"Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness and the Art of Painting Softly"

By Pettus, Peter | New Criterion, September 2008 | Go to article overview

"Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness and the Art of Painting Softly"


Pettus, Peter, New Criterion


"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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

"Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness and the Art of Painting Softly"
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.