brushes aside, giving up on “culture” and affords himself a new open-minded approach to the art of representation, does he attain something “better than nature”: an independent creation that is more valuable than a mere copy of the natural world, and wherein he sees “nature springing into life upon [his] dead canvas.” This event seems to stage the precise moment at which Ryder’s work is transformed from a representation into the thing itself: nature becomes art and art becomes nature.


Fig. 14.Albert Pinkham Ryder, Landscape, completed by 1870, oil on canvas, 23.5 x 32.4 cm. Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum: https://www.whalingmuseum.org/ ; 2005.3.

The romantic ideal of the intensive act of painting in nature precipitating a state of ecstasy on the part of the artist can also be found among other painters of the era. According to Carolyn Mase (1880–1949), who was one of Twachtman’s students, Twachtman left the house in a hurry one morning after looking out of the window and was found a few hours later painting feverishly in the snow having totally forgotten the breakfast that he had ordered.60 Similarly, an anecdote from the painter John Francis Murphy (1853–1921) tells that he had once set out to paint with George Inness (1825–1894) and other artist friends in the Catskills and, when a storm gathered and everyone stopped painting to find shelter, Inness could not be found. After searching, the group eventually came across him “face […] streaked with color […], painting like mad at a gorgeous sunsetand he refused to budge until he had finished his sketch.”61 The immersion in painting parallel to the immersion in nature was therefore beheld to be an act of total commitment to one’s work. 

Ryder’s converting experience of art as nature echoes Brownell’s observation about the new generations of artists for whom “nature is […] a material rather than a model”. This notion is also coherent with Ryder’s tendency to paint with extremely thick, heavily textured layering. Working unsystematically and fusing a wide variety of materials into his paintings (wax, bitumen, resin, alcohol, dried chunks of paint, and other such extremely unconventional ingredients as dirt from his boots or chewed tobacco), Ryder transformed his paintings into material objects.62 His struggle with the material nature of painting, added to his own experimental nature, quite often resulted in complete deterioration of surface and image alike, as is the case with his now almost-unidentifiable details in Curfew Hour, hung at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Fig. 15). As many of Ryder’s paintings were getting cracks and blobs during the artist’s lifetime, he strongly opposed the restoration and cleaning of them by his collectors and patrons, regarding it as plain “vandalism”, contending that “Nature isn’t clean”. Viewing a work of art as an organic being, Ryder likened it to a plant to be nourished or grown by its artist up to its final stage.63


Fig. 15.Albert Pinkham Ryder, Curfew Hour, by 1882, oil on wood, 19.1 x 25.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1909. 09.58.1

In many cases, Ryder found it extremely difficult to finish his works, sometimes going over a painting for years. This may appear to differ significantly from the experience quoted above of immediate response and ecstatic work, yet in fact it should be noted that a painting by Ryder might only begin in a single blitz, but then reworked slowly and obsessively over and over again.64 Painting, in this configuration, is an unmeasured and open-ended creative process whose starting point occurs somewhat miraculously and whose ending point is undetermined. In this sense, too, Ryder saw his works of art not as representations of natural phenomena, but rather as natural phenomena in their own right.

The mystical, material union between natural phenomena and the work of art in the context of open-air painting alongside an unorthodox attitude towards the process of making was noted by other American painters as well. In his personal memoirs from Barbizon, published in 1908, Will Hicok Low (1853–1932) recorded the following description:

Canvases of large dimensions, too large to be carried to and fro, […] would be left out of doors for weeks until the painting was completed. […] Many a picture in the museums to-day, protected by frame and glass, and the temperature of the gallery where it hangs carefully regulated, was thus born gipsy-like in the woods, where the shafts of sunlight by day and the stars by night watched curiously the progress of its growth.65 

Like Ryder, Low contrasts culture and nature while emphasizing the ‘natural’ origin of the open-air work of art and its independent communication with the elements, but unlike him, Low perceives the direction of travel between these two poles as moving towards culture rather than away; the work of art is “born gipsy-like” in nature and ends “protected by frame and glass” in the museum whereas Ryder’s account begins with the museum and ends up in nature. Either way, for both artists the process of making art was perceived as going beyond the usual routine of the workaday artist into a kind of spiritual unity with the “natural” flow of time. A similar spiritual and material unity might also be found in Twachtman’s peculiar method of exposing his paintings to the sun and the rain in order to dry excessive oil.66 Beyond the technique, unusual though it is, such treatment suggests that Twachtman was taking his paintings out of the context of the merely representational and embracing their physicality as actual matter, a part of the earth itself. Exposed to the elements, the painting can become, in a way, a part of the landscape.

