American Dreamers in Florence ; City Held Old World Lure for Scores of Restless U.S. Artists in 19th Century

By Morris, Roderick Conway | International Herald Tribune, May 18, 2012 | Go to article overview

American Dreamers in Florence ; City Held Old World Lure for Scores of Restless U.S. Artists in 19th Century


Morris, Roderick Conway, International Herald Tribune


Scores of American painters were attracted to Florence in the 19th century and they are now the subject of "Americans in Florence: Sargent and the American Impressionists."

Henry James had youthful aspirations to become a painter and went with his brother William to William Morris Hunt's art school in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1860. But he soon found his true vocation as a writer.

James captured the 19th-century American expatriate experience of Italy so masterfully that it is now almost impossible to see it other than through the author's eyes. No artist, not even John Singer Sargent, who was born in Florence, in 1856, and remained deeply attached to the city, ever came to provide a visual equivalent of the Florence immortalized in James's novels and Italian essays.

Scores of American painters were attracted to Florence during this period, and they are now the subject of "Americans in Florence: Sargent and the American Impressionists," at Palazzo Strozzi, curated by Francesco Bardazzi and Carlo Sisi.

The exhibition opens with Sargent's "Hotel Room," a wonderful evocation of the pleasures of arrival in these sunny Mediterranean climes.

In the next room, featuring "Americans in Florence," we encounter Sargent's self-portrait, donated to the Uffizi in 1906, his no less famous portrait of his friend Henry James, and his likeness of the (English) writer Vernon Lee, a long-term resident of Florence and friend of both the painter and James.

Among other self-portraits and portraits of visitors who spent varying lengths of time in Florence and Italy are those of Frank Duveneck and William Merritt Chase. Both Duveneck and Chase had studied in Munich in the 1870s. Duveneck spent periods in Florence when he brought his "Duveneck boys" to the city. This group of American art students had its origins in Munich and Duveneck also took them on tours to France, Spain and England. Chase, too, brought groups of American students to Florence between 1907 and 1913.

Sargent was interested in contemporary Italian painting and keen, for example, to meet Telemaco Signorini, whose works he admired. This introduction was made through Vernon Lee, who played a lively part in the local cultural scene. But most of the visiting American artists in Florence, and even the longer-term expatriates among them, seem to have kept to their own community and had little contact with Italian artists and local artistic developments.

An exception was Elihu Vedder, who was born in New York in 1836 and died in Rome in 1923. Arriving in Florence in 1857, he fell in with the local Macchiaioli, a proto-Impressionist group of painters in Tuscany that included the Florentine Signorini and artists from other parts of Italy. Their excursions into the countryside produced some of the freshest and most original landscape painting of the era and Vedder came strongly under their influence, as evidenced here by five of his paintings, which along with Sargent's are among the most striking in the exhibition.

Another more integrated figure was Egisto Fabbri, who was born in New York in 1886 of an Italian father and American mother and to whom a section entitled "The Circle of Egisto Fabbri: Scholars and Painters" is devoted. In 1885 he made Florence his home. An accomplished artist, as the examples of his work here demonstrate, he nevertheless gave up painting and devoted himself to collecting. The story of this pioneering purchaser of Cezanne was told in detail in a previous show at Palazzo Strozzi in 2007.

Fabbri was not the only painter who decided that collecting would be more rewarding than painting. Francis Alexander was a poor Connecticut farm boy turned artist, who saved enough to make the journey to Italy, where he met a Boston heiress whom he later married. After settling with her in Florence in 1853, he turned to collecting early Renaissance masters, observing: "What's the use of painting, when I can buy a better picture for a dollar and a half than I can paint myself? …

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