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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Embracing Elegance: American Art from the Huber Family Collection

by Barbara J. MacAdam

During the past twenty-five years, Jack Huber, Dartmouth Class of 1963, and his wife, Russell, have built a distinguished collection of American art dating from roughly 1885 to 1920, an era characterized by dramatic social, cultural, and artistic change. Embracing Elegance, an exhibition co-organized by the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia, features over thirty works from the collection, including pastels, drawings, watercolors, and paintings by such leading artists of the period as Cecilia Beaux, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Joseph DeCamp, Robert Henri, Lilla Cabot Perry, John Singer Sargent, Everett Shinn, John Sloan, Edmund Tarbell, John Henry Twachtman, and J. Alden Weir.

As a whole, the featured artists gravitated toward intimate, informal subjects, which they captured in a personally expressive manner influenced variously by the Aesthetic movement, impressionism, urban realism, and postimpressionism. Works by so-called Ashcan artists, including John Sloan and Everett Shinn, depict a mix of classes and races. Most of the works, however, reflect the more prevalent tendency to retreat from gritty, anxiety-provoking social issues. They celebrate instead beauty as found in timeless pastoral landscapes, poetic still lifes, and, earticlely, intimate images of beautiful women at ease. The latter trend can be seen in J. Alden Weir’s emotive pastel of his wife, The Window Seat, 1889, and Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s elegant White and Gold, circa 1894–1895. Introspective in mood and refined in taste, such works mirror more subtle shifts in cultural values, including a growing fascination with the life of the mind and an appreciation of art for art’s sake, rather than for moralizing, didactic, or political purposes.

Cecilia Beaux, 1855–1942
Maud DuPuy Darwin, 1889
Pastel on warm gray paper laid down on canvas, 19-3/4 x 17 -3/4 inches
Signed and dated, lower left: Cecilia Beaux / 89
Promised gift to the Hood Museum of Art from Russell and Jack Huber, Class of 1963

In this, one of Cecilia Beaux’s earliest and most vibrant forays into the pastel medium, she drew an old friend from Philadelphia, Martha “Maud” DuPuy Darwin, in the sitter’s riverside garden in Cambridge, England. During Beaux’s two Cambridge visits during the summer of 1889, she enjoyed renewing her friendship with Maud, who five years previously married George Darwin (1845–1912), a Trinity College professor of astronomy and second son of the famed naturalist, Charles. Beaux’s time in Cambridge proved pivotal. The pastel and oil likenesses that she made of the Darwins and their circle gave her particular satisfaction and garnered such an enthusiastic reception that she was moved to renew her commitment to portraiture and to a professional career in art. Moreover, her experience that summer put her “in raptures over pastel,” a medium that she found “earticlely good for women’s portraits.”

Thomas Wilmer Dewing, 1851–1938
White and Gold, c. 1894–95
Pastel on brown wood pulp paper,
10-3/8 x 6-15/16 inches
Signed, lower right: T. W. Dewing

Used mostly for portraiture since at least the eighteenth century, the medium of pastel fell out of favor in the 1840s, when photography eclipsed the market for all but the most exclusive forms of portrait painting. In the 1860s the dry sticks of pure, rich pigment were picked up again, this time by artists like Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt. Thomas Wilmer Dewing did not join the ranks of Americans experimenting with the medium at first. In 1889, however, a stunning exhibition of recent works by expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler brought a number of his pastels to New York. By the early 1890s Dewing had made a few small pastels, but after firsthand contact with Whistler a few years later, he would create many more. Like Whistler, in White and Gold he focused on the composition’s decorative force rather than its narrative content. The title of the work likely derives from the color scheme of the dress but also refers to Whistler’s characteristic preference for aesthetic titles that emphasized the formal aspects of the composition.

Julian Alden Weir, 1852–1919
The Window Seat, 1889
Pastel and charcoal on tan wove paper, 13-1/2 x 18 inches
Signed, lower right: J. Alden Weir; Signed upper right: J. Alden W

J. Alden Weir rendered this emotive pastel of his wife, Anna Dwight Baker, on the Isle of Man, where they spent three weeks during the summer of 1889. This stay was part of a much-needed restorative trip abroad following the death of their infant son, Alden, from diphtheria in the spring. The empty, almost ascetic austerity of this room intensifies the work’s central exploration of light and its subtle psychological charge. Anna has apparently set a book and rose blossom beside her while she holds on her lap a piece of filmy fabric, which Weir suggested with a few swirling strokes. It is likely a needle that she holds up to the window, but the tilt of her head and reach of her hand toward the light convey a yearning, plaintive quality, as if the glow from the high cruciform window offered more than visual illumination.