These approaches defy conventional and conservative attitudes to picture-making and constitute an experimental conceptualization that shares much with the art of the later twentieth century. In this sense, these artists merge reality and representation, art and life. It is by pursuing this approach that the physical state of openness can come to engender a mental state of openness, which is inherent to the creative process and enables the transformation of representational landscape painting into a material entity. By virtue of having been executed outdoors, the painting itself is also an object that straightforwardly needs to be carried and, as such, inevitably blurs the generic boundary between material and immaterial, the fact of moving in space an indissoluble part of its essence. In contrast to easel painting in the studio, this ‘de-sanctification’ is central to open-air painting’s modern, open objecthood.


The intersections described in this paper between open-air painting and various evolving concepts of ‘openness’, consisting of patterns of thought that were increasingly prevalent in North American culture during the late nineteenth-century, may help us better understand the significance of this artistic practice within the turn of the twentieth-century American art scene. In an era that championed open-air activity as having social, cultural, and physical benefits, whether connoting the post-Reconstruction era or the aggressive demands of modern, urban, industrial society, the practice of open-air painting was taken even further by artists and their audiences, to create new phenomenological relationships between reality, artist, artwork, and viewer. While artists were consolidating open-air painting as a self-conscious performative act, other influential players (journals, commercial companies, as well as art critics) were helping to raise its cultural profile. 

The four influencing artists discussed herein—William Merritt Chase, John Henry Twachtman, Winslow Homer and Albert Pinkham Ryder—manifested, each in his distinctive way, differing approaches within the episteme of the practice that converse with broader ideas about openness. Chase’s approach is characterized by a cosmopolitan openness wherein lightness and directness are key factors as conveyed by relationships that are both spatial and thematic. It situates the artist as an agent of cultural independence and free will. Twachtman’s ambiguous depictions of open-air scenery are charged with an intrinsically suggestive quality that seeks to dissolve the barrier between inside and outside and between the world and the mind (of artist and viewer alike), thus formulating an openness which is both psycho-spiritual and perceptual in nature. Homer’s view of open-air painting as an ethical stance, along with its attribution to ‘truth’, evolved to depictions of intensive elemental force that were viewed by contemporaries as expressions of open, direct authenticity and expanded sense of self. Finally, Ryder embodied an ‘existential’ approach that viewed open-air painting as a transformative experience, enabling him to break with the past and with ‘futile struggle’ in favor of direct acts of creation. Such an experience shatters the distinction between seeing, making, and knowing and between representing and presenting, grounding the painting’s status as an object, thus anticipating twentieth-century attempts to merge art and life.

These four case studies illuminate the importance of open-air painting for American artists at the turn of the century as something far more substantial than a fashionable genre of painting. Its function as an artistic ‘engine’ for the transformation of visual facts into performative acts worked to awaken in the viewer a subjective response and to accommodate myriad projected experiences, all emanating from a painted record of the artist’s own presence in the landscape. It is precisely within this broader context that the particular expression of open-air painting discussed herein and its place in the history of North American artshould be reexamined, understood, and appreciated.


I would like to thank my supervisor, Dr. Ronit Milano, of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, for her constant support throughout my ongoing Ph.D. research from which this paper derives. I would also like to express my gratitude to the devoted editorial board of the Rutgers Art Review for their careful reading and guiding comments, and to the external reviewer for his/her accurate and constructive remarks.

1. Quoted in D. Scott Atkinson, “Shinnecock and the Shinnecock Landscapes”, William Merritt Chase: Summers at Shinnecock 1891-1902 (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1987), 26.

2. In contrast to the former generation of painters, like Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) and Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), who explored the remote and exotic parts of the continent (the West, South America, the Arctic), many turn-of-the-century painters usually preferred the countryside of the Northeast. For an interesting perspective on this regional tendency and the Colonial Revival, see Harvey Green, “Looking Backward to the Future: The Colonial Revival and American Culture”, in Creating a Dignified Past: Museums and the Colonial Revival, ed. Geoffrey L. Rossano (Savage, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers in association with Historic Cherry Hill, 1991), 1–16.

