By Pettus, Peter
New Criterion , Vol. 27, No. 1
"Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness and the Art of Painting Softly" Clark Art Institute, Williamstown. June 22-October 19, 2008
Over the years, the Clark Art Institute has been home to many marvelous exhibitions that have not only delighted viewers but have also illuminated little-explored aspects of art, often altering and enhancing our understanding of an artist and his times. I think, for example, of the exhibitions the Clark devoted to the late landscapes of Turner, to Renoir in Algeria, and to the work of the Viennese architect Josef Hoffmann. And I remember especially the fascinating look at Degas's Petite Danseuse and the seamy demimonde of the Paris ballet. No one who saw that exhibition will be able to regard that forlorn young girl as a sweet ingenue from the Impressionist confectionary any longer.
"Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness and the Art of Painting Softly" is a worthy successor to those perception-altering exhibitions. Its main purpose is to explore what happened in American art during the brief interval after the decline of the Hudson River School and before the beginning of the modern era. As the curator Marc Simpson explains in his introduction to the cataogue, the exhibition "constructs a brief history of the vague, the suggested, and the ineffable" in American painting from 1870 to 1920. The title of the project is a paraphrase from James McNeill Whistler who, in Venice in 1880, said: "Paint should not be applied thick. It should be like a breath on the surface of a pane of glass." It is this "soft painting" that Simpson believes epitomizes the unique stylistic approach that emerged during this period. There was a softness in the scenes portrayed, a blurring of outline, details suggested rather than precisely delineated, the enveloping atmosphere thickened by fog or mist. This was a curiously anonymous art: evidences of the artist's touch were deliberately obscured. Paint was seemingly flowed on in thin layers producing effects mysterious, sublime, and non-literal. These painters were seeking to communicate an emotional interpretation of nature that ultimately depended on the imagination for its poetic truth. This was both an aesthetic and philosophical point of view shared by many Americans at the time. There was a sense that America needed a time out, a respite from the headlong rush of commercial expansion of the country and a need to escape into the rarefied, ethereal, realm of the visual imagination. For a time, this softened and blurred vision of reality held sway.
To make his point, Simpson has selected forty-one paintings dating from the 1870s to 1919, focusing primarily on Whistler and George Inness, but also including such artists as John Twachtman, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, the painter/photographer Edward Steichen, Dwight William Tryon, Arthur Wesley Dow, and other relative unknowns whose work clearly falls within this soft painting canon. It is one of the triumphs of the exhibition that we can now understand the origins and appeal of the "soft style" and recognize it in the work of these artists who deserve to be much better known.
It was Whistler, however, who set the tone for this aesthetic revolution. Although born in America, he spent his life in Europe, primarily in London. At first drawn to Gustave Courbet (where he probably learned his skills as a manipulative self-promoter), Whistler changed his style completely and adopted a technique of flat brush application of near liquid paint that managed to obscure human touch. As he put it: "A picture is finished when all trace of the means used to bring about the end has disappeared." The effect he wanted was a flattened, soft, dreamlike atmospheric image that combined imagination and physical observation. Throughout his oeuvre, there is a heightened, almost neurasthenic sense of quietist aesthetic refinement, redolent of the stance room with its gauzy filtered light blurring all contrasts within the sanctum. …