William McGregor Paxton, 1869–1941
Lizzie Young, 1910
Pastel on brown paper, 17-1/4 x 13-1/2 inches
Signed and dated, lower right: PAXTON / 1910

Like his Boston School peers Joseph DeCamp, Frank Benson, and Edmund Tarbell, William McGregor Paxton excelled at depicting refined women in elegant surroundings. For nearly a decade, from 1910 through 1919, Paxton relied on his favorite model, Lizzie Young, to represent variations on the theme of ideal femininity. Little is known of Young, though her distinctive profile, defined by a rounded chin and high-bridged nose, appears frequently in Paxton’s paintings beginning around 1910, the date of this pastel. In Lizzie Young she appears composed and relaxed, already at ease being observed. The drawing may have served as an inspiration for several of Paxton’s later compositions that feature Lizzie Young. He probably kept the pastel in his studio, though at some point he gave it to his close friend and one-time teacher Joseph DeCamp. The gift may have been a gesture by the younger artist to commemorate their shared aesthetic approach. The domestic theme and softly cast, raking light suggest the influence of such Dutch seventeenth-century masters as Vermeer, whom DeCamp and Paxton both greatly admired.

Arthur Clifton Goodwin, 1864–1929
Boston Common, c. 1905
Pastel on tan laid paper, 9-3/16 x 11-3/16 inches
Signed, lower left: A. C. Goodwin

Although largely self-taught and hampered by alcoholism, A. C. Goodwin became one of the most admired and vivid chroniclers of the parks, streets, and bustling waterfront of Boston, where he lived and worked from about 1900 to 1921. Pastel earticlely suited Goodwin’s practice of capturing quotidian life in the city’s streets in a vigorous, sketch-like style, and he continued to work in the medium after moving to New York in 1921. This vibrant pastel, which, based on the style of dress, likely dates to the first decade of the twentieth century, suggests that Goodwin developed his own approach to impressionism early on. His interest in city life and his quick, notational style may reflect the influence of the New York urban realists in the circle of Robert Henri, but unlike them, Goodwin preferred a brighter palette and took more interest in the city’s genteel districts than in its lower-class neighborhoods.

Everett Shinn, 1876–1953
All Night Café, c. 1900
Pastel, watercolor, and probably graphite
on gray paper mounted on board, 9-7/8 x 13-5/16 inches
Signed and inscribed on reverse: Everett Shinn / (Hungry) Restaurant on the Bowery / Price 80.00 net

Everett Shinn loved theater, and his innate sense of the theatrical helped him to be the first in his circle of urban realists to achieve critical and popular success. In an era marked by a surge in socioeconomic and ethnic diversity in New York, middle- and upper-class audiences developed intense curiosity about the lives of the urban poor. Shinn satisfied the yearning for gritty subjects through depictions of street fights, fires, and breadlines set among the tenements of lower Manhattan. Images of such everyday yet emotionally engaging events paralleled works by realist authors of the period, including Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and William Dean Howells—all of whom Shinn knew. In All Night Café the diners have at least enough to eat, while the thin, solitary figure outside looking in apparently does not. Faceless, he becomes emblematic of a whole social class. Yet Shinn claimed no interest in social commentary, only in pictorial beauty and a drama that was often accentuated through the depiction of looking.

John Sloan, 1871–1951
Fishing for Lafayettes, 1908
Oil on linen mounted on cardboard, 8-1/2 x 10-1/2 inches
Signed, lower left: John Sloan; Inscribed and signed by artist on reverse: After “Lafayettes” / fish (I am told) which / “run” in plenty every seven / years / Wharf on the Hudson / John Sloan

Despite having sketched in the streets in his early work as a newspaper illustrator, urban realist John Sloan was self-conscious about painting in public. He typically composed his larger New York paintings in the studio from memory, occasionally aided by pencil sketches that could be made less obtrusively than small oils. In this, one of just a handful of oil sketches that Sloan painted outdoors in the city, he captures a mix of boys and men fishing—a pastime more often associated with rural areas. He portrays most facial features roughly, or in caricature. The boy to the left of center, for instance, has protruding ears, beady eyes, and squirrel-like cheeks that recall the exaggerated features of boys in comic strips of the era. He looks toward the well-dressed African American man to the right, who smiles directly at the artist, expressing, perhaps, his pride in having caught the full string of Lafayettes—a small fish—beside him. His direct gaze toward Sloan may also have reminded the artist, as it does us, that it was he who likely attracted the most attention on the pier that afternoon.