3. Some enlightening recent studies of European plein air painting, its epistemology and its origins, include Anthea Callen, The Work of Art: Plein-air Painting and Artistic Identity in Nineteenth-Century France (London: Reaktion Books, 2015); Ger Luijten, Mary Morton, and Jane Munro, True to Nature: Open-Air Painting in Europe 1780-1870, National Gallery of Art, Washington; Fondation Custodia, Paris; The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2020).

4. Open-air sketching was appreciated and examples were even exhibited in the National Academy of Design’s annual shows. Nonetheless, its primary formal function was empirical as a study in preparation for a studio painting. Later generations, which are the center of my discussion, engaged in open-air painting as an end in itself. For further readings on the Hudson River School and outdoor oil sketching, see Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Painted Sketch: American Impressions from Nature, 1830-1880 (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1998).

5. There is neither intention to contradict this accepted idea, established by important scholars such as Barbara Novak, Angela Miller, Alan Wallach and William Gerdts, nor to undermine its relevancy, but rather to suggest another framing. Notable studies that deviate from such socio-political implications are those by Jennifer Roberts, Maggie Cao, and Adrienne Baxter Bell, among others. On the “material turn” in art history see: Jennifer Roberts, “Things: Material Turn, Transnational Turn,” in American Art, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Summer 2017), pp. 64-69. https://doi.org/10.1086/694067

6. For a fascinating recent discussions on this topic, see: Emily C. Burns and Alice M. Rudy Price, Mapping Impressionist Painting in Transnational Contexts (New York: Routledge, 2021); Amanda C. Burdan, ed., America’s Impressionism: Echoes of a Revolution [Chadds Ford (Pa.): Brandywine River Museum of Art: Memphis (Tenn.): Dixon Gallery and Gardens: San Antonio (Tex.): San Antonio Museum of Art: New Haven (Conn.); London: distributed by Yale University Press, 2020].

7. Here I support Maggie Cao’s critical observation: “In sociohistorical terms, the decline of landscape is a story […] in which American painters slowly revised their work to suit emergent aesthetic trends and satisfy the latest demands of their market. To tell the story in such terms is also to affirm existing narratives of Modernism – to understand the evolution of American painting as repetitive of the ascendency of the Barbizon School and Impressionism across the Atlantic. Yet doing so ignores landscape’s crucial centrality to American artistic identity – a role never played to the same degree abroad. Much more was at stake in the decline of a canonized visual tradition than the triumph of imported tastes.” Maggie M. Cao, The End of Landscape in Nineteenth-Century America (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2018), 17.

8. Some of the characteristics celebrated as genuinely ‘American type’ were mentioned in Frederick Jackson Turner’s renowned ‘Frontier Thesis’ from 1893. See Frederick J. Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, originally published in Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1893, pp. 197-227. Although all of the artists discussed herein worked in New England and Long Island and came from a similar social background (white Anglo-Saxon protestant males from the middle or upper classes), social issues regarding region, class, race, and gender have for the most part been left out of this paper, whose main focus is artistic practices and critical responses. These social issues, I believe, require an appropriate frame of discussion, for which the scope of this paper would not have been suitable. For studies regarding these questions, see for instance Sarah Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist: Art and Culture in Gilded Age America (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996); Kathleen Pyne, Art and the Higher Life: Painting and Evolutionary Thought in Late Nineteenth-Century America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996); Julia B. Rosenbaum, Visions of Belonging: New England Art and the Making of American Identity (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2006).

9. George M. Beard, American Nervousness. Its Causes and Consequences (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1881), 98. https://doi.org/10.1037/10585-000 ; Edward Wakefield, “Nervousness: The National Disease of America,” McClure’s Magazine 2 (February 1884), p. 305. Sarah Burns refers to the influence of neurasthenia on Gilded Age art and culture. See Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist, pp. 135-156; See also Kathleen A. Pyne, “John Twachtman and the Therapeutic Landscape” in John Twachtman: Connecticut Landscapes, eds. Deborah Chotner, Lisa N. Peters, and Kathleen A. Pyne (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1989) pp. 49-69.

