The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

4. John H. Twachtman
A "Modern" in Venice, 1877-1878

LISA N. PETERS

John Henry Twachtman ( 1853-1902) visited Venice for the first time in the spring of 1877, accompanied by his friends William Merritt Chase ( 1849-1916) and Frank Duveneck ( 1848-1919). 1 The three artists had recently been students in Munich, and the bold, dark, and dramatic style that they had adopted there characterized the art they rendered during their approximately nine-month stay in Italy. 2 Twachtman later repudiated the manner in which he had painted his Venetian works. As his student Carolyn Mase wrote in 1921: "Once I recollect his showing me a brownish-black water colour, reeking with all the colours that Nature does not show. 'That,' he said with a chuckle, 'is sunny Venice, done under the influence of the Munich school.'"3

Nonetheless, Twachtman's initial experience in Venice proved of crucial significance. In Venice, Twachtman found a means for conveying his immediate responses to his subject matter, and a method of recording qualities of light, atmosphere, and movement that would be significant to the Impressionist approach he adopted later in Greenwich, Connecticut, in the 1890s. He first formulated in Venice the attitude toward nature, and the stylistic approach, that would be the foundation of his art for the rest of his career.

Artists had celebrated the grandeur and magnificence of Venice's architecture and scenery for centuries, but Twachtman's views of the city differ from those created earlier as well as from those painted by other artists during his era. Working outdoors, he broke from studio traditions and conventions of cityscape painting, representing Venice's quiet corners, revealing the encroachment of modern life on timeless vistas, and capturing unexpected and jarring urban sights. His depictions of the city are harbingers of the scenes of contemporary Venice produced by James McNeill Whistler from 1879 to 1880, and those created during the ensuing decade by John Singer Sargent, Robert Blum ( 1857-1903), Duveneck, and others. I would like to suggest that Twachtman's study in Munich was of crucial significance to the works he created in Venice, where he was able to apply the lessons of his Munich years, employing the experimental approaches advocated there, in particular an alla prima method, to create innovative works.

Twachtman arrived in Munich in August 1875. During the previous year, he had been a pupil in a special evening class taught by Frank Duveneck at the Ohio Mechanics Institute in his native Cincinnati. 4 When Duveneck, who had already spent time in Munich, decided to return, he invited his pupil to join him, beginning a friendship that lasted throughout their lives. Duveneck, who had won a reputation as a brilliant and promising young painter, may have provided an easy initiation for Twachtman into the Munich art world, as Twachtman passed compulsory exams by the 15th of October, when he registered at the Royal Academy, enrolling in a class in Life Drawing. 5

Munich was a vital art center during the 1870s, and Twachtman would have been aware of a number of novel and avant-garde currents. Within the Academy he would have been in touch with the experimental methods of Wilhelm von Diez ( 1839-1907), Duveneck's teacher and mentor. Althought Twachtman was a student of Ludwig von Loefftz's ( 1845-1884), a painter of realistic genre scenes, it was Diez who exerted the strongest influence at the Academy during the time Twachtman was there. 6 Diez stressed two important elements: painting technique--he emphasized fluid brush handling and a building up of tones from

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