Lilla Cabot Perry, 1848–1933
Angela, 1891
Oil on canvas, 36-1/4 x 27 inches
Signed lower left:
High Museum of Art: Gift of Jack and Russell Huber; 2005.279

Though Lilla Cabot Perry had probably been painting for at least a decade before her first excursion to Paris, she had not begun her formal training until after the birth of her third child in 1884. The Perrys settled in Paris in the winter of 1887, with Lilla balancing her domestic obligations with classes. By 1889, however, as the city became overrun with visitors to the Paris exposition, the family retreated to the small town of Giverny, where Claude Monet had lived since 1883. In Giverny, Perry quickly befriended Monet and frequently engaged him in discussion about her work. Under Monet’s influence Perry lightened her palette and began to work occasionally out-of-doors in an impressionist manner. Angela, a contemplative painting of a local girl, reflects her commitment to this new approach. Perry had previously explored the theme of a young girl by a window—a composition that allowed her to combine her acknowledged strengths as a figure painter with her ambitions for painting the landscape.

Edmund Charles Tarbell, 1862–1938
Portrait of Josephine Tarbell Ferrell,
c. 1917
Charcoal on wove paper, 16 x 12 inches
Signed, lower right: Tarbell

Portrait of Josephine Tarbell Ferrell, dating to around 1917, perfectly demonstrates the balance of Edmund Charles Tarbell’s technical facility with his decorative sensibilities. With the artist’s eldest daughter as its subject, the drawing shows Josephine fashioning an arrangement of leaves, her elegant figure fully occupying the narrow confines of the drawing’s compositional space. Like many of Tarbell’s works featuring family members, the composition is most likely set in the interior of the artist’s summer retreat in New Hampshire. As with many of these familial subjects, this depiction is not so much of Josephine—a frequent model for her father—as of a beautifully rendered female form. Through his fluid figural representations, most often of women set within softly lit domestic interiors or sun-drenched gardens, Tarbell reveled in the atmospheric effects of light. His mastery of tonal subtlety, though initially developed through his attentive, impressionist eye, was largely informed by his exposure to the works of the seventeenth-century Dutch masters Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch, probably first encountered during his student days in London and Paris.

Jane Peterson, 1876–1965
The Dry Dock, c. 1915
Opaque watercolor and charcoal on brown paper, 17-7/8 x 23-7/8 inches
Signed, lower right: Jane Peterson; Inscribed on reverse (probably not in artist’s hand): The Dry Dock $150

Jane Peterson painted scenes from around the world—including such far-flung destinations as Alaska, Venice, and Constantinople—but she is perhaps most admired for the postimpressionist gouaches, such as The Dry Dock, that she rendered in the mid-teens in Gloucester, Massachusetts. This stylized work hints at the article appeal of Gloucester to artists of Peterson’s generation and their patrons. The small coastal city offered all the modern amenities and social opportunities of a chic summer resort, along with the authenticity and nostalgia of a working fishing community. Peterson captures both aspects of this artistic colony in this work by juxtaposing a band of fashionably attired strolling figures—probably summer visitors—against the traditional wooden boat and its surrounding rough-hewn pilings. The enduring appeal of Peterson’s Gloucester works from this period can be attributed in part to their distinctive mix of old and new motifs, rendered in a sophisticated yet deceptively simple style.

Caption text is based on catalogue entries by Barbara J. MacAdam and Stephanie Mayer Heydt. The exhibition, which was co-curated with Stephanie Mayer Heydt, Margaret and Terry Stent, curator of American Art at the High Museum, runs at the Hood Museum through September 4, 2011, then travels to the High, where it will be on view from September 24 through November 27, 2011.

Barbara J. MacAdam is the Jonathan L. Cohen Curator of American Art, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H.