10. On rest cure in the natural setting of New England, see Sarah Burns, “Revitalizing the ‘Painted-Out’ North: Winslow Homer, Manly Health, and New England Regionalism in Turn-of-the-Century America,” American Art, Vol. 9 No. 2 (Summer 1995), pp. 28-29. https://doi.org/10.1086/424242

11. John Higham, “The Reorientation of American Culture in the 1890s” in Writing American History: Essays on Modern Scholarship, ed. John Higham (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970), pp. 119-121.

12. Ibid.

13. On the evolution of American tourism in the nineteenth century, see Will B. Mackintosh, Selling the Sights: The Invention of the Tourist in American Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2019); John F. Sears, Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998). On the interrelationship between tourism and art, see Barbara Bloemink et al. eds., Frederic Church, Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape (Smithsonian Institute, New York and Boston: Bulfinch Press, 2006).

14. The warm reception of Impressionist paintings by American audience since the late 1880s and through the 1890s further helped to ground such tendency and might even be explained by this cultural environment. As William Gerdts had shown, the positive opinion was directed mainly to the French Impressionist’s landscape paintings and much less to the figure paintings. See William H. Gerdts, “Introduction: The American Reception of Impressionism” in American Impressionism: Painters of Light and the Modern Landscape, ed. Susan Behrends Frank, (Washington, D C: The Phillips Collection, 2007), 14.

15. Lizzie (Elizabeth) W. Champney, “The Summer Haunts of American Artists”, Century Magazine 30 (October 1885)” in American Art to 1900: A Documentary History, eds. Sarah Burns and John Davis (Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2009), pp. 681-683.

16. For instance, the colony of East Hampton began to establish itself in 1884 around the charismatic persona of the painter Thomas Moran. See William H. Gerdts, “East Hampton, Old Lyme, and the Art Colony Movement” in En Plein Air: The Art Colonies at East Hampton and Old Lyme, 1880-1930 (Old Lyme, CT: Florence Griswold Museum; and East Hampton, NY: Guild Hall Museum, 1989), 17-18.

17. On the history of the Shinnecock Hills Summer School, see D. Scott Atkinson and Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., William Merritt Chase: Summers at Shinnecock 1891-1902 (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1987); Cynthia V. A. Schaffner and Lori Zabar. “The Founding and Design of William Merritt Chase’s Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art and the Art Village,” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 44, No. 4 (December 2010): 303-350. https://doi.org/10.1086/657165

18. See Ronald G. Pisano, “The Tile Club and the Development of Plein Air Painting in America”, American Artist, vol. 62 (April 1998): 54-61, 81; Mahonri Sharp Young, “The Tile Club Revisited”, The American Art Journal, vol. 2, no. 2 (Autumn, 1970), 81-91. It should be noted that Schaffner and Zabar, too, discuss the entrepreneurial cooperation between the Shinnecock Summer School’s founders—Janet and William Hoyt, Annie Porter and Samuel Parrish—and the Long Island Railroad Company. See Schaffner and Zabar, “The Founding and Design,” 303-306.

19. On Chase’s public persona and physical appearance, see Burns Inventing the Modern Artist, 21-23.

20. The Tile Club’s trip to East Hampton has also been seen as foundational in popularizing the destination amongst artists, thereby playing a role in the formation of the artists’ colony which came later. See William H. Gerdts, “East Hampton, Old Lyme, and the Art Colony Movement”, 17; Helen A. Harrison, “East Hampton’s Artists, in Their Own Words,” 49-51, both in En Plein Air: The Art Colonies at East Hampton and Old Lyme.

21. A. R. Ives, “Suburban Sketching Grounds. 1. Talks with Mr. William M. Chase, Mr. Edward Moran, Mr. William Sartain and Mr. Leonard Ochtman”, Art Amateur 25 (September 1891), 80. Quoted in D. Scott Atkinson, “Shinnecock and the Shinnecock Landscapes”, William Merritt Chase: Summers at Shinnecock 1891-1902 (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1987), 18.

22. This “freedom of spirit and will” was, of course, a privilege of the white Anglo-Saxon middle-class male artist. The Anglo-American culture of New England and its artists’ struggle to maintain cultural supremacy in an era of massive immigration and social change is comprehensively examined in Kathleen Pyne, Art and the Higher Life.

