Exhibit spotlights the Boston School of painting
In 1913, modern art swept into American cultural centers with a wild clatter as the “International Exhibition of Modern Art,” familiarly called the Armory Show, toured from New York to Chicago to Boston. Many critics expressed outrage and dismay at the clashing colors and contorted forms in post-Impressionist, Fauvist, and Cubist works. Some saw the future in them.
Boston balked. “Their revolution is, we believe, headed the wrong way,” a critic in the Boston Daily Transcript wrote of the modern artists. “What they need is more life, more nature, and more sincerity.” The city remained bound to tradition, in many ways, for decades to come.
At the time of the Armory Show, a thriving aesthetic was already in place here. “The Boston School Tradition: Truth, Beauty, and Timeless Craft,” an ambitious exhibition at Vose Galleries, details a movement that blended the academic formalism of Old Master styles with the invigorated brushwork and color theory of France’s Barbizon School and Impressionism. The show spans decades, with the bulk of the work made between 1880 and 1940.
Proponents of the Boston School such as Edmund C. Tarbell, Frank W. Benson, Joseph Rodefer DeCamp, and Philip Hale took cues from Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. Homer lived for a time in Gloucester, and Sargent had a regular presence in Boston, working on murals for the Boston Public Library and Museum of Fine Arts.
Sargent is represented here by a couple of sketches (his painting of a rosy-cheeked tot sold, and was, not surprisingly, immediately taken home), and Homer by “An Open Window,” an uncharacteristically serene depiction of a woman from behind, framed by the sunlight in a window.
Boston School artists aimed for refinement, not bravura. They favored idealized young women, demure in quiet interiors — opportunity enough for artists to show off extraordinary technique, while pleasing an audience that looked for art to stir the senses, but not rock the boat.
Francis Davis Millet miraculously captures the nap of a gray velvet gown in “Portrait of Sadie P. Waters,” and a sweet melancholy in the young woman’s face. The subject in DeCamp’s loose and lively “The Listener (Woman at the Theatre)” leans forward from out of the dark, light caressing her bared shoulders, eyes wide, completely absorbed by what’s in front of her.
In “Blue and Gold,” one of Benson’s rare still lifes, light appears to suffuse solid objects: blue-and-white porcelain, a gold pear glowing like the sun, a painting propped in the background. Refined, yes. Proper, true enough, but quivering with energy. Alive.
Boston maverick Charles Hopkinson leaned toward modernism, and indeed exhibited at the Armory Show. His “Winter Afternoon” quickens the eye with its jumbled rhythms, contrasting patterns, and dramatic play of light and shadow. Five girls in a parlor, each involved in her own pursuit, prompt the eye to ricochet around the canvas.
There is much to see in “The Boston School Tradition,” with more than 70 paintings by dozens of artists, including deft and airy landscapes among the many portraits. It concludes with Polly Thayer Starr’s 1965 “Pont Alexandre III,” in which a towering bridge looms in a dizzying modernist composition of sunlit and shadowed forms. In the end, just as Boston School founders integrated Impressionism with more academic styles, their acolytes integrated modernism.
Marguerite Zorach (1887-1968) also exhibited at the Armory Show. The brash young American painter studied in Paris and caught a Fauvist fever for sharp color combinations. She moved to New York to marry sculptor William Zorach (1889-1966).
An exhibition organized by independent curator Rachel Walls at Samson brings their work together with paintings by their daughter, Dahlov Ipcar, a noted painter and children’s book author and illustrator. Ipcar, 97, is still active in her Maine studio.
Walls knits the show together with family ties: Ipcar appears in Marguerite’s “Blue Cinerarias,” a quiet image of a girl admiring flowers, pumped up by sizzling blues. Ipcar also modeled for William’s “Artist’s Daughter,” a bronze of a wide-eyed young girl in the upright stance we associate with pharaohs. The family’s fiery creative spirit, generation to generation, is unmistakable.
All three artists portray animals. Ipcar populates her paintings with fauna, often, as in “Riverside, Brazil,” set against rhythmically patterned backgrounds. She delights in a hot palette and kaleidoscopic compositions, but her work doesn’t have the grit and gravity of some of her parents’ pieces. William’s mahogany “Prayer,” of a kneeling man, head upturned, wails with despair.
William and Marguerite each painted an African-American midwife who lived in Florida. William’s watercolor version of “Aunt Mary Eliza” is softer, as the elderly woman rests in a rocking chair in her uniform, her red midwife’s bag at her side.
The frontality of Marguerite’s oil portrait makes “Aunt Mary Eliza” iconic, even confrontational in her dignity. Her shoulders square. The red and white stripes of her uniform are bold verticals and horizontals. She gazes directly at us through large, weary eyes. It’s not as sweet as “Blue Cinerarias,” but it’s unforgettable. Modernism was indeed unrefined, but its contrasts and conflicts reflected those of the world. We need art to do that.