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Tag Archives: American Impressionism

On this day in 1931, American Impressionist artist Robert Spencer ended his own life at the age of 51. I saw his name in one of my “this day in art history” sources and was puzzled by the fact that despite his fairly impressive resume, I can’t recall ever hearing of him before. None of my American Art references mention him. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry, which to me is the very pinnacle of obscurity these days. This seems a bit tragic to me because Robert Spencer, the artist who has no Wikipedia page, probably has more relevance to my life than Robert Spencer, the Second Earl of Sunderland (1641-1702), who DOES have his own Wikipedia page.

My own small contribution toward correcting this art historical oversight will be featuring Spencer’s work here, thereby insuring that at least 7 other people will see it.

On the Canal, New Hope (Robert Spencer, 1916)

On the Canal, New Hope (Robert Spencer, 1916)

A Nebraska native, Spencer ended up in New York early in the 20th Century and studied under both William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri, possibly the two most important educators on the American art scene at the time. Rather than stay in New York, he drifted around for a little while and ultimately ended up in  Pennsylvania, specifically Bucks County, in 1916, where he came to be associated with a group of painters known as the “New Hope School.”

The New Hope School practiced an art known collectively as Pennsylvania Impressionism. They were united more by geography than style. Of their creative output that I’ve seen, which admittedly isn’t a lot, Spencer’s work stands out because of his workaday subjects and subtle, almost somber tones. He was a painter of the working class, not of the leisure class. The people in his paintings are usually features, not subjects, and they don’t often look like they’re having much fun.

Washer Woman (Robert Spencer, 1919)

Washer Woman (Robert Spencer, 1919)

He was well known and respected in his time and his work hangs in some of our finest museums including the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, the Chicago Institute of Art, and our own Detroit Institute of Art, which owns the first of the paintings I’ve presented here; On the Canal, New Hope. If it’s currently hanging, I’ll hunt it down like I did John Sloan’s McSorley’s Bar two years ago. Influential collector and museum founder Duncan Phillips compared Spencer favorably to Sloan (high praise indeed) and the museum Phillips founded owns eight of Spencer’s paintings.

Spencer was not a happy guy despite his relative success. He suffered a series of nervous breakdowns in his later years owing to a bad marriage and his work took a decidedly darker tone. The third painting here, On the Quai, is to my eye pretty disturbing and grows even more so the longer I look at it. I can only sense sadness in this image, the source of which is left to the viewers imagination. Given the choice, I’m not enthusiastic about entering the door Spencer has opened up for us.

On the Quai (Robert Spencer, 1929)

On the Quai (Robert Spencer, 1929)

Spencer was producing a body of intriguing work when killed himself in his studio on this day in 1931. He could have had a couple of decades of productive painting ahead of him had he not chosen to punch out early, so to speak. The artistic legacy he left us is competent and thought-provoking. If even one more person takes an extra moment to consider it, I will have done my job.





Happy Birthday to Willard Metcalf, American Impressionist painter who turns 154 today.

Here he captures a distant and far more innocent time, when summer days meant being on the river from morning until night.

Boys Fishing (Willard Leroy Metcalf, 1908)



There’s just something about planting flowers as the weather warms that makes you feel more attuned to the rhythms of Earth. Even more so than planting vegetables. Tomatoes and peppers and beans are so utilitarian. Flowers exist to fulfill a deeper need.

Today I share a painting by little-known American Impressionist John Leslie Breck (1860 – 1899). Breck spent some time in France and was a close associate of Claude Monet until he directed his amorous attentions toward Monet’s stepdaughter. He returned to the US around in 1891 or 1892 and died in 1899, possibly a suicide.

Enjoy Breck’s Garden at Giverney, painted during his years with Monet, before his infatuation with the lovely Blanche Hoschedé changed his life forever.

Garden at Giverny (John Leslie Breck, Date Unknown)


Like any other discipline, Art History has a tendency to lump groups of artists together. Sometimes these associations are fictions with no real similarities among the artists in question. In other cases, they’re based on ephemeral linkages that fade, or even vanish, as careers progress.

In the case of William Glackens, usually considered a member of the Ashcan School or The Eight, his association with the core group of American painters was tenuous at best when it existed at all and disappeared almost entirely over time.

Glackens, who was born on this day in 1870, was a member of the Ashcan School largely by virtue of his personal and professional associations with other group members, first as a newspaper illustrator in Philadelphia and later as an emerging artist linked to  influential educator Robert Henri.  In 1908, when Ashcan artists finally got tired of  being denied the opportunity to exhibit their work by the National Academy and organized their own show, Glackens’ work showed some affinity for that of John Sloan or  George Bellows and the rest. By the time the organized their second show in 1910, Glackens had begun to swing over to the Impressionistic style that the group was rebelling against.

Battery Park (William Glackens, 1902 - 04)

Over time, Glackens became fully committed to Impressionism. He even became known, somewhat derisively, as the “American Renoir,” If we look back over the trajectory of his career, this transition is hardly surprising. Chez Mouquin, among his better-known paintings, shows a strong Renoir influence that predates even the first Ashcan exhibition.

Chez Mouquin (William Glackens, 1905)

What’s really unfortunate about lumping people together for academic convenience is that the contribution of individual artists to the development of a uniquely American statement gets lost in the shuffle. Glackens was a stylistic hybrid in that he painted the same fragments of life that appealed to his friends yet did so in a style that bridged the space between Sloan’s hard-edged realism and the softer visual language of Impressionism. Glackens has become a footnote the discussion of the contribution made by the Ashcan School to American art and is left out of the history of American Impressionism almost entirely.

The Promenade (William Glackens, 1925-26)

There is no easy alternative to the imperfect grouping of artists into schools and movements scattered across the art historical timeline. I suppose we simply need to remember that there will always be multiple layers to the story and try to peel them away when we can, always remembering that we never know the whole story.