23. It is interesting to draw a link between Chase’s comments about the umbrella and his self-portrait with the mosquito net which was executed a decade earlier. The net denies contact with insects, but allows exposure to sunlight. The state of exposure as being “right under the sky” may also carry a somewhat religious undertone as a state of being right under God. This is also an interesting context in which to note that open-air painting in North America was sometimes framed in religious terms: “…the apostles of light and air and the hot vibrations of sunlight in painting”, citation taken from “A Group of Impressionists”, New York Sun, May 5, 1893, 6.

24. Nicolai Cikovsky has suggested that the emptier and bolder compositional approach was the product of a crisis in Chase’s life in the mid-1890s when he left his famous Tenth Street Studio and auctioned off its contents. See Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., “Impressionism and Expressionism in the Shinnecock Landscapes: A Note”, William Merritt Chase: Summers at Shinnecock, pp. 31-37.

25. Kenyon Cox, “William Merritt Chase, Painter”, Harper’s New Monthly 78 (March 1889), in American Art to 1900, eds. Sarah Burns and John Davis, pp. 983-984. 

26. Among the most famous are Rockwell Kent, Charles Hawthorne, and Joseph Stella.

27. “Notes from Talks by William M. Chase”, American Magazine of Art 8 (September 1917), 434, 438. Quoted in Atkinson, “Shinnecock and the Shinnecock Landscapes,” 27.

28. Twachtman’s intimate relationship with the landscape surrounding his home, and the way it was reflected in his paintings, is analyzed in Susan G. Larkin, “On Home Ground: John Twachtman and the Familiar Landscape”, American Art Journal 29 (1998): 52-85. https://doi.org/10.2307/1594619. The most extensive and updated study of Twachtman yet undertaken is the work of Lisa N. Peters in her Ph.D dissertation as well as numerous books and catalogs. Very recently, Peters has accomplished the major project of publishing Twachtman’s online catalogue raisonné. See Peters, “Twachtman’s Greenwich Paintings: Context and Chronology”, in John Twachtman: Connecticut Landscapes, eds. Deborah Chotner, Lisa N. Peters, and Kathleen A. Pyne, 13-49; Peters, ed., John Twachtman (1853-1902): A “Painter’s Painter” (New York: Spanierman Gallery, 2006); and Peters, “John Twachtman (1853-1902) and the American Scene in the Late Nineteenth-Century: the Frontier within the Terrain of the Familiar” (Ph.D. diss., City Univ. of New York, 1995). See John Henry Twachtman Catalogue Raisonné, an online catalogue by Lisa N. Peters, Ph.D., in collaboration with the Greenwich Historical Society, https://www.jhtwachtman.org/

29. Twachtman’s winning painting, Autumn, has never been fully identified, but the written responses are strikingly similar to the appearance of a painting later titled Hemlock Pool – Autumn. I have relied on Peters’ account for this identification. See Peters, John Twachtman: A “Painter’s Painter,” 66.

30. “The Academy Exhibition,” Philadelphia Times, December 16, 1894.

31. A similar standpoint was expressed much earlier in James Jackson Jarves’ (1818–1888) book The Art Idea (1864), wherein the author distinguished between two generations of American painters, the ‘old school’ that clung to scientific depictions of nature, and the ‘new school’ that tended toward a style he saw as more spiritual and poetic. See in particular chapter XV in Jarves, The Art Idea, edited by Benjamin Rowland Jr. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960).

32. William C. Brownell, “The Younger Painters of America“, Scribner’s Monthly 20 (May 1880), in American Art to 1900, eds. Burns and Davis, 762.

33. Ibid. 763. Frank Duveneck was a teacher for both Chase and Twachtman at the very first steps of their careers, introducing both artists with the Munich Academy and its modern style. It is also worth mentioning that the painterly style that Brownell is referring to was adopted by these artists during their years of training in Europe and reflects the influence of the Munich Academy and the Der Hague School, as well as that of the French mid-century painters such as Corot, Courbet, Millet, Manet, and the Impressionists. Yet despite such influences, I seek to evaluate these stylistic shifts in the context of American cultural environment and ideas.

34. See Doreen Bolger Burke and Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, “The Hudson River School in Eclipse”, American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School, ed. John P. O’Neill (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987), 71-90.

35. John C. Van Dyke, Art for Art’s Sake: Seven University Lectures on the Technical Beauties of Painting (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1893), 30.

