The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760-1860

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

12. An American Macchiaiolo

New Insights into Elihu Vedder's Florentine Experience, 1857-1860

REGINA SORIA, College of Notre Dame of Maryland

In 1978 on the occasion of the first major retrospective exhibition of Elihu Vedder's works, Joshua Taylor wrote: " Vedder had, through his friends at the Caffè Michelangelo, an introduction to the Italian mythos as few Americans ever had."1 Ten years earlier the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service had circulated an exhibition of Vedder's paintings and drawings to renew an interest in an artist who, though very successful during his lifetime, had, like many other Victorian artists, fallen into obscurity and was mentioned in art histories only as the author of the Cumaean Sybil and as the first illustrator of the Rubáiyát. At that time Alfred Frankenstein remarked "in these scenes of Italian hill towns, olive groves, rocky barrens and crumbling old castles Vedder . . . is closer still to the early landscapes of Corot and . . . to that group of Italian landscapists known as the Macchiaioli."2

Earlier still E. P. Richardson and Otto Wittmann in their introduction to Travelers in Arcadia, an exploration of "a somewhat forgotten chapter in the history of American Art," had written of Elihu Vedder: "His small early studies of the Italian landscape, low in key, warm in tone, right in touch, are much more pleasing to the modern eye than the late mythological murals in the Library of Congress on which his fame rested during his lifetime."3

On the occasion of the Vedder exhibition at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1937- 1938, John C. Van Dyke, in his introduction to the catalogue, reviewed at length one of the early landscapes, Cows and Geese (Color Plate 22). Vedder had told him how

he once sat down to sketch some cows and geese on a windy hilltop, but he had hardly started when the wind carried easel and canvas sailing away, and Vedder gave it up as a bad job; the little sketch was hung on a nail in the studio in Rome, and would have been forgotten but, as time passed and the fashion of painting became more "slap-dash," Vedder was amazed to find that the young art students [at the American Academy in Rome] would invariably hunt it out, even to declaring it "a mighty fine piece of work" until it became a regular joke in the family. "Why Carrie," he would say to his wife, "what a fool I have been to take so much trouble. I could have turned out five of these in a morning," and to the young man he would say, "Yes, you admire it because you think some day you may paint as well as that, whereas this other way is far beyond what you will ever get to."

John C. Van Dyke commented that "had Vedder lived now, he would probably have turned impressionistic."4 This observation startles us today, for Vedder had been an impressionistic painter since he was twenty-two years old, when he began painting landscapes in Florence in 1858 with the Macchiaioli. And yet, now that so much research has been done on Vedder and on the ever-growing number of his sketches and drawings that keep resurfacing, now that the Macchiaioli and their works are also resurfacing, and the first major book on the subject in English, The Macchiaioli5 has just been published, there seems to exist a strange hesitation in coming out and saying, "Yes, Vedder was to all intents and purposes a Macchiaiolo. He was a Macchiaiolo in his attitude toward Nature, in his style, in the choice of his subjects." There is no doubt in my mind that Vedder belonged to this movement, which is now coming alla riscossa (fighting back) and is being recognized as one of the very important nineteenth- century artistic movements.

It is the purpose of this essay then to attempt to give Vedder his rightful place among his friends in Florence at the Caffè Michelangelo without

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