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

0809whis3_600x452 A softer style of landscape painting that emerged during the turn of the century, made popular by James Abbott McNeill Whistler and George Inness.

by Allison Malafronte

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Moonlight Landscape
by Edward Steichen, 1903, oil, 24 x 25. Collection Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.

Around the turn of the 20th century there was a new approach to landscape painting made popular by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and George Inness (1825-1894) that used thin veils of paint to create soft, tonalist effects that hid the evidence of the artist’s hand. It is that style of painting that is explored and exhibited in “Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly,” which will be on view at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, until October 19.

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Home at Montclair
by George Inness, 1892, oil, 30 x 45. Collection Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

“Paint should not be applied thick,” Whistler once stated. “It should be like breath on the surface of a pane of glass.” Whistler and his contemporaries—including George Inness, William Merritt Chase, John Twachtman, and Edward Steichen—expressed this belief by creating paintings filled with a softness of hand that spoke of the most serene moments in nature. By obscuring evidence of their brushstrokes and allowing atmospheric effects to be the focus of their work, these artists removed themselves from the viewing experience and challenged the very process of art making.

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Summer, Montclair
by George Inness, 1891, oil, 30 x 45. Collection Mr. and Mrs. Frank Martucci.

The methods in which paint should be applied was not the only topic about which Whistler had strong opinions. The artist was equally outspoken about subject matter, specifically the fact that art should be created for art’s sake and not to convey lofty sentiments. “Art should be independent of all claptrap—should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like,” he said. “All these have no kind of concern with it, and that is why I insist on calling my works "arrangements" and "harmonies".

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Nocturne in Blue and Silver
by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1878, oil, 17 x 24. Collection Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut.

George Inness, the other featured artist in this exhibition, didn’t necessarily agree with this point of view. His art was unapologetically spiritual in nature, and he strove to go beyond representation and point to larger truths through his landscapes. His style, however, was equal with Whistler’s in its soft, gauzy atmospherics and hidden brushstrokes. One of Inness’ images featured in this exhibition, Summer, Montclair, shows how the artist used layers of transparent color to build up this misty, moody effect and lead viewers into reflection and contemplation.

There are several other similarly emotional works on view in “Like Breath on Glass: Whistler, Inness, and the Art of Painting Softly,” but “Whistler’s Nocturne in Blue and Silver is probably the best known and most beloved. In examining the piece, it’s hard to believe that the same artist notorious for his fiery temperament and tempestuous legal battle with late 19th-century art critic John Ruskin was able to create a painting of such sentimental quietude—and that this same artist is now, more than a century later, considered the originator of a style defined by understatement and serenity.

 

by Allison Malafronte

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