36. Ibid.

37. On the topic of subjective vision, perception, and abstraction in nineteenth century European painting, see Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990). In his discussion of “Visionary Abstraction” (chapter 5), Crary contends that after the collapse of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century concept of the camera obscura, which was “too inflexible and immobile for a rapidly changing set of cultural and political requirements […] [v]ision is no longer subordinated to an exterior image […]. The eye is no longer what predicates a ‘real world.” Pp. 137-138.

38. Twachtman’s landscapes were often linked with a poetical and spiritual approach. See for instance: Lisa N. Peters, “Spiritualized Naturalism’: The Tonal-Impressionist Art of J. Alden Weir and John H. Twachtman”, The Poetic Vision: American Tonalism, ed. Ralph Sessions (New York: Spanierman Gallery, 2005), 73-88.

39. On annihilation and abstraction in Twachtman’s paintings, see Noam Gonnen, “The Vanishing Landscape of John Twachtman as Relating to Issues of Identity and Representation in Late Nineteenth-Century America”, Muza: Journal for Graduate Students in the Humanities [Hebrew], vol. 2 (Summer 2018): 59-79. On Twachtman’s paintings as “representing nothing”, see: Sadakichi Hartmann, “The Split in the Art Society: Some Characteristics of the ‘American Painters’ Who Have Led the Secession,” The Criterion XVII, No. 418 (Jan. 22, 1898): 35; see also Mariana G. van Rensselaer, “Questions of Art,” New York World, June 1893, 9.

40. “A Criticism”, Studio 6 (April 25, 1891): 203. Quoted in Peters, John Twachtman: A “Painter’s Painter”, 60.

41. Twachtman rarely dated his paintings and there are inconsistencies regarding their titles in various exhibitions and documentations; therefore, it is extremely difficult to identify the exact painting to which these comments were referring.

42. The collector was Dr. Frank Gunsaulus and the comment was made in an interview with John W. Beatty in “Recollections of an Intimate Friendship” (1923-34); quoted in Lloyd Goodrich, Winslow Homer (New York: Macmillan, 1944), 225.

43. The ways in which real and pictorial space are perceived as ‘penetrated’ brings up pertinent gender issues, which cannot be further developed within the scope of this article. However, it should be noted that Twachtman’s paintings were sometimes referred to as “feminine” while Homer’s paintings were often treated as “masculine”. See Lisa N. Peters, “A ‘Painter’s Painter’ in an Age of Artistic Self-Awareness,” in John Twachtman: A “Painter’s Painter”, ed. Lisa N. Peters (New York: Spanierman Gallery, 2006), 68-71; Sarah Burns, “Revitalizing the ‘Painted-Out’ North.”

44. John Wilmerding, “Winslow Homer’s Maine,” in American Views: Essays on American Art, ed. John Wilmerding (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991), 35. According to one of Homer’s neighbors “It was a very familiar sight to see Winslow out on the rocks painting, and particularly after a big storm.” Goodrich, Winslow Homer, 126.

45. George William Sheldon, “Sketches and Studies”, Art Journal (April 1880), in American Art to 1900, eds. Burns and Davis, p. 579. Although it is not certain that Homer was familiar with the text, his ideas resonate with Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1876 declaration on Impressionist painting: “The search after truth, peculiar to modern artists […] must lead them to adopt air almost exclusively as their medium, […] to habituate themselves to work in it freely and without restraint: […] the revival of such a medium [is] an incentive to a new manner of painting.” From “The Impressionists and Edouard Manet” in Art in Theory, 1815-1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, eds. Charles Harrison, Paul Wood, and Jason Gaiger (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1998), 589. Note also the close resemblance of Homer’s statements to Chase’s words, which were made about a decade later.

46. Ibid.

47. In his analysis of this particular painting, John Wilmerding claimed that Homer “turns his studio inside out”, but took this to symbolize the introspective and comprehensive work done in the studio rather than in any way related to the practice of open-air painting itself. See Wilmerding, “Winslow Homer’s Maine,” 44-48. To my mind, however, the painting also exemplifies the significance of working outdoors, in what Homer might considered as the ‘real’ studio.

48. Sheldon, “Sketches and Studies”, p. 579.

49. It should be noted that not all of Homer’s outdoor scenes were in fact executed outdoors. Nevertheless, the artist regarded the practice as significant to such a degree that he claimed he “couldn’t even copy in a studio a picture made out-doors”. Sheldon, “Sketches and Studies,” in American Art to 1900, 580.

50. William Howe Downes and Frank Torrey Robinson, “Later American Masters,” New England Magazine 14 (April 1896), in American Art to 1900, 586.

51. Charles H. Caffin, “A Note on the Art of Winslow Homer,” Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 6 (March 1911), 52, https://doi.org/10.2307/3252995; Quoted in Burns, Inventing the Modern Artist, 200.

52. William Howe Downes, The Life and Work of Winslow Homer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), 170. Quoted in Burns, “Revitalizing the ‘Painted-Out North’,” 26.

53. Frederick W. Morton, “The Art of Winslow Homer,” Brush and Pencil (April 1902). https://doi.org/10.2307/25505741. Quoted in American Art to 1900, 587-588.

54. Ibid.

55. Ibid.

56. Charles Caffin, “A Note on the Art of Winslow Homer,” 52. For a number or critical accounts referring to the crudeness of Homer’s paintings as a virtue, see American Art to 1900, 582-589.

57. A thought-provoking parallel can be drawn between Homer’s sea depictions from the 1890s and the prevailing concept of the era, Frederic Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis from 1893. Turner declared the closure of the frontiers of North America and the successful completion of westward expansion, meaning an ultimate taming of wilderness. See Frederick J. Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” In the same decade Homer was artistically exploring the ocean stretching eastward from that conquered continent, depicting it as another untamed frontier.

58. These ideas were formalized earlier in the ninetienth century in the writings of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, therefore constituting a firm ground for turn-of-the-century artists’ experience of nature.

59. Albert P. Ryder, “Paragraphs from the Studio of a Recluse,” Broadway (September 1905): 10. Adrienne Baxter Bell includes the same text in her fascinating discussion of embodied experience and landscape painting. However, her article focuses on the relationship between landscape painting and the artist’s body, with no particular reference to pleinairism and its unique status in North America. See Adrienne Baxter Bell, “Body-Nature-Paint: Embodying Experience in Gilded Age American Landscape Painting” in The Cultured Canvas: New Perspectives on American Landscape Painting, ed. Nancy Siegel (Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press, 2011), pp. 241-285.

60. Carolyn C. Mase, “John H. Twachtman,” International Studio 72, no. 286 (January 1921): lxxii. This episode is also mentioned by Eliza Butler in her recent essay about Twachtman. See Eliza Butler, “John Henry Twachtman and the Materiality of Snow”, American Art (December 6, 2019), 86. https://doi.org/10.1086/707477

61. Quoted in Adrienne Baxter Bell, George Inness: Writings and Reflections on Art and Philosophy (New York: George Braziller, 2006), 13-14.

62. Ryder’s new and innovative approach to technique and the materiality of paint is a central issue in scholarly work on the artist, where it is seen as much more than a straightforward lack of artistic knowledge, or simple carelessness. See Elizabeth Broun, Albert Pinkham Ryder (Washington, D C: National Museum of American Art, 1989), 122-123.

63. See Ryder, “Paragraphs from the Studio of a Recluse”, 10; see also William Inness Homer and Lloyd Goodrich, Albert Pinkham Ryder: Painter of Dreams (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989), p. 205. About Ryder’s objection to the handling of his works, see Lance Mayer and Gay Myers, American Painters on Technique 1860-1945 (Los Angeles: the J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013), 91.

64. Broun, Albert Pinkham Ryder, 124-125.

65. Will H. Low, “A Chronicle of Friendships, 1873-1900” (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908), in American Art to 1900, eds. Burns and Davis, 766.

66. Eliot Clark, “The Art of John Twachtman”, International Studio, vol. 72 (January, 1921): 58. Twachtman’s innovative approach to the material quality of paint and its impression on the viewer is discussed broadly in Eliza Butler, “John Henry Twachtman and the Materiality of Snow.” Such peculiar method to get paintings dry was also taken by James McNeill Whistler, who had greatly influenced Twachtman. See Linda Merrill, A Pot of Paint: Aesthetics on Trial in Whistler v. Ruskin (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), 102-104, 147-148. It is interesting to note that many late nineteenth-century artists overtly dismissed artistic method, thinking such concerns to be too academic. See Mayer and Myers, American Painters on Technique, 95-96.